Showing posts with label Short Mystery Fiction Society. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Short Mystery Fiction Society. Show all posts

28 April 2024

Is That a Derringer in Your Pocket?

First things first: my deepest thanks to the SleuthSayers for inviting me to be a contributor to this blog. I had to fight off a bit of imposter syndrome to accept. In many ways I still feel like I’m just getting started as a mystery writer, and it’s humbling to be in the company of all these masters of the genre. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from SleuthSayer columns over the years, and I’ll do my best to be a worthy member of the team (for those of you wondering who the new kid is:

So. What shall we talk about?
(Raiders of the Lost Ark still)

For my first post, I thought it would be worth taking a behind-the-scenes look at something a lot of writers probably spend more time thinking about than they’d readily admit: awards.

If you’re interested in mystery short stories, you’re probably familiar with the Short Mystery Fiction Society. (Hopefully you’re a member, since membership is free and offers a host of benefits. End plug.) The SMFS annually presents the Derringer Awards for the best short mystery stories, in four categories: Flash (up to 1,000 words), Short Story (1,001 to 4,000), Long Story (4,001 to 8,000), and Novelette (8,001 to 20,000). You can find more details here, but in brief, every January SMFS members submit stories published during the previous year for consideration. These stories, stripped of information identifying authors, are passed on to volunteer judges, who spend two months reading, considering, and scoring. At the beginning of April, the five (or more, in the case of a tie) finalists in each category are announced, and the entire SMFS membership has until April 29 to vote. Winners are announced on May 1.

Sounds simple, right?

I was elected by SMFS to the Derringer Awards Coordinator position last June (and let me give a quick shout out to the able and esteemed Assistant Coordinator, Paula Messina). As the end of 2023 approached, I rather abruptly and belatedly realized there was a lot to do. First on the list: recruiting judges. The official Derringer rules call for three judges plus an alternate for each category, with the obvious restriction that nobody can judge a category in which they have submitted a story.

I had a lot of worries about this system. Would enough judges volunteer? What if some dropped out halfway through the process? Fortunately, another part of the Derringer policy gives the Coordinator discretion to make adjustments to the system as needed. I decided to recruit not just four judges per category, but as many as possible, for several reasons. First, it would allow me to break up the larger categories. Based on previous years, it was a safe guess that there would be around 200 entries in the Long Story competition, for example. Asking anybody to read 200 stories in just two months–and read them closely enough to evaluate and score them–was obviously untenable, and would only make it more difficult to recruit judges. With enough judges, I could break that group up while still being sure that each story would be scored by at least three judges.

Derringer Medals. Shiny!

As it turned out, I was worrying over nothing. There were plenty of volunteers–enough that every story, in every category, was read and scored by at least four judges. No judges withdrew, and every single one took the process seriously, followed directions closely, and met their deadlines. There’s the first thing I learned from this experience: a lot of writers are very generous with their time and efforts. Derringer judges are anonymous, but I hope they all read this and know how grateful I am to them for making the process as painless as possible.

By the way, for the curious, there ended up being 26 stories submitted for the Flash category, 151 for Short Story, 201 for Long Story, and 35 for Novelette. Phew!

The second thing I learned was that writers, bless our hearts, can be a little iffy on following directions. I posted (I thought) a very clear set of instructions for prepping stories to be submitted–basically, Word files in standard Shunn format with all identifying information about the author removed. I even included instructions for how to remove the metadata from the file. If you’ve read the SleuthSayers blog for any length of time, you’ve surely seen these sages of the pages say time and again that the first rule in submitting a story to a magazine or anthology is to follow the provided guidelines. The Derringers reward published stories, so I knew the people submitting were, by and large, experienced writers, and assumed they’d have no problem doing so.

Well… they tried, anyway. More than a third of the files I received had some significant deviation from the directions. The most common, not surprisingly, was the author’s name still appearing in the metadata, but there were others. The author was frequently still named at the top of the story or in a header–or, in many cases, in an “about the author” paragraph tagged onto the end of the story. Files arrived in a range of non-Word formats, including a couple I’d never encountered before and couldn’t open. Many stories were submitted in the wrong category, so I quickly learned to verify word counts. A few people put multiple stories in the same file. I received several that still had editorial comments inserted throughout the text and visible tracked changes.

When I posted to SMFS asking people to double check their submissions, several members said I should just reject any stories that didn’t meet the guidelines. That was my initial intention, but ultimately simple time management dictated otherwise. It was a numbers game, really. Going through a submitted file to correct the most common mistakes took two or three minutes. Sending the story back with an explanation of the problems could take five, or ten, or fifteen, depending on how complicated the issues were, and would guarantee that I’d have to deal with the file again, possibly more than once. On days when I got twenty or thirty submissions, that time could add up pretty quickly. I could have simply deleted the problem files and not bothered informing the submitters, but then I would have gotten a lot of angry and confused emails when the list of submitted stories was posted. I did reject submissions so far astray from requirements as to be unusable, but for the most part I just fixed the problems.

Was this the right call? Who knows? To quote Dr. Henry Jones, Jr., I’m making this up as I go.

All of which brings me to the third thing I learned running the Derringers: evaluating writing is enormously, inherently, irreducibly subjective. I knew this, of course, but looking at the final scoresheets, I’m kind of amazed at just how subjective it is. Remember, the Derringers reward published stories. This led me to assume that there’d be a certain basic level of quality built into the submitted stories, that scores would lean high, and that low scores would be uncommon.

As a theory, it made sense. In reality, not so much.

Without getting into the murky details, each judge gave each story a score, the lowest possible being 4 and the highest being 40. Before the scores started coming in, I wouldn’t have thought it likely for a story to get a 4 from one judge and a 40 from another. Not only did it happen, though–it happened multiple times. Even in cases that weren’t quite so extreme, the scores for most stories were more widely distributed than I would have guessed.

As a writer myself, I find this heartening. Rejection is part of this game, and most of the time we don’t know why it happens. The standard advice is to turn the story around and get it back out to another market as quickly as possible, and the Derringer scoresheets provide ample evidence that this is the correct approach. The judges are all accomplished writers themselves, many with editorial experience, but that common background didn’t mean they shared a single view of what the best writing looks like. Obviously, editors don’t share such a view, either, so if you hit one who thinks your story is a 4, keep hunting. The one who thinks it’s a 40 might just be out there.

The bottom line is that running the Derringers has been a lot of work, but also gratifying. We usually think of writing as being a pretty solitary pursuit, but much of what I’ve found most rewarding about it has been the social contacts–through SMFS, through conferences like Bouchercon, and now through Sleuthsayers. Being the Derringer coordinator has given me the chance to be even more deeply engaged with the mystery writing community, and to meet more great folks (again, the judges couldn’t have been better!). I’m looking forward to meeting even more of you through my posts here.

Joseph S. Walker and Friend
The new kid in town
and his faithful sidekick

Thanks for reading, and thanks again to the SleuthSayers for this opportunity. Assuming this post goes up as scheduled on April 28, members of SMFS still have one day to vote for the Derringer winners (every vote counts!). And say, if you are a member of SMFS (and you really should be!), consider giving back to the community by running for one of the officer slots or, come next January, volunteering as a Derringer judge.

Look for the announcement of the Derringer winners this coming Wednesday, May 1!

Got questions about the Derringers? Let me know in the comments. See you next month!

15 December 2021

Ngrams, or How to Be Groovy in 1864.

 Let's get a bit convoluted, shall we? Last month on the Short Mystery Fiction Society* list Judy Penz Sheluk pointed to a blog piece she wrote about a webinar Iona Whishaw gave.  Her subject was Ngrams.  According to Wikipedia "an n-gram (sometimes also called Q-gram) is a contiguous sequence of n items from a given sample of text or speech."

And what the hell does that mean, you may ask. Take a look at the diagram below.  This is an ngram of Google books showing how often the terms crime fiction, detective fiction, mystery fiction, and noir fiction showed up in each year.  More accurately, it indicates what percentage of pairs of words published in a given year consists of the pair you are looking for.  So detective fiction was the most popular term until 2011 when crime fiction surpassed it.  I would have guessed that happened decades earlier.

Pretty cool?  But wait: we are just starting.  Not visible at the bottom of the screen is the fact that you can look up all the books (magazines, law codes, etc.) that contain your phrase in a given year or time period.

If you are writing historical fiction you have just acquired an amazing new tool, thanks to Sheluk and Wishaw.

 I wrote a story earlier this year set in 1967 and I used the word groovy.  So let's see how that word does in the ngram world.  The diagram below shows the word was very popular in 1967, although it peaked in 1970.

But wait - why do we see that huge jump around 2010?  A quick click on the 2009-2011 button reveals a programming language called Groovy. And sure enough, if we make the ngram case sensitive Groovy becomes briefly more popular than its lower case sibling.

But I learned something even weirder. Groovy was being used long before the flower children's parents were even born. I found this quotation from the Saturday Review, January 1864: "For a groovy parent trains a groovy child, and the groovy child must be father of a groovy man."

How hip those Victorian English dudes were, you may be saying. Alas, the anonymous writer did not mean it as a compliment. He was talking about being stuck in a rut, thinking inside the box. Very much not groovy.

I am also writing a story set in 1959 and one of the characters is socially awkward, has certain verbal tics, and can do amazing mathematical feats in his head. Today most of us amateur diagnosticians would say "he's on the autistic spectrum." But would anyone have used that term sixty years ago? We can go to ngrams again, but this reveals a weakness of the tool.

Because when I search for uses before 1960 I find publications that supposedly have that date, but were really published later.  There is a 1992 edition, for example, of a psychiatric manual which was first published in the 1950s, and Google Books can't spot the difference.  There is a similar problem with journals that were founded a long time ago.  (HathiTrust, another great free tool for historical sources, suffers from the same limitation.)

On the other hand... A few weeks ago Leigh wrote a fascinating piece here about words and concepts that started in the 1980s.  His source claimed that "eggs benedict" wasn't given that name until 1984.  Google Books Ngrams quickly found it in a  the Hotel St. Francis Cookbook, 1919 edition.

And now I'm hungry.  But before I head to the fridge, much thanks to Judy Penz Sheluk and Iona Wishaw for pointing out this cool tool.  You can play around with the Google Books ngram viewer here.

*I am the Society's current president and I hereby invite you to join.  It's free but new memberships are not accepted between January 1- May 1, so hop to it here.

28 September 2020

Bam, Scam, Thank you, Ma'am

Every six weeks, or so, my wife Barbara says to me, "Isn't your big break about due again?"

It's a standing joke, going on for so long we no longer remember when it began.

The phone rings and when one of us answers, we hear a young female with an Asian accent asking for "Step-on Leez-cow." This young woman, whose name is always "Mumble" and who works for "Mumble Mumble" promotion group (both of those change from call to call, by the way), is very ex-site-ted about my new book, Post Cards of the Haing-Ging. They would like to promote it and hope I will send (usually 50 or 100) copies to some book event that also changes with each call and which I've never been able to find through an Internet search.

I haven't stayed on the line long enough to learn how much money I'm supposed to invest in their enterprise, but I know it will be enough to make their phone call worthwhile… for them.

My "new" novel Postcards of the Hanging, appeared in February 2014. I have received this phone call at least a dozen times in the last three years and I look forward to it along with offers to update the warranty on my 2004 Honda Accord.

If you're new to writing, you'd probably be thrilled to receive a call like this. Don't be. Ask  how the "Company" heard about your book. Ask what they noticed about your website. Ask where else they have looked to find information about you. It's fun to listen to the dead air before they guess. Sorry, Ms., no lifeline here.

A month ago, I heard from a new caller and was in a bad mood (Surgery does that to me), so I played with him more than usual.

"Kevin" called from some mumbled promotion group, and they were palpitating about Words of Love, which I published "recently." It was late 2019, so props to them for being more up-to-date than Ms Bangkok (Who is due to call again next week). Kevin wanted to promote my book so we could boost the sales enough to bring it to the attention of major publishers and renegotiate a deal. We would split the profits. He didn't say whether it would be an even split.

I interrupted to ask how much he expected me to invest, and he answered, "10 or 15 thousand dollars" (Cue hysterical laughter). After that, like a basketball player who turns the ball over and compounds the error by committing a foul, he asked if I was familiar with traditional publishing.

My first novel was with a small traditional publisher. They peeled me like an apple, partly because I signed a bad contract and partly because they were blood-sucking vermin. Other writers had similar experiences and the company has long since disappeared because word got around, as it always does. Remember, we're writers. We tell stories. That company is one of the reasons I self-publish my novels now.

Then Kevin went for the Trifecta, asking me what I've done to promote my book. This is my answer, pretty much verbatim:

I'm a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers and the Short Mystery Fiction Society. I have served on panels for both MWA and SinC, usually at libraries, but at both the New England Crime Bake and Crime Conn, too. I conduct fiction workshops in libraries and other venues, and have a video workshop available online. I have done radio and TV interviews,  podcasts and print newspaper feature stories. I have won several awards, which are listed on my Website and Facebook Author page. My daughter updates my website frequently. I have also published about thirty short stories (traditionally) and have several others currently under consideration.

Kevin was amazed. I told him he hadn't done his homework or he would have, at the very least, Googled me and found all that stuff--along with reviews of various books and stories.

I didn't bother to point out what would happen on the one in a trillion chance that a traditional publisher decided to take on my book. I simply told Kevin I don't give large sums of money to amateurs.

These are scams. 

Because of the Covid-19 lockdown, many people who have threatened to write "That Book" have actually used the time to do just that. The scammers smell fresh meat and are coming out of the dunghills to take advantage of it.


The Short Mystery Fiction Society posted a scam letter a few weeks ago, and when I first started out, I might have fallen for it. Now, I got about one sentence beyond the salutation before I knew it was fake. Less than two weeks ago, SMFS published a warning about a questionable literary agency that wanted to put writers in touch with Hollywood to sell their novel as a screenplay. I get email offers like that about once a month. They never name the novel they're looking at.

The problem is, if you're starting out, you're learning to write and query and create a synopsis and do an elevator pitch and revise your novel and create a website, a Twitter feed and a dozen other things. You're already swamped without having to learn to spot the grifters out there. There are a few websites to warn people, but they need to know a scam is active before they can pass the word. That means someone has to spot it and alert them.

Writer's organizations are important because they protect their members.

That's another thing mystery writers do besides tell stories. We try to look out for each other.

21 July 2020

The Problem with Writing about Mean Girls

Funny how you can write a story, revise it, edit it down to a certain length, read it again before submitting it, proofread it before it's published, and even read it once more after it comes out, but when you read it yet again five years later, you're surprised by what you see.

That's the position I found myself in last month when I prepared to read my story "The Wrong Girl" at an online DC Noir at the Bar. The story was published in October 2015 in the anthology Flash and Bang: A Short Mystery Fiction Society Anthology (Untreed Reads Publishing). It was a finalist for the Derringer Award in the flash category in 2016. I had been proud of the story. I still am, but there was a bit of language in it that caught me off guard when I read it fresh last month.

The story is about a fifth-grade girl in a private school who's humiliated by her teacher, so she and two friends decide to make her pay. Little do they know when they're planning their revenge that they're not the only ones in the girls' bathroom. A custodian is in there too. Here are her relevant thoughts:
It wasn't the first time I'd heard kids plot against their teachers. Usually they were simply blowing off steam. But sometimes, like now, I could tell the kids meant it. In the past, I'd reported them to the principal. The result every time: parents were summoned, the children pleaded they'd been joking, and the incidents were swept under the rug. No punishments. No consequences. 
Not this time. Mean girls who faced no consequences grew up to become mean women who thought they could bully everyone and get away with everything. I couldn't let that happen again. This time, I'd let the plan move forward far enough that the authorities would have to act.

Finally, justice would be served.

Did you catch the wording that bothered me when I read it fresh last month? Maybe not. Maybe you were swept away by my story and the words blew right past you. But I caught them: "Mean girls who faced no consequences grew up to become mean women who thought they could bully everyone and get away with everything." The italics are added here for emphasis.

When I read this sentence last month I was struck by how sexist it sounds. Are there no mean boys? No mean men? Why hadn't I written the following instead? "Mean children who faced no consequences grew up to become mean adults who thought they could bully everyone and get away with everything." The story certainly would have worked just as well with those substituted words, and that's how I read it at the Noir at the Bar last month.

But the original version, with the "mean girls" and "mean women" language, is still out there. I've tried to think through why I used wording that makes it sound like girls and women are the only ones who can be mean. Did I use those words because this is a story about girls who are mean, as well as a female teacher who is mean, and I was just being very focused? I hope so. But maybe I had gotten lazy and relied upon a stereotype.

We hear all the time about mean girls. They're in the news. On social media. Heck, there's a movie called Mean Girls and a Broadway show based on that movie. I did a Google search for the term, and got 14 million results. But a search for "mean boys" only yielded 171,000 results. I did a more specific search for news articles about mean girls and got 141,000 hits versus one about mean boys, which got 1,100 hits.

What does this all mean? Are girls meaner than boys? I doubt it. I would think all children and adults have the same capacity for cruelty, regardless of their sex. So why is there so much focus on mean girls throughout our society? I'm sure sociologists have probably studied the phenomenon and could give an answer. I don't have one.

I also don't know for certain why I used those words: Mean girls. Mean women. I would hope, as I said above, that I chose those words because my story was about a mean woman and mean girls. But that raises the question: Why did I write a story about mean girls instead of mean boys? And not just this story. I've written several stories involving mean girls or women.

Another one of my
stories about mean girls,
"Evil Little Girl," can
be found in my collection
These stories often sprang from incidents in my life, and since the incidents involved women and/or girls, I was probably more inclined to create related stories about females. I likely also made these choices because I once was a girl and now am a woman, so I probably have a better grasp on how women think than how men do. My decisions to write stories about mean girls and women also probably stemmed from the fact that we hear so much about them, as I also said above. Maybe the more I hear about mean girls, the more I'm inclined to write about them. All of these reasons probably played a part in my choices.

All of the "mean girl" stories I've written are good (I hope). They're entertaining while also making good points about societal issues. But I fear that by making these storytelling choices (choices of character, plot, and language) I may have helped perpetuate the sexist idea that it's girls and women who are mean far more often than boys and men.

I'm not going to stop writing about mean girls and mean women. It's a topic I'm too interested in (apparently), and I do enjoy writing from the female perspective. Besides, there are mean girls and mean women, so stories about them are realistic. But women don't have a corner on the meanness market. So I'm going to try to take a better look at my choices when I'm writing to see if a mean woman could instead be a mean man, and if it might be appropriate to refer to "mean kids" instead of "mean girls" and make other similar choices. If a story is written well enough, the reader may not notice one way or another. But words can have power, seeping into our psyches, even when we don't notice them. So I'm going to try to do better.

If you're interested in reading "The Wrong Girl," you're in luck. The ebook version of the anthology it's in, Flash and Bang, is half off this month at Smashwords as part of their Christmas in July ebook sale. Go to, where you'll be able to pick up the ebook for $2.50.

And before we get to the comments, a little blatant self-promotion: My story "Alex's Choice" from the time-travel/crime anthology Crime Travel was nominated last week for the Macavity Award for best short story published last year. And Crime Travel (which I also edited) was recently nominated for an Anthony Award for best anthology/collection published last year. If you'd like to read "Alex's Choice," it's on my website. If you'd like to read the whole of Crime Travel (which I recommend), you can find the book in trade paperback, hardback, and ebook from lots of bookstores. Stories in Crime Travel have been nominated for the Agatha, Anthony, Derringer, Macavity, and Shamus awards, so clearly there's a lot in there for you to like.

09 January 2016

Of Lords and Eggs

Mystery short stories offer us many pleasures, including the opportunity to enjoy, briefly, the company of protagonists who might drive us crazy if we tried to stick with them through an entire novel. I was reminded of this truth recently when I reread a Dorothy L. Sayers story featuring Montague Egg, a traveling salesman who deals in wines and spirits. Most Sayers mysteries, of course, center on another protagonist, Lord Peter Wimsey. As almost all mystery readers know, Lord Peter is highly intelligent, unusually observant, and adept at figuring out how scattered scraps of information come together to point to a conclusion. Montague Egg fits that description, too. Both characters are engaging and articulate, both have exemplary manners, and both sprinkle their statements with lively quotations. More important, both Lord Peter and Montague Egg abide by codes of honor, and both are devoted to the cause of justice, to identifying the guilty and exonerating the innocent. And Sayers evidently found both protagonists charming: She kept returning to them for years, writing twenty-one short stories about Lord Peter, eleven about Montague Egg.

Dorothy L. Sayers: The Complete Stories
But while Sayers also wrote eleven novels about Lord Peter, she didn't write a single one about Montague Egg. I don't know if she ever explained why she wrote only short stories about him--I checked two biographies and didn't find anything, but there might be an explanation somewhere. In any case, it's tempting to speculate about what her reasons might have been.She might have thought Egg lacks the depth of character needed in the protagonist of a novel. That's true enough, but she could always have developed his character further, given him more backstory. She did that with Lord Peter, who's a far more complex, tormented soul in Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon than he is in Whose Body? Or perhaps she thought all the little quirks that make Montague Egg such an amusing, distinctive short story protagonist would make him hard to take if his adventures were stretched out into a novel. Yes, Lord Peter has his little quirks, too, but I think his are qualitatively different. For example, while Lord peter tends to quote works of English literature in delightfully surprising contexts, Montague Egg sticks to quoting maxims from the fictional Salesman's Handbook, such as "Whether you're wrong or whether you're right, it's always better to be polite." Three or four of these common-sense rhymes add humor to a quick short story. Dozens of them might leave readers wincing long before a novel ends.

I did plenty of wincing when I decided, not long ago, to read Anita Loos' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (not a mystery, but protagonist Lorelei Lee does go on trial for shooting Mr. Jennings, so I figure I can sneak it in as an example). For the first thirty pages or so, I relished it, laughing out loud at Lorelei's uninhibited voice, at the absurd situations, at the appalling but flat-out funny inversions of anything resembling real values. Before long, however, I was flipping to the back of this short book to see how many more pages I had to read before I could declare myself done. Lorelei's voice, which had been so entertaining at first, had started to get on my nerves, and her delusions and her shallowness were becoming hard to take. I couldn't understand why this book had been so wildly popular until I found out it had originally been a series of short stories in Harper's Bazaar. Well, sure. A small dose of Lorelei once in a while can be enjoyable, but spending hours with her is like getting stuck talking to the most self-centered, superficial guest at a party. If you ever decide to read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, I recommend reading it one chapter at a time, and taking at least a week off in between.
There could be all sorts of reasons that a protagonist might be right for short stories but wrong for novels. I wrote a series of stories (for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine) about dim-witted Lieutenant Walt Johnson and overly modest Sergeant Gordon Bolt. Everyone--including Bolt--sees Walt as a genius who cracks case after difficult case. In fact, Walt consistently misunderstands all the evidence, and it's Bolt who solves the cases by reading deep meanings into Walt's clueless remarks. A number of readers urged me to write a novel about this detective team. (And yes, you're right--most of these readers are members of my immediate family. They still count as readers.)

Despite my fondness for Walt and Bolt, though, I never even considered writing a novel about them. I think they're two of the most likable, amusing characters I've ever created. But Walt is too dense, too anxious, and too cowardly to sustain a novel. How long can readers be expected to put up with a detective who's always confused but never scrapes up the courage to admit it, no matter how guilty he feels about taking credit for Bolt's deductions? And while I find Bolt's self-effacing admiration for Walt sweet and endearing, I think readers would get fed up with his blindness before reaching the end of Chapter Two.

I think these two are amusing short-story characters precisely because they're locked into patterns of foolish behavior. As Henri Bergson says in Laughter, repetition is often a fundamental element in comedy. But this sort of comedy would, I think, get frustrating in a novel. Readers expect the protagonists in novels to learn, to change, to grow. Walt and Bolt can't learn, change, or grow without betraying the premise for the series. So I confined them to twelve short stories, spread out between 1988 and 2014. In the story that completed the dozen, I brought the series to an end, doing my best to orchestrate a finale that would leave both characters and readers happy--a promotion to an administrative job for Walt, so he can stop pretending he's capable of detecting anything, and a long-awaited wedding and an adventure-filled retirement for Bolt. I truly love these characters. But I'd never trust them with a novel.

Other short-story protagonists, though, do have what it takes to be protagonists in novels, too. Lord Peter Wimsey is one example--in fact, most readers would probably agree that, delightful as most of the stories about him are, the novels are even better. Sherlock Holmes is another example--four novels, fifty-six short stories, and I think it's fair to say he shines in both genres. I considered one of my own short-story protagonists so promising that I decided to build a novel around her. Before I could do that, though, I had to make some major changes in her character.

American Sign Language interpreter Jane Ciardi first appeared in a December, 2010 Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine story, now republished as a Kindle story called "Silent Witness." Positive responses to the story--including a Derringer from the Short Mystery Fiction Society--encouraged me to think I might be able to do more with the character. It also helped that one of my daughters is an ASL interpreter who can scrutinize drafts and provide insights into deaf culture and the ethical dilemmas interpreters face. And I like Jane. She's smart, she's observant, she has acute insights into human nature, and she has a strong sense of right and wrong. In "Silent Witness," when she interprets at the trial of a deaf man accused of murdering his employer, she wants the truth to come out. She definitely doesn't want to see an innocent man go to prison.

Image result for b k stevens silent witnessBut the Jane Ciardi of "Silent Witness" is mostly passive. She's sharp enough to figure out the truth and to realize what she should do, but she lacks the courage to follow through. Her final action in the story is to fail to act, to sit when she should stand, to convince herself justice will probably be done even if she remains silent. I think all that makes Jane an interesting, believable protagonist in a short story that raises questions it doesn't quite answer.

I don't think it's enough to make her a fully satisfying protagonist in a novel--at least, not in a traditional mystery novel. In what's often called a literary novel, the Jane of "Silent Witness" might do fine--another protagonist paralyzed by doubt, agonizing endlessly about right and wrong but never taking decisive action. The protagonists of traditional mysteries should be made of sterner stuff. So in Interpretation of Murder, I made Jane regret and learn from the mistakes she'd made in "Silent Witness." We find out she did her best to correct them, even though it hurt her professionally. And when she's drawn into another murder case, she works actively to uncover the truth, she comes up with inventive ways of gathering evidence, and she speaks out about what she's discovered even when situations get dangerous. I can't be objective about Jane--others will have to decide if these changes were enough to make her an effective protagonist for Interpretation of Murder. But I'm pretty sure mystery readers would find the Jane of "Silent Witness" a disappointing companion if they had to read an entire novel about her.

Have you encountered mystery characters who are effective protagonists in short stories but not in novels--or, perhaps, in novels but not in short stories? If you're a writer, have you decided some of your protagonists work well in one genre but not in the other? If you've used the same protagonist in both stories and novels, have you had to make adjustments? I'd love to hear your comments.