Showing posts with label anthologies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label anthologies. Show all posts

18 June 2024

Compiling a Multi-Author Collection

I am glad to welcome guest author Judy Penz Sheluk today, who is talking about anthologies. Take it away, Judy!

— Barb Goffman

Compiling a Multi-Author Collection

by Judy Penz Sheluk 

Mega thanks to Barb Goffman, who was kind enough to relinquish her regular spot here so that I could celebrate the Release Day of Larceny & Last Chances: 22 Stories of Mystery & Suspense. As Barb will tell you, putting together an anthology is a lot more complicated than randomly arranging a few stories together, though there is a bit of that. And while I can’t speak for Barb or other anthology editors, I thought you might enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at how this editor compiles a multi-author collection. Ready?  

Step 1: Send out the Call for Submissions. I always allow 90 days. This time around, I also capped entries at 80 in the hope that authors would be less inclined to wait until the eleventh hour of the 90th day to submit.  

Step 2: Using a spreadsheet, I log every submission as it’s received with the author’s name, pen name, email address, story title, word count, and state/province/country. I ask for state/province/country merely out of curiosity. In the case of Larceny & Last Chances, there were submissions representing 29 states and provinces in the U.S. and Canada. At this point, I also notify the author that their submission has been received. 

Step 3: I read the stories in batches of two or three, usually in the same week they are received. On my spreadsheet, I’ll include a brief comment to remind me what the story is about. I also keep a column of No or Long List—these are the “maybes”I can’t really make a final selection until all the stories are received and read. 

Step 4: Authors on the No list are notified by email, with a short note explaining why their story is not a fit, e.g., didn’t adequately fit the theme of larceny AND last chances (that, by the way, is the #1 reason a story is rejected). I do this at the time the decision is made so the author can find another home for their story. Authors on the Long List are also notified by email, just letting them know they’re still in the running. In addition to being an editor, I’m also an author. I know what waiting for word feels like. 

Step 5: After all submissions have been read, it’s time to reread the Maybes and start culling down the list. For Larceny & Last Chances, there were 38 on the long list. At this stage, I sent the stories to Andrea Adair-Tippins, a librarian at the Whitby Public Library, for a much-appreciated second opinion. Compare notes. 

Step 6: Send out final rejections or acceptances. Prepare contracts and get them signed. Spread the word. At the same time, I’m working with Hunter Martin, the graphic artist I commission for all my cover art.  

Step 7: Sort the story order. Back to the spreadsheet, alternating by narrator (male/female/young/old) and story length. 

Step 8: Format the book for digital and print (I use Vellum, which I love). Send out ARCs for blurbs/advance reviews (arranged well in advance). 

Step 9: Get the book up on pre-order and schedule promotional opportunities (like this post). 

Step 10: Celebrate Release Day. Whew! Who knew 230 days could fly by so quickly?   

About Larceny & Last Chances: 22 Stories of Mystery & Suspense 

Sometimes it’s about doing the right thing. Sometimes it’s about getting even. Sometimes it’s about taking what you think you deserve. And sometimes, it’s your last, best, chance. Edited by Judy Penz Sheluk and featuring stories by Christina Boufis, John Bukowski, Brenda Chapman, Susan Daly, Wil A. Emerson, Tracy Falenwolfe, Kate Fellowes, Molly Wills Fraser, Gina X. Grant, Karen Grose, Wendy Harrison, Julie Hastrup, Larry M. Keeton, Charlie Kondek, Edward Lodi, Bethany Maines, Gregory Meece, Cate Moyle, Judy Penz Sheluk, KM Rockwood, Kevin R. Tipple, and Robert Weibezahl. Find it at: 

About the editor: Judy Penz Sheluk is a former journalist and magazine editor and the bestselling author of two mystery series, several short stories, and two books on publishing. She is also the publisher and editor of four Superior Shores Anthologies. Judy is a member of Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and Crime Writers of Canada, where she served as Chair. Find out more at

12 March 2024

Writerhood of the Traveling Pants

Which pants shall I pack?

This is shaping up to be a busy year, with multiple projects due before year-end. It’ll be even busier than usual because I’m attending several conferences and conventions.

A busy travel schedule is unusual for me. Until the past few years, circumstances prevented me from attending most conferences, conventions, and related writing events, only putting Bouchercon and Malice Domestic on my regular schedule after Temple and I married.

Last year, I increased my travel schedule. In addition to Bouchercon and Malice, I attended Between The Pages Writers Conference, Crime Bake, and the Edgar Awards banquet. This year, I’m already scheduled to attend Bouchercon, the Edgar Awards banquet, Left Coast Crime, Malice Domestic, ShortCon, SleuthFest, ThrillerFest, and the Texas Institute of Letters Conference. I will also Zoom in for Mystery in the Midlands, and next week will do an online presentation for Sisters in Crime Northeast. (Unfortunately, Temple still works a day job and is only able to join me for a few of these events.)

While the online presentations and conferences don’t require travel, they do require putting on pants. In addition to remembering to pack my pants for the live events, the other conferences and conventions require additional planning—from determining which airlines, which flights, and which airports to fly from to determining if I can fit everything I need into a carry-on bag or if I’ll need to pack so much that a checked bag (or two) will be required.

And all the traveling cuts into writing and editing time. So, do I take my laptop computer—which is one more thing to tote around—and attempt to work? That hasn’t generally worked out well for me.

For those of you who travel extensively in support of your writing career, what tips do you have? Do you take a laptop computer with you, and do you actually manage to get work done?


If you’re also attending any of these live events, please stop me and say howdy.

Left Coast Crime

Malice Domestic

Edgar Awards Banquet

Texas Institute of Letters Conference




Murder, Neat: A SleuthSayers Anthology (Level Short, 2024) contains 24 stories by some of your favorite short-story writers. So, belly up to the bar, order your favorite libation, crack the spine, and wet your literary whistle.

11 March 2024

Your attention is most kindly requested.

            I often read in the newspaper that there’s been a general erosion in common civility.  That may be true, since why argue with sociological studies and the finely tuned antennas of our media watch dogs, ever alert for any diminishment in our quality of life.  

            But I just don’t see it.  That is, I rarely suffer this during my day-to-day undertakings.  In fact, I think people are mostly more congenial and sociable than they used to be.  It could be that since I now have white hair they take pity on me and my declining faculties, and express greater kindness than I experienced as a young man.  Maybe I’m now more convivial myself, and get rewarded by a response in kind.  I’m willing to accept these variables as suggesting I’m all wrong.

            Though still not be convinced. 

            It might be that social media interactions are larded with terribly disrespectful and aggressive behaviors, and that has warped our perception of the overall state of public comportment.  Since I participate in social media only glancingly, and then only with friendly people I know, I never confront such conduct.  If I did I’d tell the offenders, in the nicest way possible, to stick it in their ears and never communicate with them again.

              It helps to have a dog.  Only the hardest heart can resist our terrier’s charms.  He elicits good feelings from every version of human being, irrespective of socio-economic standing, race, creed, orientation or nationality.  We once had a motorcycle gang cooing over our pups, comparing notes on healthy diets and grooming strategies.  I think foreigners first learn our language by saying “Hello.”, “How much?”, “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Cute dog!”  We’re the fortunate beneficiaries of this canine charisma, since much of it seems to rub off. 


            I’ve been to Ireland and Australia, countries that have set the English-speaking gold standard for full-throated cheerfulness and good will toward any and all.  By contrast, I live in New York and New England, who many contend occupy the other end of the spectrum.  But this isn’t really fair.  New Yorkers are actually quite friendly and garrulous, it just feels like they’re shouting at you.  You have to tune your ears to the right pitch.  

            New Englanders are taciturn and reserved, it’s true, though get them started on a favorite subject, like the Patriots’ defensive line or the best route from Cambridge to Logan Airport, and they’ll talk your head off.   You do have to make more of an effort to engage a New Englander, unlike a person from almost anywhere else in the country.  If all you say at the check out line is “thank you” as they bag the groceries, don’t expect much.  If they ask, “How are you today?” give them a broadside of jolly commentary on your current state of being.  Even include a complaint or two, delivered with the sort of rueful irony that invites commiseration.


            “Could be sunnier.”


            “Yeah, but we need the rain.  My Roma tomatoes just lap that stuff up.  And the zucchinis?” 

“Don’t I know it.”


             I used to drive the Massachusetts Turnpike all the time, and before they did away with the toll gates, there was one guy so irredeemably buoyant and busting with bon homme that a line would form at his booth. 


            “There’s your change, sir.  One dollar and thirty-five cents.  Buy yourself something fun!”



            Mindful of our brief here at Sleuth Sayers, I do have a way to link this happy state of affairs to writing fiction.  If you only follow the observations of our gloomy journalists and academics, you’ll not only feel enduringly depressed, you’ll deviate from your lived experience.  You’ll break the law of authenticity.  The world isn’t a disagreeable place, most of the time.  Genuine assholes are notable simply because they’re so rare. 

                Writing hardboiled crime novels is no excuse.  Even Humphrey Bogart (channeling Marlowe) said, "I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners.  I don't like ‘em myself.”


09 March 2024

What the Hell, Let's Make Wine: On "Noble Rot" in Murder, Neat

I'm told this entry winds up our collective series going behind Murder, Neat. I've enjoyed these backgrounders as much as I've enjoyed reading the anthology. Pick up a copy, and you'll see what I mean. Murder, Neat is also perfect for birthdays, spring solstices, allergy season, or any occasion you've got going on.

* * *

Given my name, you won't be surprised to hear I'm of French heritage. As best we know the history, the Mangeots did okay over there--until the Revolution. Ah, well. C'est la guerre

Having old France in my blood, you also wouldn't be surprised to hear I enjoy wine. I'll go so far as to claim I've accumulated minor wine knowledge. I said minor, so don't quiz me. One nugget explained to me on a vineyard tour way back was a winemaking technique with a particularly catchy name: noble rot.

What a word combination. Noble plus rot catches the eye, dances on the tongue, sparks the imagination. It's that juxtaposition, noble to rot, a lofty start and steep descent as if inevitable. Poetry? Depends on your tastes. In real life, the term is more like good marketing. 

What's known today as noble rot started out in Hungary or Germany, depending on the account. To oversimplify, the vintner inoculates their ripening grapes with a fungus. Happy little fungi from the same family as makes penicillin, bleu cheese, and athlete's foot. Then, the vintner walks away. It's not until a late harvest and a chill in the air that picking time arrives. By then, the fungi turns the grapes into super-intense raisins. Those raisins are the secret behind some of the finest sweet wines on this planet. Tokay, Sauternes, Riesling. 

That's the high-gloss version, but let's be honest. The method surely sprung from desperation. Rewind however many centuries, and surely a German or Hungarian vintner schlub dilly-dallied at harvest time. It got to be October, and the wind bode a frost, and wolves howled from the foothills, and the vintner's family shoved him outside to get the grapes picked. The vintner sidled to the vines and discovered that a nasty fungal situation had spread something fierce, and the vintner said, "What the hell, let's make wine."

Rot done well. For art. I'd wanted to write about all that. For a while, actually.

Opportunity came when Sleuthsayers decided on an anthology. The call was for stories with a bar somehow a core element. My fellow Sleuthsayers' submissions would include amazing stories using saloons and dives and well-drawn noir tones. So I went another direction. I played with other types of bars and landed on a wine bar. I might've been sitting at my basement wine bar at the time. 

Anyway, a submission. I kept brainstorming wine things and soon landed back on that brewing noble rot concept. All I needed next was a story. About a state of rotting. Nobly. And for that, folks, let me welcome you to Nashville.

We Mangeots aren't alone in moving along when fortunes take a turn. Middle Tennessee boasts a near-inexhaustible supply of ex-rockers settled here after their chart-topping runs ended. That isn't a critique. The ex-rocker colony makes large and welcome civic contributions, and they invest in stuff. Stuff like wineries. And rich winery owners have tasting rooms.  

Rockers moving here makes sense from their lens. Nashville has long had country chart-only stars, and the city culture protects their privacy. A faded rocker can run to the grocery with no hassles. Nashville has a cheaper cost of living (or used to), no state income tax, a bevy of top studios and historic venues, and a chance to plug into a peer group with similar life experiences and creative bents. 

These rockers haven't lost their talent. The voice might be going, the hand a beat slow sometimes, but the creativity and musicianship are still there. It's excellent that they hang around the music scene. One might say noble, in its way. Noble, but also fair game. After all, these headliners used to embody sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Now, they're on YouTube cooking their favorite recipes and aging with their audiences. Not always comfortably, which is the core idea behind my story "Noble Rot."

To smash-summarize the premise, a 90s grunge guitarist moved to Nashville after both his fame and edge waned. He's in that nostalgia-act phase, a short set at festivals guy. He doesn't care that his career is on life support. He only wants to make wine. His agent, though, isn't done with music yet. To grasp for relevance, it's time to embrace a Great American Songbook cover album. The plot centers around the agent's pitch, with the inevitable complications and moral choices. Plus a hit of gonzo, if I did it right.

You might've also been wondering about Tennessee wine-making beyond huckleberry. Few grape varietals thrive consistently in the mid-South. Too humid, the climate too ideal for--hang on for it--fungal diseases. 

Grapes do grow, over thirty varietals, and many more tons get shipped in. Noble rot wine can happen here, given the right winemaker and the right microclimate. That's what Nashville is for those aging rockers, a microclimate where some of them put out the best music of their lives. And that's what "Noble Rot" is about, microclimates and life choices, the inevitable fade of great things and the fight against it, that eternal hope for beauty in life's next act. 

* * *

08 March 2024

Irish Neat

by David Dean

“The Atonement of Michael Darcy” in MURDER NEAT is the last—I think—in a sporadic series concerning an Irish American crime gang. When I wrote the first story concerning this crew it was meant to be a stand-alone tale. But as sometimes happens to writers, I found that “The Assumption of Seamus Tyrrell” needed a follow-up. This became “The Salvation of Seamus Tyrrell.” Of course, this story demanded a sibling and so it went for four more tales in the less-than-epic recounting of a fictional crime mob operating out of Elizabeth, New Jersey. Every time I would think I was out of it; these small-time hoodlums and killers pulled me back in for another heist or hit. Somebody’s got to feed the baby they’d say. So, I’d fire up the old laptop.

Michael Darcy, the protagonist of my entry in  this anthology, got out long ago. Not voluntarily, but through the intervention of the legal system. When we meet up with him, he’s well past his sell-by date and knows it. All he wants after a long stint in prison is a decent whiskey in the old neighborhood bar. He gets more than that, of course, as the title of the story suggests.

A tavern in Elizabeth

When Michael Bracken revealed that the theme of this anthology was to be crime fiction and bars, I was already there. The gang and I practically live in one. It’s where Seamus, Michael, Jimmy Blake, Thaddeus Burke, and all the rest of our crew plot our best work. Our motto has always been, ‘Why work sober, if you have a choice?’ Crime can be thirsty work, and don’t these fellas know it.  

 Stop in for a short one with Michael Darcy and you’ll see what I mean.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot—some of the best crime writers working in short fiction today also have stories in this book. You can’t go wrong, unless, like Michael Darcy, you do. He didn’t read this book.

07 March 2024

Ale You Need is Love

mug of beer

Confession time.

I’m not a beer drinker. Never have been. In my early days of enjoying spiked beverages, I reached for wine coolers (shoutout to my two college friends, Bartles and James). Then Scotch whiskey, both single malt and blends, took over as my libation of choice. These days, I favor crisp Italian white wines.

Which is a long way of saying, I was in store for some fun new-to-me research to help craft my short story of suspense, “Not Yo’ Mama’s IPA” in Murder, Neat, the SleuthSayers Anthology. I took Happy Hour fieldtrips to a few of Richmond, Virginia’s finest brew pubs. Tasted flights of beers. Studied the origins of IPAs, as well as the proper way to pour and serve. Did you know India Pale Ales (a.k.a. IPAs) have their own dedicated glassware? I didn’t when I started plotting my story idea.

Well, then if not beer, what inspired my story, you might wonder?  An insurance statement delivered by snail mail not so long ago. Sexy? Maybe not, but I found it pretty compelling.

Kristin Kisska
Kristin Kisska ©
Lindsey Pantele Photgraphy

As the beneficiary of my husband’s life insurance, I received what would be the final premium invoice for his term policy. That auspicious morning, I’d ripped open the envelope, looked up from the paystub to him, and joked that for one final year, he’d be worth more dead than alive—crime authors can be sensitive and thoughtful that way. It’s a good thing my husband shares my humor!

But my muse took my dark quip, noodled it for a while, and ultimately ran with it. What would it take for someone to cash in on a loved one’s expiring policy? How deep and dark would an injustice need be to give them motive?

Let me introduce you to Lynn and Jack, the unlucky-in-love, beer-drinking couple at the heart of my short story of suspense, “Not Yo’ Mama’s IPA”. Lynn finds out that ignorance can indeed be bliss…until the truth hits you like a sledgehammer.

Happy reading!

For the true crime enthusiast with an interest in insurance as motive for murder, I recommend reading the creative nonfiction, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, which dramatizes the chilling story of serial killer on the loose in Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century. The murderer, H.H. Holmes, mastered the art of convincing his many victims to take out insurance policies with him as the beneficiary. Spoiler alert ~ his prey had a very short life expectancy after signing on the dotted line.

Insurance fraud can be deadly.

At the end of the day, you may or may not find me savoring a fine IPA at happy hour. But one thing I’ll forever be preaching from my soapbox is, don’t let your life insurance policy be used as a weapon against you.

Note ~ No real-life husbands were harmed in the plotting of this short story. On the contrary, mine enjoyed being my plus one as I conducted my IPA and brewery research. I’m happy to report that we both survived the expiration of his insurance policy.

Cheers, y’all!

KRISTIN KISSKA used to be a finance geek, complete with MBA and Wall Street pedigree, but now she is a self-proclaimed #SuspenseGirl. Kristin has contributed short suspense stories to a dozen anthologies, including Malice Domestic’s Agatha Award-winning anthology, Mystery Most Edible.  Her debut novel, The Hint of Light, is an Agatha Award finalist for Best First Mystery Novel. Kristin is a member of International Thriller Writers, Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and Sisters in Crime-Central Virginia. Kristin lives in Richmond, Virginia with her family and their moody tabby cat, Boom. She loves hearing from friends, readers, and book clubs at

06 March 2024

MURDER, NEAT, or The Twenty-four Bar Blues


    Murder, Neat came out on February 13, and I'm thrilled to be included with so many of my talented friends, twenty-three of them, to be exact. All twenty-four stories involve a person in a bar, and I've been invited to tell you a little about mine. 

    I didn't start playing guitar at open mics until my mid-sixties, but before the pandemic shut things down, I played at five venues regularly, two of them monthly and the others either weekly or bi-weekly. Obviously, my playing improved considerably. So did my understanding of audience dynamics.

    One monthly venue was kid-friendly church with a large and appreciative audience. I saw several teens get their first taste, and some of them were already terrific. The other monthly venue was a Kinghts of Columbus, a small building with a bar, but only six stools and as many tables. It wasn't a large enough crowd to get rowdy, and the manager liked having the musicians play, so we didn't have to deal with hecklers.

    My favorite weekly gig is a pizza joint that serves only wine and beer and has regained its pre-Covid vibe. It features some killer musicians, including a sax player and a woman who plays both keyboards and cello. We even have a banjo player and a dulcimer player occasionally, and the place hosts Connecticut Blues Society jams.

    Both other weekly gigs were in bars, my least favorites, but the most conducive to a crime or mystery story. Alcohol lowers inhibitions and restraint, so there's more potential for someone to make a bad choice. Because the space tends to be louder, so is the music. If you go in to play acoustic folk or blues, people may not listen to you. Or, they may not be able to hear over the general voice (and TV sports?) level. Bar bands lean toward country or classic rock, like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Tom Petty, or Elvis. The instruments include solid-body guitars and maybe a bass and drums. By its very nature, the music is more aggressive, maybe because of the volume, or maybe the songs themselves. The Doors and AC/DC have a subtext that's different from, say, Peter, Paul, and Mary.

    That's where my story comes from. A local band covering rock songs in a bar with bargain beer on tap is a cauldron for bad impulses and worse choices. And if a pretty woman shows up dressed in a whole lot of not much, the good ol' boys will turn into bad ol' boys. If that pretty woman knows what she's doing, things can go to hell in a hurry. And there you are. Or there I was. Rob and Leigh announced the theme of the Murder, Neat collection--someone walks into a bar--and it could lead into either noir or a bad joke. I thought both at once, so we start with a woman snappin' her fingers and a-shufflin' her feet, dressed to thrill, and with jokes and puns about drinking or music.

    My opening line popped into my head almost immediately. That seldom happens, so I thought it was a good omen. Many of my story titles are also song titles, and when the opening scene materialized, I heard the Searches singing my title, too. The song even mentions guitars, so I just let the beat carry me on to the big finish.

    I hope you like it, from the orange slice on top to the cherry at the bottom. Do you remember that 12-string guitar riff that kicks it off?

    "When You Walk in the Room."

05 March 2024

"The Colonel"

When Sleuthsayers settled on Murder Neat, with stories set around watering holes of all kinds, I had a problem: I don't drink. I find beer, which smells so interesting, disappointing, while hard spirits bring up reminders of childhood illness.

I was susceptible to colds as a kid – possibly our drafty one room schoolhouse had some part in that – and my Scots immigrant parents were convinced of the medicinal powers of their national beverage. Rightly so, perhaps, because my mother brought Punch, our beloved parakeet, back from paralysis and near death by administering whisky and water.

In any case, the hot toddy of my childhood, whisky, hot water, lemon, and honey, served to inoculate me against a taste for alcohol save for the occasional glass of wine or cider. Glass, singular, as any more and I fall sleep.  Participation in Murder Neat, therefore, called for imagination.

Fortunately, my childhood, which clearly hampered a career as a writer of the hard drinking tough guy school, provided alternative sources of inspiration, including a couple of road houses. Yes, the same sort of isolated drinking establishments that Raymond Chandler found so inspiring in California.

These were in rural Dutchess County, N.Y., and we regularly passed the roadhouse that appears in "The Colonel" on the way to music lessons. The tavern was on a bare open stretch of state highway, fields and pastures on every side.

The dark brown, one story bungalow sat alone on top of a hill at the juncture of a county road. A lonely place, a lonely building, on the unlit roads with its lighted sign, it became The Huntsman in my story, a little nod to the fox hunting that so many of the rich estate owners loved.

The Huntsman was an odd place for a man of wealth and culture like the Colonel, who came to drink inferior spirits when he undoubtedly had better at home. But who knows what people need? I surely did not as a child in the late 40's and early 50's, though I was aware of troubled people who could not find happiness, despite possessing everything that should have made their lives good. 

But after Korea, Viet Nam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, we all have a better grip on post war costs. There are wounds that nothing can heal, and in the late 40's and early 50's there were a lot of veterans for whom time had not done even the smallest work. The Colonel was one of them. I recognize that now.

The tavern, that from its architecture began as an ordinary dwelling, may have been established with just such folks in mind. It was quiet and out of town and out of sight with its parking lot tucked in the back.

What ideas might come in such a place to some wounded soul? The title, Murder Neat, says it all.

04 March 2024

So an alcoholism treatment therapist walks into a bar...

I'm a lifelong writer who started talking about it at the age of seven and dreamed of becoming a bestselling novelist in my twenties. That didn't happen. So in my late thirties, when my sole published output consisted of two poems (payment in copies), I started looking around for something else meaningful to do.

I emerged from Columbia University in 1985 with a master's degree in social work and a desire to work with recovering alcoholics and their families and partners as well as the usual clinical social worker's ambition to practice as a psychotherapist, or as I prefer to call myself, a shrink. I've just come across a blog post I wrote in 2007, right before my first mystery, Death Will Get You Sober, came out. Titled "Recovery and Transformation," it's still spot on about why I wanted to do what many considered an oddball kind of work.

It’s simple: recovery is transformational.

I once knew a nursery school teacher who had her class do a butterfly project every year. They’d watch the caterpillar form its chrysalis and wait for the brightly colored butterfly with its glorious wings to emerge. At the end of the term, she’d take them to the park so they could release the butterflies and see them fly free. Sometimes it’s kind of like that when an alcoholic finds recovery.

Before two drunks started Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, alcoholism was truly a hopeless illness, whose outcomes were inevitably “madness” (depression, delirium tremens, irreversible dementia) and death. AA offered another choice: stop drinking for just one day, admit you need help, find some kind of spiritual path, get rigorously honest about your own shortcomings, make amends for the harm you’ve done others, and help another alcoholic. In other words, all you have to do is stop drinking and change your whole life.

While I was running alcohol treatment programs—the one up in East Harlem, the one down on the Bowery, the one for women at Coney Island Hospital—I would occasionally find myself bellying up to the proverbial bar on a social evening out. I would twirl around on the bar stool, grin at the bartender, and say, "Ask me what I do for a living!"

So my reaction may not have been quite the same as that of the rest of the SleuthSayers gang when I heard that we were doing an anthology whose theme was bars. My Bruce Kohler mysteries, both the novels and the short stories, are a lot of fun. But once Bruce gets sober in the first book, they're not about bars and drinking. The challenge was to join in the fun of Murder, Neat without being unfaithful to my expert knowledge that out of control drinking is not ho ho ho hilarious, but a recurring disaster that leaves shattered lives in its wake.

To write "A Friendly Glass," I turned back to a time when I myself was young and ignorant, knew nothing about alcoholism, and did think wild drinking could be hilarious. I set my story in a fictional village in the South of France. It was loosely based on a village where I'd spent a week in 1962 and a month in 1966. I drank numerous cups of café filtre on the picturesque terrasse. I sang and played the guitar in a boîte I can't remember anything about. I made two treasured women friends who, sadly, are no longer with us, and two artist friends, a Frenchman and an Englishman, who are still my friends today, sixty years later.
The village was St Paul de Vence, then completely unspoiled, a maze of narrow cobbled streets that wound up stairs and through stone arches, surrounded by a medieval wall. Alas, it's now a tourist destination with luxury hotels and high-priced shops with plate-glass windows. It's still considered artsy, but it's more of an artfully packaged artsiness. I'm glad I didn't miss the real thing.

Oh, and the fictional murderee is based on someone I thought deserved it back in the 1960s.

03 March 2024

Music, Neat

Many SleuthSayers enjoy a music background. I’ve long known Rob’s interest in folk music dating back to the classic electric zitherphone. Our Fran Rizer, no longer with us, was an avid bluegrass fan and picker. Liz Zelvin released an album. And I gathered Brian Thornton and Steve Liskow stay active in the music scene. Turns out Eve Fisher and Chris Knopf keep up as well. And then I learned Stephen Ross pretty much operates a home recording studio.

“Stephen, Lady Ga-Ga on line 2.”

After intense cogitation, I mapped out a trailer for our first anthology based on Deborah Elliott-Upton’s book cover. I loaded up tavern sound effects– laughter, tinkling glasses, breakage, yelps and more laughter. I snagged karaoke tracks featuring Chris Stapleton, George Thorogood, and a little bit drunk Lady Antebellum. But as much as I like ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ (the song at least, thank you, Melayna), the cuts didn’t quite match the mood of the book. But I knew who could.

I put out a call and a half dozen SleuthSayers responded gleefully when I proposed a nearly impossible task– coming up with a bar song amid a time crunch. Using groundwork laid by Lopresti and Liskow, the team figured out how to pull off a global effort. Thank you, everyone. Here is the song, composed and sung by Rob Lopresti, instrumentals by Stephen Ross.

Murder, Neat

sung by Rob Lopresti, keyboards and percussion by Stephen Ross

Following are Rob's clever lyrics. No alcohols were unduly harmed in the making of this song.

Murder, Neat

lyrics and melody by Rob Lopresti

Come in the tavern and kindly ignore
The ax in the bar stool, the blood on the floor
You’re in no danger. Here death has no sting
For this is crime fiction and not the real thing.

There’s bourbon for burglars, and robbers get rye
Cocktail or blackmail? One vodka per spy.
Here partners may swindle and spouses might cheat
When SleuthSayers serve you up Murder, Neat.

The cops drop a beer in their favorite saloon
Where hardboiled detectives start drinking by noon
Amateur sleuths take red herrings and Scotch
While pickpockets covet your wallet and watch.

Femme fatales ask as they sip the champagne
Does gunpowder leave an indelible stain?
A dive bar is waiting down any mean street
Where SleuthSayers serve you up Murder, Neat.

Murder, Neat. Murder, Neat
That’s the name of the book
Where convict and constable, conman and crook
Will pour you a ninety proof story of crime
To make you turn pages way past closing time.

In the back room there are gangsters today
Planning a caper to steal cabernet.
If you aren’t driving the getaway car
They’ve got pinot grigio and plenty of noir.

The mastermind villain advances the plot
And chuckles that arsenic sure hits the spot.
Each cozy village has pubs so discreet
Where SleuthSayers serve you up Murder, Neat.

Murder, Neat. Murder, Neat
That’s the book you should choose
If you like your clues well-infused with some booze
You can buy it online or in bookstores downtown
But don’t steal a copy or we’ll track you down
When SleuthSayers serve you up Murder, Neat.

01 March 2024

My story in MURDER, NEAT: a SleuthSayer's anthology

When I learned the proposed title/idea for the SleuthSayers' anthology was

“Two crooks walk into a bar…” –  I chuckled. Felt like another school homework assignment because I don't go to bars, haven't been in one for a drink since the mid-70s and those were discos where I danced more than drank. Wouldn't be familiar turf, more like writing about two guys walking across the Gobi desert. It was a challenge I became eager to take.

Some may ask how can I be a New Orleanian and not frequent bars. Well, I don't like jazz music either. I've been a rock-and-roll fan since the last 50s.

OK, I did enter bars when I was a cop, searching for suspects or witnesses to crimes, seeking help from bartenders and barmaids, which brought me to the plot of my story in MURDER, NEAT. I decided to write a simple story and came up with "Flesh Wounds."

It took longer to write than I thought but I like its simplicity.

The set-up – a man staggers from a rainstorm into a bar. There's a lone barmaid inside. There's blood.

I just followed along …

Hope the anthology does well. Michael Bracken and Barb Goffman did a great job in editing and the stories are so well done.

So y'all indulge, take a drink and see what's going on where people get liquored up and sometimes die.

That's all for now,

27 February 2024

Lyrics and Music

     Like the other authors in the Murder: Neat lineup, I'm using this blog as an opportunity to talk about my story in the new SleuthSayers anthology. I jumped at the chance to contribute a story as well as the opportunity to write about it here. My tale, "Lyrics and Music," kicks off the anthology. 

    I love listening to ballads on the radio. By definition, they tell stories. Not surprisingly, that's something I admire. But a ballad does the storytelling in short stanzas, set to music, and makes the words rhyme. A good one makes my attempts at story craft feel entry-level. 

    As my traveling companion can attest, with me, usually the sappier the ballad, the better. If you tell Billy not to be a hero, like Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods did, I'm right there with you. 

    Sappy is a loaded word. These days, it's never a positive. Tag anything with
"sappy" and it is weighed down with the baggage of cheesy or saccharine. But "sappy" used to be a good thing. In its origin, it meant full of vitality, like a young sapling. Somewhere around the early 17th Century, the meaning changed to excessively sentimental. The change may have been due to the stickiness of sap, the syrupy goo oozing from the young green stalks. 

    When the opportunity to contribute a story presented itself, and the only requirements were a crime story and a bar, I immediately thought about a saloon singer with a tale. Love, alcohol, a villain, and a problem to be solved: a ballad could be written about each. Instead, let's put the four together, I thought. That'll drip sap. 

    I turned up the volume on a Marty Robbins gunfighter ballad and settled in at my computer. 

    But what bar? In Fort Worth, the bar is Billy Bob's Texas, the world's largest honky tonk. It has a main stage, ample dance floor, various watering stations, and plenty of dark corners where all sorts of mischief might occur. 

    Billy Bob's Texas, however, felt too big for my setting. I needed something smaller. I remembered a great evening my traveling companion, and I spent at the Stagecoach Bar in Jackson, Wyoming, many years ago. In my mind, the place was like Billy Bob's Texas, only dried on hot. It had the same features and drew a diverse crowd but occupied less real estate. It felt more intimate. The place lacked a mechanical bull or a gift shop. The Broken Spoke in Austin also offered a similar vibe, at least before the new construction crowded in on all sides. 

    With a mental picture of the place and a vision of a woebegone protagonist, I began to type. The resulting story introduces the reader to Jimmy West, a country singer trapped by a bad contract and forced to perform at a bar run by an unscrupulous proprietor. Jimmy can't get out from under his ironclad contractual obligations. There is no escape for him...or is there? 

Vitality and sentimentality, "Lyrics and Music," I hope, embraces "sappy" in all its definitions. 

    Running a finger down the list of contributors to Murder: Neat makes a guy feel pressure to put the right words in the right spots. My name stands alongside some heady company. I'm grateful to Barb and Michael. Their skilled editing helped shift the errant words to the places they were supposed to be. They've wrung out the excess syrup. I hope you'll enjoy the results. 

    Until next time. 

26 February 2024

Room of Ice

I have a new story, Room of Ice, and it appears in the new SleuthSayers' anthology Murder, Neat. The alcohol reference in the anthology's title is on purpose. All the stories in the book have a finger, or other, in a drinking establishment. A glass or two of my story is set in a London pub.

Story settings aside, drinking establishments are excellent places to tell a story. The social atmosphere, comfortable seats, warmth, and alcohol invites (nay, demands) story telling. When the wine comes in, the wit comes out. I mean, if you're sitting there with a group of friends, you've got to do something while you're drinking. And pretty soon, someone will be off and running with a tale, tall or otherwise.

Our desire to gather with friends somewhere warm and convivial, and tell a story, is innate. And it predates drinking. Many thousands of years ago, our caveman ancestors sat around the fire on dark winter evenings. The whole clan. The extended family. They'd spent the day hunting and gathering, they'd eaten. They sat there sated and sleepy, nothing else to do – drawing pictures on the cave wall was so last era. Someone said, "You know, a funny thing happened to me today. There was this woolly mammoth…" And off he or she went, running with a tale, tall or otherwise.

The invention of alcohol meant there was now something to do while the stories were being told. And that swiftly led to the creation of places to do all of this in: pubs, inns, bars, taverns, and so on. The public living room.

I digress.

So, what's my story (Room of Ice) about? Well, no spoilers, it's about two things: Hammer Films and perception.

Hammer Film Productions is a British film production company that had its heyday from the mid-1950s to the 1970s. They specialised in horror films with a Gothic flavour (e.g., vampires, mummies, Frankenstein). Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were probably the studio's two biggest stars. According to Wikipedia, the studio made 295 films (between 1934-2019). In addition to horror, Hammer also produced science fiction, thrillers, noir, and comedies. I grew up watching Hammer Horrors (along with their American counterparts, the Vincent Price Edgar Allen Poe movies).

In my story, I imagine Hammer made a horror film in 1959 called Room of Ice.

My story is from the point of view of a middle-aged man – "Tim" – who, as a child, was an extra in that movie. Tim tracks down the movie's now elderly star, because he has, in later life, remembered something about the filming – something he saw. It isn't a spoiler to say that Tim is a blackmailer.

This is a story about perception. Something witnessed as a five-year-old, and then remembered at 45, with a now adult's perspective of the world (my story is set in 1999).

Room of Ice is about movies (I'm film mad, don't you know?). Making them, remembering them, worshipping them. And, as such, I made a trailer for the story to help promote it. And rather than do my usual, I made a "movie trailer" for an imagined re-release of the movie Room of Ice. You can watch the trailer here:

Well, I'm off to read all the other stories in the anthology. Should be a treat!

25 February 2024

The Bar

Most people have memories from various bars over the course of their lives. These memories may be good ones from the times when they were the happy center of attention or it was a gathering of good friends, a time they hoped would never end. But then, some could also be bad memories. A time when bad happenings affected their life, or they made bad decisions not easily undone.

My memories of bars started in a 3.2 joint in Wichita, drinking red beers and playing pool with, at that time, a good buddy. We were both underage, but other customers in this establishment were scarce and the bartender didn't ask to see IDs. Next came my part-time employment in one of the first Pizza Hut franchises. The owner of a 3.2 beer joint leased space in a defunct barber shop next to his bar, set up the pizza shop in that space, and sawed a window in the interior wall between the two businesses so that beer could be pushed through one way while the pizzas went the other direction. The boss' waitress cum mistress usually took care of any business conducted at the window. It wasn't exactly Cheers, but everyone seemed happy to be there. After that came the Army's NCO Club, which advanced ten-dollar chit books to its clientele, so that any broke NCO who wanted to could still wet his whistle. Of course, come payday, the chit book recipient immediately paid off his debt to the club.

Then, in early '71, a new job came along and the memories changed. Seems criminals and undercover Special Agents tended to operate in the dark corners of life. Bars were one of the accepted meeting places. Turned out, anything could happen in a bar.

One night, I dropped into a mob owned bar in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Sitting up to the bar counter with a drink in hand, I gave a dollar to the waitress and asked her to to get me a pack of cigarettes. She took the dollar and walked to several places in the bar before disappearing in the back room. At no time did she approach the cigarette machine set along a nearby wall and in plain view to me. When she returned, she handed me a pack of cigarettes. The pack had no license or tax stamps on it. This pack was either stolen from a warehouse, or bought clandestinely out the back door of a tobacco factory. No idea how many cartons of smokes were involved.

On a different night, but still on the Missouri side of the river, my partner, a KCMO vice-cop, and I had a federal arrest warrant for the son of a capo. We went to a night club owned by the capo, found a secluded table and ordered drinks. When the waitress brought the drinks, we told here we wanted to speak with the capo. Five minutes later, he showed up at our table. My partner explained that we had a federal arrest warrant for his son, but we did not want to disturb his wife or his home life, so we came to him here. He replied that his son would be in our office early Monday morning. Then. to show his thanks for our discretion, he said the drinks were on him. We did now wish to offend him by rejecting his offer, nor did we want to be in his debt for anything, so we left a tip for the waitress large enough to cover the drinks plus a nice tip.

On the Kansas side of the river was a biker bar known as Mother Pearls. I once bought a small quantity of crystal meth in one of their rest rooms. The purchase turned out to be crystal, but not methamphetamine. In those days, if the U/C guy got burned on a buy, he either got the money back, or he made the burn up out of his own pocket. Making up a burn was usually a long, involved story concerning bad decisions on someone's part. Sorry, but these stories are best told in a bar......if told at all.

Further up the river in St. Joe on the Missouri side one night, I was in a bar with an informant and a surveillance team. After a couple of beers and a no-show on the potential defendant's part, I made a trip to the head. As I stood there, a large, rough-looking guy appeared on each side of me. "Hi, Pockets," one of them said. "How's your evening going?" Turned out they were ATF agents that I knew. I was there to buy drugs and they were there to buy guns. Trouble was, our informants were trying to buy from each other. We called it a night and drove home.

There are plenty of other bar stories, but I'm not at liberty to tell most of them.

Like I said, anything can happen in a bar, plus everything may not be as it first appears. Mysteries abound, plots hatch, and con men flourish. Perhaps it is safer to curl up with a good book, like the Murder Neat anthology, and just read about what happens to other people in a bar. Someone might get murdered in their bed, or even in a dark alley behind a bar, but at least it won't be you.

23 February 2024

Roman à Clef? Murder, Neat: A Former Model Confesses

MURDER, NEAT… and a little bit twisted.

Who could guess that my past would be all over the short story, ‘The Mob, The Model and The College Reunion’, in the anthology MURDER, NEAT?

A few years ago, I was on stage for a book event, hearing happy applause. A hand went up, and a young gal with somewhat questionable social skills said, "You don't look anything like your protagonist."

I swallowed my wounded pride, dug deep into the wit-basket and quipped: "Not only that, I don't look anything like my author photo!" That brought the biggest laugh of the evening, of course.

But the incident prompted me to rethink a related question I get asked frequently. How close is the protagonist to the real me?

I've written 18 books and over 60 short stories. If the protagonist was me in all of those, it would be a pretty boring adventure for readers. And for me, as well. Part of the fun of being an author is putting yourself into the skin of others. Becoming the character you are writing, for just a little while. Leaving yourself behind.

However, sometimes I just want to write myself into a fun story (always a fun one...never a fearful one!)

So in ‘The Mob, The Model and The College Reunion’, I let the real me show through.  Okay, I may be older now than Donna di Marco, the protagonist, is in this tale, but she carries my background, my on again – off again modeling career, my outlook on life, and definitely my wit.  She even looks surprisingly like me.

Have you ever wanted to write a character who says what you're thinking?  The things you don't actually say out loud?

Donna does that for me! And oh, it was fun to write them.

College reunions?  I'm not a big fan.  There were few women in my Commerce program, and the misogyny at the time was pretty brutal.  Competition was savage between the young men, and my memories are mixed at best.  Sometimes I was the bone to be fought over.

But I've discovered an interesting thing.  Reunions sure are good for setting conflict.  Old grievances resurface, even among the bank executives and corporate buccaneers of my class that have done so well financially. They don't forget the old days.

So I had a bit of sport, writing what might have happened if I had gone to our last reunion.  In fact, I didn't go.  Maybe self-preservation?  Maybe I was too busy celebrating my recent marriage to an old college classmate?

Yes, the John of this story is the John Michael O'Connell who persuaded me to the altar not long ago.  And yes, our classmates were shocked.  So you can see how easy it might have been to concoct such a tale, and to lace it with the loopy humour I just can't seem to leave behind.

Not to mention the mob elements that always seem to sneak into my work.

Roman à clef? I'll leave that to your imagination.

The author at college:

The author today:

• Buy link for MURDER, NEAT   

Bad Whiskey

A lot of stories take their cues from music. I listen to music when I write, and I often say I can't write listening to Carrie Underwood or Roger Waters because they're telling stories in their songs. Actually, I can't listen to Roger Waters on anything after 1980 because... Okay, that's another rant I'll save for elsewhere. But Carrie Underwood writes entire novels in her music. "Blown Away" and "Two Cadillacs" come to mind.

And then there's southern rock. Ever listen to some of Skynyrd's songs and see a story unfold in your mind? "Two Steps" is a good one and might have spawned a different story had I heard it around the time we started planning the Murder, Neat anthology. Instead, a friend of mine sent me this video of her husband's band. For a group who played mostly bars (though they did open for the likes of Black Country Communion a few times), they did a rather professional video. When it opened, I thought, "Cool. Johnny Lynn's playing slide!" But they had a few stories to go with the verses, many of them fitting that southern rock vibe half of Johnny's bands embrace. (Johnny is the aforementioned friend's husband.)

I had a video, awaiting the CD, and I had an email from either Leigh or Robert and a follow up from Michael Bracken: Write a story set in a bar. Put a murder in it. I had a soundtrack, an inspiration, and marching orders. This is why I love anthologies as a writer. When the prompt hits just right, the stories spin off on their own.

The song is called "Bad Whiskey." How's that for a southern rock title? And if the video shows the ill-effects of bad whiskey in general, the story flows backward and reveals just how bad one man's whiskey was. 

And in case you were wondering, here is the aforementioned song that inspired the story, "Bad Whiskey" by the Russell Jinkens XL Band.