Showing posts with label mystery magazine. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mystery magazine. Show all posts

31 July 2020

Dying Message


Earlier this month, fellow SleuthSayer Joseph D'Agnese blogged about USA's founding father and Declaration of Independence signer George Wythe's famous last words, "I am murdered!" before he died from having been poisoned.

In my humble opinion, as far as last words go, Wythe won.

So, over mugs of coffee a few mornings ago, when my crime writer friend, Josh Pachter, first mentioned the use of "Dying Message" as a literary device, I wanted to know more.

Take it away, Josh...

KK: Can you explain the "dying message" trope for us?

Well, sure! But let me start by explaining why Kristin is asking me this question.

In mid-July, she drove down to my new home outside Richmond, Virginia, to pick up a piece of furniture my wife Laurie and I no longer needed for her daughter's first college apartment. I made a pot of coffee and, while Laurie teleworked, Kristin and I sat out on our new deck and talked. I don't remember exactly how it came up, but I asked Kristin if she was familiar with the old "dying message" trope, she said she wasn't, I explained it...and her eyes lit up. "Can I interview you about this for SleuthSayers?" she asked.

So here we are.

I suspect that many of the Sayers of the Sleuth are already familiar with the dying message, and some are probably far better versed in its history than I am, but, for what it's worth, here's what I have to say on the subject.

Ellery Queen may not have invented the concept of the "dying message" clue, but Fred Dannay and Manny Lee--the cousins who wrote as EQ--were certainly its most active proponents, and many of their novels and short stories rang changes on the concept.

Here's a basic description of how it works:

Person A murders Person B and leaves the scene. But--sacre bleu!--Person B is not dead yet, after all, and regains consciousness long enough to want to tell the police who killed him. Unfortunately, there's no working phone at hand, so Person B can't simply call the police and tell them who did the dirty deed.  There is, however, a piece of paper and a pen, so Person B leaves a cryptic note, identifying his killer.

"But," you say, "why a cryptic note? Why doesn't Person B simply write Person A's name?

Ah, well, because, despite the fact that he's dying, Person B has the presence of mind to realize that person A might return to the scene of the crime--and, if she does, she'll see the piece of paper with her name on it and destroy it.

And that's the "dying message" trope, resulting in a story the heart of which is the protagonist's mental struggle to figure out the meaning of the cryptic clue.

Far fetched? Certainly.

Realistic? Perhaps not.

But I'm reminded of something my buddy Les Roberts--the author of 20+ novels featuring Cleveland PI Milan Jacovich--once did.  In one of Les' books, Milan trails a suspect to a Monday-evening performance of the Cleveland Symphony. When the book came out, Les received hundreds of letters from irate Clevelanders, pointing out that the Cleveland Symphony  doesn't play on Mondays. Les printed up a form letter he sent back to every complainer: "The Cleveland Symphony might not play on Mondays, but my Cleveland Symphony plays whenever I damn well tell them to."

His point? This is fiction, folks, and in fiction an author can do whatever the hell he wants to do. He is the puppet master, and the puppet master gets to pull the strings.

So Ellery Queen wrote lots of dying-message stories, and the question of whether or not such a thing would ever happen in real life is frankly irrelevant.

To keep the device from going stale, the cousins eventually began to come up with variations on the theme, such as oral dying messages (in which only part of the victim's dying words are heard, or the victim's last words are misunderstood, or the victim mispronounces a key word or words) and the "accidental dying message."

I'll give you an example.

In "GI Story," which first appeared in EQMM in 1954, Clint Fosdick is murdered, and it's clear that he was killed by one of his three stepsons: Linc Smith, Woody Smith, or Wash Smith. Before Clint expires, he scrawls the letters "GI" on a piece of paper, but all three of the Smith Brothers--:::cough:::--are former soldiers, so the message could apply equally well to any of them.

Ellery, however, finally realizes that Clint had no intention of leaving a cryptic message. In fact, "Fancy verbal acrobatics are the pleasant preoccupation of detective fiction," Ellery says, poking fun at his own trademark trope. "In real life, they don't happen...Clint Fosdick, in writing those two letters...was trying to do just one thing: name his killer."

The three brothers, Ellery realizes, were named after American presidents--Abraham Lincoln Smith, Woodrow Wilson Smith, and George Washington Smith--and the dying man was beginning to write the word, "GEORGE" when death took him immediately after he completed the down stroke of the second letter of his murderer's name. Et voila! 


KK: Have you used the "dying message" trope yourself, Josh?

Why, yes, Kristin, as a matter of fact I have!

My second published story--"E.Q. Griffen's Second Case," which originally appeared in EQMM in 1970 and will be reprinted in The Further Misadventures of Ellery Queen, which I co-edited with former SleuthSayer Dale Andrews and which will be published by Wildside Press later this year--is a dying-message story, in which a guy is murdered outdoors and pulls loose a chunk of the tarry stuff that sort of grouts sidewalk panels together and writes a clue to the identity of his killer on the sidewalk.

After Dale and I co-edited our original Misadventures of Ellery Queen (Wildside, 2018), I started writing a series of pastiches of EQ's "Puzzle Club" stories, and the first three of them are all dying-message stories: "A Study in Scarlett!" (EQMM, May/June 2019), "The Adventure of the Red Circles" (EQMM, Jan/Feb 2020), and "The Adventure of the Black-and-Blue Carbuncle" (EQMM, forthcoming).

I also had two dying-message stories appear in print in 2018: "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Murder" (Mystery Most Geographical, Wildside) was a finalist for the Derringer Award, and "50" (EQMM, Nov/Dec 2018), in which my E.Q. Griffen character returns, finished second in the magazine's Reader Award balloting. You can download and read both of those stories for free at this link.

Dale, by the way, has published  four Ellery Queen pastiches in EQMM, and all four of them are dying-message stories. His latest, "Four Words," will appear in the Sep/Oct 2020 issue, on sale August 13.

And for those who'd like to read more about the "dying message" trope, there's an excellent discussion at the Ah Sweet Mystery blog, and another (filled with spoiler-protected examples) at Fandom website.


KK: Thank you for letting me put you in the hot seat, Josh.  Oh, and by the way, check out this little gem I found while preparing my post...a signed copy of our co-contributed Malice anthology.  C'est magnifique!


Josh Pachter is an author, editor, and translator. More than a hundred of his short stories have appeared in EQMM, AHMM, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly, and many other periodicals and anthologies. He has edited and co-edited a dozen anthologies, including The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell (Untreed Reads, 2020), The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe (Mysterious Press, 2020) and The Great Filling Station Holdup: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Jimmy Buffett (forthcoming from Down and Out Books in 2021).  His translations of stories by Dutch and Flemish authors appear regularly in EQMM. Earlier this year, he received the Short Mystery Fiction Society's Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for Lifetime Achievement and became the first person to win both the Golden Derringer and a competitive Derringer in the same year.

PS ~ Let's be social:

25 July 2020

The Best Thing about Writing Short Stories (and it's not the money...)


Beyond the delight of creating a story that swings on a single plot point/twist...

Beyond the excitement of putting together a really professional product in just a few weeks...

Beyond the satisfaction of mastering the craft of the short story in another tautly written tale that speeds along with the impact of a runaway commuter train...

Here is the real reason I love writing short stories.

My 17th book is done.  Sent to agent in New York.  I sit back, awaiting the inevitable comments, rounds of edits, during which I will alternately cry, fume and laugh hysterically.

Then off to the publisher it goes.  After which there will be more edits, more crying, fuming, and possibly, more drinking.  (Okay, that's a cert.)

Which is why I love writing short stories.

To Wit:
I've been a novelist for over 15 years now.  My 16th book came out this February (yes, possibly the worst timing in the history of the human race, with the possible exception of the invasion of England by William the Conqueror, but I digress.)

So I've had two traditional publishers and three series, but believe it or not, I got my start writing short stories.  In fact, I have over 50 of those published, and 24 of those were in print before I even gave a thought to write a crime novel.

Why do I love writing short stories so much?  Short stories come with less stress than a novel because...

Short stories are all mine.

In order to get a novel contract with a medium to big house, you really have to keep the audience in mind.  Sure, you write what you want to write, but with the publisher's audience always in mind.  Then your agent gets hold of it, and makes comments and suggestions.  Next, your house editor will be asking for changes to the manuscript, and possibly even to the story to make it most appealing to their audience. 

All good.  All with the purpose of increasing sales, which I'm sure it does.  All tedious as hell.

Yesterday, I sent my 17th book to my agent.  She really liked the first 30 pages sent months ago.  I probably won't sleep until I hear she likes the next 200.

If she does, it's a sparkling vino moment.  If the publisher does too, then break out the Bolly.  (I do love Ab Fab, by the way.  Just call me Eddie.)

But then the fun starts.  I have to wait for the inevitable tinkering.

I can see now that one of the great joys of writing a short story is there is no interference.  It's MY story, just the way I want to tell it.  I've been published in AHMM, Star Magazine, ComputorEdge, Canadian Living Magazine, Flash Fiction, and others, and no editors have ever suggested substantial changes to the stories they've published by me, or even requested minor changes.

Writing a short story is a more independent project than writing a novel.  I love that.

But back to the title (and it's not about the money):  I have actually made more per word with some short stories, than I have with some novels.  Mind you, if I'm making a dollar per word for short stories, that would translate to $80,000 per novel, and I don't reach that with every book.  

So although we say you can't make a living writing short stories anymore, it is possible to make some Bolly money.  Usually hobbies cost you money.  This is one that allows you to make some!

I've always said that when my novel career wanes, I will continue to write short stories with gusto.

It's true what they say:  you never forget your first love.

Melodie Campbell has won the Derringer, the Arthur Ellis and eight more awards.  She didn't even steal them, which will be explained if you look up her wacky Goddaughter books...
www.melodiecampbell.com








27 June 2020

What Went Wrong – (and pass the Scotch)


My friend and colleague John Floyd has inspired me many times, but this time for a singularly bizarre post:  Things that go wrong in the life of an author.

WHAT WENT WRONG:  The Publisher Version

1.  The publication that never was.  John, you mentioned in your recent post Strange but True, that you have received acceptance letters from publishers who then realized they sent them to the wrong person.  I can do you one better (if you really want to call it that.)

This year, I received a very public congratulations from the Ontario Library Association for being a finalist for their YA award.  I was thrilled!  It was my first YA crime book, after 16 adult ones, and they don't usually give awards to crime books.  I basked in glory and excitement for about five minutes until I realized the title of the book they mentioned was not the book I had written.  There ensued a very public retraction.  Everywhere.  And apology.  I am not sure there is anything more embarrassing than receiving a very public apology for an honour snatched back from you.

2.  It isn't often a publisher buys ads for your book and we all celebrate when they do.  The publisher of Rowena and the Dark Lord was out to create gold.  The first book in the series was a bestseller.  So they decided to throw money at book 2, advertising it at more than two dozen places.  And throw money, they did.  Throw it away, that is.  Unfortunately, the ad company misspelled the title of the book in all the ads.  ROWENA AND THE DARK LARD might be popular in cooking circles, but it didn't make a splash with the epic fantasy audience to which it was targeted.

3.  Back in the mid 90s, I was making it, or so I thought.  Had some stories with STAR magazine.  Broke into Hitchcock.  And later, big time, with Moxie magazine.  Remember Moxie?  Up there with Good Housekeeping and Cosmo? No, perhaps you don't.  I was really pleased when they offered me a 50% kill fee of $750.  Not that I wanted to collect it, but it was a status symbol back then to get offered kill fees in your short story contract.  Unfortunately, if you story is killed because the magazine goes under, ain't nothing left for a kill fee.  Big time becomes no time.

WHAT WENT WRONG:  The Event Version

1.  It's always tough when you are shortlisted for a prize and you don't win.  It's even tougher when you are actually at the gala event, and all your friends are waiting for you to be named the winner.  Tougher still, when you are shortlisted in TWO categories, and you don't win either.

But that doesn't touch the case when you are the actual Emcee for the event, you've just finished doing an opening stand-up routine to great applause, you have media there and a full house, you are shortlisted in two categories, and you don't win a sausage.  And still have to run the rest of the event from the stage.

This is why they invented scotch.

WHAT WENT WRONG:  The Agent Version

1.  No fewer than THREE big production companies have approached my agent about optioning The Goddaughter series for TV.  This has gone on for four years, and included hours of negotiating.  "Really excited - back to you on Friday!" said the last one.  That was last summer.  I'm still waiting to see any money.

2.  My first agent was a respected older gent from New York.  Sort of a father figure, very classy.  Like some - okay many - agents, he wasn't the best at getting back to us in a timely manner, particularly by email.  We kind of got used to it.  So it was with some shock that I got a phone call from another author, who had discovered that the reason we hadn't heard back from J is because he had died two months before.  Nobody had gotten around to telling us.

I have a really good agent now. She's still alive, which I've found is a huge advantage in an agent.

Here's the book that was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award last year, along with that short story that also didn't win (pass the scotch):



Remember the A-Team?  We're not them.  
But if you've been the victim of a scam, give us a call.  
We deal in justice, not the law.  We're the B-Team.
At all the usual suspects including....

17 June 2020

Fancies and Goodnights


The July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine hit the newsstands yesterday (are there still newsstands?) and I am delighted to report that I have a story  in it.  (After I typed that I saw the cover.  Wow!  AHMM has really been on a roll the last few years with great covers.  I am proud to benefit from that again.)

"The Library of Poisonville" is full of literary references, appropriately enough.  The title refers to Jorge Luis Borges' great story "The Library of Babel," which inspired my piece, and also to a work by Dashiell Hammett.  Most of the references are obvious, but I thought I would write about an author who my story only touches on tangentially.

John Collier was born in London in 1901.  He was reading Hans Christian Andersen by age 3.  As a teenager he told his father he wanted to be a poet.  Believe it or not, that was fine with dear old Dad, who never required him to get a job or even go to university.  (His work contains several  odd father-son relationships.)

By age thirty he had switched his emphasis to fiction which gave him the chance to show off his, um, unique imagination.  (In what way unique?  Well, his first novel was entitled His Monkey Wife, or I Married A Chimp.)  His story collection Fancies and Goodnights won both the Edgar Award and the International Fantasy Award.    And how often has one book scored both of those?

My favorite Collier story - which I list among my all-time favorite fifty crime tales - is "Witch's Money." In spite of the title this is no fantasy, but rather a tale of cross-cultural misunderstanding in which the arrival of an American painter in a village in southern France leads, with the inevitability of Greek tragedy, to utter destruction.

His writing style tended toward the flowery and sardonic, reminding me of Saki, Roald Dahl, Avram Davidson, and James Powell.  His work has been adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and Tales of the Unexpected.  He also wrote screenplays for the Hitchcock show and movies; most importantly he was part of the team the wrote The African Queen.

Of all of his works the one that has been adapted for other media the most is probably "Evening Primrose," about a poet who rejects society by living what might be the ultimate consumer dream: dwelling secretly in a department store.  It was even turned into a TV musical starring Anthony Perkins, with songs by Stephen Sondheim!

"I sometimes marvel," Collier once wrote, "that a third-rate writer like me has been able to pass himself off as a second-rate writer."

Here are some of my favorite lines from this first-rate writer:

"Alice and Irwin were as simple and as happy as any young couple in a family-style motion picture.  In fact, they were even happier, for people were not looking at them all the time and their joys were not restricted by the censorship code." - Over Insurance

"How happy I might be if only she was less greedy, better tempered, not so addicted to raking up old grudges, more affectionate, with slightly yellower hair, slimmer, and about twenty years younger!  But what is the good of expecting such a woman to reform?" - Three Bears Cottage

Actress and screenwriter: "I think I'd like to play Juliet."
"It's been done."
"Not as I shall do it.  You shall write a new script, especially for me." - Pictures in the Fire

"So Mrs. Beaseley went resentfully along, prepared to endure Hell herself if she could deprive her husband of a little of his Heaven." - Incident on a Lake

"Annoyed with the world, I took a large studio in Hampstead.  Here I resolved to live in utter aloofness, until the world should approach me on its knees, whining it apologies." -Night! Youth! Paris! And the Moon!

"As soon as Einstein declared that space was finite, the price of building sites, both in Heaven and Hell, soared outrageously." -Hell Hath No Fury

"The young man was greatly taken aback to hear a gorilla speak.  However, common sense reminded him that he was in a city in which many creatures enjoyed that faculty, whom, at first sight, or at any hearing, one would hardly credit with sufficient intelligence to have attained it." -Variation on a  Theme

"It is the fate of those who kiss sleeping beauties to be awakened themselves."  -Sleeping Beauty

"The first cognac is utilitarian merely.  It is like a beautiful woman who has, however, devoted herself entirely to doing good, to nursing, for example.  Nothing is more admirable, but one would like to meet her sister." - Old Acquaintance

If you have read this far I have an offer for you.  As I said, my reference to Collier's work in "The Library of Poisonville" is obscure, but it should ring clear to any fan of the man.   If someone can tell me which of his stories I referred to - and where - I will send that person an autographed copy of the magazine or something of equally dubious merit.  First responder only!


16 June 2020

News From the Dark Side


A year before I joined SleuthSayers, I wrote “Tales From the Dark Side,” a guest post about editing that included some information about my editing background and several tips on how to please editors.

I’ve touched on editing in some of my subsequent posts, but this time I’m sharing news.

BLACK CAT MYSTERY MAGAZINE

Those of you who have read the recently released Black Cat Mystery Magazine #6—or have used Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to read the issue’s editorial—will already know this, but I am now the editor of BCMM.

I joined the BCMM staff at last year’s Malice Domestic, replacing Carla Coupe as co-editor upon her retirement. Earlier this year, after working together on the forthcoming special issue Black Cat Mystery Magazine Presents Private Eyes and reading through all the submissions from last fall’s open call, Wildside Press Publisher John Betancourt asked me to step into the editor’s role while he concentrated on his duties as publisher.

So, I did.

Our goal is to publish quarterly, with three numbered issues and one special issue each year, and John has charged me with ensuring that BCMM is home to the full range of subgenres within our field.

BCMM #6—filled will new stories by Michael Bracken, Trey R. Barker, Patricia Dusenbury, Robert Guffey, John Hegenberger, Laird Long, and Robert Lopresti, and a classic reprint by Bryce Walton—is the last issue in which all the stories were selected by John and Carla. John and I selected the stories for the private eye issue, and subsequent issues 7–10 contain a mixture of stories selected by John and Carla, John and me, and me.

As you likely gathered from the previous paragraph, we have filled the next four regular issues, so it could be as much as a year before we again open for general submissions. Even so, our next special issue—Black Cat Mystery Magazine Presents Cozies—will open for submissions later this year. Keep a close watch at https://bcmystery.com/Guidelines/ for guidelines and information about the short submission window.

DOWN & OUT BOOKS

A few years ago I began work on my first anthology for Down & Out Books—The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes From the Panhandle to the Piney Woods—and the number of projects I’m doing with D&O continues to grow.

The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes From the Panhandle to the Piney Woods

The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods
was released just before the 2019 Bouchercon in Dallas. In addition to strong reviews and an Anthony Award nomination for Best Anthology or Collection, stories from The Eyes of Texas have been singled out for award recognition:

Sandra Murphy’s story “Lucy’s Tree” earned a Derringer Award.

Richard Helms’s story “See Humble and Die” was nominated for a Derringer Award and was selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2020, due out later this year.

Michael Pool’s story “Weathering the Storm” has been short-listed for a Shamus Award.

Guns + Tacos

Guns + Tacos, the serial novella anthology series I co-created and co-edit with Trey R. Barker released its first season in 2019. Six novellas, released as ebooks one episode each month July–December constitute a season, and, after each season ends, that season’s novellas are assembled into a pair of paperbacks, each containing three episodes.

Season 2—with novellas by Ann Aptaker, Eric Beetner, Alec Cizak, Ryan Sayles, Mark Troy, and a collaboration between Trey R. Barker and me—begins next month. Each episode can be ordered individually, but subscribers receive a special bonus story that non-subscribers don’t. Last season I wrote the bonus story; this season Trey wrote it.

And—good news!—we’ve been approved for season 3.

Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir

Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, the first in what we hope will be an annual anthology series, is set to release this fall. After all the contracts are signed and we get a bit closer to publication date, I’ll share the list of contributors.

Mickey Finn 2, slated for publication fall 2021, is in the last stages of the editing process and the manuscript will soon be delivered to the publisher.

Jukes & Tonks

Jukes & Tonks, which I am co-editing with Gary Phillips, is scheduled for publication in spring 2021. Gary and I are awaiting delivery of the last few stories and then copyediting begins.

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!

In addition to the above, I remain editor of a bi-monthly consumer magazine for gardeners and a weekly electronic newsletter for gardeners.

BUT WHAT ABOUT SOME WRITING NEWS?

My story “Best Be the Tie that Binds” appears in Black Cat Mystery Magazine #6.

You might say I have a vested interest in two of this year’s Anthony Award-nominated anthologies. Crime Travel (Wildside Press), edited by fellow SleuthSayer Barb Goffman, contains my Derringer Award-nominated story “Love, Or Something Like It.”

05 May 2020

A River Runs Through It


Although I’ve written and sold short stories in a variety of genres, my crime fiction primarily fits within the subgenres of private eye, hardboiled, and noir. I’ve written many stories in which violence is on the page, sex is on the page, and the climax involves someone getting shot. (The crime fiction I wrote for men’s magazines—prior to their demise as viable markets—often involved climaxes of a different sort.)

While I’ve done well working within these three subgenres, I realize restricting myself to them limits the number of publications that might use my work and relying on shooting someone for a climax lends a certain predictability to my stories.

So, during the past handful of years, I’ve made a conscious effort to expand my crime fiction into other subgenres. “Sleepy River,” in the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, is a good example.

STORY GENESIS

I envy fellow short-story writers—Art Taylor, John Floyd, Robert Lopresti, and several others—who write wonderful essays about the inspiration behind this story or that story. I often find those kind of essays difficult to write because I rarely know where my ideas come from.

For example, all I can find in my notes is that I created a Word document for “Sleepy River” on June 19, 2018, and I had, at some point prior to that, roughed out five pages of handwritten notes. There is nothing to indicate where the idea came from, but the key elements of the story—including a rough sketch of the dock where the story begins and ends—are in the notes.

GENRE-CHALLENGED

I’m uncertain what sub-genre “Sleepy River” fits into, but it’s clearly not private eye, hardboiled, or noir.

It’s about what happens to two young girls idling away their time during summer break. There’s no sex, no bad words, and only muted violence. But there are good guys, bad guys, and a dead guy. And nobody gets shot in the climax.

Enjoy.

26 April 2020

Pride, The Fall, Redemption



PRIDE:
They say that Pride goeth before The Fall. That's me. For a lot of years, I was a man of consequence, but lately, Father Time has found it humorous to saddle me with age and thus remind me of the limitations I now have. Used to be, I lived the life, whether it was kicking doors,riding roundup, scuba diving, ziplining, branding calves, over the road on Harleys, coming in hot in Hueys, traveling to exotic lands and places... It was a rush.

And then came The Fall.

THE FALL:
In the beginning, it was more a series of little trips and stumbles. A health thing here, a degenerating vision thing there. Sorry pal, you're going to have to slow down to a walk, no more running for you. I was never a top athlete, one who was going to run a marathon, but c'mon knees, ankles, feet, wind, where'd you go? Yeah, I know, I never acted my age, especially in later years, but that was a good thing. It kept me going. Sure, I saw others in my different groups slowing down with age, but that was them. This was me. For a long time, even the mirror was on my side. What the hell happened?

And then, about three weeks ago, Father Time decided that the art of multi-tasking should now be beyond my capabilities. I should no longer be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Of course, I swear I was not chewing gum at the time of the trip, stumble and fall, but down I went anyway. The sidewalk won that bout. I came off second with scrapes, bruises, stitches and a nicked temporal artery. Man them things leak a lot of red stuff. Even the mirror said it didn't like me anymore. Something about if I had bolts in my neck, then I'd have a pieced-together face like Frankenstein's monster. I tell you, I gotta get a new mirror.

The ER doc sewed me up and I figured I could go home and be done with this fiasco. Much later, a nurse came in with discharge papers and explained which direction to walk to get to the ER waiting room where I could wait for my wife to collect me. Cell phones don't get reception in the ER rooms themselves, so I had to wait patiently until I got to the ER waiting room to call my wife for a ride home. AND, since I had no other clothes, AND since relatives are not allowed in ER rooms these days to even bring you fresh clothes, AND since the hospital will not loan you one of their fashionable backless gowns, I had to wear my long-sleeve, denim shirt which was thoroughly soaked with O-Positive, in order for me to leave the ER and go into the waiting room.

Fortunately, there were only two people sitting in the waiting room. Don't know how they got in as neither was a patient. Both had the appearance of street people. However, it was a large waiting room, so no problem keeping my social distancing. Then, I start listening to their conversation which consisted mostly of two related topics; cocaine and overdosing. Seems they had a friend in the ER as a patient. Guess the security guard must've had a soft spot in his heart to let them wait inside and occasionally inquire of the admission staff about their friend. But wait, it gets better.

The door from the ER rooms and into the ER waiting room opens and in strolls a "gentleman" with a long braid of hair hanging down his back and a lengthy key chain hanging from his belt down to his knees and back up into his front pants pocket. Obviously he doesn't have a cell phone because he goes straight to the free, old-style phone on the wall. I have no idea who he calls, but some of the first words out of his mouth quickly grab my attention. Words like: "No, I'm not escaping." Yeah, I know I was supposed to be outside the house at noon for them to pick me up." "No, I'm not trying to escape." "Look, just stall them." "No, don't tell them I'm at the hospital." "I told you, I'm not escaping." Then, he hangs up. Since the door back into the ER automatically locks after it closes, one of the two armed security guards has to let him back into the ER

This particular armed guard, who has previously been content to drink coffee and chat with the admissions people at the ER front door now turns and notices me in my slightly wet, drying from red to very dark red shirt. Coffee and chit chat go by the wayside. He casts a wary eye on me and immediately takes up a position against a nearby wall, with his arms crossed over his chest and a hard look in his eyes. I am now a person of interest.  It must be the company I've been keeping. Thank God my ride soon showed up so the guards could relax and go back to drinking coffee.

REDEMPTION:
Home at last. Fresh clothes. A pocketful of extra strength Tylenol. Yes, we did stop at the scene of the crime on our way home, but still can't figure out how or why the fall happened. It will just have to remain as one of those unexplained mysteries, but I can tell you there won't be any gum chewing in my future, for sure. I'll also have to avoid the mirror for a few days (we aren't getting along lately), but hey, everybody's got some problems these days.

And then.

I did what? You got to be kidding me.

Well then, forget all that other stuff.

I JUST SOLD ANOTHER STORY TO ALFRED HITCHCOCK MYSTERY MAGAZINE.

That makes 46 short stories they've bought from me.

Hey, I'm almost good again. I'll see what the mirror has to say about it.

04 April 2020

Creating "Rhonda and Clyde," Issue #5, BCMM





Last month I posted a column here about the writing of one of my recent short stories, "Crow's Nest" (EQMM, Jan/Feb 2020 issue), and during that post I explained that I usually come up with the plot first, then invent the characters, give them a setting to live in, etc. I'm not saying that's the best way to write short stories--I'm just saying that's the way I write short stories.

Not long ago, though, I wrote a story about a pair of modern-day bank robbers called "Rhonda and Clyde," and for this one I made up most the characters first. I had a blurry picture of the plot in my head, but at the beginning it was just a heist-and-pursuit idea with not much detail. Long story short (pun intended), I then wrote the story and sent it to Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and they bought it and published it in their Issue #5, November 2019.

I think the first glimmer of an idea for this story struck me after a re-watching of Bonnie and Clyde. I've always been fascinated with them anyway, and I had recently talked with a journalist friend of mine who'd just returned from visiting the site in northwest Louisiana where the two were ambushed and killed in August 1934. This happened about the same time I was finishing up a story I'd been working on, and since I seem to write these stories like a chain-smoker, as soon as I typed THE END on that previous story I immediately lit up this one.


A character-building experience

I remember first creating my protagonist, who was a woman originally from the south but was now the sheriff at a small town in Wyoming. I wanted her to be strong and level-headed and happy in her job but also a duck-out-of-water, and I wanted her to have a deputy who was also an outsider but who wasn't happy, with either the job or his boss or his location. One of my reasons was that their mild but mutual dislike for each other added a level of conflict to the story before the plot ever really got going. And the more conflict you have in a story, the better. (More on that, later.)

I also came up with a sweet, lonely, and gullible bank teller with the everyday name of Helen Wilson, who gets duped by a married couple named Rhonda and Clyde Felson. Clyde's nickname for Rhonda was Ronnie, which worked well for a pair of lovebirds who robbed banks, and I remember stealing their last name from Fast Eddie Felson, Paul Newman's character in The Hustler. It seemed appropriate. I then added a police dispatcher, a few elderly and Native-American townsfolk, several more bank employees, a motel manager, an old couple on vacation, two state police detectives, and so on. More characters than my stories usually have--and some of the main players, as you might imagine, wound up changing their ways a bit in the course of the tale. I'm not a "literary" writer, but sometimes I try to think like one.

In the weird category, the name of one of my characters came from a highway sign I'd seen as my wife and I drove home from a Bouchercon conference a few years ago. It was one of those big green signs above the interstate--I-85 in this case, heading southwest between Greensboro and Charlotte--announcing the exit for the tiny towns of Spencer and East Spencer, North Carolina. The sign said (and probably still says):


SPENCER
E SPENCER

1 MILE


For some reason I remembered that--my brain works in mysterious ways--and when I needed a quirky name for my bank manager in this story, he became Spencer E. Spencer.


Plot, setting, etc.

Locationwise, the characters started out in North Dakota in my mind, and timewise I wanted it to be winter, which turned out well because the cold weather became a factor in the plot. I soon changed the setting to Wyoming, possibly because I've spent so many hours watching the Longmire TV series. The image I had of Sheriff Marcie Ingalls's office looked amazingly like Sheriff Walt Longmire's, minus a few mounted deer heads. Maybe her decorator watched that show too.

Now that I had the setting nailed down and most of the characters in costume and waiting patiently behind the curtain, I started thinking more about what they were going to do. And once I really got going on the plot itself, that turned out to be the most enjoyable part of the writing process. I've always found that to be fun, the mechanics of storytelling, the trying to make sure everything flows smoothly and fits together and is satisfying in the end.

I also enjoy plot twists. Some of my favorite short stories, novels, and movies have huge twists and turns, not just at the conclusion but throughout the story. A couple of examples are John Godey's novel The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and William Goldman's novel Marathon Man. One scene in particular in Pelham (involving a passenger on the subway) and several chapters in Marathon Man (involving the hero's brother) are designed to completely fool the reader and then delight him shortly afterward when the real situation becomes clear. And these happen in the middle of the story. I love that kind of deception. For one thing, it keeps the reader alert and off-balance, wondering when and whether it might happen again.

What most inspired me to try some of that in "Rhonda and Clyde" was a scene in the final act of the movie The Silence of the Lambs, which I first saw on an IBM trip almost thirty years ago--I even remember the city and the theater. It's the scene where rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling is going door-to-door seeking information about the case. One of the front doors she knocks on turns out to be that of the serial killer they're all looking for, Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb, but she doesn't know that because nobody knows what he looks like, and when he invites her inside we (the audience) are thinking don't go in don't go in, but she does. Meanwhile, her mentor and his team at the FBI are closing in on the house, and in back-and-forth cuts we see the armed and vested assault team crash through the door and we think they're about to save Clarice. But they find no one home, and only then do we realize that oh my God they're at a different house. Now that's suspense. And it's just one of the reasons Lambs swept the Oscars that year.

I tried to use some of that kind of misdirection in this story, along with some instances of redemption, which I mentioned earlier. It's always satisfying to me as a reader, and a writer, when characters wind up changing, as a result of what happens in the story, their attitudes and the way they look at life.


Info for Otto

One of the nicer things to happen to me this year was being notified that "Rhonda and Clyde" has been selected for inclusion in the 2020 edition of The Best American Mystery Stories, to be published this fall. As he always does, series editor Otto Penzler asked for a short piece about the story to accompany my bio in the anthology, and part of what I wrote goes along with the how-to-construct-a-story subject I've been discussing here today.

The following will appear in the "Contributors' Notes" section of B.A.M.S. 2020:


If I recall, my first inspiration for "Rhonda and Clyde" came on a bitterly cold day. (We don't have many of those here in the south, thank God.) It probably put me in a Fargo frame of mind, because when I created Wyoming sheriff Marcie Ingalls that morning, the image of the movie character Marge Gunderson sort of jumped into my head, and it stayed there throughout the planning of the story. That choice of a protagonist wasn't surprising; I've always liked stories about strong and smart women in law enforcement, and the way their colleagues (and the criminals) often make the mistake of underestimating them.

I also remember wanting to (1) give her a deputy she didn't particularly like and (2) make the villains a husband-wife team, maybe because I especially enjoy writing dialogue and I knew both those partnerships would give me a lot of opportunity for that. This line of thinking was a bit different for me, because I usually start with the plot and only then come up with the characters. In this case I created my players first and then dreamed up something for them to do, with some twists and reversals along the way. Anyhow, once I had all that in mind, I sat down and wrote the story in a couple of days' time--and it turned out to be one of my favorites.

Maybe an occasional cold snap isn't a bad thing . . .




The truth is, if the elements of fiction--plot, characterization, POV, dialogue, setting--are all in place and effective in a story, it doesn't much matter how they got there. All of us approach the planning and writing of a story in different ways, and whatever works, works. This is just how it happened this time.

How do you do it? Plot first? Characters first? Setting first? Theme first? A mix of several of these? Do you always do it the same way, or vary from time to time? What's been most successful for you?


In closing, I want to again express my thanks to John Betancourt and Carla Coupe at Black Cat M.M. for accepting and publishing this particular story and to Otto Penzler and C. J. Box for choosing it for inclusion in the 2020 edition of B.A.M.S. It's always gratifying to see something that you've written show up in magazines and anthologies that you respect and admire.


Best to all of you, writers and readers alike. Stay safe!

21 February 2020

More about Opening Lines


More about Opening Lines

I feel the opening line of a short story or novel is the most important line in the piece. First impressions are the strongest, especially for a beginning writer who wants an editor to read beyond the first page of a manuscript.

"The first page sells your book being read, the last page sells the one you're writing." – Mickey Spillane."

The same goes for short stories, maybe more so.

Over the years, I put together information given by writers and editors. As I've said so many times before, there is no one way to write anything and what follows are just suggestions.

The opening of a novel or short story could capture the attention of the reader with an original hook.

1. THE OPENING SHOULD PROMISE ... SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN

How?
a. By presenting compelling events
b. By presenting an unusual character
c. By presenting a vivid setting
d. By using striking language or dialogue
e. By an unusual presentation of ideas

It should arouse expectation with a promise of more to come.

It should let the reader in on WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, or WHY.

In your opening scene(s) you may want to establish:

a. Who is the main character?
b. What is the situation (the problem)?
c. Where is the story taking place (setting)?
d. When is the story taking place (time frame)?
e. Why did this situation happen?
f. How did the situation happen?

You may want to include a cliffhanger that makes the reader want to read on.

You opening should set the tone of the story.

The strongest type of opening usually hooks the read with action (physical or psychological).

The story does not generally open at the beginning of a situation. It usually opens at the high point of action.

EXAMPLES:

Character Opening – If you are writing a character-driven piece.
Atmosphere Opening –Take your reader to a unique setting.
Action Opening – Start in mid-scene.
Dialogue Opening – Promises the reader there is a emphasis on communication between characters.
Philosophical Opening – Prepares the reader this may be a reflective piece.
Emotion Opening – Promises emotional conflict.

In a 2013 interview, Stephen King stated, "... an opening line should invite the reader to begin the story ... it should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this."

King went on with, "For me, a good opening sentence really begins with voice. You hear people talk about 'voice' a lot, when I think they just mean 'style'. People come to books looking ... for the voice. An appealing voice achieves an intimate connection – a bond much stronger than the kind forged, intellectually, through crafted writing."

Award-winning short story writer John Floyd gives us, "I've always heard that ideal openings should (1) introduce you lead character and/or (2) establish the setting (time, place) and/or (3) introduce conflict. A fourth goal is to make the reader curious about what might happen."

Important Note:
A good opening line is like the opening move in a battle. If you do not follow up a good opening, you could lose the battle.

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Editor Janet Hutchings gives us, "Some writers have told me they have an attention-getting opening line as the seed for the story. That's fine. But from a reader/editor's perspective what makes the opening good or bad is how it serves everything that follows in the story."

Writing novels and short stories is a trade. A profession. Not a philosophical exercise.

OK – we have all read excellent novels and short stories which did not have a good opening line, which proves again there is no one way to write. In the epigraph in Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury quotes Juan Ramón Jiménez – "If they give you ruled paper, write the other way."

Hey Paul,
Here is Charley. Gone but never forgotten.



Thats all for now –
http://www.oneildenoux.com

08 February 2020

Why The Detective Stopped By


Somehow I managed to get a fantasy tale into the Jan./Feb. 2020 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. “The Detective Who Stopped by Bedford Street” tells the story of an unnamed New York police detective who uses an unusual method to crack stubborn cases. When he’s stumped, he visits a quaint vintage shop in Greenwich Village and listens to a beat-up old radio that the proprietor has vowed never to sell. When tuned correctly, the radio broadcasts critical moments in a case. The clues are often vague, but our detective is a clever sort, isn’t he? With the mysterious radio and the unstinting support of the shop’s mysterious proprietor, our nameless hero closes an impressive number of cases, and becomes a legend in the department, to his everlasting embarrassment.
 I can remember the exact moment the idea popped into my head. It was right when I was trying to finish another story that was resisting easy closure. Two years later, I can see that the few strands of the radio story—what Robert Lopresti wisely calls a “magical shop” story—were inspired by two different things.
The first is a famous John Cheever story called “The Enormous Radio.” It first ran in the New Yorker in 1947, but I first came upon it in 1981, when a paperback collection of the writer’s work (The Stories of John Cheever) was published and became a huge hit with people like me who’d never heard of Cheever. I bought my copy off a mass paperback stand at K-mart.
You owe it to yourself to check out the story. Current subscribers can read it at the New Yorker website, but for some reason you can also find the entire text online. In the piece, a New York couple discovers that their brand-new radio picks up conversations of people living in their apartment building. And so ensues the kind of sordid middle-class drama that Cheever was famous for. I don’t want to say more because it’s not my place to do so. It’s bad enough I swiped Cheever’s premise; I’m not going to give his ending away.
Back to our cop and his magic radio. I was probably a few hundred words into my story when I realized my biggest plot challenge: I needed to come with as many different audio clues as possible for our detective to grapple with. As I quickly figured out, it’s tricky to do that. For example, the most obvious clue is having a victim mention the name of his or her murderer. You can only trot that one out once.
Here, two classic movies were instructive, if only to remind me just how slight audio evidence can be. In the 1974 Coppola film The Conversation, everything hinges on the various shades of meaning of a recorded chat between two people. We know exactly what the two people say, but the meaning is unclear because we aren’t privy to the subtleties of context. In DePalma’s 1981  Blow Out, the critical sound of a car tire blowing out isn’t fraught with meaning until our hero finds audio of the sound that immediately precedes it.
In my story, I dispensed with the long-hanging fruit first, then worked my way up the ladder of audio complexity. The detective’s greatest triumph comes when he identifies a murderer based on the killer’s strange tic.
And now, since I’ve annoyingly danced around the plots of three, no, four creative works, I should probably be more forthright about the origins of the second big element in this story: the so-called magical shop itself.
Weirdly, I have always been a sucker for such shops, ever since I was a kid. For few years in my youth my father rented an office space above an Italian deli in the New Jersey town where I grew up. The office building was strangely trapezoidal, which meant that one window in my Dad’s studio jutted out like the bow of a ship, overlooking the main drag of my hometown.
My hometown’s business district, as depicted in an old postcard, long before I arrived on the scene. (The Blue Onion not pictured.)
I used to like sitting in that window and drawing pictures of the impossible cute gift shop across the street. If I’m not mistaken, it was called The Blue Onion, and its blue-painted, shingle roof and gable were anomalies in an otherwise boring Jersey town filled with pizza joints, strip malls, sanitized stucco buildings, and yes, that Kmart I mentioned earlier. I must have sketched dozens of versions of the Blue Onion, in all seasons, but its Christmas appearance—two front windows decked out with twinkling lights and faux snow—was probably my favorite.
In the 1990s, I lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, and took the train across the Hudson to New York City each morning to go to work. From the PATH station to my job at Scholastic, I walked past a charming shop on Bedford Street. It was the sort of place that sold antiques and “vintage” objects side-by-side with beautiful new objects carefully curated by the proprietor. I never went in, but I imagine that everything in it was ridiculously expensive.
 (credit: Denise Kiernan)
Later, when I went freelance, I conned my way into writing a twice-monthly “destinations” column for the now long-gone New Jersey section of the New York Times. All I did for these pieces was chase down places in the state that trafficked in, as my gruff editor once put it, “quaint shit.” I know it’s got a gritty reputation, but Jersey has lot more of these sorts of places than Tony Soprano would like to admit.
I now live in a town in North Carolina that has quaintness in spades—shops and entire barns devoted to relics from another time. Emporia like these always seem to promise a hell of a lot more than they deliver. But foolishly, if I have a few minutes, I still go peek inside them. I don’t know why. I can’t afford anything in them half the time, but still I browse. I suppose, like my detective, I go looking for the magic.
 josephdagnese.com


30 June 2019

My Writing World as I See It


by R.T. Lawton

A few weeks ago, Michael Bracken wrote a blog piece, "With Malice Aforethought," which discussed writer motivation, motivation in general, short stories versus novels, not shooting the horse you rode in on, dopamine rush, and risky behavior. Love it. At the end of his article, Michael expressed an interest in the how's and why's of writer motivation and the hope that research will come up with some of the answers. Several of our fellow Sleuth Sayer bloggers then responded with their own personal experiences.

So, here's another view on those topics. Naturally, one subject's story is an anecdote, and it takes lots of data or anecdotes from several subject's to put together a research project. Towards that end, here's some more anecdotes, plus a few thoughts on the topic.

From Kindergarten to Senior year in high school, I went to eleven different schools. Yeah, we moved a lot. Other than immediate family, the main constant in my life was taking refuge in books. Oddly enough, a parallel existed there, because the world in the book being read changed with every new book I started, just like my world changed with every move to a new place. All that starting over may have resulted in my short attention span when it came to writing, thus my leaning towards a short story career. Hey, it could happen that way.

Massive reading eventually led to the inclination to write my own stories. Especially when I would read a not-so-good-story, and then tell myself that I could do a better job. Sad to say, the latter part of that declaration did not happen right away, else I'd have better stats now.

This issue of AHMM contains "The Horse,"
8th in my Armenian series set in Chechnya.
People make plans and yet life has a habit of getting in the way. Sure enough, Uncle Sam decided he couldn't quite pull it off alone, so he sent me a nice letter requesting my assistance with his SE Asian program. I gave him two years, nine months and twenty-nine days, to include my one year in-country working on his program. In return, he graciously paid the rest of my college fees and tuition.

Guess now we get to the dopamine and risky behavior part that Michael mentioned. As Ernest Hemingway once said, "In order to write about life first you must live it." Since dopamine and adrenaline are first cousins, I ventured out to live life after finishing college. Twenty-five years on the street working risky people made good fodder for stories. All I had to do was learn how to write these stories down. I'd already tried a creative writing course in college. Couldn't relate to it. Seems I wasn't cut out to be a literary author. Time to reboot.

At the end of most working days, vice cops and federal agents, in the 70's through the 90's, had the habit of stopping at some neighborhood bar to wind down, let off the tension. Inevitably, stories would be told around the table about that night's happenings, or even favorite stories from past raids, arrests, surveillance or undercover incidents. The best stories got the most laughs. That's when I found I was a  storyteller. Time to think commercial market. Just needed to learn how to put words on paper in the proper format. Seems that, for me, is an ongoing process with occasional speed bumps.

I finally found my niche in the mystery genre, writing short stories about the criminals, cons and scams I'd run into on the streets. In my writing world, achieving the big-time market, after small press magazines and ten-dollar payments, started when Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine's writer's guidelines on their web page said they were looking for stories set in an exotic location. Conveniently, I had one set in the Golden Triangle of SE Asia. Cathleen Jordan, the editor of AHMM at that time, bought my story and I got one foot in the door. After that, it was put everything I could think of into a story and don't hold back on material. So far, it's been a good run.

my spurs
To date, I've sold 44 short stories to AHMM, with an acceptance rate of 72.13%. On the other hand, my acceptance rate at their sister magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, can never get any lower than it is right now. HUH ! But, if I had a third hand, so I could once again say "on the other hand,"  I'd say that anthologies have become a sometimes lucrative market.

Since my numbers for published novels is zero, I, much like Michael, am not going to shoot the short story horse I rode in on. Me  and that particular horse are currently on very good terms. I've even taken off my spurs after all those years in the saddle and retired them to my writing desk. The horse knows they're off my boots, but he can see them still there in case they become necessary again.

I know I won't live long enough to catch up with Ed Hoch's record of 450-some short stories in EQMM, and his 60+ short stories in AHMM, but I will hopefully continue to plug along, until my vision fails.

In the meantime, fare thee well and keep on writing.

R.T. out.