Showing posts with label Woman's World. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Woman's World. Show all posts

30 June 2018

100 and Counting



by John M. Floyd




A few weeks ago I reached a milestone, of sorts: I sold my 100th story to Woman's World magazine. Allow me to mention, here, how grateful I am to both their editors and their readers, for allowing me to keep spinning these tales. I hope they'll want to buy a hundred more.

I'd also like to thank Dan Persinger, Jacqueline Seewald, Teresa Garver, Kevin Tipple, and others whose recent mentions of my WW stories on Facebook and elsewhere prompted me to write this piece. Woman's World is a market that is often overlooked by mystery writers, but if you enjoy--and have a knack for--creating very short stories, it's probably a market you should try.

Background info

As some of you know, Woman's World publishes one mystery story and one romance story in every issue. The magazine has a circulation of around two million readers/subscribers, they operate under the Bauer Media Group, they're based in New Jersey, and they've been around since 1981. I'm told they receive about 4,000 short-story submissions a month.

When I started submitting stories to WW almost twenty years ago, their mysteries were 1000 words in length and paid $500 each and their romance stories were 1500 words and paid $1000 each. Now, mysteries are 700 words max and pay $500 and romances are 800 words max and pay $800.

In January 2016 Patricia Riddle Gaddis replaced Johnene Granger as Fiction Editor of the magazine. I can't say enough about these two ladies: both of them are smart, professional, and talented, and both have been very good to me.

Although WW's mystery stories are often referred to as mini-mysteries, the correct term is now "solve-it-yourself" mysteries. More about that later.

Observations

Almost all the stories I've sold to WW have been mysteries--but two were romances, published years ago. I think those 1500-worders were much easier to write than the current 800-worders, and I have a lot of respect for those who can consistently write those short romance stories. It didn't take me long to figure out which genre was easier for me.

My first WW stories appeared in 1999, in their April 20, July 20, and July 27 issues. Afterward, I sold them one story in 2000, one in 2001, three in 2002, one in 2003, three in 2004, six in 2005, four in 2006, three in 2007, four in 2008, two in 2009, four in 2010, six in 2011, seven in 2012, ten in 2013, six in 2014, eight in 2015, ten in 2016, thirteen in 2017, and (so far) five in 2018. More than you wanted or needed to know, right?

In 2001 I began featuring two recurring characters in my WW stories, which has worked out well. For one thing, since readers are now relatively familiar with the two protagonists and their quirks (my characters have a lot of quirks), I don't have to waste much time "introducing" them in each story. That allows me more words to devote to the plot.

Not that it matters, but 62 of my 100 stories sold to WW involved either a robbery or a burglary. Only 21 involved murders. The rest were a mix of kidnappings, arson, fraud, jailbreaks, assault, blackmail, embezzlement, forgery, etc. I think there's a reason for that, although I doubt I was aware of it at the time: WW has always liked lighthearted tales, and non-lethal crimes like theft and trickery and property damage are a bit less traumatic than homicides.

Still on the subject of statistics, 92 of my 100 sales have been series stories, the rest of them standalones. And only 19 were whodunits. Most were howdunits. I've often heard that to write mysteries for WW you should have three suspects, and the guilty person must be one of those three. That's bad advice. You can do that if you want, but you don't have to. The main goal should merely be to put together a crime puzzle of some kind, not necessarily a whodunit, and make it entertaining.

In 2004 the top brass at WW decided to move to "interactive" mysteries rather than mysteries with traditional storylines. Hence the new name "solve-it-yourself" mysteries, where a question is introduced in the story and the answer is provided in a solution box at the end of the piece. I confess that I lobbied against this idea--I liked the freedom and variety of the traditional storytelling format--but they'd already made up their minds. And, as I think I've said in the past, when the train you want to ride comes blasting through the station, you can either (1) climb onto it, (2) get squashed, or (3) get left behind. I hopped aboard.

As part of WW's transition from regular mysteries to interactive mysteries, I was invited by the fiction editor to write several experimental stories that would help to ease readers into the new format. The first of these ("Customer Service," Dec. 14, 2004, issue) included--get this--six clues that were not only highlighted in the text but were designated as "CLUES." (Did I mention that this was a "trial-and-error" transition?) Anyhow, i happily wrote the story, but I told them I didn't like the "announcement of clues" approach, and WW agreed. Afterward, the solve-it-yourself mystery became just a story and a solution box, and it remains so today.

Here's something crazy: On two different occasions, my stories were published under another writer's byline. (How did this happen? Who knows.) Both times editor Johnene Granger phoned me afterward to apologize, and I think she was relieved to find that the mistake didn't bother me at all. The checks came on time, the bank cashed them with no problem, and my ego survived the ordeal.

At one point, after WW had published eight of my standalone stories and 23 installments of my "series," I decided to try sending them a story with two different main characters. The editor bought and published that story ("The Quilt Caper," May 17, 2010, issue), but then sent me a note saying she preferred I go back to my tried-and-true cast. Since Mama didn't raise no fools, I saluted and obeyed. My other two crimesolving characters, Fran and Lucy Valentine, did survive, though: they've now appeared in 56 stories, most of them in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Flash Bang Mysteries, Mysterical-E, Kings River Life, and several anthologies--but they've never appeared again in WW.

One of the best things about Woman's World is its professionalism. They've always gotten the contracts to me on time and paid me on time. Always. And they've been easy to work with, on proposed changes. They've also twice paid me "kill fees" (twenty percent of the full rate) when they found they were unable to publish stories that they'd previously accepted. (This happened in 2004, during the trial-and-error transition from one mystery format to the other.)

Another good thing is that the editor sometimes asks me to write a story--especially if there's a holiday coming up and they don't have a story in hand that they want to run. Several years ago, for example, the editor contacted me and said she needed a Fourth of July mystery. "And I need it by tomorrow," she added. I came up with an idea that night, wrote the story, sent it to her the following morning, they published it, and everyone was happy. That doesn't happen often, but when the editor asks me for something, I try really hard to deliver it. (I feel the same way about invitations to anthologies: if someone thinks highly enough of me to invite me to contribute a story, I'm not going to say no.)

A final observation, more about me than about WW: I don't write only short-short stories. Most of my stories these days seem to run between 3000 and 8000 words--several of those are upcoming in AHMM, EQMM, Strand Magazine, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, etc.--but there's something about the little mini-mysteries that's always been fun for me. Part of it's probably because I actually enjoy the re-writing and self-editing phase, the whittling away of all the extra and unneeded stuff that most of us plug into our stories. As you flash-fiction writers know, stories of less than 1000 words require a lot of this.

A word about editing

I must tell you, WW does like to edit my manuscripts. Usually just a word or two, but sometimes more. Example: In my story "Fun and Games," which was published a few weeks ago in the June 11 issue, my Sheriff Jones character and his amateur-sleuth partner Angela Potts have arrived at the local college library, where Professor Harriet Pinskey informs them that a golden statuette of a regal woman in Roman attire--presented to Pinskey's organization by a European billionaire--has been stolen from a display case. The following is some dialogue between the sheriff, Angela, and the professor:

    "What organization?" the sheriff asked.

    "An all-female academic society," Pinskey said. "MOLTH. It means: Move Over--Ladies Thinking Here."

    The sheriff grinned. "Why not 'Women'? That'd be appropriate: MOWTH."

    "You better shut yours," Angela said. "You're outnumbered."

Yes, I know it's silly, and certainly not necessary to the plot, but I love this kind of idiotic humor. Alas, the editors did not: that exchange didn't appear in the final, printed version.

On one occasion (in my story "The Train to Graceland," June 30, 2014, issue) my robbery victim was a young Chinese lady. For some reason, the Powers That Be at WW didn't like that, and I was asked to change the woman's nationality. I made her British instead, and all was well. I'm still trying to figure that one out.


Sometimes titles get changed, as well. Out of the 100 stories I've done for WW, 49 of my title choices were overruled. A few of their new titles, I must admit, wound up sounding better than my originals--but some didn't. I truly loved one of my titles, to a story involving the robbery and kidnapping of a guy named Ron. My suggested title was "Take the Money and Ron," which in all modesty I thought was pretty clever; their title, the one that made it in to the magazine, was "Candid Camera." Big sigh.

Tips

Here are a few things I would suggest a writer do, if he/she wants to write mystery stories for Woman's World:

- Include a lot of dialogue.

- Don't use strong language or excessive violence.

- Avoid politics, religion, social issues, or anything else that might be controversial.

- Don't put pets in jeopardy. Go ahead and whack Professor Plum on the head with the candlestick in the parlor if you like, but do NOT dognap his poodle. Around that corner lies immediate rejection.

- Inject some humor. Sometimes it gets edited out, sometimes it doesn't--and it usually helps.

- Be fair with the clues.

- Keep the solutions short.

- Lean toward cozy. About six months ago WW decided to focus more on lighter subject matter and less on murder mysteries. As a result, all the stories I've sold them so far this year involved domestic, non-violent crimes. Just saying.

Questions

Have you ever tried sending a story to Woman's World? Have you been published there? (Several of my fellow SleuthSayers have been.) If so, what were some of your experiences? Do you find these very short mysteries easier to write than the typical mystery tales--or harder?

If you've never tried it, give it a go. As I mentioned, most of my stories are longer rather than shorter--I honestly enjoy writing those, and we all know a longer story offers the writer a lot of working-room for the plot. But there's something I also like about trying to tell an entire story in a matter of only two or three pages.

You might find you like it too.








29 July 2017

Four Stories



by John M. Floyd



July has been a busy month for me, in terms of the SleuthSayers blog--it has five weekends, so it was my duty to post three columns, on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th Saturdays. For this last assignment, I thought it might be fitting (and, yes, easy) to talk about four of my short mystery stories that appeared in publications with a July 2017 issue date. Three of them were in magazines, one in an anthology.

Hitched with the team

First, I was fortunate enough to be featured alongside three of my fellow SleuthSayers--R.T. Lawton, O'Neil De Noux, and Steve Liskow--and two of my old friends--Joe D'Agnese and Robert Mangeot--in the July/August 2017 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (which actually went on sale last month). My story there, called "Trail's End," is the first of a new series featuring rural sheriff Ray Douglas and his lawyer/mystery-writer friend Jennifer Parker. The two of them are in sort of an on-again-off-again relationship and, not surprisingly, wind up in the middle of a murder investigation on their way back from a trip to New Orleans.

NOTE 1: After finishing several drafts of this story, I was having a hard time coming up with a suitable title, so I changed the plot around a little, placed the murder scene at a motel, put it at the end of a road at the edge of a swamp in the middle of nowhere, and named the motel the Trail's End.

NOTE 2: Someone recently asked me why the women in my stories are usually smarter than the men. I replied that I try to write fiction that comes close to the way things are in real life.

One more thing about this story. An old friend from my hometown named Cheryl Grubbs told me a couple of years ago that she hoped I would one day use her as a character in one of my creations. As fate would have it, Sheriff Douglas's deputy in this story is named Cheryl Grubbs. And by the way, the second installment in the series has been purchased by AHMM and will appear sometime in the coming months, so Deputy Grubbs will be back again then. Cheryl, if you're reading this, I hope you'll like her.

The book thief

My second July story, "The Rare Book Case," also came out in late June, but appeared in Woman's World's July 3 issue--WW copies go on sale almost two weeks before the issue date--and is an installment in my series about retired schoolteacher Angela Potts and her former student Sheriff Charles "Chunky" Jones. Most of the stories in that series were written for Woman's World, but other Angela/Chunky adventures have appeared in Amazon Shorts, Flash Bang MysteriesRocking Chairs and Afternoon Tales, and my short-story collection Fifty Mysteries: The Angela Files.

This one is set on the Fourth of July, and involves the theft of a rare first-edition novel from a locked case at Abner Smith's bookstore. The thief, long gone now, was seen by one of the store's customers but not by the owner, and when the sheriff is summoned certain things in the customer's description of the suspect don't seem to add up. Fortunately the bossy Ms. Potts--who as usual is on the scene even though she probably shouldn't be--is especially good at that kind of math, and saves the (Independence) day.

Maintaining law and daughter

My third story of the month, in the Summer 2017 issue of B.J. Bourg's Flash Bang Mysteries, is a new episode in a series I've been writing for a long time, featuring Sheriff Lucy Valentine and her mother Frances. Fran usually helps her daughter solve mysteries (whether Lucy wants her to or not), but her main goal is to get Sheriff Valentine married so Fran can become a grandmother, a mission that has so far been unsuccessful. Other stories about these two, which I've named the "Law & Daughter" series, have appeared in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Mysterical-E, Woman's World, Futures, Mouth Full of Bullets, Seeds, Kings River Life, my short-story collection Dreamland, and several anthologies.

This story in Flash Bang is called "Ace in the Hole," and involves the gangland kidnapping of a guy named Ace McGee, who seems to be destined for a late-night burial in a pit at a construction site. Working with Fran and Lucy to try to keep Ace alive and above ground is teenaged genius Donna Fairley, which is also the maiden name of one of my old IBM co-workers. (Warning to my family, friends, and acquaintances: you guys have a way of showing up as characters in my stories, so you better be nice to me . . .)

A neo kind of noir

The last of my July-dated publications, "The Sandman," is a standalone story included in the anthology Noir at the Salad Bar, from Level Best Books. (Actually this isn't the last one, but until just before time for this column to post, I thought it was. My fifth publication with a current date, a story called "Crow Mountain" in Strand Magazine, is described below. Hang on . . .)

"The Sandman" is possibly the most intense of the stories I'm discussing here, but I still tried to plug a bit of humor in. The title refers to a character named Sanderford, and the plot involves a couple of underworld loan-sharks who target the owner of a local bar. This mystery is more of a howdunit than a whodunit, with a few twists thrown in (I can't seem to resist that), and was great fun to write.

I'm especially honored to have been featured in this book alongside friends Michael Bracken and Alan Orloff. Noir at the Salad Bar was released on July 18.

Getting lucky at WW

I also have another Woman's World story, called "Mr. Unlucky" out right now, but its issue date is August 7 so I'm not counting it as one of my July stories. (That issue appeared at our Kroger store on July 27, so I picked it up yesterday along with a jug of milk and a loaf of bread. Seriously.) This was my 89th story to be published in Woman's World, and in recent weeks I've sold them #90 and #91. So far, 82 of those have been installments in my Angela-and-the-Sheriff series.

"Mr. Unlucky" is a whodunit about a robbery at a local furniture store, and involves a mysterious note on which is written the name of an old TV show and movie called Mr. Lucky. I'm a certified, card-carrying movie addict, so anytime I can work something cinematic into one of my stories, it makes it even more fun to write. Upcoming is a Labor Day story scheduled for the September 4 WW issue (on sale August 24) and a murder mystery in the September 18 issue.

Breaking news . . .

I only just found out that I also have a story in the current (June-Sep 2017) issue of Strand Magazine, just released. Yes, as I said, I know that makes five stories rather than four, but instead of changing the title of this post at the last minute, I figured I'd tack this onto the end. The story is "Crow Mountain," about a fisherman who encounters an escaped convict deep in the woods, and what happens as a result. If you pick up this issue, I hope you'll like the tale--it's a little different. And I'm proud to have been featured alongside one of my longtime heroes, Max Allan Collins.


Anyhow, that's my midsummer report. (You might notice I didn't mention my rejections, which are many.) If any of you have recent--or not-so-recent--successes to announce (publications, acceptances, completions, etc., of either shorts or novels), please let me know via the comments section below. Everybody likes hearing that kind of news.



Speaking of fortunate events, today is our wedding anniversary. Carolyn and I were married 45 years ago in a galaxy far, far away (Oklahoma), and tonight most of our kids and grandchildren will be here at our house for dinner. I can't think of a better way to celebrate.

Familywise AND writingwise, I wish all of you the best.








13 May 2017

When Murder Is a Family Business


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

by B.K. Stevens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

where it all began

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



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

12 November 2016

Camouflaging Clues


by B.K. Stevens

"The grandest game in the world"--that's how Edward D. Hoch describes the duel between mystery writer and mystery reader. In an essay called "The Pleasure of the Short Story," Hoch explains why he prefers mysteries "in which the reader is given a clue or hint well in advance of the ending. As a reader myself I find the greatest satisfaction in spotting the clue and anticipating the author. If I overlook it, I don't feel cheated--I admire the author's skill!"*

And it takes a lot of skill. In any mystery where this "grandest game" is played, the delightful challenge offered to readers poses daunting challenges for writers. We have to provide readers with clues "well in advance of the ending," as Hoch says. In my opinion (and I bet Hoch would agree), we should provide plenty of clues, and they should start as soon as possible. As a reader, I feel a tad frustrated by mysteries that hinge on a single clue--if we don't pick up on a quick reference indicating the killer was wearing gloves on a warm day, we have no chance of figuring things out. I also don't much enjoy mysteries that look like whodunits but are really just histories of investigations.
The detective questions A, who provides a scrap of information pointing to B, who suggests talking to C. Finally, somewhere around F, the detective happens upon the only truly relevant clue, which leads straight to a solution that's obvious now but would have been impossible to guess even three minutes sooner. That's not much fun.

But working in lots of clues throughout the mystery isn't easy. Hoch identifies "the great clue bugaboo" that plagues many detective stories: "Clues are inserted with such a heavy hand that they almost scream their presence at the reader." Especially in short stories, Hoch says, avoiding that bugaboo requires "a great deal of finesse." I think that's true not only in whodunits but also in mysteries that build suspense by hinting at endings alert readers have a fair chance of predicting before they reach the last page. Luckily, there are ways of camouflaging clues, of hiding them in plain sight so most readers will overlook them.

Here are five camouflage techniques--you've probably used some or all of them yourself. Since it wouldn't be polite to reveal other writers' clues, I'll illustrate the descriptions with examples from my own stories.That way, if I give away too much and spoil the stories, the only person who can get mad at me is me. (By some strange coincidence, all the stories I'll mention happen to be in my recent collection from Wildside Press, Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime.)

Sneak clues in before readers expect them: Readers expect the beginning of a mystery to intrigue them and provide crucial back story--or, perhaps, to plunge them into the middle of action. They don't necessarily expect to be slapped in the face with clues right away. So if we slide a clue into our opening sentences, it might go unnoticed. That's what I tried to do in "Aunt Jessica's Party," which first appeared in Woman's World in 1993. It's not a whodunit, but the protagonist's carrying out a scheme, and readers can spot it if they pay attention. Here's how the story begins:
     Carefully, Jessica polished her favorite sherry glass and placed it on the silver tray. Soon, her nephew would arrive. He was to be the only guest at her little party, and everything had to be perfect.
     Five minutes until six--time to call Grace. She went to the phone near the kitchen window, kept her eyes on the driveway, and dialed.
     "Hello, Grace?" she said. "Jessica. How are you? Oh, I'm fine--never better. Did I tell you William's coming today? Yes, it is an accomplishment to get him here. But it's his birthday, and I promised him a special present. He even agreed to pick up some sherry for me. Oh, there he is, pulling into the driveway." She paused. "Goodbye, Grace. You're a dear."
I count at least six facts relevant to the story's solution in these paragraphs; even Jessica's pause is significant. And there's one solid clue, an oddity that should make readers wonder. Jessica's planned the timing of this call ("time to call Grace"), but why call only five minutes before her nephew's scheduled to arrive? She can't be calling to chat--what other purpose might the call serve? I'm hoping that readers won't notice the strange timing, that they'll focus instead on hints about Jessica's relationship with her nephew and the "special present" she's giving him. I've played fair by providing a major clue. If readers aren't ready for it, it's not my fault.

Hide a clue in a series of insignificant details: If a detective searches a crime scene and finds an important clue--an oil-stained rag, say--we're obliged to tell readers. But if we don't want to call too much attention to the clue, we can hide it in a list of other things the detective finds, making sure some sound as intriguing as an oil-stained rag. I used this technique in "Death in Rehab," a whodunit published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine in 2011. When temporary secretary Leah Abrams accepts a job at a rehab center, her husband, Sam, doesn't like the idea that she'll be "surrounded by addicts." Leah counters that being around recovering addicts will be inspirational, not dangerous, but Sam's not convinced:
"They're still addicts, and addicts do dangerous things. Did you read the local news this morning?" He found the right page and pointed to a headline. "'Gambling Addict Embezzles Millions, Disappears'--probably in Vegas by now, the paper says. Or this story--`Small-time Drug Dealer Killed Execution Style'--probably because he stole from his bosses, the paper says. Or this one--`Shooter Flies into Drunken Rage, Wounds Two'--the police haven't caught that one, either."
Savvy mystery readers may suspect one of these news stories will be relevant to the mystery, but they can't yet know which one (this is another early-in-the-story clue). In fact, I've tried to make the two irrelevant headlines sound more promising than the one that actually matters--and if you decide to read the story, that's a big extra hint for you. About halfway through the story, Sam mentions the three news stories again. By now, readers who have paid attention to all the clues provided during Leah's first day at work should have a good sense of which story is relevant. But I don't think most readers will figure out murderer and motive yet--and if they do, I don't much care. I've packed this story so full of clues that I doubt many readers will spot all of them. Even readers who realize whodunit should find some surprises at the end.

Separate clues from context: We're obliged to provide the reader with clues and also, I think, to provide the context needed to interpret them. But I don't think we're obliged to provide both at the same time. By putting a careful distance between clue and context, we can play fair and still keep the reader guessing. In "The Shopper," a whodunit first published in a 2014 convention anthology, a young librarian's house is burglarized while she's at home, asleep. That's unsettling enough, but her real worries begin when the burglar--a pro the police have nicknamed The Shopper--starts sending her notes and returning some things he stole. He seems obsessed with her. Also, two men she's never seen before--one blond, one dark--start showing up at the library every day. She suspects one of them might be The Shopper, but which one? (And who says you can't have a puzzling whodunit with only two suspects?) Then things get worse:
    
She didn't really feel like going out that night, but she and Lori had a long-standing date for dinner and a movie. It'd be embarrassing to admit she was scared to go out, and the company would do her good. But when she got to the restaurant, she spotted the blond man sitting in a booth, eating a slab of pie. He has a right to eat wherever he wants, she thought; but the minute Lori arrived, Diane grabbed her hand, pulled her to a table at the other end of the restaurant, and sighed with relief when the blond man left after a second cup of coffee.
     The relief didn't last long. As she and Lori walked out, she saw the dark man sitting at the counter, picking at a salad. He must have come in after she had--had he followed her? She couldn't stand it any more.
I'd say there are five major clues in this story. Two are contained--or, in one case, reinforced--in these paragraphs. A reader keeping careful track of all the evidence could identify The Shopper right now, without reading the remaining seven pages. But since these clues are revealing only in the context of information provided five pages earlier, I'm betting most readers won't make the connection. The Shopper's secrets are still safe with me.

Use the protagonist's point of view to mislead readers: This technique isn't reserved for mystery writers. In "Emma Considered as Detective Fiction," P.D. James comments on Jane Austen's skillful manipulation of point of view to conceal the mysteries at the heart of her novel. Emma constantly misinterprets what people do and say, and because we readers see things from Emma's perspective, we're equally oblivious to what's really going on. In our own mysteries, unless our protagonist is a genius who instantly understands everything, we can use the same technique: If our protagonist overlooks clues, chances are readers will overlook them, too. In "A Joy Forever" (AHMM, 2015), photographer Chris is visiting Uncle Mike and his second wife, Gwen. Uncle Mike is a tyrant who's reduced Gwen to the status of domestic slave--he orders her around, never helps her, casually insults her. Gwen takes it all without a murmur. After a dinner during which Uncle Mike behaves even more boorishly than usual, Chris follows Gwen to the kitchen to help with the dishes:
     As I watched her standing at the sink, sympathy overpowered me again. She was barely fifty but looked like an old woman--bent, scrawny, exhausted, her graying hair pulled back in a tight bun. And her drab, shapeless dress had to be at least a decade old.
     "You spend so much on Uncle Mike," I chided. "The golf cart, all that food and liquor. Spend something on yourself. Go to a beauty parlor and have your hair cut and styled. Buy yourself some new clothes."
     She laughed softly. "Oh, Mike really needs what I buy for him--he really, really does. And I don't care how my hair looks, and I don't need new clothes." Her smile hardened. "Not yet."
     I felt so moved, and so sorry, that I leaned over and kissed the top of her head. "You're too good to him."
Chris sees Gwen as a victim, as a woman whose spirit has been utterly crushed by an oppressor. Readers who don't see beyond Chris's perspective have some surprises coming. But in this story, by this point, I think most readers will see more than Chris does. They'll pick up on clues such as Gwen's hard smile, her quiet "not yet." I had fun playing with point of view in this story, with giving alert readers plenty of opportunities to stay one step ahead of the narrator. It's another variation on Hoch's "grandest game."


Distract readers with action or humor: If readers get caught up in an action scene, they may forget they're supposed to be watching for clues; if they're chuckling at a character's dilemma, they may not notice puzzle pieces slipping by. In "Table for None" (AHMM, 2008), apprentice private detective Harriet Russo is having a rough night. She's on a dark, isolated street, staking out a suspect. But he spots her, threatens her, and stalks off. Moments later, her client, Little Dave, pops up unexpectedly and proposes searching the suspect's car. Harriet says it's too dangerous, but Little Dave won't listen:
 
He raced off. For a moment, I stood frozen. Call Miss Woodhouse and tell her how I'd botched things--let Little Dave get himself killed and feel guilty for the rest of my life--follow him into the parking lot and risk getting killed myself. On the whole, the last option seemed most attractive. I raced after Little Dave.
     He stood next to the dirty white car, hissing into his cell phone. "Damn it, Terry," he whispered harshly, "I told you not to call me. No, I won't tell you where I am. Just go home. I'll see ya when I see ya." He snapped his phone shut and yanked on a back door of the car. It didn't budge. He looked straight at me, grinning sheepishly.
     That's pretty much the last thing I remember. I have some vague impression of something crashing down against me, of sharp pain and sudden darkness. But my next definite memory is of fading slowly back into consciousness--of hearing sirens blare, of feeling the cement against my back, of seeing Little Dave sprawled a few feet away from me, of spotting a small iron figurine next to him, of falling into darkness again.
I hope readers will focus on the conflict and confusion in this scene, and on the unseen attack that leaves Harriet in bad shape and Little Dave in worse shape. I hope they won't pause to take careful note of exactly what Little Dave says in his phone conversation, to test it against the way he's behaved earlier and the things people say later. If readers are too focused on the action to pick up on inconsistencies, they'll miss evidence that could help them identify the murderer.

We can also distract readers with clever dialogue, with fascinating characters, with penetrating social satire, with absorbing themes, with keen insights into human nature. In the end, excellent writing is the best way to keep readers from focusing only on the clues we parade past them. Of course, that's not our main reason for trying to make our writing excellent. To use Hoch's phrase again, mysteries invite writers and readers to participate in "the grandest game," but that doesn't mean mysteries are no more than a game. I think mysteries can be as compelling and significant as other kinds of fiction. The grandest game doesn't impose limits on what our stories and novels can achieve. It simply adds another element that I and millions of other readers happen to enjoy.

Do you have favorite ways of camouflaging clues? I'd love to see some examples from your own mysteries. (*Hoch's essay, by the way, is in the Mystery Writers of America Mystery Writer's Handbook, edited by Lawrence Treat, published in 1976, revised and reprinted several times since then. Used copies are available through Amazon.)

16 July 2016

I Like Short Shorts



by John M. Floyd



Two weeks ago, I was sitting in a rocker on the back porch of a beach house on Perdido Key, with sand in my shoes and "Margaritaville" on my mind. In fact I was half-dozing to the soothing sound of the incoming waves when I also heard the DING of an incoming text message. This was the sixth day of our annual family getaway, but since we never completely get away from technology I dutifully dug my cell phone out of my pocket, checked the message (from one of our kids, a hundred yards up the beach), and replied to it. I also decided to check my emails, which I hadn't done in a while. I was glad I did. At the top of the list was a note that had only just arrived, informing me of the acceptance of my 80th story in Woman's World magazine. Not a particularly round number or notable milestone, I guess, but I'll tell you, it made my day. It also reminded me how fortunate I am--a southern guy raised on cop shows and Westerns, who in school liked math and science far better than English--to have sold that many stories to, of all places, a weekly women's magazine based in New Jersey.


WW, as some of you know, has been around a long time. What makes it appealing to writers of short stories is that it features a mystery and a romance in every issue, it pays well, and it has a circulation of 8.5 million. Since I'm obviously more at ease with mysteries than romances, most of my stories for that publication have been in the mystery genre. I've managed to sell them a couple of romances too, but the truth is, I'm the great pretender: my romance stories were actually little twisty adventures that involved more deception than anything else.

Figures and statistics

Although I've been writing stories for Woman's World for seventeen years now, 50 of those 80 sales have happened since 2010, and I think that's because I have gradually become more comfortable with the task of telling a complete story in less than a thousand words--what some refer to as a short short. (At WW, the max wordcount for mysteries is 700, and mine usually come in at around 685.)

Many writers have told me they find it difficult to write stories that short. My response is that it's just a different process. I think some of the things you can do to make those little mini-mysteries easier to write are: (1) use a lot of dialogue, (2) cut way back on description and exposition, and (3) consider creating series characters that allow you to get right into the plot without a need for backstory. My latest and 79th story to appear in WW (it's in the current, July 25 issue) is one of a series I've been writing for them since 2001.

Remember too that stories that short are rarely profound, meaning-of-life tales. There's simply not enough space for deep characterization or complex plotting or life-changing messages. They seem to work best when the goal is a quick dose of entertainment and humor.

I should mention that writing very short fiction doesn't mean you can't keep writing longer stories also. To be honest, most of my stories lately fall into the 4K-to-10K range. My story in this year's Bouchercon anthology is 5000 words, the one in an upcoming Coast to Coast P.I. anthology is about 6500, and my story in Mississippi Noir (from Akashic Books, to be released in August 2016) clocks in at 10,000. Magazinewise, I've had recent stories in EQMM and Strand Magazine of 7500 and 8000 words, respectively, and my story in the current issue of the Strand (June-September 2016, shown here) is around 4500. (NOTE: As we are all aware, publication is an iffy thing at best, and I'm not implying that everything I write, short or long, makes it into print. It doesn't. But I'm a firm believer that the practice you get writing short shorts can help improve your longer tales as well. It certainly teaches you not to waste words. Besides, it's all fiction; some stories just take longer to tell.)

Current Events

As for Woman's World, there have been a couple of significant changes at the magazine that, if you decide to send them a story, you should know about.

First, longtime fiction editor Johnene Granger retired this past January. That's the bad news, because Johnene was wonderful, in every way. The good news is, I also like the new editor, Patricia Gaddis. She's smart, professional, and a pleasure to work with.

Second, WW recently changed over to an electronic submission system. As we've already seen at AHMM and EQMM, this makes it far easier for writers to send in their work. I'm not at all sure it makes it easier for editors--emailed submissions always means more submissions, which means more manuscripts to read--but that's another matter, for another coiumn.

Questions

To those of you who write short fiction: Do you find that you gravitate toward a certain length or a certain range? Are you more comfortable with a long wordcount that leaves you room to move around in, or do you like writing shorter, punchier stories? Does the genre matter, in terms of length? Do you already have certain markets in mind when you write a story, or do you prefer to write the piece regardless of length and genre and only then focus on finding a place to which you might submit it? Do those of you who are novelists find a certain pleasure in occasionally creating short stories? When you do, how short are they? Have any of you tried writing "short shorts"? Has anyone sent a story (mystery or romance) to Woman's World?

Final question: In the Not-So-Current Events department, are any of you old enough to remember that "I like short shorts" was a line from Sheb Wooley's "Flying Purple People Eater"?

Unfortunately, I am . . .




05 December 2015

Posted and Stranded



by John M. Floyd


Sounds like a soldier abandoned at his duty station, right? Actually, what it means is that this month I'm lucky enough to have short stories in The Saturday Evening Post and The Strand Magazine. And there are three reasons I'm writing on that subject today: the first is a "Look, Ma--see what I did!" thing (otherwise known as BSP, with emphasis on the BS); the second is laziness (nothing is easier than talking about your own creations, since you're the only one who knows how and why they were written); and the third is that I couldn't think of anything else to write about, this week.

Anyhow, those two stories, both of which are fiction, are different in several ways. For one thing, the first is short, around 2000 words (most of it takes place inside a plane parked on the tarmac of an airport), and the second is long, around 8000 words. Also, one is fairly easygoing and the other is violent. Besides all that, the first tries to make an observation about right vs. wrong, while the second is a twisty suspense story about murder, robbery, kidnapping, and a few other heinous deeds. In their own ways, I suppose both are mysteries in that they involve puzzles that the protagonist has to figure out--but only one of the two stories fits the generally accepted definition of mystery fiction, because only one involves crimes that are central to the plot.

The only thing truly common to both stories is a rather unintentional "secondary" theme: One of the best ways to deal with the stressful seas of Corporate America is to hold your nose, jump over the side, and swim for shore. Being somewhat familiar with that theme in real life, I felt qualified to use it as a plot element in these stories.

A tale of two ditties

"Business Class," which appears in the current (Nov./Dec.) print issue of The Saturday Evening Post, is both a Christmas story and a fictional account of ethics and (the lack of) common sense in the modern-day business world. The antagonist, like Mrs. Robinson or Apollo Creed or Smokey chasing the Bandit, isn't really an evil villain--he's just an antagonist. He's there to prevent the protagonist from accomplishing what he needs to do. And the only mystery in the story is the "clue" that the hero discovers that allows him to complete his journey.

This story, published on November 1 (at least that's when I received my contributor's copy in the mail) was also made available online at the SEP's website yesterday, December 4. If anyone's interested, here's a link. FYI, The Saturday Evening Post publishes one piece of fiction in each print issue (six stories a year).

My other story, "Arrowhead Lake," is featured in the current (Oct.-Jan.) issue of The Strand Magazine, and with this one I'm on more comfortable ground: it's a crime story with a lot of action, and it's probably more of a thriller than a mystery because it involves ordinary people thrust into a fight-or-flight, life-or-death situation. In this story, which is actually quite a bit longer than a ditty, a successful businesswoman and her underachieving younger brother face off against a couple of ruthless home-invaders with hidden agendas, who do little to hide the fact that the victims probably won't survive to see the end of the tale. What finally happens comes as something of a surprise to both the bad guys and the good guys--and, if I'm lucky, a surprise to the reader as well.

A most pleasant surprise to me was that this issue of The Strand also contains a never-before-published short story by a fellow (and slightly more famous) Mississippian named William Faulkner. In fact, Strand editor Andrew Gulli has managed to unearth and publish quite a few of these long-lost manuscripts lately, by authors like Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, etc. The first I heard about this one was an interview with Andrew on NPR that aired the other day, in which he talked about the new issue. I picked the magazine up at our local Books-A-Million this past week and just finished reading the Faulkner story--I think you'll like it. And I hope you'll like mine also.

The Strand usually publishes four or five pieces of fiction in each issue, and this one includes interviews with Dean Koontz and A. E. Hotchner.

Bonus material

I was also pleased, during a trip to Kroger the other day, to discover one of my stories in Woman's World. (The contract always names the issue in which they expect the story to appear, but that sometimes doesn't hold true, so I usually find out for sure by hearing about it from one of my e-friends who has a subscription or from spotting it myself on the newsstand when I go to the store for necessities like Oreos or potato chips.) This story, my eighth in WW this year, is called "Strangers on the Block," in the December 7 issue, which went on sale on November 26. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this market, WW publishes one mystery and one romance in each issue. You can probably guess which genre I prefer.

A quick note about Woman's World mini-mysteries. They really are minuscule (700 words max), and since the "solve-it-yourself" format was introduced in 2004 they are always interactive, featuring a puzzle and an upside-down "solution box" that allows the reader to try to supply the answer. In my story this time, the amateur sleuth figures out which of the three suspects is the guilty party, and the reader's challenge is not whodunit but howdidsheknowwhodunit?

Several of my present and former co-conspirators at SleuthSayers--B. K. Stevens, R. T. Lawton, and Deborah Elliott-Upton, among others--have sold to WW, and they'll vouch for the fact that writing those little mysteries is a lot of fun.

Counting my blessings

As I have mentioned before at this blog, 2015 has been kind to me, writingwise. I'm sure the Law of Averages will soon catch up to me, but meanwhile I'm having a great time. One of the best things to happen to me this year, on the literary front, was having three of my writing buddies--B. K. (Bonnie) Stevens, Barb Goffman, and Art Taylor--join our infamous group here at SleuthSayers, and the other was getting the chance to finally meet Bonnie and Art face-to-face, along with fellow SSers R. T. Lawton, David Dean, and Rob Lopresti. And to see and visit once again with longtime friends Barb, Dale Andrews, and Liz Zelvin.

Here's to a good year for all of us, in 2016.






01 August 2015

Now, That's a Different Story



by John M. Floyd



As some of you know, I write mostly short fiction. I've done SF, fantasy, romance, Westerns, horror, and all kinds of combinations, but most of my stories are mysteries, and for good reason: that's what I prefer to read. My favorite books, stories, and authors have always been in the mystery/crime/suspense genre.

I have also come to realize that a mystery story can sometimes fit into a non-mystery market. It probably won't surprise you that most of my mystery/crime stories are submitted first to either (1) themed anthologies or (2) magazines like AHMMEQMM, and The Strand. If you're a writer of that kind of fiction, I suspect that you do the same. But occasionally it makes sense to also send mystery stories to other kinds of magazines and anthos.

Post-production notes

A few months ago, I wrote a story called "Saving Grace," that was sort of a sentimental paranormal mystery. In fact I wrote it with the mystery mags firmly in mind, and planned from the start to submit it first to Hitchcock because they sometimes seem a bit more receptive than the others to stories with otherworldly plots. When I finished it, though, it had a "literary" feel to it as well--it dealt heavily with family relationships and the main character changes his outlook on life in the course of the story, etc.--so I decided to send it first to The Saturday Evening Post, which has been kind to me lately anyway. I was pleased to find that they liked it, and it wound up being published in their current print issue (July/August 2015). It will also be released online on August 7 at their web site--I'll try to remember to post a link to it in my next SleuthSayers column.

The idea for that story came to me years ago, from a Sidney Sheldon novel--I can't remember its name--that included what I considered a clever way to emotionally "connect" the reader to a protagonist. In that book, as I recall, an always-reliable female prison inmate had been asked by the warden to watch over his small child each day, out in the off-limits area near the prison gates. As any fan of crime fiction knows, routines can be risky, and sure enough, the inmate winds up planning an escape via the laundry truck that departs through that area every morning. But on that particular day, as she prepares to jump into the truck and hide on its way out of the prison grounds, the child she's babysitting slips and falls into a water tank and is about to drown. The inmate abandons her escape attempt, dives into the tank instead of into the truck, and saves the child. This happens early on and is not really that big a plot point in the novel, but it's one that stuck in my memory. After all, few things are more endearing to readers than the sacrifice of personal gain--the prisoner's freedom, in this case--in order to perform a noble and selfless act.

With that idea in the back of my mind, I built a story that begins with a situation happening in the present, goes back twenty-five years to tell a different story with a different plot, and then flashes forward again to the present for the conclusion. I sort of like that kind of "framed" story-within-a-story construction anyway, where the events of the past connect directly and unexpectedly to the protagonist's current dilemma. That of course doesn't work for every story, but for some it does--and when it does, it creates a "circular" ending that seems to appeal to readers.

The long and short of it

Consider this. My "Saving Grace" story is multi-genre, about 5000 words in length, uses two different storylines, teaches the protagonist a "life lesson," and features sixteen different characters and several different settings. I sold another story last week, called "A Friend in Need," that's a straight mystery, less than 700 words long, teaches no lessons at all (but is, hopefully, entertaining), and uses only one setting and a total of three characters, one of whom is only a voice on the telephone. That second story, not that it matters to this discussion, marked my 70th sale to Woman's World magazine. (If someone had told me, years ago, that I would write 70 stories for a women's magazine, I would probably have asked him to give me some of what he was smoking.) The really strange thing is, both those mysteries--different is so many ways--were equally enjoyable to write. And as it turns out, I was paid almost the same for both of them.

My point is, I think there will always be places to sell mystery/crime stories, short or long, lighthearted or profound, straight or diluted--and not just to the mystery pubs. All good stories need conflict, and I believe one of the two advantages of crime stories is that a degree of conflict is always there, already built in. (The other advantage is that in crime stories justice usually prevails, and readers are attracted to that.) If you don't like that kind of story, if you prefer reading/writing only "literary" fiction, so be it--or, as Arthur Fonzarelli might've said, Go sit on a watchman. Seriously, as for myself, having now read both of Harper Lee's novels, I've decided that one of the many reasons I prefer Mockingbird to its sequel (prequel?) is that TKaM was, at its core, a mystery story. It was of course many other kinds of fiction as well--Southern, coming-of-age, historical, courtroom drama, literary, etc.--but I think the mystery/suspense element involving Boo Radley was what made it special, and enduring.

Let's hear it for crossing genres



All of you are readers, and many of you are writers. To those of you who (exclusively or occasionally) write short mysteries: Do you always have certain markets in mind when you craft your stories? Do you write them and only then think of where they might be sent? Have you tried submitting any of your mystery/crime stories to a non-mystery publication? I'm a firm believer that some mystery stories and novels can be just as "literary" as the Zhivagos and the Cuckoo's Nests and the Grapes of Wraths of this world; in fact I would put crime/adventure novels like Mystic River and Deliverance and The Silence of the Lambs up against any of them, literaturewise. Pet peeve alert: Why should the fact that a crime is central to the plot (the widely accepted definition of mystery fiction) make it any less literary? Over the years, my mystery stories have sneaked in under the wire at Pleiades, Thema, The Atlantean Press Review, and several other so-called litmags.

You might even consider trying your mystery/suspense stories at other genre publications. I've not published any mysteries in places like Asimov's or Analog, but I see no reason you couldn't. Again, the presence of a crime doesn't exclude the elements of another genre as well. Look at the stories that spawned Blade Runner, or Minority Report, or even 3:10 to Yuma. I've sold plenty of crime stories to Western magazines.

The only advice I would presume to give, about all this, is (1) write the story or novel you want to write, without worrying much about the category; (2) submit it to an editor or publisher who'll make you proud if it's accepted; and then (3) forget it and write something else. I've been doing that for twenty-one years now.

God help me, I love it.








16 June 2014

Those Quickie Mysteries


by Fran Rizer
How true.  It's addictive!

Several weeks have passed since I last joined you on this side of SleuthSayers.  My mini-vacation wasn't planned, but it worked out well for me because I haven't had much to say beyond an occasional comment along with moans and cries of pain caused by Shingles. Unlike Leigh, who can write humor inspired by his kidney stones and uninvited guests on his dock, I can't think of anything amusing to say about shingles except they hurt far more than I ever expected. Before anyone tells me I should have taken the immunization shot, let me explain that I'm violently allergic to neomycin which makes me ineligible for the vaccination.

Some of you may recall that I recently made the decision to stop writing, but, as has happened before, that resolution didn't last. What I'm experiencing is a spell when my muse has abandoned me.  I need to write something different, at least for me. I've had six Callie Parrish mysteries published under my name and a few best forgotten thrillers under a pen name. I have no desire to begin another of either.  My horror novel doesn't have a publisher yet, and I'm not interested in writing paranormal romance. So, what should I do? 


I started out in this business writing feature magazine articles.  I've gone back to that and have sent out three. We'll see if those maintain my old track record which was 100% acceptance, certainly far better than I do with fiction.  I've also been writing press releases for the charity concert my friends and I in SC Screams Team are sponsoring in July. 

It would be nice to say that press releases and magazine features are satisfying my addiction to fiction, but I'd be lying. Though being a fiction writer is a license to lie, I don't feel right lying to you, the readers and writers of SleuthSayers. I've begun some co-writing with fellow songwriter, Gene Holdway, but I want to write fiction. Not motivated to begin another novel, I decided to go to the other extreme and tackle John M. Floyd's market--those solve-it-yourself mysteries for Woman's World. For any newcomers among us, Woman's World features one mystery and one romance story every week. The pay is good, but the word limits are restrictive.  Maximum for mysteries is 700; for romances, 800.

This isn't exactly my first rodeo with WW. I've had two romances that they suggested changes and invited me to resubmit, but I hadn't tried mysteries previously.

I pick up WW each week to see if John has a story in it, so I was fairly familiar with what they print.  I feel the need to warn everyone though that if you read those short, short mysteries constantly, you reach the point that you can spot the important clue as you read, so the solution is hardly ever a surprise with some of the authors, but not with John M. Floyd.  

No problem with characters, crimes, and knowing who's guilty, but coming up with those clues required in the solve-it-yourself mysteries was leaving me clueless. I don't want clues to jump off the page at the reader, but I don't want them so elusive that after reading the ending, the reader has to go back searching to see if the author actually included them.

I shared my first solve-it-yourself mystery effort with my friend, Richard D. Laudenslager, who helped me out with some great suggestions.  I returned the favor by inspiring him to try one of his own. His first solve-it-yourself seems absolutely perfect.  I questioned how he'd zeroed in on the style.  His answer:
"I read John Floyd's blog about Woman's World fiction on SleuthSayers."

Now, the truth is that I probably did read that blog back in 2012, but since I was concentrating on book-length manuscripts at that time, I didn't remember it in detail until I went back and read it again a week ago.

I highly recommend reading John's blog before writing one of those quickie mysteries. John M. Floyd's A Woman's World Survival Guide.

John gives personal statistics for his sales to WW as well as a brief history of how their fiction has changed since his first mini-mystery appeared in WW in 1999. He also shares hints and tips for the mysteries which I'll repeat here: 
  1. Make the good guys win.
  2. Include humor if possible.
  3. Use a lot of dialogue.
  4. Include a female protagonist.
  5. Include a real crime, not a situation that appears to be crime, but is revealed not to be.
  6. Keep it fairly clean and fairly simple.  Avoid extreme violence, explicit sex, strong language, technical jargon, characters with physical or mental disabilities, overly complex plots, and exotic locations.  (John, I have to say this sounds a lot like the "cozy formula.")
  7. Don't jeopardize babies or pets. (Another cozy rule.)
  8. Stay below the 700 word count.  (John says his run between 680 and 690.)

After reading John's hints and tips, I knew immediately that my second try would be rejected and had to be revised before submitting it.  

Of course, Richard and I both hope to have stories accepted, but even if we don't, writing for this market is great exercise.  We have become far more conscientious about unnecessary words and tightening up expressions. The restrictions also encourage writers to jump right in with the action instead of spending a lot of words on set-up.  John suggests that his repeated characters of bossy retired teacher Angela Potts and her ex-student lawman alleviate the need for a lot of set up.  To that, I say, "But John, we have to sell the first story before we can repeat the characters."

How did I know WW wouldn't accept my second mystery?

As a retired teacher of disabled and visually handicapped children, I frequently include challenged or visually handicapped adults living fairly normal lives in my writing. (Example: Jane in the Callie Parrish books) The protagonist in the story was blind. See Tip 6 above.

I'd like to hear from the rest of you. Have you submitted fiction to Woman's World? What were your experiences in dealing with the restrictions?  John, how about some current statistics?
    
On the left, my partner in crime, Richard D. Laudenslager.
On the right, my partner in rhyme, Gene Holdway.
I'm 5'3", but I think this photo demonstrates that
I should be able to write short.
Until we meet again, take care of … you.