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

04 January 2022

Still Rolling with It: 2021 in Review

The past two years have been a rollercoaster for many of us, with wave after wave of COVID-19 variants impacting our lives in so many ways. For the past two years, my year-end reviews have suggested that “rolling with it”—accepting whatever opportunities come my way and making the best of them—was the best approach to my writing and editing career, and I’ve done essentially that.

I haven’t, however, just waited for opportunities to fall into my lap, though some certainly have; I have also pitched new projects and used the end of some projects to spur me into creating replacements.

As my writing productivity decreased, my editing responsibilities increased, so this year I’m dividing my year-end review into two parts.


After rising in 2020, my writing productivity plummeted in 2021. I completed only six short stories—the shortest 1,600 words and the longest 5,800—for a grand total of 25,600 words. All were crime fiction, and three were private eye stories. One was a story I started writing 19 years earlier.


Even though productivity was low, I placed 30 original and reprint stories, including two collaborations with Sandra Murphy. This comes mostly from having been productive in previous years and the stories finally finding homes.

Thirty-four original and reprinted stories, including a collaboration with James A. Hearn, appeared in anthologies, periodicals, and webzines, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Barb Goffman Presents, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Black Cat Weekly, Bullets and Other Hurting Things, Close to the Bone, Crimeucopia: We’re All Animals Under the Skin, Cupid’s Day, Guns + Tacos, House of Erotica/Andrews UK Limited, Horror for the Throne, Jukes & Tonks, Learning My Lesson, Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 2, Modern Mayhem, Mystery Weekly, Only The Good Die Young, P.I. Tales Double Features, Pulp Modern Flash, Punk Noir Magazine, The Mysterious Bookshop Presents The Best Mystery Stories of the Year, The Great Filling Station Holdup, Tough, Unnerving, and Vautrin.

Five editors are represented multiple times. Linda Landrigan published two stories in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Barb Goffman reprinted two in Barb Goffman Presents and Black Cat Weekly, and Josh Pachter published two in Only the Good Die Young and The Great Filling Station Holdup. Four stories appeared in projects I edited or co-edited, but the most stories were published by the unnamed editor at True Renditions LLC who reprinted two stories in Learning My Lesson and six in Cupid’s Day.

Though some of the stories accepted this year were published this year, not all were. So, I have stories forthcoming in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Groovy Gumshoes, Malice Domestic 16: Mystery Most Diabolical, Mystery Tribune, Prohibition Peepers, and Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine.


My story “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” (Black Cat Mystery Magazine #6) was reprinted in The Mysterious Bookshop Presents The Best Mystery Stories of the Year (known in the UK as Best Crime Stories of the Year). It was also named an Other Distinguished story in The Best American Mystery and Suspense.

Both “The Ladies of Wednesday Tea” (Bullets and Other Hurting Things) and “Sonny’s Encore” (Black Cat Mystery Magazine #9) made Robert Lopresti’s “best mystery story […] read this week” at Little Big Crimes.


I’d like to say that rejections kept me humble this year, but my wife might argue otherwise.

I received 22 rejections, and I’ll repeat something I’ve said before: Any year in which acceptances exceed rejections is a good year.


As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, editing is occupying more of my time than ever before.

Last year saw the release of three issues of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and I joined Black Cat Weekly as an Associate Editor responsible for acquiring and editing one story each week. Additionally, I edited Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 2, co-edited (with Gary Phillips) Jukes & Tonks, and co-edited (with Trey R. Barker) season three of Guns + Tacos.

In addition to continuing work on the periodicals, I worked on several anthologies and other projects that will publish in 2022 and 2023.

Outside the mystery world, I edited six issues of Texas Gardener, a bi-monthly consumer magazine, and 52 issues of Seeds, an electronic newsletter for gardeners that, incidentally, published two short stories. I also continued my part-time position as marketing director for a professional orchestra, creating, editing, and managing a variety of advertising, marketing, and promotional materials for print, radio, television, and social media.

With the editing projects, I had the honor of directly or indirectly shepherding 76 short stories and novellas through to publication.


This year, several stories from projects published in 2020 were honored:

John M. Floyd received a Shamus Award for “Mustang Sally” (Black Cat Mystery Magazine #7) and Gordon Linzner’s story “Show and Zeller” (BCMM #7) was nominated for a Shamus.

Alan Orloff received a Thriller Award for “Rent Due” (Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol 1. [Down & Out Books]) and Andrew Welsh-Huggins’s story “The Mailman” (MF 1) was nominated for a Thriller.

My story “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” (Black Cat Mystery Magazine #6) was reprinted in The Mysterious Bookshop Presents The Best Mystery Stories of the Year and was named an Other Distinguished story in The Best American Mystery and Suspense.

Andrew Welsh-Huggins’s “The Whole Story” (Black Cat Mystery Magazine #7) made Robert Lopresti’s “best mystery story […] read this week” at Little Big Crimes.

I had the honor of publishing several kick-ass stories in 2021, and I have my fingers crossed that many of them will be similarly recognized during the 2022 awards season.


Having multiple editing projects, all with firm deadlines, requires more structure to my creative life than writing does, so I’ll likely not be able to “roll with it” this coming year. Even so, I’ll remain flexible, take advantage of opportunities as they arise, create new opportunities when I can, and try to increase my writing output.

I hope all of you had a good 2021 and that 2022 is even better.

January 1 was release day for Guns + Tacos compilation volumes 5 & 6. Vol. 5 includes novellas by Dave Zeltserman, Stacy Woodson, and David Hendrickson; vol. 6 includes novellas by Hugh Lessig, Neil Plakcy, and Andrew Welsh-Huggins. Each novella is available as a stand-alone ebook, but the compilation volumes are ideal if you missed the novellas when they were first released. Additionally, subscribers to the series receive, with vol. 6, a BONUS short story that I wrote.

14 December 2021

One Way or Another: Anthology Types

Although there are some minor variations, editors of anthologies of original fiction find content in three primary ways:

Michael's first

Open Call. An open-call anthology is one for which anyone may submit.

Limited Open Call. A limited-open-call anthology is one for which only a limited number of people may submit, and how many writers are included in the limited call can vary from a few dozen to several hundred. For example, various Sisters in Crime chapters produce anthologies that allow submissions only from chapter members.

Invitation Only. An invitation-only anthology is one for which only writers who have been specifically invited may submit.

There are hybrid forms as well:

Invitation Only/Open Call Mix. The Bouchercon anthologies and several anthologies I’ve seen promoted via Kickstarter campaigns combine invitation-only, by which they acquire stories from a handful of well-known authors, and open-call, by which they acquire the balance of the content.

Invitation Only/Limited Open Call Mix. The Mystery Writers of America anthologies acquire a few stories via invitation and then have a limited open call for the balance of the content. In this case, the call is limited to MWA members.


Each method has its advantages and disadvantages, and anthology editors must weigh the pros and cons of each when deciding how to approach any particular project.

Open Call. An open-call anthology has the potential to attract contributors unknown to the editor, and those contributors might be talented and have a unique approach to the anthology’s theme that results in great stories.

The downside is that a widely announced anthology with an appealing theme might attract a great number of submissions of wildly variable quality and appropriateness, potentially overwhelming the editor.

Limited Open Call. The advantages and disadvantages of a limited-open-call anthology are quite dependent on which writers are included in the call. Limiting the call to writers with whom the editor has previously worked will likely result in submitted stories that meet or exceed the requirements, and it may prove difficult to narrow the selections.

On the flip side, the quality of submissions to a limited open call where the submission pool is defined by membership in a particular organization may be quite variable depending on the organization and, because the editor may not be able to seek submissions outside the defined pool, may require the editor to do more work bringing all the accepted stories up to snuff.

Invitation Only. From an editor’s standpoint, this may be the best way to assemble an anthology. By inviting only writers with whom the editor has previously worked and/or writers the editor admires, it almost guarantees that every submission will be appropriate. Almost.

The downside is that inevitably one or more of the invitees fails to deliver, and if the editor hasn’t planned ahead, this can lead to some last-minute scrambling to complete and deliver the project to the publisher on time.


I edited five open-call anthologies for Wildside Press and Betancourt & Company in the early 2000s and then spent several years randomly pitching anthology concepts that, at best, received “We like this, but” responses and, at worst, were completely ignored.

I returned to anthology editing in February 2017 when Down & Out Books greenlit The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods (2019). I’ve since edited and co-edited nine more (if I include the two due out later this month), and I’m in the process of editing or co-editing four due out in 2022, four tentatively due out in 2023, and one that does not yet have a release date because it does not yet have a publisher.

I have used all three methods (and some hybrid methods) to create these anthologies.

The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods (Down & Out Books, 2019) was an open-call anthology, though there was one exception. During a conversation at Bouchercon in Toronto I mentioned a specific historical event in Texas that I was surprised no writer had used in a story. That conversation turned into an invitation when the writer I was speaking with said he could use that event in a story.

Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 1 (Down & Out Books, 2020) was an Invitation Only/Open Call Mix. I invited four writers to submit and three of them did; the balance of the content came via open call. Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 2 (Down & Out Books, 2021), which was officially released yesterday, and MF3 (scheduled for 2022) were both open call. I recently released a limited open call for MF4 and have not yet decided if I’m going to switch to an open call.

Jukes & Tonks (Down & Out Books, 2021), co-edited with Gary Phillips, was invitation only. We each wrote a story and invited five other writers, for a total of twelve contributors. I don’t know how Gary chose his five, but my five were all writers with whom I had previously worked, that I knew could deliver what I wanted to see when I wanted to see it, and who I thought had at least a passing familiarity with the anthology’s theme.

Guns + Tacos (Down & Out Books), a serial novella anthology series co-created and co-edited with Trey R. Barker is an anomaly. Each novella is released as a separate e-book. Ultimately, though, all of the the novellas are gathered into three-novella anthologies. Volumes 1 and 2 were published in 2019, volumes 3 and 4 in 2020, volumes 5 and 6 later this month, and volumes 7 and 8 will appear in 2022. Guns + Tacos is invitation only, and Trey and I arm wrestle each year over which writers to invite. If there are additional entries in the G+T series, they will continue to be by invitation only.

Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties (due out April 2022) began as a single open-call anthology. I received more good stories than I could fit into a single volume, so I held back—with contributors’ approval—enough for a second volume with no assurance that there would even be a second volume. By the time Down & Out Books greenlit the second volume—More Groovy Gumshoes (due out in April 2023)—I’d lost a few stories to other publications. So, I invited two writers to come aboard at the last minute, making More Groovy Gumshoes an Invitation Only/Open Call Mix.

The other projects—which will go unnamed—include two invitation-only anthologies and a limited-open-call anthology I am co-editing.


If you’ve worked your way through the above overview of the various anthologies I have edited or am in the process of editing, you’ll note that I’ve slowly moved away from open-call anthologies toward invitation-only anthologies, with a few hybrids along the way.

There are two key reasons for this decision:

Success. It is, perhaps, egotistical to say this, but the first two anthologies I edited since returning to this side of the editorial desk resulted in an Anthony Award nomination for Best Anthology, six stories receiving or nominated for major awards, and two stories included or long-listed for inclusion in a best-of-year anthology. Writers want to submit to editors with this kind of track record, so the number of submissions has increased substantially with each new open-call project.

Other editorial responsibilities. As editor of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, which remains an open-call project, I read a significant number of submissions from writers of all experience levels and across all the crime fiction subgenres. (See “Killing Dreams One Rejection at a Time, the Sequel” for a glimpse at what it’s like evaluating 264 submissions.) Thus, I am exposed to, and have the opportunity to work with, many new and new-to-me writers.

So, to reduce my workload without reducing the number of projects I edit, I’m increasingly relying on limited-invitation calls and personal invitations to acquire content.


These days, I appreciate it when I’m asked to contribute to an anthology, but early in my career I had no idea how to get on an editor’s invitation list. The first few times I was approached I had no idea how the editor selected me. (See “Pay It Forward” to learn how I was invited to contribute to Max Allan Collins and Jeff Gelb’s Flesh and Blood: Guilty as Sin.) That, combined with the number of times I’ve seen beginning and early career writers asking the same questions I’d once had, leads me to offer a few suggestions.

Write, Submit, and Get Published. If you’ve never been published, it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever be invited to submit to an anthology. So, write, submit what you write, and improve your skills. Once your work is being accepted on a regular basis via open-call projects, create a formal or informal list of all the editors you’ve worked with and would like to work with again. Then cross-reference that list with editors of invitation-only projects to determine where you might have opportunities to step up your game.

Be Professional and Easy to Work With. I wish this didn’t have to be restated, but, unless you’re a creative genius, your work will be edited. Meet deadlines at every step of a project. You must complete ancillary paperwork—contracts, author bios, story blurbs—so be available and easily reached via mail, email, and telephone. Understand how to use Microsoft Word.

If you have proven yourself professional and easy to work with on an open-call project, you increase your odds of being added to that editor’s list of potential writers for future invitation-only projects.

Make Your Desire Known. This last suggestion requires a bit of finesse. Do it wrong and you look like a suck-up. Do it right and your opportunities increase.

If you have worked with an editor, enjoyed the process, and would like to work with that editor again, let the editor know. A simple email stating something like: “I enjoyed working with you on Project X and would appreciate the opportunity to work with you again. Please keep me in mind for future projects.” I regularly work with writers who have sent me similar emails.

If there’s an editor you think you would like to work with, you can send a similar email: “Although we’ve not previously worked together, I have enjoyed reading Project X, Project Y, and Project Z. I write in the same subgenre, my work has appeared in Magazine A and Magazine B, and I would welcome the opportunity to be considered for one of your future projects.” One of the contributors to the Guns + Tacos series approached Trey and I with a similar email.

If you do these three things, you will increase your odds of having your work included in an invitation-only anthology. If you write a great story, act professionally, and let the editor know you’re interested in doing it again, odds are great that your name will be included on that editor’s list of “writers to work with again.”


If I receive several hundred emails today from writers who want to be included on my invitation list for future projects, I’m going to put y’all on my suck-up list. You need to wait long enough for me to forget I wrote this so that I’ll think your emails are truly heartfelt.

And if nobody sends me an email about this, I’m going to have to rethink my entire approach to editing.

My “Christmas Enchiladas and a Gold-Plated Derringer” was the bonus story for subscribers to Season 3 of Guns + Tacos, and it accompanied Andrew Welsh-Huggins’s “A Smith & Wesson with a Side of Chorizo.”

02 November 2021

Killing Dreams One Rejection at a Time, the Sequel

Michael Bracken, Dream Killer
In my April 6, 2021, SleuthSayers post “Killing Dreams One Rejection at a Time,” I wrote about my experience reading 160 submissions for Black Cat Mystery Magazine’s forthcoming cozy issue. Let me tell you, the days when I could kick back and relax with a mere 160 submissions is but a fond memory.

BCMM’s most recent submission window ran September 1 through September 30. Over the course of the month I received 264 submissions, and I responded in one way or another—rejection, hold for second read, and/or acceptance—September 5–October 26.

Of the 264 submissions, three were withdrawn before I could read them, and I accepted eight stories upon first reading. Of those eight, two were stories I had previously read when they were submitted to, but were not appropriate for, an anthology I edited.

From the balance, I held 59 for a second read and, of those, ultimately accepted 32, for a total of 40 acceptances. That’s a 15% overall acceptance rate.

But that also means I rejected 221 submissions. If you’re gnashing your teeth right now, I can safely presume yours was one of those stories.


Despite my best intentions, I did not read every word of every submission. Before I explain some of the reasons for rejection, let me note that all of the stories I held for a second reading, and many that I did not, were publishable as is or with minimal editorial work.

So, why did so many stories fail to make the cut? The most obvious is limited space. My goal was to fill two and a half issues, which, depending on story lengths, requires approximately 25 stories. By accepting 40, I filled approximately four issues. I won’t know exactly how many issues I filled until I have time to organize everything and schedule the stories for specific issues.


Other editors have suggested that once submission volume reaches a certain point, they no longer look for reasons to accept stories, but instead look for reasons to reject. I found myself doing the same.

Because this was an open submission period, I read stories representing all sub-genres of crime fiction. So, I didn’t see any clear subject-matter trends, such as an abundance of stories with theatrical settings, the way I did when reading submissions for the cozy issue. What I did find were three things that weighed heavily against writers:

1. Not starting the story in the right place. Several stories began too soon or provided too much back story before anything of significance happened.

2. Bad dialog. Several stories began well enough, but the first patch of dialog kicked me out of the story.

3. Weird formatting. As I mentioned in my April 6, 2021, post, previous experience has proven that a writer unfamiliar with the fundamentals of Microsoft Word is going to be difficult to work with. In the past, I’ve been willing to suffer the pain of working with such an author, but this time I was not. Bad formatting led to rejection, even for otherwise fine stories.


The most stories submitted by a single author: Six.

The most stories accepted from a single author: Two—a pair of stories by a female author and another pair by a male author.

Accepted stories written by two authors in collaboration: One.

Accepted stories translated from another language into English: One.

Five accepted stories came from authors with addresses in Canada, two came from authors with addresses in the Netherlands, and the rest came from authors with US mailing addresses.

Twelve stories were written or co-written by female authors. The rest were written by male authors or authors whose bylines were not gender-specific.

I wish I had time to delve deeper into the data to determine, for example, how the ratio of male/female acceptances correlates to the ratio of male/female submissions and how the ratio of accepted stories from non-US residents correlates to the number of submissions from non-U.S. residents.

Alas, I don’t.


With a 15% acceptance rate, the odds are clearly stacked against any one particular submission, so your goal as a writer is to improve your odds. If you’re submitting to Black Cat Mystery Magazine or to any project I edit, you can improve your odds considerably by doing the following:

1. Read, understand, and follow the guidelines. Though I have seen many submissions from writers who didn’t follow guidelines, this, thankfully, was not a significant issue during this submission window.

2. Learn how to properly use Microsoft Word. Seriously. A writer not knowing how to use Microsoft Word is like a carpenter not knowing how to use a hammer.

3. Don’t dawdle. Get your reader into the story as quickly as possible.

4. Master dialog. Bad dialog is a story killer.

And then let me see your stories the next time Black Cat Mystery Magazine has an open submission window. I look forward to reading them.

12 October 2021

Protect Your Inner Life

Reacting to Lan Samantha Chang’s essay on, “Writers, Protect Your Inner Life,” Trey R. Barker (my Guns + Tacos co-creator/co-editor) posted on Facebook:

Michael, dressed for the
convention that never was.

The essay “at least partially misses what is actually the death of a writer’s inner self: the outer world. The world must take precedence, which makes it incredibly difficult to find time to do the actual writing, much less time to: A - think up the story, and B - do the foundational thinking that leads someone to the questions that become the basis for any writing. That is the inner life writers need to protect. It seeps away little by little and most often, a writer doesn’t even realize it. Not until it is nearly completely gone do they recognize what they’ve lost and by then? It can be too late to get it back.”

The loss or significant constriction of a writer’s inner life, which results in a reduction in creative output, is not the same as writer’s block. Writer’s block is an inability to write. Losing one’s inner life degrades, and potentially eliminates, one’s desire to write.

I should know. Events the past several months have wreaked havoc upon my inner life.

The eighteen-hour-a-week job that provides a steady base to my wildly fluctuating freelance income turned, for several months, into a thirty-hour-per-week job; health issues (nothing life-threatening, thank you for asking) demanded time I didn’t have to give and attention I didn’t want to give; and editing projects that I voluntarily took on consumed much of the time not otherwise filled.

When I wrote—and I did write—the stories I completed were adequate, probably even publishable, but lack a key element that comes from a rich inner life: They lack heart.

Without a rich inner life and the time to explore it, one loses heart, the quality of one’s creativity diminishes, and, thus, the desire to write evaporates.

Temple has noticed the light fading from my eyes—she says I’m happiest when I’m writing and happiest of all when writing is going well—and she’s asked what she can do to help me re-engage with my inner life. She’s even offered to use part of a recent bonus to fund a weekend getaway so I could lock myself in a room somewhere and do nothing but write. Though tempted by the offer, I know now is not the right time. I would likely spend much of the weekend mulling over the many outer-world concerns that have already invaded my inner world.

As Chang writes in her essay, one must “[h]old onto that part of you that first compelled you to start writing.” She further notes that “[t]he single essential survival skill for anybody interested in creating art is to learn to defend this inner life from the world.”

So, I think what I need to do is regain a firm grasp on the part of me that first compelled me to start writing—the youthful exuberance that made me think other people would be interested in the stories I had to tell—and combine it with a careful rebuilding of the inner world that allowed me to write so many stories over the years. Only then will my stories have heart, and only then will I regain a compelling desire to write.

My story “Remission,” first published in Landfall (Level Best Books, 2018), was reprinted in the first issue of Black Cat Weekly as a Barb Goffman Presents selection.

21 September 2021

Three Best

Over the years, SleuthSayers have been well represented in The Best American Mystery Stories, as John M. Floyd pointed out when he reviewed the first “Twenty Years of B.A.M.S.” back in 2016. One-time BAMS Series Editor Otto Penzler has launched a new best-of-year series—The Mysterious Bookshop Presents The Best Mystery Stories of the Year—and SleuthSayers are again well represented, with stories from three members—Janice Law, John, and me—included within the inaugural annual’s pages.

We thought about sharing trade secrets, such as the value of bribery and blackmail when dealing with best-of-year editors, but it turns out I’m the only one of us with low moral values. Instead, Janice and John have joined me to tell you a bit about each of our stories.

“The Client”
Janice Law

I always find the genesis of a story mysterious, but in the case of “The Client,” I can point to two houses, both in an old mill town near where we live. The great water-powered textile and thread mills of eastern Connecticut created prosperity well into the twentieth century. Their loss brought hard times to the area and to Ray Wilde, the first professional detective I have written about since I ended the Anna Peters series.

Ray was actually devised for an anthology edited by our SleuthSayers colleague Paul D. Marks, and a little story-and-a-half house behind our bank’s parking lot provided, not only a venue for my half-formed plot, but suggested a weary ex-cop sitting through a boring surveillance.

The resulting story was about mostly decent people caught in small crimes, and I figured one and done for Ray. Still, I liked his style and his turn of phrase. Another house, an imposing home gently going downhill, provided a home for his client and a use for an item in my notebook: a photo of an old New England Crime boss and his long-time companion.

Edith Wing, courteous and eccentric, a pillar of the library board and the local church, is an unlikely person to lead Ray into deep water. He likes her and I like her, too. Although the mystery genre is maybe kinder to older females than it used to be, women of a certain age are still usually victims or accessories. But elderly Edith Wing gave me an opportunity to create an intelligent, morally ambiguous character, who, as she puts it to Ray, knows that sometimes there are few good choices.

“The Client” appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (May/June 2020).

“Biloxi Bound”
John M. Floyd

One of my favorite subjects as a suspense writer has been the ordinary guy with an ordinary job who suddenly finds himself in a desperate situation. In the case of “Biloxi Bound,” my protagonist is one of two brothers who own and operate a small diner in an unnamed northeastern city. When their neighborhood becomes a hotbed of violent crime and their cafe begins struggling, they decide they should move to the slower-paced (and warmer) Mississippi Gulf Coast. That’s an area familiar to me because I once lived on the beach there during my Air Force years and have spent most of my life not too far away.

To this scenario I added a retired mobster, a friendly cop, a young employee at the cafe, a mysterious regular customer, and several plot reversals. The crime and violence that the brothers hope to avoid does of course arrive at the diner before they can relocate, and the result is nothing either of them could’ve foreseen. All this made the story great fun to write, and when I finished it I sent it to The Strand Magazine, which has always been receptive to tales with multiple plot twists and surprises.

I’m glad I did.

“Biloxi Bound” appeared in The Strand Magazine (February-May 2020)

“Blest Be the Tie That Binds”
Michael Bracken

Temple and I married the day after Thanksgiving about seven months before I began writing “Best Be the Tie That Binds,” and we spent our honeymoon—brief as it was—in a cabin in Brownwood, Texas. Saturday afternoon, during a brief respite from the rain, we took a leisurely walk through the woods, and a large dog of indeterminate breed came charging at us. I’m no hero, but I stepped in front of my new bride and shouted at the dog until it finally turned and ran back the way it had come. That’s when I began pondering how far a man might go to protect his wife.

“In Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” Robert Connelly, pastor of the Union Revival Baptist Church, faces this decision when his new bride is threatened—via a whisper in his ear—during their wedding reception. When the threat takes physical form, and when he later learns his wife isn’t the only one being threatened, Connelly must reach deep into his past—a past he doesn’t readily acknowledge—to the incident that led to his life as a man of God to seek help from a friend whose life went in an entirely different direction.

Though this story was published in a magazine I now edit, it was accepted for publication by Carla Coupe and John Betancourt well before my tenure as editor.

“Blest Be the Tie That Binds” appeared in Black Cat Mystery Magazine #6.


John and I often compare notes about the best-of annuals, and between us we identified almost every writer included in The Best Mystery Stories of the Year and The Best Mystery and Suspense long before their editors/publishers made official announcements. So, it was no surprise when John noted that he, Janice and I have been represented eighteen times—either by having stories included or by having stories named among the Other Distinguished Stories—in each of the Penzler-edited best-ofs, and one of us also made the Other Distinguished list in Steph Cha’s inaugural outing as editor of The Best American Mystery and Suspense.

But we aren’t the only SleuthSayers honored this year. Steve Hockensmith made the Honor Roll in The Best Mystery Stories of the Year, and Art Taylor (with co-author Tara Laskowsi) and the late Paul D. Marks made the Other Distinguished list in The Best American Mystery and Suspense.

So, if there’s a lesson to be learned from all of this, it isn’t the value of bribery and blackmail, it’s the value of being a SleuthSayer.

10 August 2021

Pay It Forward

I owe the existence of one of my recurring characters to the kindness of a famous mystery writer.

Dennis Lynds, writing as Michael Collins, received his last Edgar Award nomination for “The Horrible, Senseless Murders of Two Elderly Women,” which I published in my first anthology, Fedora: Private Eyes and Tough Guys (Wildside Press, 2001).

Not long after the release of Fedora, in a letter dated April 17, 2002, Jeff Gelb wrote, “Dennis Lynds suggested I contact you to see if you’d like to submit a story in consideration for the erotic mystery anthology series I co-edit with Max Allan Collins, Flesh & Blood.” (I already knew of Gelb from his work on the Hot Blood horror anthology series he co-edited with Michael Garrett.) Gelb provided some general guidelines as well as the pay rate and deadline. Toward the end of the letter, Gelb notes: “I’m sorry to say I’m unfamiliar with your work, but if Dennis recommends you, that’s a pretty strong nod in your direction!”

This was, shall we say, a big break. A famous mystery writer had recommended me to the co-editor of an anthology series published by a major publishing house.

I submitted “Feel the Pain,” a private eye story featuring Morris Ronald “Moe Ron” Boyette, and, after making minor revisions at the request of Gelb and Collins, the story appeared in the third book in the Flesh & Blood series: Flesh & Blood: Guilty as Sin (Mysterious Press, 2003).

“Feel the Pain” became the first of my stories to be selected for a “best of” anthology when Maxim Jakubowski included it in The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 4 (published in the UK by Robinson, 2005, and in the US by Carroll & Graf, 2005).

I followed up with “Pumped for Information” (XL Girls, 2004), a sequel to “Feel the Pain” that put more emphasis on erotica and less on investigative work, before writing a string of Boyette stories where the erotic content was significantly reduced in favor of solid private eye work: “My Client’s Wife” (Thrilling Detective Web Site, Summer 2007), “Breaking Routine” (Hardluck Stories, Winter 2007), “News Flash” (Untreed Reads, March 2011), and “Yellow Ribbon” (Needle, 2012).

Then, nothing. I moved on to other characters and other stories...until a Boyette story I’d been toying with since 2003 caught my attention again. “Itsy Bitsy Spider” (Tough, April 2018) was named an “Other Distinguished Mystery Story” in The Best American Mystery Stories 2019, and I followed up with “Dirty Laundry” (Tough, April 2020).

I have notes written in 2003-2004 for three additional Boyette stories, but they don’t catch my attention when I reread them. So, I expected Boyette to again go quiet.

Then Michael Pool contacted me about his new publishing venture. I had previously contributed to his Crime Syndicate Magazine, and he received his first Shamus Award nomination for “Weathering the Storm,” a story in The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods (Down & Out Books, 2019). Pool has started P.I. Tales, a new book publishing venture dedicated to private eye novels and the Double Feature series of paired private eye novellas.

Pool invited me to contribute to the second volume of the Double Feature series, where my novella is paired with Hallmarks of the Job, written by Frank Zafiro, a writer who contributed to and played a key role in the launch of Guns + Tacos, the serial novella anthology series I co-edit with Trey R. Barker.

I considered creating a new private eye and then thought better of it. So, Morris Ronald “Moe Ron” Boyette returns in Aloha Boys, the longest story I’ve ever written about him.

In Aloha Boys, Boyette is still adjusting to his new digs above Millie’s Tattoos and Piercings when a homeless woman hires him to find her missing half-brother. Searching for the young man sends Boyette through the depraved underbelly of the local university, reunites him with a mob boss best left in his past, and leads him to question everything he thought he knew about families.

Hallmarks of the Job/Aloha Boys releases August 17 but can be preordered now.

Is this the end of the road for Boyette? I doubt it, but I don’t know when or where he will next appear.


Though I originally intended this post to be about a series character and how I continue to write about him, while researching Boyette’s history I was reminded of something more valuable: The importance of relationships within the writing community.

Boyette exists because Dennis Lynds connected me to Jeff Gelb, and the new Boyette novella exists because Michael Pool and I have worked together on other projects. In between, I’ve worked with editors such as Rusty Barnes of Tough, who once suggested I write a novel about Boyette, and his suggestion was on my mind when Pool approached me about writing a private eye novella for Double Feature.

While I’m loath to conclude that who you know is the key to success, it certainly plays a role in the opportunities that come your way.

Most of us break in the same way: by submitting manuscripts via slush piles, submitting our work on spec, hoping that editors will select our stories from the dozens/hundreds/thousands of other submissions. But once that happens, it’s up to us to act professionally, to develop relationships, and to share opportunities with one another.

And always, always, always, pay it forward.

Morris Ronald Boyette and I are forever grateful that Dennis Lynds did.

20 July 2021

Over and Over and Over Again

In “Bad Contracts” three weeks ago, I wrote about selling all rights to several of my stories. Luckily, I’ve not sold all rights to all of my stories.

Retaining rights has allowed me to license reprints and other subsidiary rights—either by actively seeking them or by having editors contact me—and the extra money and extra publications have always been welcome.

Additionally, by retaining rights, I’ve been able to release the audiobook collection Even Roses Bleed (Books in Motion, 1995) and four short-story collections—Bad Girls (Wildside Press, 2000), Tequila Sunrise (Wildside Press, 2000), Canvas Bleeding (Wildside Press, 2002), and Yesterday in Blood and Bone (Wildside Press, 2005)—each of which contains one or more reprints.

So, what opportunities have I had?


My most-oft reprinted short story, “The Great Little Train Robbery,” originally appeared in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine (June 1985), was reprinted in Detective Mystery Stories (September 2002), in Sniplits (April 2008), and, as “The Great Train Robbery,” in Kings River Life (August 19, 2017).


“Smoked,” first published in Noir at the Salad Bar: Culinary Tales with a Bite (Level Best Books, 2017), was selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), and “Feel the Pain,” first published in Flesh and Blood: Guilty as Sin (Mysterious Press, 2003), was selected for inclusion in The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica (Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2005).


“Of Memories Dying,” first published in Midnight (Tor Books, 1985), has the most convoluted publishing history. After it first appeared, an agent told me it would make a great opening chapter for a horror novel, and I began working with it.

Though I was unable to turn it into a novel, I did turn it into a novella. “In the Town of Memories Dying and Dreams Unknown” was included in my audiobook collection Even Roses Bleed (Books in Motion, 1995).

In 2000, retitled as In the Town of Dreams Unborn and Memories Dying, Barley Books released it in England as a small-sized gift book.

In 2002, the original story was included in Canvas Bleeding (Wildside Press, 2002), a collection of my horror stories.

I later wrote “Dreams Unborn,” a non-horror novella prequel published in Small Crimes (Betancourt & Co., 2004), and “Dreams Unborn” was named an Other Distinguished Story in The Best American Mystery Stories 2005.

And the original story—“Of Memories Dying”—was recently reprinted in Horror for the Throne: One-Sitting Reads (Fantastic Books, 2021).


In addition to straight-forward reprints, I’ve also licensed audio rights to several stories, I’ve licensed foreign-language rights—Chinese, German, Italian—to another handful, and I once negotiated, but ultimately didn’t license, film rights to one.


I’ve listed several of my reprint and subsidiary rights placements, but the point isn’t that I’ve had these opportunities. The point is that all writers who retain rights to their work can license reprint and subsidiary rights over and over and over again.

But whether we actively seek them out or whether the opportunities find us, we must own the rights to our work in order to take advantage of these opportunities.

“Sonny’s Encore” appears in Black Cat Mystery Magazine #9and my private eye story Disposable Women was published yesterday at Tough.

As the editor of Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 1I’m quite pleased to note that Alan Orloff received a Thriller Award for his story “Rent Due” and Andrew Welsh-Huggins was nominated for a Thriller for his story “The Mailman.”

29 June 2021

Bad Contracts

During the forty-plus years I’ve been writing professionally, I’ve heard no end of complaints about the bad contracts writers have signed.

I’ve also signed bad contracts, but I’m not about to complain. The difference between most complainers and me: I signed bad contracts knowing full well they were bad. I knew what I was getting into, and, when I balanced short-term benefits against long-term benefits, short-term benefits won.

Mostly during the early years, but continuing up until the mid-2010s, I sold all rights to more than 400 short stories because the promise of immediate payment meant food on the table and a roof over my family’s head. The possibility of potential additional income from the licensing of reprints and other subsidiary rights at some indefinable point in the future was insufficient to counter-balance immediate income.

(“Immediate” is a relative term: even with “pay on acceptance” publications, there’s often a several-week gap between returning a signed contract and receiving payment, and one publisher I worked with slowly stretched weeks into months before finally ceasing all payments.)

The stories for which I sold all rights were often published under pseudonyms or without any byline at all, and they were written in genres for which there was no perceived life after initial publication. So, unless I told you the titles of those stories and where they were published, you might never know they were mine, nor were you likely to see the stories in any form other than original publication.

Until now.

Print-on-demand and electronic books have changed publishing, making it easier and less expensive to release collections of reprints. At least two publishers that own defunct magazines that published my work are doing just that, gathering stories from their archives and assembling them into POD anthologies and eBooks available from various online bookstores.

During the past few years, I’ve been keeping an eye on these publishers’ releases, using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature and my wife’s Prime account to search for reprints of my stories. Often the story titles remain unchanged, so my work is reasonably easy to identify. Even so, I occasionally find stories by other writers with titles identical to mine, which is why I use my wife’s Prime account to dig deeper than just examining story titles.

Recently, I discovered eight of my stories reprinted by two different publishers in three different anthologies: Falling in Love...Again (BroadLit) contains one story, Stroke of Midnight (True Renditions, LLC) contains one story, and Cupid’s Day (True Renditions, LLC) contains six stories. And this isn’t the first time I’ve found stories reprinted without my knowledge. So far, I’ve identified at least twenty.

I don’t expect to be notified when one of these stories is reprinted. The original publishers presented me with all-rights contracts that I willingly signed, and the current owners of those rights can do with the stories what they wish.

Even so, I likely will never sign another all-rights contract (which, for those who don’t know, is not the same as a work-for-hire contract), but, who knows, there may be another bad contract in my future. And if I sign it, I’ll have no one to blame but myself.

In other reprint news: “Mr. Sugarman Visits the Bookmobile,” 
originally published in Shhh...Murder! (Darkhouse Books, 2018) was released in May 2021 as one of Wildside Press’s Barb Goffman Presents titles, and “Feel the Pain,” originally published in Flesh & Blood: Guilty as Sin (Mysterious Press, 2003) was reprinted in Modern Mayhem, June 7, 2021.

08 June 2021

Displays of Love

I know I’m lucky. Temple is supportive of, and often takes an active role in, my writing career. Not all writers can say that about their spouses.

Early indicators of Temple’s support include her having a copy of my first professionally published short story framed to hang over my desk and her having the covers of four magazines with my name on their covers printed on mugs so that when I have my morning pick-me-up, I can pick me up.

The latest example involves redecorating decisions precipitated by family tragedy.

The summer before our November 2015 marriage, Temple’s brother Peter unexpectedly died. The two were quite close, and Temple was devastated by the loss of her younger brother.

Peter was a Pearl Jam fan and, after his passing, all nine of his Pearl Jam concert posters—professionally mounted and framed under glass—passed to Temple. So, to honor Peter, the posters became focal points in four rooms: the living room, the dining room, and both of my offices.

My favorite of Peter Walker’s
nine Pearl Jam posters,
this once hung on the wall behind
me when I sat at my writing desk. 
Hanging the Pearl Jam posters not only honored Peter, but their presence reminded Temple of him every day and, because visitors often asked about the posters, allowed Temple to share her memories of Peter. No matter what we did, one of the living room posters was constantly askew, exactly the kind of thing Peter might have done to annoy his sister.

Earlier this year, Peter’s now-teenaged daughter asked for the posters. Though the decision to relinquish them was heartbreaking, Temple gave the posters to her niece, which left large, empty spaces on the walls of four rooms.

The smaller posters in the dining room were replaced with Temple’s mother’s artwork. (Both her mother and my mother were artists, so we have their paintings, watercolors, and drawings decorating nearly every room in the house—but that’s a post for another time.)

One living room wall, which had contained two of the three largest Pearl Jam posters, remained near-barren, as did the wall directly behind me when I’m sitting at my desk, which contained the third of the three largest posters.

Nothing we already owned—and, trust me, we have a great deal of artwork created by our mothers, as well as miscellaneous artwork and posters created by non-family members—seemed appropriate. Temple nixed everything I suggested.

Then one day, as she looked at the covers of the three anthologies I’ve edited for Down & Out Books, she said, “You know....”

She told me that homes should be decorated to reflect their owners and not to reflect the contents of the sale bin at Hobby Lobby. More importantly, replacing Peter’s Pearl Jam posters with my book covers would do exactly that. She would be exchanging something that reflected the essence of her brother, whom she loved dearly, with something that reflected the essence of her spouse. Besides, she said, “They’re really cool covers.”

And a few weeks later, after having the covers enlarged, printed, and framed by, the covers for Jukes & Tonks and Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir were hanging in our living room, and the cover of The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods was hanging in my primary office.

Many writers don’t have spouses who take active roles in their writing careers, and fewer still have spouses who decorate the living room with giant reproductions of their book covers.

As I said at the beginning of this, I know I’m lucky.

When the Private Eye Writers of America’s 2021 Shamus Award nominees were announced earlier this month, I was surprised and delighted to see that two short stories from issue 7—the special PI issue—of Black Cat Mystery Magazine were nominated: Gordon Linzner’s “Show and Zeller” and fellow SleuthSayer John M. Floyd’s “Mustang Sally.” As editor of BCMM, I shan’t play favorites, so I’m hoping there’s a tie vote and that both Gordon and John receive a Shamus Award.

18 May 2021

Who Am I This Issue?

Accompanying an interview with me that The Digest Enthusiast published in June 2018 was a sidebar listing all of the pseudonyms I’ve used over the years, many of them assigned by editors rather than pseudonyms I’ve chosen.
A pseudonym is a disguise
for writers, much like the one worn
by the unrecognizable writer
shown above.

When I first began writing, I toyed with variations of my name before I settled on Michael Bracken. Michael Patrick Bracken was used only once, on my first professionally published short story. Mike Bracken appeared on much of my fanzine work before I turned pro and then, for a few years, on humor, fillers, and similar material.

I’ve published several pieces using one or the other of my self-selected pseudonyms: Rolinda Hay and Patrick Myers.

Additionally, I’ve been published under many house names or pseudonyms assigned by editors: Gilbert Anderson, Michelle Baker, Mel Barton, M. Bayman, Christine Bracken, Angela Brown, Peter Carson, Nick Ford, Linda Hay, Bruce Jones, Ned Parker, Wanda Reed, Frank Sandwell, Gladys Spivey, S. Turnham, Kate Williams, Aggie Winter, and Stan Young.

I wrote several stories for the sex letters magazines, and bylines were usually initials followed by the name of a city—for example: H.D., Glenview, Illinois—and are too numerous to list.

The stories I wrote for the confession magazines—True Confessions, True Love, True Story, and many others—were often published without bylines because they were presented as “true” and the narrator, whatever her name might be, was presumed to be the author.


There are many reasons why a writer chooses to use a pseudonym and many reasons why an editor foists pseudonyms upon writers.

A writer of erotica, for example, might have a day job as a grade-school teacher, and exposing herself as an erotica writer might negatively impact her day job. A writer well established in one genre might wish to differentiate her work in another genre, even if her use of a pseudonym isn’t a secret.

My use of pseudonyms—especially those assigned me by editors—had more to do with productivity and genre conventions.

I have had as many as four stories published in a single issue of a magazine, and I’ve had stories in multiple consecutive issues of a publication. By assigning pseudonyms to some of the stories, it appeared as if the magazines had more contributors than they actually did.

The confession magazines and sex letters publications also operated under genre conventions that implied the stories were written by real people and not by a bunch of professional writers like me. Some of the confession magazines would put a byline on a story that matched the name of the narrator, but many confession magazines dispensed completely with bylines on their fiction. The sex letters magazines operated under a similar convention: By using only the initials of a letter writer, accompanied by the city and state from which the letter writer supposedly hailed, they gave readers the impression that, again, the letters were written by real people and not by professional writers like me.


I think the last time I had something published under a pseudonym was in 2011 when I self-published the erotic romance novel Stud as by Rolinda Hay, and the last stories I had published without any byline at all appeared in the July 2017 issues of True Confessions and True Story.

There are several reasons why my use of pseudonyms ended during the past decade, most of them related to the rise of the internet and the decline of print publications. Though I’ve always been a multi-genre writer, much of my short fiction appeared in men’s magazines (a euphemism for publications featuring photographs of naked people and purchased primarily by men) and women’s magazines (primarily those publishing confessions of the sin-suffer-repent variety and purchased primarily by women).

The internet, which allows seemingly unlimited access to photographs of naked people, killed the market for men’s magazines. Dorchester Publishing, which purchased the half-dozen-plus confession magazines then published by Sterling/MacFadden in 2004, later sold them to two different publishers (BroadLit and True Renditions LLC) in 2011. By then, Dorchester had crippled the confession magazines such that the two that survived the company’s mismanagement—True Confessions and True Story—lasted only half a dozen more years.

Additionally, and in part because of the constriction or elimination of what were once my primary markets, most of my work these days falls under the broad umbrella of crime fiction. I am nowhere near able to produce enough crime fiction for any mystery magazine to publish multiple of my stories in any given issue, and with all the competition from my fellow SleuthSayers (I’m looking at you John Floyd) and from other writers, it’s unlikely any mystery magazine editor would ever need to.

So, will I ever again use a pseudonym?

You may never know.

“Double Dipping” was published in the May issue of Mystery Weekly.

The 27 Club” was published in Punk Noir Magazine.

27 April 2021

The Pause that Refreshes

Since the beginning of the year, I have read submissions to Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties, Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 3, and the special cozy issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine.

I then read, in quick succession, Sara Paretsky’s Brush Back, John Sandford’s Gathering Prey, and John Grisham’s Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer. 

When I finished them, I started reading the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, which contains work from a significant number of SleuthSayers.

What I didn’t do is write.

That’s almost four months without finishing a new short story, a significant productivity gap considering I’ve had year-long stretches when I produced at least a story a week.

This weekend—only a few days before this post appears—I began writing again. Though I’ve not yet finished anything in my two days back at the keyboard, I’ve made progress on a trio of stories.


Write every day.

I’ve seen this advice repeated ad nauseam, and it’s good advice. Some writers need this structure in order to be productive, and other writers use it as a way to build a wall between them and their other responsibilities. (“I can’t do that now, this is my scheduled writing time!”)

But writing every day isn’t the only approach to productivity. Over the years I’ve had many writing gaps lasting from a few days to a few weeks. Sometimes real life demands our attention elsewhere, whether it’s a health issue, a family emergency, mandatory overtime at the day job, or a weather-related incident. And stepping away from the keyboard can be—when done by choice—a way to recharge one’s batteries and return to writing refreshed

In my case, time away was the result of a combination of things: a Snowpocalypse, editing responsibilities, and a week or so of binge reading to cleanse my literary palate.

I have returned refreshed, but I see another writing gap in the near future: All those stories I accepted for Groovy Gumshoes, Mickey Finn, and Black Cat need to be edited and prepared for publication.

With any luck, I can squeeze in a good bit of writing before the next pause.

April has been filled with good news:

“Last Waltz Across Texas” appears in the May/June Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

“Soiled Dove” appears in Crimeucopia: We’re All Animals Under the Skin.

“The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” appears in Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the songs of Billy Joel (Untreed Reads), edited by Josh Pachter.

“If You’ve Got the Money, Honey” appears in Jukes & Tonks (Down & Out Books), edited by Gary Phillips and me. The anthology, which released Monday, April 19, appeared on Amazon’s Hot New Releases list that day (the Kindle edition at #65 and the paperback edition at #67), dropped off, and reappeared the next day (Kindle edition at #29 and the paperback edition at #36).

And the ITW Thriller Award nominees were announced. Two stories from Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 1 (Down & Out Books), which I edited, were nominated for Best Short Story: Alan Orloff’s “Rent Due” and Andrew Welsh-Huggins’s “The Mailman.”

16 March 2021

Drafts? I Don’t Keep No Stinking Drafts!

When Eve Fisher wrote “I’m so relieved to hear that I’m not the only one with 50 versions of the same damn story on my hard drive” in her response to Bob Mangeot’s SleuthSayers post “Don’t Make Me Turn This Car Around,” I spit my drink across the room. Then I reread Bob’s post and realized I’d missed his mention of having “75 versions” of a story on his hard drive.

Clearly, Bob, Eve, and writers like them live in a different universe than I do. I only ever have a single draft of a story—the current draft, which, when I finish fussing with it, becomes the final draft.

I’ve found that keeping multiple versions of a story encourages me to look backward while I’m working—How did I handle the second scene in version three? Was the dialog in the fifth scene more pithy in version twelve? Why did I insert so many exclamation points in version twenty-seven?—when what I should do, and what I try to do, is constantly look forward.

Perhaps part of the reason I don’t keep multiple versions of stories is that I never actually have multiple versions. I write and edit as I go so that my first complete draft is my final or near-final draft. Often all that’s required at that point is a serious, in-depth proofreading.

Not all writers work as I do. Some pound their way through a draft, dumping everything into it as they go. Then they create a second draft, rearranging scenes, rethinking their characters’ motivations, revising so many bits and pieces that the second draft may actually be a different story. Then they do the same again for a third draft.


Okay, I lied. There are two exceptions to my having only one version of a story:

1) Early in my career I wrote for men’s magazines. Many of the stories were equally appropriate for genre magazines with one exception: graphic sex. So, I sometimes created two versions of a story: one with graphic sex intended for men’s magazines and one without graphic sex intended for genre magazines. Sometimes the version with sex sold; sometimes the version without sex sold. (And sometimes I sold first rights to the version with sex and later sold the sexless version as a “slightly modified” reprint.)

2) When I receive a copyedited ms. from an editor, I maintain my original version until we’ve completed the editing process and the story’s been published. Then I delete my version and retain only the published version.


So, one-and-done or multiple versions? Is one method better than the other?


Whether you’re a one-and-done writer or a 75-versions writer, the end result is likely the same: a publishable story.

And that’s what we’re all striving for.

23 February 2021

Writer’s Block of Ice

Today is Saturday, February 20, 2021. I have not written anything more complex than a trio of Facebook posts and a few brief emails since last Sunday. At approximately 6:30 a.m., Monday, February 15, the power went out in the midst of what has become known as the Texas Snowpocalypse, and it did not return until Thursday morning. Temple and I live in an all-electric house in Hewitt, a suburb of Waco, about halfway between Austin to the south and the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex to the north.

Look at the pretty snow.
It’s trying to kill you.

We live in an area with unstable electric power, where power flickers off and on year-round. For that reason, two of our computers are plugged into uninterruptable power supplies, which shield the computers from surges and can keep them running for up to an hour during a power failure, allowing for safe and systematic shutdowns. As soon as we realized the power might not be returning anytime soon, I charged my phone and Temple’s Kindle using one the UPSes. We should have also charged her phone.

As day stretched into night and day and night and day and night, the house grew increasingly colder (ultimately reaching a low of 48 degrees), we learned many things:

Multiple layers of clothing works. I added a new layer each day. By the end, I wore a sweatshirt over a T-shirt, jeans over sweatpants over underwear, slippers (when inside) or boots (when outside) over two pairs of socks. Over all of this I wore a thick Land’s End robe (when inside) or a winter coat (when outside). Accessories included gloves and a scarf.

We come from families of quilters. We have a few store-bought quilts and many quilts made by our mothers and other family members. I’m uncertain how many quilts we actually own because we did not have to dig them all out, but by the end we slept beneath five quilts—without taking off any of the layers of clothing we already wore.

We could not open the garage door more than one-third of the way. The emergency pull that should have disengaged the door from the electric door opening system’s chain did not function properly and we could not fully open the door. Even if we could have opened the door, there was no place we could have gone because everyone around us, all our family and friends, were in the same situation we were. Unable to get the cars out of the garage, we were not able to safely use them to warm ourselves or charge our phones.

Let’s have a cookout.
Chili and tea on the grill.

It is possible to cook a nutritious meal over charcoal briquettes. We often use our grill during the summer for traditional things such as steak and burgers. I used it to cook chili and heat the kettle for tea. We had enough briquettes that I could have prepared a second hot meal if I had needed to.

When the house is almost as cold as the inside of the refrigerator, there’s no real danger in opening the fridge door and rummaging through the contents. Milk remained cold and drinkable, and other fridge items remained edible throughout.

A cat will learn to appreciate covers. Kiwi often sleeps in our laps when we’re seated in the living room and he often sleeps atop me at night. The first night, despite our efforts to cover him, he resisted. As the house grew colder and he began to shiver, we wrapped him up and held him so he couldn’t escape. By the end, he insisted on being wrapped in a quilt.


The power flickered off and on for about an hour and a half on Tuesday afternoon, allowing the HVAC system to warm the house by a few paltry degrees.

Wednesday morning, power was restored to Temple’s father’s home. He lives about seven blocks from us. When it appeared that his power was stable, I made a renewed effort to open the garage door. I am not mechanically inclined, but after scouring the internet, I learned how to completely detach the door from the automatic system and opened the door. Temple escaped to her father’s home.

A few hours later, I took Kiwi to his house and returned home. Mid-evening, with no change in our situation likely, I joined them, and we had a warm dinner (leftover chili!), spent the night in a warm house, and had a warm breakfast.

Let there be light!

I returned home Thursday morning to find that power had been restored and the house was slowly warming. Mid-afternoon Temple and Kiwi returned home, I reassembled the garage door, and I showered for the first time since Sunday morning.

We spent Friday listening to transformers explode throughout our neighborhood. Each time, the power would flicker off and then return.

Friday, our community was placed under mandatory water conservation restrictions. So, while we’ve never been without water, we are avoiding showers, have not washed clothes, nor have we run the dishwasher.

Today, with the midmorning temperature above freezing and the roads reasonably clear, we ventured out. We had bills to pay, medications to pick up, and groceries to buy.

I tried to fill my car’s gas tank, but could not find a service station with working pumps.

The crowded grocery store had limited supplies. But we found milk, cheese, and potatoes as well as some canned items that would supplement the food we already had at home.

Many of our fellow Texans have suffered far more than we have—and some even escaped to Cancun—so I’m not about to complain about our experience. Still, I certainly don’t want to ever repeat it.

It will take a long time to recover from what’s happened. In fact, we may have PTSD—Post Texas Storm Disorder.


I did a lot of reading during daylight hours. (I completed two Peter Lovesey novels and am halfway through a third. I strongly recommend his work even if you’re not caught in a Snowpocalypse.)

What I didn’t do is write. I couldn’t. Survival took precedence.

I don’t believe in writer’s block, and I never have. This week, though, I experienced the ultimate writer’s block.

This week I was beaten by a writer’s block of ice.

On February 12, Down & Out Books released Bullets and Other Hurting Things: A Tribute to Bill Crider, edited by Rick Ollerman. The anthology includes my story “The Ladies of Wednesday Tea.”

My story “Family Films” was published by Close to the Bone on February 14.

The Great Filling Station Holdup: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Jimmy Buffet, edited by Josh Pachter and published by Down & Out Books, was released February 22. Included is my story “Tampico Trauma” and stories by fellow SleuthSayers John M. Floyd and Leigh Lundin.