Showing posts with label short stories. Show all posts
Showing posts with label short stories. Show all posts

07 February 2020

Shot By Your Partner, Part Two


I published the first half of this story on Wednesday.   Better start there or you won't have any idea what's going on.

Here is the big finale...


The widow agreed to talk to them, against Wyngood’s adamant objections, but she insisted that Forillo had to be present too.

“There must be some mistake.”

“You figure this was somebody else’s death card that your husband just happened to tuck into his safe? Have you and Mr. Forillo killed other people?”

“No! But Arthur told me—“

“Did you ever see his death card?’

“No, but—“

“Did you, Mr. Forillo?”

The assistant shook his head. He hadn’t said a word since the safe had opened.

“But you knew he was supposed to died in a fall,” said Staney.

“That’s what he told us.”

“And where were you when your employer died?”

“We already told you. Ms. Duplessis and I were in one of the anterooms on the other side of the hall, finishing the paperwork.”

“That’s what you said,” agreed Merritt. “Funny thing is the techs didn’t find any sheets of paper in that room. They did find a bed sheet in the closet. Apparently it had been on the couch and there were bodily fluids on it. We’ve got a court order to see if the fluids belonged to you and Ms. Duplessis.”

‘They did,” said Forillo.

“Ed,” said the widow, alarmed.

“We’re in love,” he said. “Her husband was a viscious old bastard, but we didn’t kill him.”

Wyngood said “If they were together there they obviously didn’t push someone down the staircase.”

“I don’t know how long they were spreading fluids,” said Merritt, “but we have a twenty minute hole for Mr. Duplessis to die. That’s plenty of time. Plus, Mr. Forillo found the body.”

“Speaking of fluids,” said Staney, “have you two used the death machine?”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” asked the lawyer.

“We’ve already got a court order for blood, counselor. The courts say we can run it through the death-box.”

“Diabetes,” said Forillo, still blank-faced.

“Breast cancer,” said Ms. Duplessis. “Are you happy now?’

“We’re sorry, ma’am,” said Staney. “But the question remains: If you didn’t kill him, how did your names get on that card?”

“Oh god,” said the widow. She buried her face in her hands. “Don’t you see what happened?”

“Why don’t you tell us?”

“Arthur must have found out that we were having an affair. He killed himself out of jealousy. That’s what the death card meant.”

“That makes sense,” said Wyngood. “The machine meant he killed himself because of Talia and Sam.”

“Nice try,” said Merritt. “The problem is juries don’t like complicated stories. If the machine says shot by your uncle the jury is going to assume your Uncle Mike came with a gun, not that Uncle Sam came with a tank.”

“That makes no sense,” said Wyngood.

“Then try this. You’re both under arrest.”



“Machine-gunned by rebels.” Merritt was driving.

“No.”


“Sex with beautiful twins on your ninetieth birthday.”

“That’s it.”

“Hah. You wish. Drowned in a butt of malmsey.”


“A what of what?”

“Barrel of cheap wine. Some English king killed an enemy that way. Katy’s studying Shakespeare.”

“Smart kid. She must take after her mama.”

“Thank God for that.” Merritt pulled into a parking space.

Staney tapped his fingers on the plastic envelope that held the death card. “Give me a couple of minutes. I want to drop this at the lab.”


They decided to let Talia and Ed, as they called them now, stew in separate rooms at the station. After two hours they decided it was time.

“Divide and conquer,” said Merritt. “I’ll take the stud.”

“Knock yourself out,” said Staney and entered the widow’s room.

She looked like hell. Her eyes were red, her face was grim. “I’m not saying a word until Charlotte gets back. She’s arranging bail.”

“That’s fine, Ms. Duplessis. I don’t have a single question for you. I just want to tell you what’s going on. Detective Merritt is in the next room talking to your lover, who has not reached a lawyer yet. Merritt will tell him that there are two ways this can go. Either the jury is going to hear about the poor abused wife who was seduced by her husband’s evil assistant--”

“That’s not true!”

“Let me finish. The other choice is that the jury will hear that the black widow talked the innocent young man into killing her hubby.”

He shrugged. “Whoever confesses first frames the story and gets the best deal. My partner is telling your partner that Ms. Wyngood will convince you to sell him out before his lawyer finds the precinct house.”

Talia banged her hands flat on the table. “But we didn’t do anything!

“The death machine says you did and no one has proved one wrong yet.”

“Ed is not going to betray me. I have faith in him.”

“The real question,” said Staney, “is whether he has faith in you.”



Wyngood came back, swearing about the evil incompetence of judges, none of whom apparently saw the wisdom of holding emergency bail hearings for wealthy murder suspects. The lovers were still holding out an hour later when the detectives stopped for a coffee break. Staney had just had a first sip when his phone buzzed. He read the ID and looked at his partner. “Back in a few.”

He hurried to the crime lab where Roma, the questioned document man, was waiting for him.

“Why this one?” Roma held up the envelope with the death card. “You see hundreds of these things a year. Why did you send this one to me?”

“First tell me what you found.”

Roma shrugged. “Card stock is one hundred percent legit. Ditto the ink and font.”

Staney scowled. “So it’s real.”

“Not so fast. It’s time to quote Dr. Samuel Johnson.”

“Who’s he? A coroner?”

“Nope. He was an English dude who wrote dictionaries hundreds of years ago. But he also reviewed a book – not a dictionary – and he said ‘this is a good and original book, but the good parts are not original, and the original parts—”

“Are not good. I get it. But what does that have to do with the death card?”

Roma brandished the item again. “The card stock is used by all the Cassandroid machines. The ink and font are standard for the Mortellis Corporation.”

“So they shouldn’t be on the same card.”

“Bingo. This is the first serious forgery of a death card I ever saw. It took someone with access to good equipment.”

“How about a publisher who also owns art galleries?”

“Jackpot.”



“About time you got back,” said Merritt. “Forillo’s lawyer says he’s ready to cop a deal. You’ll never guess, but it turns out it was the widow’s idea and he was practically an innocent bystander.”

“No deal on the deal,” said Staney. “Get him into Conference Room C. I’ll fetch the ladies.”

The widow was crying and her lawyer looked ready to commit grievous bodily harm on somebody.

“Your partner was just in here, gloating,” she said. “I don’t know what kind of lie you talked Mr. Torillo into—“

“Ms. Duplessis can walk out of here with a clean slate in half an hour,” said Staney. “Or you can lecture me. What’s your pleasure?”



Room C had a long table, but it wasn’t long enough for the former lovers, who wanted nothing to do with each other. They sat at opposite ends, refusing to look in each other’s directions.

Wyngood and Forillo’s lawyer – fresh from the bar exam, by the look of him – were at their clients’ sides. Merritt sat between like a referee.

Staney stood. “You were right about one thing, Ms. Duplessis. Your husband somehow discovered you two were having an affair. He decided to kill himself.”

“Out of jealousy?” asked Merritt.

“I imagine that was the last straw. Did you know he had MS?”

Talia’s eyes went wide. “The doctor’s office called once about a test for MS. He said it was a mistake.”

“We can check his medical records, but I think we’ll find that he did. He knew it wouldn’t kill him – I’m guessing his death card really did say he would die in a fall – but out of a desire for vengeance, he decided to frame you two for murder.”

“Actually,” said Ed, “I’m surprised the old bastard didn’t try to kill us.”

Staney shook his head. “Breast cancer. Diabetes. Remember? He already knew how you were going to die.

“So he printed a false death card and killed himself where there would be plenty of people to notice that you two were conspicuously absent. I’m guessing he waited until he saw you sneak off to your hideaway. Then he headed for the staircase.”

“What about the blow to the head?” asked Merritt.

“Did it himself with his cane. One blow, hard enough to draw blood. Takes determination but he had enough hate in his heart for it, don't you think? Then the tumble down the stairs, which he had every reason to believe would be fatal.”

“So that’s it?” said Wyngood. “They’re free to go?”

“With thanks for their cooperation.”

Ed stood up, moving toward the widow, arms outstretched.

Talia stepped back like had had rabies. “Don’t come near me, you – you – backstabber! You were ready to perjure me into prison!”

Ed stammered something. It didn’t do any good.

“Listen,” said Staney. “Listen!”

Everyone turned to him,

“Mr. Duplessis’s last wish was that you two would be miserable for the rest of your lives. Are you going to going to give him the satisfaction?”

Talia turned to Ed, who was ready and waiting.

“Guess not,” said Merritt.



“What made you think it was a frame?” Merritt asked. They were at their computers, closing up files.

“A matter of character, I guess. We were supposed to think Duplessis knew his wife and assistant were going to kill him, but that he didn’t tell them, or try to do anything about it.” Staney frowned. “From what we knew about the guy, I didn’t think he would go that route. Frankly, I don’t think most people could. I mean, knowing someone close to them was going to be the cause of their death and going on like nothing was wrong? That’s got to be hard as hell.”

“I don’t know. Doesn’t sound so difficult.”

“When was the last time you went to a domestic disturbance?”

“Okay, you’ve got a point. I admit that was a good piece of detective work. Just don’t get a swelled head over it. Hey! There’s your cause. Swelled head.”

“No.”

“Nibbled to death by ducks.”

“Seems like it sometimes.”

26 January 2020

Record Keeping



Two weeks ago, Travis posted his spreadsheet method for keeping track of his writing and his submissions. I can see how his method works for him.

My system developed gradually as I saw the need to record certain information, therefore it became a conglomeration of Word documents. But then, authors go about their writing differently, so maybe authors keep their writing records differently. In any case, here's a brief look at my system.

Naturally, I have a Bibliography document. This allows me to at least consider myself as a semi-successful, short-fiction author on the commercial side of writing and serves to collect some handy-to-have statistics. And yes, there are some duplicate entries from one document to another.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
R.T. Lawton
(as of 01/17/2020)

11/1976   1 "Dead End Alley" Easyriders Magazine ($250) [aka Pockets/ R.E. Silverman] 
                 NOTE: DEA agents weren't allowed 2nd occupations, thus the double alias.

05/1977  2 "...to ashes,...to dust" Easyriders magazine ($225) [aka Pockets/ R.E. Silverman]

10/1984  3 "Jeffrey" Time Out & Recess [aka Arthur Twillinger/R.T.]

12/1984  4 "Peer Pressure" Time Out & Recess [aka Arthur Twillinger/R.T.]

NOTE: Yes, I did write 22 children's stories for two different state-wide elementary school newspapers at the same time as writing three biker stories, but I had to be careful writing on two different levels simultaneously because there are some words bikers don't understand.

*   *   *  skip to end of document  *   *   *

09/14/19 9 Holiday Burglars, KDP Paperback (all stories previously published in AHMM

09/22/19 31 Mini-Mysteries, KDP Paperback (31 mini's, plus 1 previously unpublished "And the
               Band Played On" as a bonus story.

11/01/19 137 "A Loaf of Bread" #7 PU 40 AHMM ($370)

12/01/19 138 "The Job Interview" Mystery Weekly ($35.86 minus $1.88 fee)

Bought, but not yet scheduled:  "Reckoning with your Host" #6 SA 41 AHMM ($360) + "A Matter of Values" 42 AHMM ($430) + "A Helping Hand" #8 PU 43 AHMM ($410) + "The Road to Hana" 44 AHMM ($340) + "Gnawing at the Cat's Tail" #7 SA 45 AHMM ($340)

a total of 143 published short stories
(and below this line is a list we'll skip of published writings in other categories, such as cowboy poems, articles, etc., plus a compilation of short story statistics.)

Some of the number codes above are easy to figure out, some aren't.  For instance, "A Loaf of Bread" is the 137th published short story, the 7th in my Paris Underworld series and the 40th story bought by Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

The next document is my SUBMISSION LOG kept in 4 year increments. It keeps track of when and where a story was submitted, what happened to it, when the contract and check came and when the story got published. This document lets me know how long some processes take and if something is overdue. Here are some samples of entries:

10/01/19  "The Job Interview"                                         Mystery Weekly
  10/02/19  e-mail acceptance, signed e-contract
  10/03/19  payment via PayPal
  12/01/19  published
11/12/19  "The Release Factor" #8 SA                             AHMM # 903457

01/17/19  "The 14K Assassin" #9 SA                               AHMM # 994625

Any time there is a blank space between the lines above, that means there is pending action and my eyes are quickly drawn there.

Lastly, there is an UNSOLD STORY TRACKER where I can tell at a glance which stories are still in inventory and who rejected them. Here's a short example:

WAS: "Taking Down the Room"                                        AHMM, EQMM
WAS: "Slipping into Darkness" (long version)                   MWA anthology
WAS: "Down in Jersey"                                                      Deadly Ink
SOLD: "Slipping into Darkness" 750 word flash sold to  Flash Bang Magazine

WAS: "Mom's Day"                                                            AHMM
NOW: "Mum's Day"                                                           Weekly News

"The Queen"                                                                       Blue Cubicle Press (casino issue)

If an anthology or other call for submissions comes out with a short deadline, I can refer to the above document and instantly know if a story languishing in inventory has the right ingredients for their writer's guidelines.

Those three record-keeping documents are the main ones I'm concerned with. However, I do have a tendency to make lists and also keep various writing statistics. For instance, a list I'll skip showing here is my AHMM stories sold, how much was paid for each one (with a running total) and the word count in each story (with a running total). I only made this list up in order to use the stats as a means to argue my point of view in a blog article I wrote a couple of years ago about short stories vs. novels.

So, there it is. I'm open to any and all ideas. It may not be a glamorous side to writing, but how do you keep your writing records?

24 January 2020

Ten Pin Alley


Riley Fox
Riley Fox
Riley Fox is my oldest grandchild. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.  He's been writing or telling little fiction stories ever since he was five years old. For past ten years he has done stand-up comedy writing his own jokes. This is his first fiction story to be published.     — Jan Grape


TEN PIN ALLEY
by Riley Fox

There’s something about the smell of a bowling alley that is hard to define. From the coat of mineral oil on the wooden lanes, to the inescapable presence of cigarette smoke that clings to the brick walls like a memory that refuses to leave you alone in the dead of night, to whatever it is they spray into the insides of those cheap rental shoes that always seem to be too big and too small at the exact same time, it’s a smell that you can only identify in fragments. But that’s exactly what Earl loves about it. Sometimes you can only appreciate a full image by its parts.

Earl has owned this bowling alley for so long that many frequent visitors greet him by name. Even the ones who don’t know his name recognize his ever-present smile peeking from beneath his thick white mustache and his piercing blue eyes that seem to see into your heart without seeing through it. He asks them about their days, their families, their lives, and he remembers the details. He delights in their successes and commiserates in their failures, and usually throws in a free game or, depending on the circumstances, a free alcoholic beverage to long-time regulars. He never sees them beyond the bowling alley, so they are the closest thing to friends he has, but he doesn’t mind. He’s happy to have the repeat business.

Each night, when the hour strikes eleven, Earl switches off the neon sign outside, and after escorting the night’s final patrons to the exit, he locks the doors, goes behind the bar to pour himself a glass of Coors Light, plays the Hotel California album by The Eagles on the jukebox, and opens a lane to roll a single solitary game. Some nights go better than others, but he doesn’t think nor care about the score. Instead, Earl uses the nightly ritual to meditate and reflect, to wander and get lost within the vastness of a mind that has vicariously lived hundreds of lives in a single day. The bright crackle of pins being knocked around by a speeding ball is an intoxicating sound, itself a repetitive rhythm that soothes the soul and ignites the synapses to look into the past, present, and future. Some nights he imagines the ball rolling on forever until it becomes the size of a speck of dust and then disappears into nothingness. Infinity is only bound by the limits of how far one chooses to see.

After the last roll of his game, Earl waits for the ball-return machine to spit his bowling ball out to him so he can return it to the nearby shelf of in-house balls. Bowling balls are identical in size, but vary in weight. For casual players, this simply means finding the weight you are most comfortable rolling. However, for more experienced players, this can create strategic opportunities: a lighter ball can be spun faster and create a wider-angle trajectory for picking up tricky spares, while a heavier ball creates a more powerful impact to increase the likelihood of a strike. As Earl has gotten older, his preferred weight has dwindled slightly– he currently uses an eleven-pound ball as opposed to the fourteen-pounder he rolled in his younger years– but he still likes a simplistic approach: feet lined up along the center boards (the thin lined rows along the lane), throw it down the middle, between the center head pin and the pin to its right, which seasoned bowlers refer to as “the pocket,” and try to strike. Then, if any pins remain standing, adjust to the left or right along the boards, and angle the throw however necessary in order to attempt the spare. Earl never bowled at a competitive level himself, but after spending so many years watching others, he learned a few things along the way. If he saw someone successfully pick up one of the more difficult spare arrangements, such as a 6-7-10 split, he might pick their brain for a tip.

After placing his ball back on the shelf, Earl sat at a laneside chair and finished drinking his beer as the warm sound of The Eagles continued to fill the room. When the final song concluded, he unplugged the jukebox, performed one final sweep around the alley to turn off all the mechanical machinery that makes a bowling alley operate, turned out the lights, and headed for the exit. Looking out into the parking lot, he saw a handful of vehicles scattered across the moonlit pavement. The air was thick and still. Even though he was the last one to leave, oftentimes visitors left their cars overnight, particularly if they had had too many alcoholic beverages and called a cab home, and later returned to retrieve them the following day. Earl never minded this; he was certainly much happier to allow these vehicles to remain parked in order to prevent someone from driving when they shouldn’t.

Because he remembered what happened that night.

He remembered the glint of shattered glass on the highway beneath the stars. He remembered the grim taste of blood in his mouth. He remembered the overbearing stench of burnt rubber. He remembered the way time itself seemed to slow to a harrowing crawl; every second seemed like a minute, and every hour seemed infinite. He remembered the cacophonous anti-symphony of wailing sirens and shrieks. He remembered not remembering what happened next. He remembered waking up in a bed that wasn’t his own, surrounded by people he didn’t recognize. He remembered a man in a suit standing at the foot of the bed, speaking words that blurred together, a violent collection of syllables twisting into each other until three slashed their way to the forefront.

Manslaughter.

The word sliced through every cell in his body. The man in the suit dryly and methodically recounted the sequence of events, as though he were giving a presentation. Earl did the best he could to keep up despite his disoriented state: torrential rain, low visibility, hydroplaned, lost control, careened into oncoming traffic, female high school student, graduation party, flipped into a roadside ditch, died instantaneously upon impact. Infinity is only bound by the limits of how far one chooses to see, and he had robbed someone of making that choice for themselves. The man in the suit said something about justice for the family. Earl looked at the couple holding each other next to him. They were sobbing. Earl cried with them.

The trial was mercifully swift. Earl pleaded guilty. The girl’s parents asked the judge for moderate leniency on Earl’s sentence, citing the fact that Earl had no prior criminal record, and that living with the guilt of his actions--which he had already begun to experience when he grieved with them in the hospital--would be punishment enough. Earl testified that, while he was grateful for the parents’ kindness and compassion, he felt he did not deserve it due to the nature of the crime he had committed, and asked the judge not to grant any measure of leniency, for he believed that the only thing the family truly deserved was something that was impossible, and therefore anything less than the maximum sentence would still come up short of what he considered to be justice for the family. The judge handed down his sentence: four years in prison, half of the maximum federal sentence for involuntary manslaughter.

Earl’s incarceration was a lonely time. When he slept, he dreamed haunting tales of isolation. When he was conscious, he would read books from the prison library, or he would simply lie on his bed and stare at the ceiling. He thought about the girl. He thought about her parents. He thought about that night. He replayed the details over and over until he made himself sick and vomited into his toilet. He wanted to rewrite her history. Scratch that, he wanted her to live out the rest of her story. His was over anyway.

On the one-year anniversary of the day he entered prison, Earl received a letter in the mail. His first piece of mail since being incarcerated. He looked at the envelope. The return address was from his town, but he didn’t recognize it. Maybe it was from an attorney about his case, or a relative who had heard about what happened. Earl carefully opened the envelope, treating it like some kind of rare gemstone. Inside was a letter addressed to him. Before finishing the opening line, he began to cry. It was from the girl’s parents. His heart flayed open and his soul crawled through the incision, not like someone trying to escape but like an infant emerging triumphantly from a pile of rubble, fully aware of its surroundings and yet without the communicative tools to express itself effectively. He pored over each word, each line, with the studious eye of an academic, while letting every emotion underneath fight its way to the surface.

He learned about the girl, at least as much as the parents were willing to share to the man who stole her from their lives. He learned about her sociopolitical interests (criminal justice reform, the environment, gun safety), her hobbies (binging Netflix shows with her friends, fashion blogging), her favorite authors (Haruki Murakami, Toni Morrison, Ursula Le Guin), her dreams (she had planned on attending the University of Oregon that fall with the intent to major in journalism, but wanted to wait a year or two before committing). Each new detail was another stroke of paint on a blank canvas, and after finishing the letter, Earl wanted to expand the palette of colors. He wrote back to the parents. He thanked them for being kind enough to write to him, explaining that their letter was the first communication he’d had with the outside world in a year. He asked them to write back, to share more about their wonderful daughter, because he wanted to use the remainder of his life to honor her in whatever way he could. He wanted to lift her into Infinity’s grace, so she could see the precious gifts that lie beyond the limits of space.

For months, Earl heard nothing. Each day the prison guard tasked with handing out mail would pass by his cell without acknowledgement, and Earl would spend each night silently begging the girl for forgiveness, for just a modicum of compassion. He looked out the window of his cell at the sparkling dots of the distant city, each one twinkling at its own tempo. He often wondered if one of them belonged to the home of the girl’s parents. He imagined them attempting to have a meal together, only for it to be derailed when one of them broke down in tears. He often wished he could be there for those moments, in order to comfort them, to hold them tight and tell them he was sorry, that sorry would never fill the permanent void in their hearts, that he shared their feelings of loss, that he hated himself as much as they did, even if they never dared to admit it, because they didn’t want to desecrate her memory with vengeful rage, even if it was a natural part of the grieving process, to feel the impulse to wrap their hands around his throat, to become a self-appointed god of revenge, to hear the croaking struggles of his desperate final breath, to see his eyes become vacant and lifeless, in acceptance of a fate so violent, so primal, knowing he deserved to choke on his own benevolence, such that were he to ask for mercy, he would know the true answer. Every night, he wished for this. And every night, his yearning desires went unanswered, and he would cry himself to sleep. So often the pain of not knowing hurts worse, because there’s no bone to stop the questioning blade from slicing deeper, until your body has become a pile of shredded ribbons where you once stood.

A few weeks before Earl was scheduled to be released from prison, the answer he begged the endless sky for arrived. Another letter had come for him, this time with no return address. The envelope was much thinner than the one he had received previously, but he didn’t care. He ripped it open with the same ferocity of a child on their birthday, eager to caress the contents between his fingers but careful not to damage them in the process. Inside was a single piece of paper. It was another note from the parents. They wished him luck with the rest of his life, and asked that he refrain from ever contacting them upon being granted his freedom out of respect for their privacy. Then they reiterated their hope that he would use his remaining days to honor their daughter, like Earl himself had pledged. Unlike the first letter, however, this one ended differently. The first letter had been signed with two names: those of the two parents. This one had a third name added to the signature line.

Sadie.

He read the name over and over. Sadie. Sadie. Sadie. Sadie. Sadie. It rattled around his brain until it hurt. He certainly thought it was a prettier name than his own. For a name without any hard consonants, Earl had a guttural inflection to it that he often likened to human vomit (it didn’t help that his name rhymes with hurl). The name Sadie was soft and delicate, like a rose petal floating gently towards the ground long after the flower itself crashed with a bursting thud. He wanted to keep her name suspended in midair, between the chasm of life and death, where all things can exist forever in Infinity, from the blackest days to the brightest nights, with the dazzling vibrancy of colors, the sonic clarity of sounds, and the neverending collage of the grand tapestry of the universe.

Back in the present, as Earl approached his vehicle in the bowling alley parking lot, he gazed up at the stars as they danced in the moonlight. He turned to take one final look at the pink-and-yellow neon sign in front of the building– which read: Sadie’s Ten Pin Alley--muttered a prayer to himself, and drove into the night as the sign illuminated her spirit into the sky.


25 November 2019

Recycling


by Steve Liskow

One of the first short stories I wrote fifteen years ago featured Maxwell and Lowe, the Detroit homicide detectives who played supporting roles in the still unsold "Woody" Guthrie series. They investigated the death of a wealthy banker who died from what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot. I called the story "Walking After Midnight," a Patsy Cline song. Several markets rejected it and I kept writing more stories because I was teaching myself to write short stories by...wait for it...writing short stories.

I sent out many other stories that got rejected, too, but eventually I sold enough to become an active member of MWA. In 2010, MWA called for submissions on a theme that "Walking" seemed to fit. I expanded it to make the theme more explicit and changed the title. It still didn't sell, so I cut some of that new thematic detail, changed the title again, and kept sending it out. The shot of my spreadsheet tells the story.

By the time the story sold, I had sold seven or eight other ones and was working on my sixth self-published novel. As "Dead Man's Hand," all that remained was the original premise, a blind man who still has a pistol permit and appears to shoot himself to death. I replaced Max and Lowe with different cops, and the POV shifted from the police to the son of the dead man, who didn't even exist in the first version.

Four other stories I sold in that period also changed titles. Two of them changed almost everything else, too. "Stranglehold," which won the Black Orchid Novella Award in 2009 as a 16,000-word novella, earned seven rejections as a 6700-word short story.

As I write this, eight of my 25 sold stories exist in at least two very different drafts. Sometimes I've cut them, but I usually change the characters or plot to make them better. My premise has only changed in one story, and that story still hasn't sold.

Last week, "Two Good Hands" appeared in Tough, and that story is unique. I added about 100 words after the first rejection because I decided the ending was too abrupt, but the other eleven rejections came with no other changes. I have a story knocking on doors now that is the only story I've never altered even though I'm running out of markets for it. That should tell me something, shouldn't it?

Where do all these versions live? I have a flash drive with a folder called "Stories, Unsold," and it has 34 drafts of 21 stories. They date back to 2004, and some of them are pretty awful, but I never throw anything away. One story exists in four different versions under two different titles.

That same flash drive has notes and outlines and early versions of several unsold novels. Blood On The Tracks earned 112 rejections between late 2003 and 2011. It went out as Death Sound Blues, Killing Me Softly (With His Song), The Cheater, and Alma Murder. The titles alone show how much it evolved. The first version was set in 1991, at Guthrie's 25th high school reunion. All that remains of that version is Megan Traine's name (Guthrie is the PI's fourth name, and he was a journalist in the first take) and the dead singer. That singer even went away in The Cheater and Alma Murder, which teetered dangerously close to Lifetime TV. I resurrected (?) the dead singer when I self-published the book in 2013.

My point is pretty simple. Never throw away ANYTHING. Someday, you will be able to  use the description of an intriguing place, a good line of dialogue, or a character you abandoned years ago. You will recognize that fact because now you've learned to write better and use stuff more effectively.

That flash drive still contains a gunfight I wrote in 2004 for a Woody Guthrie story that was never going to work. It also involved Blue Song Riley's boyfriend, and he never got to first base either. I recycled the idea and the mindset of that gunfight into Words of Love, the fifth Guthrie novel, which came out last week, too. (Last week was a good week.)

Postcards of the Hanging, published in 2014, had 44 rejections under that title, its fourth. I wrote  the first draft of my first novel in the early 1970s. Between then and 1982, it went out under three different titles with increasingly complex characters and subplots. Along the way, I learned how to write a bad novel more quickly and fix it later. The third version became my sixth-year project at Wesleyan in 1980, and that version is about 95% of what eventually saw print. I changed from chronological order to  flashbacks to make the book open with more energy. I also added about 12 pages of prologue and epilogue so agents understood that the book was NOT really a YA novel even though the main characters were in high school.

Six unsold novels. 34 drafts of 21 stories.

And people still ask me, "Where do you get your ideas?"

12 November 2019

Crime Travel -- How Did We Get Here?


It seems odd yet also right that the publication date for a time-travel crime anthology seems to be sneaking up on me. It feels like ages ago when I put out the call for stories for Crime Travel. (It was about a year and a half ago.) And it feels like I've been waiting for years for the publication date to approach (maybe I have ... because, you know, time travel). But now, suddenly, the launch date is less than a month away--how did that happen?--and I'm scrambling to write this blog.

If only I could go back and write this at a more leisurely pace ...

It's August 2013. I let my beloved dog Scout go a month ago, and now I'm writing a time-travel story involving a dog. I can't bring Scout back but maybe with this fictional dog ... My friend and former critique group partner C. Ellett Logan reads the story after it's done and tells me I don't need to join a bereavement support group. I've clearly worked it all out on the page.
Scout

Later that year: The story, now named "Alex's Choice," is rejected for the first time.

2014 - 2016: I keep fiddling with the story, keep sending it out, keep getting rejections. Time travel stories can be a tough sell.

July 2016: I send the story to Linda Landrigan of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. I expect she too will pass because the story doesn't feel right for the magazine, but I figure it can't hurt to try. Linda ultimately does turn the story down, but says she liked a lot about it and it made her cry. Yes! I made Linda cry. (I know. That shouldn't make me happy. (Sorry, Linda.) But getting that reaction from her is good.)

September 2017: I gripe with my friend Donna Andrews about this story that I can't sell, and she says, "Why don't you put together your own anthology?" She has the perfect name for it, too: Crime Travel. I think about this a lot. I have experience putting together anthologies. I've done a bunch with Donna and Marcia Talley (the Chesapeake Crimes series), as well as editing one of the Malice Domestic anthologies. But this would be the first one I'd do all on my own, including choosing the stories. I'm intrigued but worried about the time commitment. Ultimately, intrigue wins out ...

Thanks for the
support, Carla!

November 2017: I talk with Carla Coupe, the then number two person at Wildside Press (who is now blissfully retired) about this anthology idea, and she likes it. We spend the next few months ironing out details.

June 2018: I put out the call for stories. Scared I'll be overrun with submissions, I only share the story announcement with the Short Mystery Fiction Society, the Chesapeake Chapter of Sister in Crime (my home chapter), the Guppies Chapter of SinC, and with my fellow bloggers here at SleuthSayers. I mention in the call for stories that the royalties will be donated to a literacy charity yet to be chosen.

November 2018: The deadline has come, and I have 53 stories to choose from. I wonder what in the world I was smoking earlier that fall when I decided to not read the submissions as they came in and instead to wait until I had them all to start my review. I had pictured myself somehow reading them all in one blissful snowy weekend. Maybe that could happen if I were a speed reader or could actually time travel. Otherwise ...

December 31, 2018: I had hoped to have the acceptance decisions made by this date. Nope.

January 31, 2019: I had hoped to have the acceptance decisions made by this date. Nope. Instead I find myself struggling to read all the stories while getting my paid work done too.

February 19, 2019: Finally, the decisions have been made. Fourteen stories have been chosen for the anthology, and I'm including my own "Alex's Choice" too. (Hey, I didn't start this process for nothing.) I'm so excited for the authors whose stories were chosen because they're all really good. I'm sad for the authors whose stories I had to turn down. And I'm exhausted because it sounds like the hard part is done but I know the hard part is really just beginning.

Spring and summer 2019: Editing, editing, editing. Proofreading too.

Also spring 2019: Our charity is chosen. All royalties will be donated to 826DC, a Washington, DC, nonprofit designed to help children and teens improve their creative and expository writing skills, as well as help teachers inspire children to write.

Late August 2019: The publisher, John Betancourt, sends me the cover. I love it so much, it is ridiculously hard not to share it with the world immediately.

September 6, 2019: Kristopher Zgorksi hosts our cover reveal on his BOLO Books blog. Thank you, Kristopher!

Fall 2019: ARCs go out. I hear back from some of the recipients quickly, and they all have good things to say. Whew!

November 2019: Contributor Eleanor Cawood Jones arranges our launch party. Thank you, Ellie! It will be on ...

Sunday, December 8, 2019: This is our official publication date, our launch party date, and it's Pretend To Be A Time Traveler Day. The trifecta! (Pretend To Be A Time Traveler Day is a real holiday. You can look it up!)

The launch party will run from 1 - 3 p.m. at Barnes and Noble in Fairfax, Virginia (12193 Fair Lakes Promenade Dr, Fairfax, VA 22033). The following authors are scheduled to be at the launch event (and some of them might even dress up in the time period of their story): James Blakey, me (Barb Goffman), Eleanor Cawood Jones, Adam Meyer, Art Taylor, and Cathy Wiley.

Maybe with the help of time travel
the rest of the authors will make the launch
The rest of the authors with stories in the book, who alas can't make it to the launch, are: Melissa H. Blaine, Michael Bracken, Anna Castle, David Dean, Brendan DuBois, John M. Floyd, Heidi Hunter, Barbara Monajem, and Korina Moss. So pleased to have four fellow SleuthSayers involved.

And now, with only two hours until this blog is to be posted at midnight November 12th, I feel grateful for all the people who have had a hand in making the dream of this book come true, as well as for the people who will buy this book and enjoy these stories.

If you like time travel and if you like crime stories, I truly think you will love this anthology. It is already available for pre-order directly from the publisher in hardcover, trade paperback, and ebook. It's been a long time coming for "Alex's Choice," the story I wrote six years ago in Scout's honor. I hope when you read it you'll agree that it has been worth the wait.

02 November 2019

A Pair of Kings





For many years, one of my favorite writers has been Stephen King. I started with The Stand, which I still consider to be his best novel (next best: 11/22/63), and recently finished his latest, The Institute. Looking up now at my shelves, I count 71 of his books, including a couple that are nonfiction and several that are collaborations. I liked 'em all.

Even though he's prolific, to say the least, King still can't write novels and stories fast enough to suit me, so imagine how pleased I was to learn, several years ago, that his son Joe--pen name Joe Hill--was cranking out fiction as well. I also own all of Hill's books (my favorite: The Fireman), and a few days ago I finished reading his latest, a collection of short stories called Full Throttle.

I won't try to summarize every story in this collection, but I'll mention some that stood out, for me:


"All I Care About Is You" -- A story about the future, and about relationships between humans and machines. I think this is one of the two best stories in the book, and one of several that brought tears to my eyes. Science fiction at its finest.

"Throttle" -- A plot that Hill says was inspired by Richard Matheson's short story "Duel" (and its screen adaptation), this is a story about a group of bikers who are targeted and terrorized by a monster truck and its faceless driver. One of two stories in this book co-written with Stephen King.

"Late Returns" -- In this story a librarian takes a job driving an antique Bookmobile, and finds that some of the customers who visit him on his route have been dead for fifty years or more. An emotional and satisfying story, otherworldly but not horrific.

"Faun" -- Another tale inspired by a late author and one of his masterpieces--in this case Ray Bradbury and his short story "A Sound of Thunder." Here, a team of big-game hunters travels through a magical door in a New England farmhouse to a fantasy-world forest of orcs and fauns and centaurs.

"In the Tall Grass" -- One of the scariest and weirdest of the stories featured here. A young man and woman driving across the country make an unscheduled stop in rural Kansas when they hear a child's voice calling to them from a field of eight-foot-tall grass beside the road. The good Samaritans enter the tall grass to try to find him and find unspeakable horror instead. I didn't like this quite as much as I figured I would, but it's still good, and I thought it was better than the Netflix Original adaptation I watched the other night.

"By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain" -- To me, the best story in the book. The plot involves two  children who discover the dead body of a Nellie-like dinosaur at the water's edge, and what happens afterward. A fantastic short story, soon to be an episode of the streaming series Creepshow.


Have any of you read Full Throttle yet? If so, what did you think? Has anyone read Joe Hill?

I'm already looking forward to his next book.



21 October 2019

Extreme Editing


On October 15, I finally finished a short story that had been plaguing me for months. I started the story on July 10 after some research. I don’t think I’ve ever taken that long to write a short story without interruption/jumping to another. The story– which I’m being vague about until there is an official announcement– takes real historical people but changes an event in history. 

I loved the concept when asked and immediately knew what I wanted to write, but since I was twisting history that happened in the last twenty years with a decent amount of controversy, I did a lot of research first. I got deep into the weeds bogging down in several areas including government officials and documented “bad guys.” The word count was supposed to be between 5-7k words. It had ballooned to over 13k words in early October. By October 12 I whittled away a lot of obvious excess and got the story down to 10k that had everything I wanted to tell. 

I asked the editor if I could sneak the story in at that word count and to his credit he said no. So I had a lot of cutting to do. Which leads me to this tangent:

Within the short story writing community, it's a common theory that stories should only have four or five characters, that there should be a few scenes so that you don’t confuse the reader and the story doesn’t get watered down. Fundamentally, the reasoning is solid, but I also like to think of the short story as an experimental medium should have limited rules. I would argue that the first and main rule of writing short fiction is to engage and entertain/move the reader. How to do that is up to the writer, not rules. 

As a lover of flash fiction, it seems many stories in the noir world often have 2 or 3 characters, a bar or basement (or some vice-infested locale), a confrontation, and a resolution ending with an act of violence. The format is not bad for a story written in a 1000 words or less, and I’ve written a few this way myself. My hope as a short story writer is not to write just a scene, but a complete story with a middle, beginning and end. Often I try to have multiple scenes with separation of days, hours or flashbacks within a scene to build the suspense/anxiety and create a well-rounded story within a limited amount of words. Sometimes I have a few character and other times I have than what is recommended. I bristle at the idea that short story writers can’t have multiple characters/scenes/periods of time, but high quality investigative reporters with limited word count write engaging stories based on facts. It can be done if it is done right.  

Okay, tangent over. This brings me back to my October 12 problem. I have to cut out 30% of my story in three days (while working a full time job.)  

Here are some things that I did to pare the story down (in no particular order): 

Add contractions

Most people use contractions when speaking. “I don’t want it” instead of “I do not want it.” Every know and then people will make declarative statements like “This outrage will not be tolerated!” So keep it in those instances, and the declarative moments will stand out more. Also, I’d say most people think in contractions as well so combine internal thoughts and possibly the narrative voice if it makes sense. The combinations can cut down dozens to a few hundred words. 

Paragraph reductions 

Take 2 -4 words out of every paragraph. If you have Microsoft Word (or perhaps another word processor) you can see how many paragraphs and lines you have. Go to each paragraph and look at ways you can compress a sentence. Instead of “He walked up the creaky steps and rang the doorbell.” Perhaps "He rang the doorbell" will suffice. Years ago I wrote an article about how 10 authors had their characters enter through doors.   https://writingwranglersandwarriors.wordpress.com/2015/02/16/ten-authors-walk-through-a-door/   One example I use is the following scene from James Elroy’s LA Confidential. 
“Bud went in the back way — through the alley, a fence vault. On the rear porch: a screen door, inside hook and eye. He lipped the catch with his penknife, walked in on tiptoes.”
The screenplay uses more words than Elroy's prose. That is quite an achievement. 

Combine scenes and summarize 

I had written a few bureaucratic meetings to show the inefficiency of siloed government agencies in a time of crisis. While showing is better than telling, I used one meeting to show and explained that several other meetings had been like this and cut two scenes out.  

Kill darlings 

The darlings are the precious scenes that writer loves and does not want to get rid in spite of the scene having no value to the plot. Although killed several scenes that I labored over and enjoyed I managed to keep on less-than-plot-oriented discussion about ice cream and religion. The rest of the darlings, however, were massacred. 

Have another set of eyes 

I've been fortunate to have a writer’s group over these past several years. Sarah M. Chen and Stephen Buehler were on standby to look at the story and offer suggestion for vicious cuts. Since they were not as emotionally attached to the story as I was, their advice bolstered my resolve to kill darlings that I might have internally fought to keep.

Start late and end early

Anton Chekhov once told a fellow writer, “It seems to me that when you write a short story, you have to cut off both the beginning and the end. We writers do most of our lying in those spaces. You must write shorter, to make it as short as possible.” I think Chekhov was advocating for a quick entry and exit to the story so that an excessive, bloated opening and ending wouldn't weight down a story. I had the bloat on both ends of my story.

While I’m not a fan of literary fiction that builds to a moment, but does not offer an ending– which I consider an act of cowardice– there is something to be said about starting in the middle of action/scene without a slow build up and to end at the moment of resolution and not to dwell much on it. My beginning scene got whittled down to 2 sentences and the beloved end scene was chopped off completely. (Another nod to killing darling and motivation from Stephen to take out the 200+ word ending that was fun, but unnecessary.

In the end I whittled the story down to exactly 7,000 words at around 9:10pm on the 15th (aka 12:10a.m. East Coast Time.)   Whew! And in the end I think the story is much better for it.

Have you had to do drastic cuts on your project?





Travis Richardson is originally from Oklahoma and lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter. He has been a finalist and nominee for the Macavity, Anthony, and Derringer short story awards. He has two novellas and his short story collection, BLOODSHOT AND BRUISED, came out in late 2018. He reviewed Anton Chekhov short stories in the public domain at www.chekhovshorts.com. Find more at TSRichardson.com

02 October 2019

The Long Treason


Approximately 1979
This month is a special anniversary for me.  Forty years ago I became a published author.

After three years of submitting to various markets I sold a story to the late, and not particularly lamented, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. I learned this fact when an envelope arrived in the mail with a check for $30 and a slip of paper with the title of my story on it. No contract, no letter of acceptance.

To say I was pleased would be a distinct understatement.

I was not the only person affected by the tale.  My wife brought a copy into the office where she worked and the next time I visited her co-worker Dorothy glared at me and asked "What happened afterwards?"  I assured her that I had no idea.  I got so tired of her asking every time she saw me that I finally told her that the day after the story ended the main character won the lottery and lived happily ever after.  Oddly enough, this did not satisfy her.

By the way, the story was inspired by the title, which popped into my head one day.  Where that came from is anybody's guess.

I just reread the story and can honestly say that in the forty years that followed I have been paid more for worse.  So, just in case your complete set of MSMM's is in storage, I am reprinting it here.  I have changed nothing, although it was physically painful to leave that horrible adverb: "suddenly."  Ick.

I hope you enjoy the other words.  And thanks to Leigh for catching a few typos.


THE LONG TREASON
by Robert Lopresti

The old man had lived on the hill beyond the village for as long as Pablo could remember.  When Pablo was learning to walk he had seen the foreigner, already old, walking alone through the jungle.  Three years before, the old man had stood outside of his shack, watching when the soldiers came to take off anyone old enough to carry a gun.

Pablo's brother, Felipe, had been sixteen and had cried as they led him off to fight some war for El Presidente.  He hadn't returned.  Pablo's father died two years later, and at the age of twelve Pablo had become the man of the family.

To help his mother feed the younger children, Pablo went to work for the old man.  In that South american country it was widely believed that all foreigners were rich, except the missionaries.  The old man was a foreigner, but he was neither rich nor religious.

The work was easy: odd jobs and chores, repairs to keep the old shack livable.  The old man was too weak to do them himself.  He didn't pay Pablo much, but who else in the village could afford to pay him at all, still too young to do a man's work?  The job would keep Pablo's family alive till he grew up.

Pablo was running an errand for the old man when he first heard about the visitor.  The visitor was a foreigner who drove up into the hills in a rented car, dressing too warmly, bribing too richly.  Most foreigners, especially wealthy ones, would have been robbed and killed on their first night out of the city.  However, there was something about this man that made even the hungriest ladrones put their knives away and keep their distance.

On his third day in the mountains he reached Pablo's village.  That night, while they made stew for the old man's dinner, Pablo told the old man about the stranger who was asking questions.  The old man just shrugged and went on cutting carrots.

When the stew was ready, the old man invited the boy to join him, as he often did.  He always accepted, because it meant one less meal his mother had to stretch out of their meager food supply.

Although they ate in silence, neither of them heard the approaching footsteps.  Suddenly the door burst open, almost torn off the hinges by a powerful kick.  The visitor walked in, holding a pistol.

Pablo had jumped up, ready to run, but the old man touched his shoulder and gestured for him to sit down again.  The old man had shown no other reaction to the stranger's sudden entrance.

The visitor spoke a name which Pablo had never heard before.  The old man nodded. "So you have found me at last.  It's good to see you again.  You have grown older."

The visitor glanced quickly around the one-room shack before closing the door and approaching the small table.  He was about fifteen years younger than the old man, just leaving middle age.  His voice was so gentle that it surprised the boy.

"You have gotten older, too.  I can hardly believe that you are still alive."  They spoke in their own language, but Pablo had been exposed to many languages, and could follow most of what they said in that one.

The old man gestured, like a host to a guest.  "Sit down and talk for a while."

The visitor's lips compressed into a thin line.  "You know why I am here."

The old man shrugged and for the first time in several minutes he noticed Pablo.  "Let the boy go."

The stranger's eyes ran over him and the boy shivered.  "Go where?  To tell who?"

"He'll go home to bed, and tell no one.  Don't worry, old friend; there's no one here who would rush to my rescue."

The visitor's lips turned up in a tiny smile.  "That doesn't sound like my old teacher.  Do you really care what happens to the boy?"

The old man got angry.  "I don't care about him, or anyone else. And no here cares whether I live or die. I've made sure of that.  But why does the boy have to see it?"

The foreigner looked hard at Pablo.  "Will you go straight home, and say nothing to anyone?"

Pablo nodded.  "All right.  Go."

The boy ran out.  Once outside, he stopped and looked in all directions.  Then he crept around the outside of the shack.  At the rear was a spot where the wall was so low that by standing on a barrel he could climb silently onto the roof.  He had tried once to do some thatching up there for the old man, but the roof was in such bad shape that the patchwork was useless.

He crawled up slowly.  Some spots were so rotten that he almost fell through.  The rain must have poured through the cracks, but the old man never complained about it.  He seldom complained about anything.

Finally he reached the center of the roof.  Peering through a crack he saw both men, directly beneath him, seated at the table.

Straining, he could her the old man speaking. "...so many years I thought that I had been forgotten.  I'm almost glad to see you."

"Many others have looked for you.  Am I really the first to succeed?"

"Oh, there were others, years ago.  I suppose the trail has become colder with time, and it takes someone with your persistance to follow it now."

"Where are those early searchers now?  Buried in the jungle beyond the village?"

Pablo saw the old man's face twist into a smile, or perhaps it was just a baring of teeth.

"This is a dangerous part of the world, old friend.  Death comes suddenly here."

The visitor gestured with his gun.  "I do not intend to die in this hellhole of a country."

"Suit yourself.  It's good enough for me.  I'm not as particular about things as I once was."

"I have some questions I'd like to ask you."

"Feel free.  If you become tedious, I'll stop answering and you'll shoot me.  So ask away."

"We know that your new friends lost track of you, and that they are angry with you.  Why?"

"After I changed sides I lived in my new country for three months.  I saw nothing but the inside of two bare rooms and did nothing except tell their top spies about our top spies. After three months I decided it was time to leave."

"Because of the accommodations."

"Not that.  I wanted to leave before they discovered that they had paid me for false information."

The visitor stiffened.  "False?  You mean you didn't betray us?"

"I changed sides for money.  Isn't that betrayal enough?  I simply chose not to give them the information they wanted, so I had to get away before they found out."

The visitor scratched his head with the hand that didn't hold the gun.  "If we could be sure that that was true, that the secrets you held are still secret--"

"It would change a lot of plans, perhaps a national policy or two.  Agents you thought were known would be usable.  Codes, programs, and operations that were cancelled when I left could be dusted off."

"But--"

"But you can't be sure, can you?  I might be lying to you.  Once a traitor, always a traitor.  I taught you that."

The visitor nodded.  "But it would be just lie you to sell out and then double-cross the buyers.  After you left we tracked down all the little betrayals you made along the way to the big one.  Have you always had a price?"

The old man smiled and said nothing.

"It was very interesting, you know, this hunt for my old teacher.  All the time I wondered whether natural causes had already finished you off.  Or someone from the other side.  You know there are several countries that put a bounty on you, alive or dead?"

"Who are you working for, by the way?"

Pablo watched the visitor's face go white.  "You know who I work for.  Just because you're for sale doesn't mean that everyone is."

"A patriot, are you?  You don't sound like a student of mine."

"But I am -- they never let me forget that.  Do you know what your selling out cost those of us you trained?  A black mark on our records forever.  Every time our name comes up for assignment or promotion, they remember our teacher and feel a touch of suspicion.  When you betrayed your country you betrayed each of us."

"When I had influence you were willing to ride on my coattails.  You should know by now that there are free rides are always expensive in the end."

The visitor was trembling with fury.  "It wasn't like that.  You know it wasn't."

The old man sat in silence for a moment.  "Is this interrogation over?"

"One more question.  You mist have been noticed around here, as a foreign on the run.  How come the beloved Presidente of this country didn't turn you in?  It would be just like him."

"The fool thinks that I'm a Nazi.  There's a lot of them down here and they've poured gold into his Swiss bank.  So, accidentally, I fall under their protection."

"In that case, why aren't the Israelis hunting you?"

"They were.  When they found me I convinced them of the obvious fact that I wasn't a Nazi, and won their silence about who I really was."

"How?"

"I sold them the location of a few real Nazis/"

The visitor shook his head "You sell them out while their bribes are protecting you.  You really are amazing.  I think that betrayal is compulsive with you.  It comes as naturally to you was breathing."

Pablo had never seen the old man look so ancent.  "Breathing isn't as natural as you might think.  Sometimes I have to force myself to take the next breath."

"Look at me, teacher.  Look at me!  I s there one thing which you have not betrayed?"

The old man struggled to his feet. "I have always been loyal to my own interest."

The visitor's laugh was cracked and angry.  Pablo hadn't realized how tense the visitor really was.

"Your own interest? Look at you!  Dressed in  rags, waiting in the jungle to be hunted down and killed, living in this hole with no one who cares enough about you to bury you when you die.  You've done very well for yourself."

The old man leaned against a wall, trying to stand straight.  The foreigner got to his feet.

The old man spoke, and his voice was cold and hollow.  "Do what you came to do."

"You betrayed us all."  The foreigner raised his gun.  Remember that."

As fast as a jungle snake, Pablo turned over and hit the weakest spot on the roof.  The wood gave, then cracked, and he fell through with a crash.  The wood didn't hit the visitor, but as he darted aside in confusion he lost his balance.  As he fell to the ground he fired one shot.  When Pablo was able to get up he found the visitor lying unconscious, and the old man bleeding from a bullet hole in his leg.

****

The old man groaned as Pablo tightened the rags around his leg.  The wound had started bleeding again while they were burying the visitor.  The body was deep in the jungle with its neck broke, all identification and money taken.  When someone came looking for him they would assume that he had been killed by robbers.

Pablo had been surprised at how easily the old man had recovered once there was a specific job that needed doing.  He had tied up his leg, and then killed the unconscious man, showing none of the exhaustion that had weighed him down a few minutes before.

But now that the work was done he lay on his cot in the shack and moaned.  "I'm going to die."  He tried to sit up and the effort sent tears down his cheeks.

Pablo pushed him back with an gentle hand on the shoulder.  "You will not die, old man."

The old man looked at him, and finally  asked the question that had hung between them for hours.  "Why did you do all this?  You mist have heard what he said about me.  What makes you think that I'm worth saving?"

Pablo smiled.  "I will take care of you.  You will get well."

The old man closed his eyes.  For hours he lay there he lay there trembling, and Pablo never left his side.  At one point, late in the night he began muttering: "Loyalty... a second chance... loyalty."

Three years, thought Pablo.  He must live for three more years.  Then I will be sixteen, old enough to be taken by the army, like my brother Felipe.  Old enough to be treated like a man.  I will go to the city then and sell the old man to the highest bidder, and Mama and the children will never be hungry again.

"You will not die, old man," he said softly.

26 September 2019

"Miss Evelyn Nesbit Testifies 'Me Too'"


I'm happy to introduce Ana Brazil as our guest blogger for the day.  Ana and I are both appearing in Me Too Short Stories:  An Anthology (edited by our own Liz Zelvin). Ana is the author of the historical mystery FANNY NEWCOMB AND THE IRISH CHANNEL RIPPER (published by Sand Hill Review Press) and the winner of the Independent Book Publishers Association 2018 Benjamin Franklin Gold Medal for Historical Fiction.  Take it away Ana!  Ana's story in the anthology is "Miss Evelyn Nesbit Presents", and if you haven't heard of Miss Nesbit - well, she was the nexus of one of the trials of the century - the very early 20th century.  Take it away, Ana! -Eve Fisher

by Ana Brazil

It might seem like a no-brainer.

When I—an author of American historical crime fiction—wanted to write a Me Too-themed short story, a story about crimes against women, retribution, and even, possibly, healing, Miss Evelyn Nesbit was the obvious choice.

You probably know something about Evelyn. Artist Charles Dana Gibson used young Evelyn as the model for one of his most-famous Gibson Girl illustrations. She was the star defense witness in the 1907 “Trial of the Century”, where her exploitation as “the girl on the red velvet swing” was publicly revealed. You might also remember Evelyn from her saucy escapades in E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime or the movie or Broadway musical based on his novel.

But although Evelyn was clearly a victim of sexual and emotional abuse by multiple wealthy and powerful men, she wasn’t my first choice for a historical Me Too-themed short story.

My first choice was Mr. H. H. Holmes.

You probably know something about H. H. Holmes also. During the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he owned the “Murder Castle” hotel where women and men could check in, but—as the newspapers reported—they could never leave.

I wanted to explore how Holmes preyed upon his female victims and then I wanted to show how one of those exploited women got the better of him. In the final paragraph, she would heroically clamber out of the “Murder Castle” hotel. But characters, crimes, and motivations just didn’t click in my head, and I couldn’t make that story work.

When I finally put H. H. Holmes aside, I returned to Miss Evelyn Nesbit. And she did not disappoint me.

I knew the bones of Evelyn’s story—she worked as a teenage model and chorus girl to support her mother and younger brother, she was raped by New York architect Stanford White, she married the brutal and off-balanced millionaire Harry K. Thaw, and she witnessed the crime that launched the “Trial of the Century”—on June 25, 1906, her husband shot her rapist to death on the rooftop of New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

I went to Wikipedia for details about Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, and Harry K. Thaw. Amongst the sensuous photos of Evelyn, the "masterful" and “burly yet boyish” description of White, and the revelation of mentally instable Thaw’s interest in “the cult of virgin martyrdom”, I found this information about Evelyn’s trial testimony:

her examination on the witness stand was an emotionally tortuous ordeal. In open court, she was forced to expose her relationship with White, and to describe the intimate details of the night she was raped by Stanford White.
It wasn’t hard to imagine Evelyn sitting stiffly on the witness stand, answering questions about the night in her teens when (as she wrote in her 1934 autobiography) she "entered that room a virgin, but did not come out as one”.

My heart broke a little, imagining how painful her testimony must have been. Her rape had been her private pain—until the murder, known only by White and Thaw—and within minutes, it became known to every newspaper reporter sitting in court. Which meant that it was headline news around the country.

In that sorrowful moment of my imagination, I embraced Miss Evelyn Nesbit as my Me Too short story protagonist. I wanted to comfort her. I wanted to shield and defend her. I wanted to escort her out of court, into a waiting motorcar, and drive her as far away as I possibly could.


In my short story “Miss Evelyn Nesbit Presents” (included in Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology) I transport Evelyn all the way to 1914. I invite her into New York City’s posh Hotel Astor where, in a very private dining room, I leave her to lunch with the very unscrupulous moving picture producer H. H. Samson. (Yes, I did get an “H. H.” into my story!)

What’s the worst that could happen?

During their luncheon Evelyn desperately fights to reframe her “girl on the red velvet swing” past and reclaim her future. Will she be successful? Or will she once again fall victim to a man’s manipulation and power? Or will she find that retribution can be just as sweet as revenge?

As Miss Evelyn Nesbit presents her final demands to H. H. Samson, the results seem like a no-brainer to me.

***

Many thanks to fellow Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology contributor and SleuthSayer Eve Fisher for inviting me to guest post. Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology edited by Elizabeth Zelvin is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  (Link Here)

My other stories of historic heroines include “Kate Chopin Tussles with a Novel Ending” in Fault Lines (Sisters in Crime Northern California) and my debut novel—set in 1889 New Orleans—FANNY NEWCOMB & THE IRISH CHANNEL RIPPER.   (Link Here)

www.anabrazil.com

17 September 2019

Pithy and Thought-Provoking...or Not


by Michael Bracken

I’ve been so busy the past month that I’ve not had time to draft something pithy and thought-provoking. In August, I traveled to Colorado to attend the debut of a play written and directed by my youngest son. Then Temple and I traveled to Indiana to visit my daughter—whom I’ve not seen in eight years—and her family, which includes grandchildren we met for the first time. Before, between, and after the trips, I’ve been reading through submissions to a special issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine and working on Season 2 of Guns + Tacos (due out in 2020) and Mickey Finn 2 (due out in 2021).

So, I dove into the files and found the following, a presentation I gave to the Mystery Writers of America’s Southwest Chapter at their September 2018 luncheon in Houston.


SHORT STORIES: FROM CONCEPT TO SALE, HOW THIS FORM CAN SATISFY

I write short stories. A lot of them.

In a publishing environment where many writers bemoan the lack of markets for short fiction, I’ve placed more than 1,200 short stories. That’s 4.2 million words, give or take, or the equivalent of 70 short novels.

When I began writing as a teenager in the 1970s, short story publication was considered the first step to becoming a genre novelist. Writers learned their craft by publishing short fiction in the popular magazines of the day before grappling with the complexity and length of novels. They established writing credentials, providing heft to their query and cover letters, and developed a readership before their first novel ever hit the wire racks at the grocery store.

That doesn’t seem to happen much today, and many writers, perhaps encouraged by the ease of publication offered by low-cost self-publishing, leap directly into novel writing without first establishing their writing skills and publishing credentials. Among those who succeed as novelists, some write short stories as an afterthought and some established novelists write short fiction only at the invitation of anthology editors. Whether they succeed or fail as novelists, few writers make a sincere effort to write short stories and fewer still earn a significant portion of their income from short fiction.

That’s a mistake.

Writing short fiction has several advantages over writing novels. A writer who devotes time and attention to short fiction can explore different genres, can experiment with different styles, and can develop a familiarity with several genres faster than most novelists. Additionally, short story writers quickly discover which genres play to their strengths and can avoid, or at least mitigate, the career damage caused by spending too much time dabbling in inappropriate genres.

As high school students, my best friend and I were determined to become the next Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. For several years I kept science fiction short stories circulating among all the professional and semi-professional science fiction magazines, but I achieved only modest success. On the other hand, after encouragement from the editor of a men’s magazine, I sold the first three mystery short stories I wrote. I have since sold short fiction in nearly every genre—with particular success in crime fiction and women’s fiction—and I continue to try new things.

Markets for short fiction no longer assault you at every magazine rack the way they did during the heyday of the pulp magazines or even during the 1970s when I began my career. Back then I could easily locate several dozen magazines devoted to short fiction—mystery, science fiction, and women’s fiction the most prevalent.

While some genre magazines remain—Alfred Hitchcock’s and Ellery Queen’s among them—and new genre magazines come and go, the best markets for short stories may be publications not known for publishing fiction. The weekly publication Woman’s World, for example, publishes 104 short stories each year, one romance and one mystery each issue.

Finding markets for short fiction, therefore, becomes a literary treasure hunt, one that only the truly dedicated attempt. I regularly stand at magazine racks and thumb through magazines I don’t normally read, looking for evidence of short fiction. I also search for on-line publications and print publications that maintain an on-line presence, looking for publications I can’t find at local newsstands. Sometimes what I find is clearly identified as fiction; sometimes it isn’t. For example, the short stories I used to write for True Story were presented as if they are, in fact, true.

Literary and small press publications—both on-line and in print—also publish fiction. Unfortunately, they often pay little or nothing. Prior to submitting to small press publications, I examine them carefully to determine if the stories they publish are well written and presented in a professional manner, if the contributors include writers well-known in their genre, and if any stories they have published have later been nominated for awards or been included in best-of-year anthologies.

General interest magazines are increasingly hard to find as publishers target narrower and narrower demographics. So, one of the most important things to remember in today’s publishing environment is the need to write to market.

While many writers prefer to write first and seek appropriate publications later, I’ve found it beneficial to target my markets before I begin writing. Targeting markets is a two-step process that involves understanding the conventions of the genre or sub-genre in which I write and then understanding the publications for which I wish to write.

Many of today’s publications seek to address a particular audience. A close examination of any magazine will reveal a great deal of information about the publication’s readers or, at least, the readers the publication is attempting to reach. Often the fiction contained within these publications presents characters the readers see as “just like me” or an idealized “just like me,” so the more I know about the readers, the better I am able to develop appropriate characters and plots when I write for these publications.

On a more practical level, I determine how many short stories the magazine publishes each issue, the length of the stories, what genre or genres are represented, and any stylistic requirements the magazine may have. Once I’ve done all that, it’s time to write.

The keys to successfully placing short stories—presuming basic literacy and some minimum level of talent—are high productivity and dogged determination. Beginning August 2003 and ending May 2018 I had one or more—sometimes as many as nine!—stories published each and every month. That’s 178 consecutive months. And beginning in July I’m three months into a new streak. That doesn’t happen without producing a lot of material.

While I don’t write fiction every day and don’t set daily page count or word count goals the way other writers do, I do set goals. I determine how many sales I’d like to achieve in a given year, and then I determine how many short stories I must complete to reach that goal. When I first began pounding the keyboard as a teenager, my goal was to sell one story. To anybody. After I achieved that, my goal was to sell a second story. Back then I completed dozens of short stories for each one that finally reached publication. My odds have improved since then and I now complete approximately eleven stories for every ten that sell.

I also keep manuscripts circulating on the firm belief that my work will be published eventually. These days some of my stories are written on assignment and many others are accepted by the first or second editor to read them—in part because I’m a more experienced writer and in part because I have a better understanding of the markets—but a few of my published stories were seen by dozens of editors before acceptance and one story—“I Can’t Touch the Clouds for You” (Sun, July 25, 2005)—spent thirty years visiting slush piles before reaching print.

Writing short fiction has allowed me to entertain many readers, to work with editors across multiple genres, and to generate steady income from writing while developing my craft.

And, if I ever decide to write another novel, I’m going to have one hell of a cover letter.

My story “Love, Or Something Like It” appears in the forthcoming Crime Travel (Wildside Press), an anthology of time travel mysteries, edited by fellow SleuthSayer Barb Goffman. Learn more and preorder here.