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

01 December 2017

Interview: 7 Crime Fiction Editors on the State of the Short Story Market



by Thomas Pluck

I've only been writing crime stories regularly for seven years, but I've been a reader for thirty. We have the big two of Ellery Queen and Hitch, and various smaller venues. Many have come and gone. I made my first sale to Blue Murder in 2001 which promptly folded. That was after Pulphouse accepted it in 1996, to my great joy. And then they folded. Blue Murder actually published "We're All Guys Here," which you can read at [PANK] Magazine. Blue Murder paid twenty-five bucks, I think.

Sixteen years later, we've seen many rise and fall. The Big Click, an online with subscriptions edited by Nick Mamatas. ThugLit, edited by Todd Robinson, which had many stories chosen for The Best American Mystery Stories, and my Jay Desmarteaux yarn "The Last Detail." Spinetingler, an online magazine that had a brief Kindle edition (my story "Two to Tango" appears in it) and they have announced a print edition. All Due Respect, which was online, and now gone, published "White People Problems," which later became "Mannish Water," published in Betty Fedora, which is still around, publishing irregularly. A newcomer is Down & Out Magazine, by the press of the same name (my publisher) which has published two print issues. Another is Black Cat Mystery Magazine, from Wildside Press, which just published its first issue.

There are many more that have come and gone. Needle, a Magazine of Noir. Shotgun Honey, the forefront of flash fiction, remains publishing. Powder Burn Flash, Hardboiled Magazine, started in 1985 by Wayne D. Dundee and taken over by Gary Lovisi, a print-only pulp, shuttered a year or so ago. Murdaland (RIP), Manslaughter Review (alive, a yearly publication), Plots With Guns (I can't tell, they're like the killer in a slasher movie, never count them out), The Flash Fiction Offensive, Out of the Gutter, Dark City. There's also The Strand and Suspense Magazine in print, but I've never gotten a response from either editor for stories or interview queries. I know The Strand publishes one new story a month, so they're a tough one to break into, but you'll be among the legends if you do.

One mag that came up, in bitter memory, was the short-lived NOIR Magazine that raised $36,000 by crowdfunding for a digital-only release on iPad. I was a contributor. With such a limited market, iPad owners, I didn't understand how they would last. I read it on my mom's iPad. It was buggy and I couldn't read it. And then NOIR Magazine was gone. I hope the authors were paid well, because that was a big chunk of change for one issue. Gamut Magazine was multigenre and raised $55,000 - Editor Richard Thomas just announced they're shuttering after a SINGLE YEAR. After a 30% increase in subscriptions. I'm not sure they had a sustainable business model if a 30% jump in subs wasn't enough to keep it afloat. It's rough out there. If you read on, you'll see that getting $2.99 an issue for a magazine that produced regular award-winners can be like pulling teeth.

What's the deal?

Another thing that hasn't changed is that some pay pro or semi-pro rates, others don't pay at all, and a few pay the Mystery Writers of America minimum of $25, which lets them be anointed as official markets and be considered for the Edgars. If you write a 2500 word story, that's a penny a word. Considered pulp rate in the '30s, maybe you can buy lunch with it these days. No offense to the magazines who pay this rate, but I wish the MWA looked toward the SFWA and set a higher bar for professional rates. It would shrink the pool of "official markets," yes. But wouldn't it be nice to be paid a nickel a word? But to do that, you have to sell copies. And fewer and fewer are sold these days. I couldn't find Alfred Hitchcock or Ellery Queen at Barnes & Noble. You can get them at The Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan, or you can subscribe.

So I wanted to get an idea of what could be done to enrich the short story market for crime fiction, so I asked six editors a few questions about the state of things. My questions in bold.

Carla Coupe, Black Cat Mystery Magazine (in print and accepting submissions)

Carla Coupe has been at Wildside Press for over 7 years, and co-edits Black Cat Mystery Magazine, their newest ​publication. Her short stories have appeared in several anthologies, and two were nominated for Agatha Awards. One of her Sherlock Holmes pastiches, "The Book of Tobit," was included in The Best American Mystery Stories of 2012. (Read her full interview with Barb Goffman here.)

Why do you think a market should pay, and does the MWA minimum have a bearing on your payment structure?
​Markets should pay because writers are talented artists who deserve payment for their works. We pay a competitive per word rate, so the total amount depends on story length.

How much do you charge for an issue, and did raising or lowering the price have a severe impact on readership?
Paper copies are $10 each, plus shipping (but if you subscribe you get a price break), and the e-versions are $3.99 each (ditto regarding subscriptions). We want to keep both versions affordable and set our prices with that in mind.​

Do you think the free online magazines cut into sales?
​They probably do to some degree, but just as important is that they set the expectation​ that everything on the web should be free. It's very frustrating for many artists, authors, and musicians.

Does paying for a story raise the bar of quality of what you'll accept?
​We've been very fortunate to receive many amazing stories--more than we can include in the next two issues--so that isn't an issue for us.

What has been your experience running a magazine in the crime genre, and why do you think there are fewer paying markets in Mystery than SF and Horror?
​Since we have just started Black Cat Mystery Magazine, we don't have a lot of experiences to share yet. So far it's been very positive, if a bit hectic. We're fortunate that we have such a large pool of talented writers to draw from, and time will tell regarding our success in the marketplace. I'm not sure why there are fewer paying markets in the mystery and crime field -- perhaps because there are so many crime shows on TV? It could be that fans of the genre can get their mystery fix on the box, and/or don't have the time or inclination for reading. But that's just a guess.


Nick Mamatas, The Big Click (defunct, but back issues are online)

Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including The Last Weekend, I Am Providence, and Hexen Sabbath. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, Tor.com, and many other venues. Nick has also co-edited several anthologies, including Haunted Legends with Ellen Datlow, The Future is Japanese, Phantasm Japan, and Hanzai Japan with Masumi Washington, and Mixed Up with Molly Tanzer. His fiction and editorial work has variously been nominated for the Hugo, World Fantasy, Bram Stoker, Locus, and International Horror Guild awards.

Why do you think markets should pay, and does the MWA minimum have a bearing on your payment structure?
I think MWA's minimum is too low. It should be higher. A minimum of $100 per story is essential.

How much did you charge for an issue, and do you think raising or lowering the price would have a severe impact on readership?
We were a free online magazine that sold advertising, and also sold ebook editions of our issues for $2.99 each. We also offered subscriptions via Weightless Books. Once upon a time, Amazon allowed for direct subscriptions via Kindle, but small magazines with no print component are no longer allowed in that program. The ones you can subscribe to are grandfathered in.

Do you think the free online magazines cut into sales?
No, it's a different model. Does radio cut in to live music ticket sales? Maybe in some abstract sense, but they're really just two different ways of making money from songs.

Does paying for a story raises the bar of quality of what you'll accept?
No, it raises the ceiling on the quality of story we received though.

What has been your experience running a magazine in the crime genre, and why do you think there are fewer paying markets in Mystery than SF and Horror?
The sense I got was that the novel is so important to the genre that short fiction was always ever a sideline. One thing we categorically refused to take was the "enhancement" story about some side adventure of a novelist's series character, which agents often encourage their writers to produce. We didn't want afterthoughts. We were offered many many afterthoughts.

I think SF and horror have more paying markets because of organized fandom in those genres—it's generally fans with a little money to burn who start magazines these days, and they do it because of their love of the genre and to become prominent in the "scene."  The various awards in SF and horror have multiple short fiction categories, which also encourages writers to participate more. Crime/mystery doesn't have nearly the same level of organized fan activity.

Jack Getze, Spinetingler Magazine (in print and accepting submissions)

Former newsman Jack Getze is Fiction Editor for Anthony-nominated Spinetingler Magazine, one of the internet's oldest websites for noir, crime and horror short stories. His screwball mysteries -- BIG NUMBERS, BIG MONEY, BIG MOJO, and BIG SHOES -- were published by Down and Out Books, as is his new thriller, THE BLACK KACHINA. His short stories have appeared online at A Twist of Noir, Beat to a Pulp, The Big Adios, and several anthologies.

Why do you think a market should pay, and does the MWA minimum have a bearing on your payment structure?
We like to think everything we do is for the newer writers, including the small payment of $25. Getting paid for fiction meant a lot to Sandra and I when we started, and I think writers appreciate the token payment today as well. We'd like to raise that number if future sales allow it. The MWA minimum has not been a factor.

How much do you charge for an issue, and did raising or lowering the price have a severe impact on readership?
We've been online only, and thus free, for almost a decade, but we've just re-launched our print magazine in November. We're charging $5.95 for the ebook and $10.95 for the printed copy. Down & Out Books, our contract publisher, had considerable input on pricing. It could change in the future. Can't answer the second part because we haven't had enough time to gauge readership.

Do you think the free online magazines cut into sales?
No, personally I don't. I don't think readers buy a ton of short stories unless they're already interested in the writer. I might be wrong. Many people think it's the format, that apps and shorter stories you can read quickly on the telephone might be a more salable product. That takes money and investment that Spinetingler doesn't have right now. When Sandra calls me Spinetingler's "owner," it's because I get to pay the bills.

Does paying for a story raises the bar of quality of what you'll accept?
No. We've paid since inception, and my criteria is pretty simple: I buy the stories I personally enjoy reading.

What has been your experience running a magazine in the crime genre, and why do you think there are fewer paying markets in Mystery than SF and Horror?
We run some horror at Spinetingler, although not as much as crime, suspense and mystery. I'd run more horror if I saw stories I liked because our readers enjoy the it, but many submissions seem too gory for me. I had to call a fairly well known writer once and apologize. The writing was so good, the story intriguing, but damn it was gory with lots of body parts and blood. I couldn't finish, told the man somebody else would buy. Not me.

I believe sci-fi and horror have captured young readers' hearts more than mystery. Not sure why, but my guess is the tired image of Sherlock Holmes dooms the genre to a sitting room where old people sit and drink tea. Solving crimes is not as much fun as running from zombies. Every young person I know personally -- anybody under 50 is young to me -- loves sci-fi, horror and speculative fiction. I hope mystery isn't on the way out but I worry whenever I attend a mystery conference. Not many young readers.


Eric Campbell and Rick Ollerman, Down & Out Magazine (in print and accepting submissions)

Eric Campbell is the founder and publisher of Down & Out Books.  After spending twenty-five years in healthcare finance, Eric started Down & Out Books as an avenue to help develop and build “lost” authors. Since then, the company has published over 200 books and is home to several imprints including All Due Respect, Shotgun Honey and ABC Documentation.  The company specializes in the crime, thriller and suspense genres. 

Rick Ollerman was born in Minneapolis but moved to more humid pastures in Florida when he got out of school. He made his first dollar from writing when he sent a question into a crossword magazine as a very young boy. Later he went on to hold world records for various large skydives, has appeared in a photo spread in LIFE magazine, another in The National Enquirer, can be seen on an inspirational poster shown during the opening credits of a popular TV show, and has been interviewed on CNN. He was also an extra in the film Purple Rain where he had a full screen shot a little more than nine minutes in. His writing has appeared in technical and sporting magazines and he has edited, proofread, and written numerous introductions for many books. He’s never found a crossword magazine that pays more than that first dollar and in the meantime lives in northern New Hampshire with his wife, two children and two Golden Retrievers.

Why do you think a market should pay, and does the MWA minimum have a bearing on your payment structure?  
Eric: To get good stories from top name authors, yes, we need to pay.  They've taken time to write the story and, while the payment is pretty small, I hope to see that grow over time.  If we get the the big names then we should be able to submit to MWA for consideration.  So yes, the minimum did come was discussed when Rick and I first talked about launching the magazine.
Rick: The MWA minimum has a huge bearing on payment. The minimum is not large but it does several things: it makes each story we buy a professional transaction for the writer, it makes their work eligible for awards consideration (which would be wonderful for circulation), and as Eric says later, free does not work as a business model in the book and magazine business. If we don’t respect your work enough to pay for it, how willing are you going to be to work with me on the editing—some of which gets extensive, I’m not just a pass/fail type editor (two stories in the new issues have endings from me, and a story in the next issue will as well. Why do that much work for free? It’s because we’re all bonded by the desire to make each of these stories the best they can be). I only wish we could start out paying a per word rate like the two biggies in the field.

Interestingly, most of the writers have been surprised they get paid at all, even though it’s clearly stated on our submissions web page. They just want a story in our magazine. Which is another recurring thing I heard at Bouchercon: I want a story in your magazine. When Eric and I first talked about this and he asked, what should we call it, I immediately said, “Down & Out: The Magazine. D&O Books already has the image and identity you want to put out there. It would be up to us to put out a magazine worthwhile enough to bear the name.” And there’s no doubt in my mind we’re doing it, even though we’re young. I can tell you as editor I am uncompromising as to the stories that I’ll buy. And the idea is to get magazine readers to discover a writer’s books—which a number of people have told has happened with your own—and vice versa. We’re hoping contributing authors will publicize the existence of their work in the magazine, too.

How much do you charge for an issue, and did raising or lowering the price have a severe impact on readership?
Eric: The cost of each issue is $11.99 for TP and $5.99 for EB  for a number of reasons.  First, the authors are names you know and have been paid for their efforts. Second, until readership reaches a reasonable number to justify a print run, the book is POD so the cost to publish is a little higher. Third, the stories have been professionally edited and proofread. Bottom line, Down & Out: The Magazine is a high quality product with well-written stories. While lowering the price may result in a few add'l purchases, I don't think it would be substantial.
Rick: If you made the book free, or two dollars, the consumer values it lower than they would a competitive magazine with inferior stories that carries a higher retail price. Free doesn’t work. Occasional free can work wonderfully, occasional cheap can give you a nice boost in the arm and build loyalty from your customers, but an all the time free or cheap project simply means that’s the place your product will occupy in the consumer’s mind—at the bottom.
Show me one of the new magazines that has an all-new Moe Prager story by Reed Farrel Coleman? Or one that has a new Sheriff Dan Rhodes story by Bill Crider? In the next issue it’s a new Jim Brodie story by Barry Lancet? It doesn’t happen anywhere else.
Other magazines have used public domain short stories to fill pages because they’re cheap but we actually curate the stories we reprint and pay the entity that currently owns Black Mask. The short essays I write to introduce those stories should give readers an interesting peek into how we got here from there, then they get to read a story that may use language a bit looser than we do today but they’ll see that, damn, they’re fun to read.

Do you think the free online magazines cut into sales?
Eric: Free hurts everything we do. At some point though, free isn't sustainable. If you don't pay for content, then what kind of content will be available to you, the reader?  As a publisher, you pay for the cover, edits, proofreading, layout, etc. and if something is free, then how to you recoup your costs and, more importantly, pay the author for their hard work.
Rick: Free also robs the spirit and the heart out of what we do. What a sad state for poets who get paid with a contributor’s copy of the digest that took their poem. There’s no payment, token though it may be, the magazine doesn’t sell much, so it’s not like they’re looking at a hot growth curve, so they muddle along. No, what we do is exciting. And so very hard. Working with writers whose stories may almost work but not quite, or don’t have an adequate ending, or are too fat in the middle, or have a twist ending that you can guess from the first page—these are all problems we work on in the editing if despite these problems there’s an actual story there. By the time the issue’s almost done, all the stories have run together in my mind and they all start to read the same. Why do I do that? Because I am going to make this thing a success. And that’s something more than that weekly 8-pager they hand out at the grocery store on Fridays.

Does paying for a story raises the bar of quality of what you'll accept?
Eric: Absolutely, without a doubt.
Rick: It does, but more it’s the reputation of Down & Out, it’s the personal invitations I extend to writers (because face it, us writers don’t get a ton of love that way), and there’s a sense out there that this is going to be something and they want to be a part of it.

What has been your experience running a magazine in the crime genre, and why do you think there are fewer paying markets in Mystery than SF and Horror?
Eric: Thus far we've published two issues and we're still crawling.  We're trying to get the word out and grow this into a sustainable venture.  It takes a lot of hard work from numerous folks to pull it together.  Each issues will consist of 7 or 8 stories so if we do 4 issues a year, you're really talking about putting out 2 anthologies a year.  That's a TON of work.  I think there are fewer paying markets because total readership is down due to the aforementioned free content.  Again, I don't believe that's sustainable when no one is making a penny.  As much as we love what we do, you've still gotta eat.
Rick: I have no idea of the number of paying vs. non-paying magazines among different genres. I do know that for a while I was buying all the new magazines because I wanted to support not only the magazines, but my friends who were writing stories for them. But I found what I think most people find—I don’t like most of the stories. I just don’t. Maybe the writing’s okay but the poor endings ruin the experience. Or the writing’s just plain weak, on more of a high school level. Or the ideas are non-original and we’ve seen this story innumerable times before. Whatever. But I’d read these things and when I’d finish I’d have this funny twisted up feeling in my brain, like I’d just read something nobody had any business asking me to put down money for. That what I’d just read had been inconsistent. Three mediocre stories and one bad one can give me a feeling as though I’ve thrown away an entire day.

Everything we’re doing here is all aimed at accomplishing one thing: No. Bad. Stories. Not everyone can like every story. I can see one in particular in this second issue that is a good story but it is dark. And it’s that way because sometimes you just write a dark story. The point is, it’s good, and even if you read it and say, “That’s too dark for me, honey turn on all the lights,” you’ve already read it, it’s over, and you know you read a good story. Although you might not read that one again.

Todd Robinson, ThugLit (defunct, though back issues are available at Amazon)

Todd Robinson created and ran THUGLIT magazine for over a decade. He's not shilling anything in this bio. Sure, he wrote a couple of novels, but let's save us both the embarrassment of having to pretend you give a flying fuck.
Hi, Todd! That's Todd. Because like Conan, Cimmerian, he will not cry (or shill) I will shill for him. The Hard Bounce and Rough Trade are his Boo Malone mysteries, about a bouncer in Boston who runs an investigative agency called 4DC (as in Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap) with his buddy. Good reads, Have at 'em.

Why do you think a market should pay, and did the MWA minimum have a bearing on your payment structure?
A market should pay, because any artist should be paid for their work. Even when we were a free online mag, I paid the writers with a t-shirt. And this was when we generated NO income whatsoever. It cost me almost three-hundred dollars per issue to produce the mag.

And while I think the offer of exposure is utter bullshit, we did legitimately give the authors that. I would never claim that it was a reason to submit to us (if you can get paid, you sure as shit should do so), but over time, the proof was in the pudding with regards to how many of our authors moved up the ladder by getting pubbed by us as a starting point. We worked our asses off to make sure as many people saw the work as possible. And that's a pride I still carry with me today. Every time I see a book on a shelf that started with the author having been published in Thuglit, Bitterness takes a short coffee break and allows Pride to have a small "Fuck, yeah" moment.

MWA made no impact whatsoever on our pricing. I'm not a member. The organization and I aren't friends. Part of it is that they even HAVE a fucking minimum, as though the price paid for a story is an indication of quality. Check the bookshelves, Best American Mystery Stories, the Anthony Awards, The MacCavity Awards…fuck it, ALL the awards (except the Edgars) to see if we presented amazing work from truly talented writers. According to the MWA, those stories aren't worth shit because of monetary ratios.

How much did you charge for an issue, and did raising or lowering the price have a severe impact on readership?
I started with the lowest price point at $0.99, and our readership dropped ninety-six percent. Apparently, thirteen cents a story was too much to ask. Once we rocketed up to six percent of the original readership, I raised the price to $1.99 and raised the author pay. Our readership dropped another third, and kept dropping until we were almost operating in the red in order to maintain the pay rate, and I shaved a decade off my life stressing daily about why we got all the acclaim, all the "love" and no sales.

Do you think the free online magazines cut into sales?
Absolutely. But like I said, we were free for years. And some of those free e-zines offer great material from editors who truly care about presenting quality fiction. Some just operate as a Mutual Admiration Society for authors to self-publish their own writing along with the works of their friends in order to impress their knitting circles. Those are usually fly-by-night productions that don't last six months, or whenever the jackasses realize how much work goes into it.

I made a lot of enemies with rejections, and never published a friend for being a friend. You can ask any writer that I'm close with personally. If the story wasn't good enough, it didn't get in. Period. Don't give a fuck who you are—or more importantly, who the fuck you thought you were. To do so would be a disservice to the few loyal readers we had, and a disservice to the writers themselves by presenting what amounted to a piece that didn't represent their talents to the fullest of their abilities.

I've said it before—we live in a society that would rather go to a free turd buffet with the off-chance that there's a shrimp hiding under a mountain of shit, than pay two bucks for a curated meal from a restaurant that built a reputation for high quality. I thought that over the years, we'd built a status that would have earned both us and the writers that much.

HOO boy, was I wrong.

Did paying for a story raise the bar of quality of what you'll accept?
Not at all. It increased the number of submissions we received, but the over/under on how many stories were quality over those that didn't live up to our standard remained the same. Our bar was set high with issue one. It never lowered. I never accepted a story from a "name writer" because I thought it would increase sales at the expense of a story I though was better. Would that have made sense business-wise? Sure. Am I as smart as I sometimes like to think I am? Fuuuuuuuck no.

What has been your experience running a magazine in the crime genre, and why do you think there are fewer paying markets in Mystery than SF and Horror?
It sucked. It was exasperating as hell. When I put up a video stating that I was ending the magazine, the goddamn thing got 7000 views in ten days, along with the wailing and gnashing of teeth that always accompanies a mag when it goes down. Problem was, we didn't move 7000 units of the magazine during the two years prior. If everyone who watched the video was willing to pony up what amounted to a buck a month, they wouldn't be watching that video!

I think it was that realization at the end that pushed me from straight-up frustration in to outright bitterness. Writers love having a market, but don't support them while they're in operation. But they sure will bitch and moan when they're gone.

The markets are disappearing because nobody wants to pay for the magazines. Fewer and fewer people read. Even fewer want to pay for it. That's the beginning, the middle, and the end of the problem. Writers can't get paid from a magazine when nobody is buying the magazine. Even the writers themselves.

Chris Rhatigan, All Due Respect (defunct)

Chris Rhatigan is a freelance editor and the publisher of All Due Respect Books

Why do you think a market should pay, and does the MWA minimum have a bearing on your payment structure?
I don't think there's any particular amount a market should pay. It's nice if the magazine can at least send a contributor's copy. If the magazine is just a website, then there's no way in hell it's making any money, so it's a bit unreasonable to expect payment. MWA had no bearing on our payment structure. 



How much do you charge for an issue, and did raising or lowering the price have a severe impact on readership?

We charged $2.99. When we did promos at 99 cents, we would sell triple the number of copies. The problem is Amazon's payment structure--you make 66% at $2.99 and up, but 33% at 99 cents. Of course, the idea is that you "hook new readers" with the lower prices, but I'm not convinced that ever happened. 



Do you think the free online magazines cut into sales?

No. I've never perceived the short fiction market as a zero-sum game. Many of the free sites I used to read are gone now and I highly doubt this has caused an uptick in readership for paying magazines.



Does paying for a story raises the bar of quality of what you'll accept?

Yes. ADR was a website that didn't pay writers for a few years. Later, we decided to release a magazine (Amazon and POD) and pay writers $25 a story. We received about ten times as many submissions. We ended up turning down some excellent stories.  



What has been your experience running a magazine in the crime genre, and why do you think there are fewer paying markets in Mystery than SF and Horror?

I enjoyed running the magazine and that's why it grew into All Due Respect Books. We still publish short stories in the form of collections by individual authors. About two years ago, it became clear that the magazine was taking up a significant amount of our time but was losing money. People in the crime fiction community were enthusiastic when we started and our first few issues sold a lot of copies. That didn't last. It was also a question of time. Running a magazine and a publishing house at the same time wasn't going to work. We chose the publishing house and that was the right choice. I think we have a long future ahead of us publishing excellent crime fiction while not going bankrupt. That's been my goal all along.   

To respond to the second part of your question, SF and horror sound like the exception to the rule. It's difficult to run a magazine that pays writers. I don't know anyone who reads short story magazines who isn't a writer. And writers often submit work to publications they've never read. I don't want to blame anyone here--writers, readers, editors, "the industry," etc.--but, for whatever reason, short story publications have a tiny audience, and I don't see that changing. 


Takeaways:


"Free hurts everything we do." 
I agree. I've heard it time and time again, readers who wait for a book to drop to free or 99 cents. BookBub has made a living at it. But unless readers buy the next book at a profitable price, writing is not sustainable.
"I hope mystery isn't on the way out but I worry whenever I attend a mystery conference. Not many young readers."
This will be the subject of a future post. Bouchercon may not be the perfect con to become the "Comicon of Crime" ... but we NEED a "Comicon of Crime," that is hosted in one place or by one group.
"Crime/mystery doesn't have nearly the same level of organized fan activity." 
This needs to change, but how to do it? 
"I wanted to support not only the magazines, but my friends who were writing stories for them. But I found what I think most people find—I don’t like most of the stories."
This is a big problem. When I read EQMM or AHMM even the stories that aren't my cup of joe are of high quality. I can't say that about every magazine. You need a place to cut your teeth, but that doesn't mean the story should be published. There are sites like Fictionaut and others where you can share your work and get feedback.
"The markets are disappearing because nobody wants to pay for the magazines. Fewer and fewer people read. Even fewer want to pay for it."
Big problem. But it ties into the quality issue. I loved ThugLit's high quality level and bought print issues from Amazon (I hate reading e-books now that I need glasses). But it wasn't easy to subscribe. If a mag can't do print subs--and I get it, it's a LOT of work--they need an email mailing list, minimum, to alert readers of new issues.
"writers often submit work to publications they've never read."
Much to editors' chagrin. Live and learn, writers. 

I went through the trouble of interviewing these editors to generate a discussion. Let's keep it civil, but what solutions do you see for these problems? Or do you think there's no problem at all?

10 June 2017

True Crime? Maybe Not


by B.K. Stevens

Over twenty-five years ago, when I was taking my first tentative steps as a mystery writer--no publications yet, but a respectable stack of rejections--I was teaching English at a liberal arts college in Illinois. (For reasons about to become obvious, I won't say which one.) A student came to my office to ask for an extension on an essay and, as justification, launched into a litany of typical freshman woes. She couldn't get along with her roommate, her chemistry professor hated her, the girls on her hall partied late every night, making so much noise she couldn't sleep.

"And," she said, "I'm depressed because my older brother's in prison."

That made me perk up. Prison? Crime? Maybe I could use this in a story. After all, it's vitally important for mysteries to be realistic--at least, that was my theory at the time.

I tried to sound compassionate, not hungry for information. "I'm sorry to hear that," I said. "May I ask why he's in prison?" Murder, I hoped. Murder murder murder.

She sighed. "Arson," she said.

Oh. Not murder. Well, arson's a serious crime, too. There must be ways to make it interesting. Pushing all scruples about professional ethics aside, I decided to keep digging. The student probably wouldn't mind. She'd see it as a sign of sympathy, and she'd figure that increased her chances of getting an extension. Yeah. She'd talk.

"That's too bad," I said, and paused delicately. "What was it--some sort of elaborate insurance scam?"

She shook her head. "No. He was mad at our neighbor, and one night he got drunk and burned down his barn."

Not such an interesting crime after all. But maybe I could wring some emotional drama out of the situation. "That must have been hard on your family," I said. "All the tension and worry during the investigation, the trial--"

She shrugged. "There wasn't really an investigation. Or a trial. See, he was drunk, like I said. So his wallet must've fallen out of his pocket when he reached for his car keys or something, but he didn't notice, and the police found it right near the barn. So the next day they came to our house and showed him the wallet and said, `Joey, did you burn down Ed Swenson's barn?' And he said, 'I guess.' So they arrested him, and he made some kind of deal or whatever, and he went to prison. It's depressing. It makes it really, really hard for me to write essays."

I gave her the extension. I wasn't altogether convinced that she was deeply depressed about her brother's plight, or that her concern for him accounted for her essay-writing difficulties. She often came to our 8:00 class looking hung over, and that made me wonder if she might in fact be partying with those noisy girls on her hall, and if that might be why her essay hadn't gotten written. But I owed her. She hadn't handed me a plot, but she'd taught me a valuable lesson. Yes, mysteries should be realistic--sort of. But the crimes in mysteries have to be interesting. Real crimes don't, and usually aren't.

It reminded me of my own brush with real crime, buried still deeper in the past. I was in high school, my older sister was away at college, and my parents had gone out to enjoy a Sunday evening of playing bridge with friends. I had to catch the bus downtown to get to the Buffalo Jewish Center in time for my B'nai B'rith Girls meeting, and I was running late. (I promise these details will prove relevant later.) I was scrambling to get ready and looking, as I recall, for a silk scarf. Back then, I fretted about fashion accents such as silk scarves, because the boys' B'nai B'rith chapters held their meetings at the Jewish Center at the same time ours did, and we mingled before and after. The scarf eluded me. Frustrated, I pulled out my top dresser drawer and dumped its contents on my bed. I spotted the scarf, grabbed it, and ran for the bus.

I assume the meetings and the flirting went on as usual--I don't remember, and it doesn't matter. Usually, I took the bus home after meetings. But on this particular night, my best friend's father stopped by to pick her up and offered me a ride home, too. (This detail might also be relevant. It might have saved my life.) They dropped me off and drove away, and I walked up the driveway to our front door, digging in my purse for my key. As it turned out, I didn't need my key, because the door was slightly ajar. That's strange, I remember thinking. My parents--my mother, especially--always kept doors shut and locked.

I pushed the door open and stepped into the house. I remember standing there like an idiot for a full minute, maybe longer, looking around in confusion. The living room was a mess--paintings pulled off walls, books pulled off shelves, cushions pulled off couches. My parents had an old-fashioned piece of furniture called a secretary, and all the drawers had been emptied on the floor, papers and doo-dads scattered everywhere. I couldn't understand it. Had my mother decided to take a radical approach to spring cleaning? Had she decided to start on a Sunday evening in October?

Then it dawned on my. Our car wasn't in the driveway. My parents hadn't come home yet. Somebody else had been in the house, and had turned it upside down.

I ran next door, and my neighbors called the police--this was long before cell phones, of course. I stood out on the lawn to wait. By now, I was excited. At that point in my life, I had no idea of ever becoming a mystery writer, but what teenager wouldn't be excited about having his or her house burglarized? When the first police car arrived, I accompanied the officers to the door. I'll never forget the older officer's words as he took a long, careful look around our ravaged living room.

"Yup," he said, nodding sagaciously. "Looks like we've had an entry here."

An entry! Cop talk! It was just like TV, only better because it was really happening. I wasn't thinking about what precious things the burglars might have taken, only about how cool it all was.

The younger officer said he'd check upstairs, and I raced up ahead of him, leading him straight to my room. That was the worst moment. The officer saw the dumped-out dresser drawer on my bed and pointed.

"They've been in here for sure," he said.

Humiliating as it was, I knew, even then, that one mustn't lie to the police. "Not necessarily," I said. "I left it that way."

He raised an eyebrow, looked around upstairs for a few minutes, didn't see anything of interest, and decided to check the basement. Again, I went along, to show him where the light switches were. He was checking out the laundry room when he said, "You know, I really shouldn't have let you come down with me."

"Why not?" I asked, looking around for traces of the burglars.

"Because they might still be here," he said.

That hadn't occurred to me before--or, evidently, to him. My excuse is that I was a teenager who had no experience with crime or criminals.

Around then, my parents got home. Alarmed by seeing police cars outside the house, my mother took the situation in much more quickly than I had. She ran up to the older officer.

"My daughter!" she cried. "Where's my daughter?"

He looked at her somberly. "She's in the basement, ma'am," he said.

My mother promptly went into hysterics, imagining me in the basement, chopped into a thousand tiny pieces. But I came upstairs intact moments later and calmed her down.

My parents and I watched as the police looked around, asked us questions, and took notes. I felt relieved when they found that a window on the back porch had been forced open, and concluded the burglars had gotten in that way. After my initial excitement had faded, I'd started to worry that I might have been so intent on catching the bus that I'd forgotten to lock the door. If I'd made things easy for the burglars, I'd have to face my mother's wrath, and that scared me more than any burglars ever could. But apparently it hadn't been my fault. Thank goodness.

The police also decided the burglars hadn't finished going through the living room. Chances were, they thought, the burglars had been in that room when I got home, and they'd seen my friend's father's headlights in the driveway and left through the back window before I made it inside. So if I'd taken the bus and walked home from the corner, as usual, I might have strolled into the living room and taken them by surprise. Probably, they would have simply run off anyhow. Most burglars aren't homicidal. But if they'd been on drugs or determined to leave no witnesses behind--well, I'm glad Joanne's father picked that night to give us a ride home.

The police made a long list of things that were stolen, told my parents to call if they  noticed anything else was missing, promised to stay in touch, and left. We never heard from them again. It was like an early Seinfeld episode. Jerry discovers his apartment has been burglarized and calls the police, and the officer dutifully makes a list of stolen items. "We'll look into it," he says, "and we'll let you know if we find anything." "Do you ever find anything?" Jerry asks. "No," the officer says.

Our burglars did quite a job on our house. My mother's father had been a jeweler, and he'd given her some nice pieces. She kept the most valuable ones in a safe deposit box, but the burglars found and took everything else, including my grandfather's pocket watch. They also took my parents' good silverware. My parent didn't mind that so much--insurance covered it, and they could pick a more modern set they liked more than the one my grandparents had given them as a wedding present. But insurance didn't cover the cash that was stolen. My mother didn't drive, and she grew up during the Depression and didn't entirely trust banks, so she liked to keep a fair amount of cash in the house. She hid it in all sorts of clever places--in her sewing box, at the bottom of old Band-Aid boxes stuffed with rubber bands and balls of string, between the pages of books, between photographs and the frames holding them. The burglars found and took almost every dollar. Amazing.

As for me, at first I thought the burglars hadn't bothered going through my room at all. But they had. As I got ready for bed, I kept noticing signs they'd been there--my jewelry box sitting open, the contents of an old purse dumped out on my closet floor. The burglars must've been frustrated when they found nothing but costume jewelry and dried-out mascara. So, evidently, they'd given up and moved on before spotting the one truly valuable thing in my room--my grandmother's diamond watch, sitting right out on my bedside table in a velvet-covered jewelry box. (Years later, my husband and I named our daughter Sarah after my grandmother; we gave her the watch as a bat mitzvah present, and she wore it at her wedding. I'm glad the burglars missed it.) So I didn't lose much, if anything, in the burglary--after all, I was a teenager and didn't own much worth stealing. Even so, it felt unsettling to know strangers had been in my room and handled my things. I slept with the lights on that night.

I'll never write a mystery about that true crime. If I did, nobody would publish it--it had some quick comic touches but no real drama or conflict, and any attempt to build suspense would collapse into anti-climax. But I gleaned some insights from the experience, insights into the way even a non-violent crime can leave people feeling violated. Not too long ago, I drew on those insights when I wrote "The Shopper," a story about a librarian whose house is burglarized while she's at home, asleep. Here's the description of how she felt the next day:

She felt like a stranger in her own home now, constantly reaching for things that were no longer there, every ten minutes discovering fresh evidence of The Shopper's intrusion--a bottle of aspirin missing, a box of tissues moved. She'd been so proud of this house, had felt so safe here. It was tiny, and only rented, but it was her symbol of security and independence, her proof she could take care of herself. And now some stranger called The Shopper had destroyed all that. Her privacy had been denied, her contentment sneered at. She felt suddenly vulnerable.

In that story, I also drew on something a co-worker told me about the time her purse was stolen when she carelessly left it unwatched in her grocery cart. She came home to find the thief had returned her reading glasses by leaving them in her mailbox. That true crime story also didn't lead to much: My co-worker was nervous for several days, afraid the thief might be stalking her, but nothing else ever happened. The thief did a bad deed, then did a good deed, and that was the end of it.

In my story, the burglar does prove to be a stalker. I worked my small insight from that long-ago burglary and my co-worker's sliver of experience into a fair-play whodunit: The librarian notices that two men she's never seen before have started showing up at the library every day, and she has to unravel several clues to figure out which one is the burglar who's probably up to no good. (I'll casually mention that "The Shopper" is one of the stories in my collection, Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime. Not that I'm trying to sell books or anything.)

True crime seldom gives us everything we need for our mysteries. The criminals usually aren't clever enough, the cops sometimes aren't quick enough, the crimes themselves often aren't interesting or conclusive enough--often, they end without any real climax, any definite answers. They end not with a bang but a whimper. But we can still gather scraps of ideas and insights from our brushes with true crime, and from true crimes we hear about or read about. If we add some imagination, we might end up with mysteries readers will find satisfying.

Maybe I should give more thought to writing a story about someone who burns down a barn. After all, it worked out pretty well for Faulkner.



I'm delighted to say that I'm interviewed in the current issue of The Digest Enthusiast, a fascinating publication that celebrates genre magazines. The interview (it's a long one) focuses on my stories for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, especially the series featuring Lieutenant Walt Johnson and Sergeant Gordon Bolt. This issue also includes an interview with science fiction writer Edd Vick, with Vick's advice on finding markets for short speculative fiction; a review of the first issues of the classic crime digest Manhunt; a look at digest articles about the career and death of Sharon Tate (take note, O'Neil DeNoux); and more articles, reviews, and original stories. If you'd like more information, you can find it here.

19 March 2016

Let's Hear It for MMs


by John M. Floyd

No, not mss (the plural of "manuscript").  MMs (the plural of "mystery magazine").  In fact, let's hear it for MM mss.

Several years ago I was Googling markets for short mystery stories (I do that from time to time) and stumbled upon a site called, believe it or not, Better Holmes and Gardens. When I investigated, I found submission guidelines for a publication I hadn't heard of before: Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. That's right--yet another MM.

Like all mystery writers, I love AHMM and EQMM, and I also submit a lot of stories to other current magazines that regularly feature mystery fiction, like The StrandWoman's WorldOver My Dead BodyCrimespreeMysterical-E, BJ Bourg's Flash Bang Mysteries, etc. But the truth is, there aren't a lot of markets out there anymore--paying or non-paying--that specialize in mystery shorts.

Holmes Sweet Holmes

Back to my discovery. Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine is a product of Wildside Press, which I believe also publishes the iconic Weird Tales. As soon as I found SHMM I sent them a story, a little mystery called "Traveling Light," and was pleased and surprised when they accepted it. They paid me promptly, and when the piece was published they mailed me several copies of what turned out to be a smart-looking magazine, with an attractive cover and a wealth of interesting stories inside. Since then they've been kind enough to publish four more of my mysteries, all of them installments in a series featuring a female sheriff and her crime-solving mother.

My latest is in Issue #19, and appears alongside tales by my friend Jacqueline Seewald and my fellow SleuthSayer Janice Law. I've not yet read all the stories in the issue, but I've read Jacqueline's ("The Letter of the Law") and Janice's ("A Business Proposition") and they're excellent as usual.

Anytime mystery magazines are the topic, I find myself thinking about those that have come and gone, over the years. A few were receptive to my stories and a few rejected everything I sent them (sort of like some of the magazines that are still around), but I think I tried them all. And I thought it might be fun to take a quick trip down MM-memory lane:

Mystery mags of the past

Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine -- One of my favorites. Margo Power, editor.

Crimestalker Casebook -- Andrew McAleer, editor. Boston-based.

Mystery Time -- a small but wonderful little magazine. Linda Hutton, editor.

Blue Murder -- I think I remember trying these folks and getting rejected every time.

Red Herring Mystery Magazine -- RHMM published two of my stories, accepted another, and disappeared.

Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine -- Sadly, before my time.

Mouth Full of Bullets -- BJ Bourg, editor. Loved this magazine.

Whispering Willows Mystery Magazine -- Short-lived. I barely remember this one.

Heist Magazine -- Australian, featured stories only on CD-ROM.

Crime and Suspense -- This had some fine stories during its short run. Tony Burton, editor.

Nefarious -- Online-only, if I remember correctly. One of the first e-zines.

Black Mask -- Again, before my time.

Raconteur -- Like RHMM, this one accepted one of my stories and then put all four feet in the air.

Detective Mystery Stories -- Print publication, editors Tom and Ginger Johnson.

Orchard Press Mysteries -- This was an early e-zine as well. I had only one story there.

The Rex Stout Journal -- Another short-lived print magazine.

Futures -- Babs Lakey, editor. Later became Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine.

NOTE: Please let me know if you remember some of the many that I've overlooked--or if any of these I've listed have taken on new life.

Square pegs, round holes

Besides the obvious choices, I also continue to try to sell my mystery/crime shorts to places that don't specialize in mysteries but that occasionally publish them anyway--and there are more of those than one might think. Here are some, from both now and long ago: GritDogwood Tales, Spinetingler Magazine, Untreed Reads, Writers on the RiverYellow Sticky NotesPrairie TimesMindprintsSniplitsPages of Stories, Amazon Shorts, Just a Moment, Kings River LifeReader's BreakWriters' Post JournalShort Stuff for GrownupsChampagne Shivers, and The Saturday Evening Post. (Remember, it's generally accepted that a mystery is any story in which a crime is central to the plot. It doesn't have to be a whodunit.)

Now and then, even so-called literary magazines will feature a mystery story: Pleiades, Thema, Glimmer TrainPhoebe, some of the college lit journals, etc. Tom Franklin's short story "Poachers," which won an Edgar and appeared in The Best American Mystery Stories 1999, was first published in The Texas Review.

Anthopology

Finally, any discussion of mystery markets should include a mention of anthologies. I usually find them by Googling "anthology calls for submission" and checking Ralan's Webstravaganza, which is advertised as a science-fiction site but doesn't limit itself to that. The two advantages of anthologies over magazines, I think, are that (1) anthos usually request submissions in a fixed window of time, which can be a plus if you hop in right away, and (2) they are often "themed." If you happen to have a finished story that fits their theme--or can write one quickly--you'll already have a leg up on the competition. Another excellent site to check, for mags as well as anthos, is Sandra Seamans's My Little Corner.

Anthologies that I've been associated with, all of which contained some mystery stories and most of which you've never heard of, include Seven by SevenTrust and TreacheryMagnolia Blossoms and Afternoon TalesAfter DeathFlash and BangCrime and Suspense IMad Dogs and MoonshineThe Gift of MurderQuakes and StormsShort TalesFireflies in Fruit JarsSweet Tea and Afternoon Tales, Ten for TenThou Shalt NotA Criminal Brief ChristmasRocking Chairs and Afternoon Tales, and Short Attention Span Mysteries.

A leading anthology for mystery writers is of course the "noir" series produced by Akashic Books, in Brooklyn. Several of my SleuthSayers colleagues have graced those pages, and one of my stories will be in the upcoming Mississippi Noir. Other anthology possibilities are the annual "best of" editions that feature stories published during the previous year, like Otto Penzler's Best American Mystery Stories series.

And that's it--I'm out of examples. I'll end with a question: What are some of your favorite short mystery markets, past and present?

May the ones we have now last forever.




14 April 2015

Mariel– The Story, Part I


by David Dean

Some time ago I did a piece here on the writing of my story, "Mariel", which appeared in the Dec. 2012 issue of ELLERY QUEEN MYSTERY MAGAZINE. Finding myself overcome by events and coming up dry on the deadline for this month's entry in the SleuthSayers sweepstakes, I decided to make the story available (in two parts due to its length) to anyone who wants to read it. I hope that you will, if you haven't already, and that you enjoy meeting it's young heroine.

Mariel

THE NEIGHBOR watched Mariel approach through his partially shuttered blinds. She cruised down their quiet cul-de-sac on her purple bicycle, her large head with its jumble of tight curls swiveling from side to side. He thought she looked grotesque, a Shirley Temple on steroids. Mariel ratcheted the bell affixed to her handlebars for no apparent reason and stopped in front of his house. He took a step back from the window.

His house was one of three that lay along the turn-around at the end of Crumpler Lane and normally she would simply complete her circumnavigation of the asphalted circle and return to her end of the street. This time, however, Mariel’s piggish eyes swept across his lawn and continued to the space between his house and that of his neighbor’s to the north, who despised the child as much as he did, if that was possible. A crease of concern appeared on his freckled forehead and he took a sip of his cooling coffee.

Suddenly she raked the lever of her bell back and forth several times startling him, the nerve-wracking jangle sounding as if Mariel and her bike were in his living room. He felt something warm slide over his knuckles and drip onto his faux Persian carpet.

Hissing a curse about Mariel’s parentage, he turned for the kitchen and a bottle of stain remover. “Hideous child,” he murmured through clenched teeth, “Troglodyte!” What was she looking for? More than once he had chased her from his property after he had found her snooping around his sheds and peering in his windows. Though he had complained, her mother had proved useless in controlling the child. She was one of those ‘single moms’ that seemed to dominate the family landscape of late, and had made it clear that she thought he was overreacting.

He recalled with a flushing of his freshly razored cheeks, how she had appeared amused by the whole thing and inquired with an arched brow how long he had been divorced—as if the need for companionship might be the real motive behind his visit! He felt certain that on more than one encounter with the gargantuan and supremely disengaged mother, that he had smelled alcohol on her breath, cheap wine, if he had to hazard a guess.

But what now, he wondered? Usually, Mariel crept about in a surprisingly stealthy manner for such a large girl, but now she commanded the street like a general, silent but for the grating bell that even now rang out demandingly once more…but for what?

Forgetting the carpet cleaner, he set down his morning mug and glided stealthily back to his observation point at the window. He felt trapped, somehow, by this sly little giant so inappropriately named ‘Mariel’. What had her mother been thinking, he asked himself with a shake of his graying head, to assign this clumsy-looking creature such a delicate, feminine name? When he peeked out again it was to find Mariel’s bike lying discarded on his lawn, the girl nowhere to be seen. The crease between his eyes became a furrow and he rushed through his silent house to the kitchen windows.

Carefully parting a slat of his Venetian blinds, he looked on the path that led between his property and the next and on into the woods, a large head of curly hair was just disappearing down it and into the trees. A shudder ran through his body and beads of sweat formed above his upper lip like dew. ‘Damn the girl,’ he thought, feeling slightly nauseous as suspicion uncoiled itself within his now-queasy guts.

Unbidden, the image of the dog trotted into his mind, its hideous prize clasped between its slavering jaws. It had reeked of the rancid earth exposed by the recent torrential rains. He remembered with a shudder of distaste and a rising, renewable fury how it had danced back and forth across his sodden lawn, clearly enjoying its game of ‘keep away’. He remembered the shovel most of all, its heft and reach, the satisfaction of its use.

“That was her dog,” he breathed into the silent, waiting room, then thought, ‘Of course it was…it would be.’ His soft hands flexed as if gripping the shovel once more.



Mariel stood over the shallow, hastily dug grave and contemplated the partially exposed paw. The limb showed cinnamon-colored fur with black, tigerish stripes that she immediately recognized. She hadn’t really cared for Ripper, (a name he had been awarded as a puppy denoting his penchant for ripping any and every thing he could seize between his formidable jaws) but he had been, ostensibly, her dog.

Ostensibly, because as he had grown larger, his destructive capabilities, coupled with Mariel and her mother’s complete disregard of attempting to instill anything remotely resembling discipline, had resulted in a rather dangerous beast that had to be kept penned in the back yard at all times. Mariel had served largely as Ripper’s jailer.

As she couldn’t really share any affection with the dog, or he with her, they had gradually grown to regard one another with a resigned antipathy, if not outright hostility—after all, she was also the provider of his daily meals which she mostly remembered to deliver. It was also she that managed to locate him on those occasions when he found the gate to his pen unlatched (Mariel did this from time to time to see what might happen in the neighborhood as a result) and coaxed him into returning. This was the mission in which Mariel had been engaged this Saturday morning in early November. She saw now that she had been only partially successful, Ripper would not be retuning to his pen.

Looking about for something to scrape the loose earth off her dog’s remains, she pried a rotting piece of wood from a long-fallen pine tree and began to dig into the damp, sandy soil. Grunting and sweating with the effort, her Medusa-like curls bouncing on her large, round skull, Ripper was exposed within minutes. Whoever had buried him had not done a very good job of it and the slight stench of dead dog that had first led her to the secret grave rose like an accusing, invisible wraith. Mariel wrinkled her stubby nose.

Ignoring the dirt and damage being done her purplish sweat shirt and pants that matched her bicycle, she seized the dead creature by his hindquarters and dragged him free of the grave. Letting him drop onto the leaf litter of the forest floor with a sad thump she surveyed her once-fierce companion.

She thought that he looked as if the air had been let out of him—deflated. His great fangs were exposed in a permanent snarl or grimace, the teeth and eyes clotted with earth. She pushed at his ribcage with a toe of her dirty sneaker as if this might goad him back into action, but nothing happened, he just lay there.

She thought his skull appeared changed and squatted next to him to make a closer examination. As she brought her large face closer, the rancid odor grew stronger yet, but Mariel was not squeamish and so continued her careful scrutiny. It was different, she decided. The concavity that naturally ran between Ripper’s eyes to the crown of his skull was now more of a valley, or canyon. Mariel ran a finger along it and came away with a sticky black substance clinging to it. The stain smelled of death and iron.

Having completed her necropsy, Mariel stood once more and surveyed the surrounding woods. The trees had been largely stripped of their colorful foliage by the recent nor’easter, but her enemy was not to be seen. Though she did not truly mourn Ripper’s untimely passing, she did greatly resent the theft of her property and its misuse, and concluded with a hot finality that someone owed her a dog.

She gently kicked Ripper’s poor carcass as a final farewell then turned to leave and find a wheel barrow in which to transport him home once more. She knew of several neighbors who possessed such a conveyance and almost none were locked away this time of year.

It was then that something within the dog’s recent grave caught her attention—something that twinkled like a cat’s eye in the slanted beams of daylight that filtered through the trees. Mariel dropped to her knees, thrusting her chubby hand into the fetid earth to retrieve whatever treasure lay within. When she withdrew it once more it was to find that she clasped a prize far greater than any she could ever have imagined—a gold necklace, it’s flattened, supple links glistening like snake skin and bearing a pendant that sparkled with a blue fire in the rays of the milky sun. Mariel had no idea as to what, exactly, she had discovered, but her forager’s instinct assured her that she clasped a prize worth having.

Without hesitation, she gave it a tug to free it from the grasp of Ripper’s grave, but oddly, found that her efforts were resisted. She snatched at it once more, impatient to be in full possession of her prize, and felt something beneath the dirt move and begin to give way. Encouraged at the results of this tug-o-war, she seized the links in both hands now and rocked back on her considerable haunches for additional leverage.

With the dry snap of a breaking branch, the necklace came free and Mariel found herself in full possession. The erupted earth, however, now revealed a yellowish set of teeth still lodged in the lower jawbone of their owner. Several of these teeth had been filled with silver and as Mariel had also been the recipient of such dental work, she understood that the remains were those of a human. A stack of vertebrae were visible jutting out from the dirt, evidence of the result of the uneven struggle, though the remainder of the skull still lay secure beneath the soil.

Mariel’s grip on the pendant never wavered as she regarded the neck of the now-headless horror that had previously worn the coveted necklace. With only a slight “Ewww,” of disgust, she rose in triumph to slip the prized chain over her own large head, admiring the lustrous sapphire that hung almost to her exposed navel while ignoring the slight tang of death that clung to it. She felt well-pleased with the day’s outcome, Ripper’s demise notwithstanding.

With her plans now altered by this surprising acquisition, Mariel dragged her dog’s much abused corpus back to the grave from which she had only just liberated him, tipped him in and began to cover Ripper and his companion once more. When she was done, she studied the results for several moments; then thought to drag a few fallen branches over her handiwork.

Satisfied with the results, she turned for home once more, pausing only long enough to slip the necklace beneath her stained sweat shirt. Mariel did not want to have to surrender her hard-won treasure to her mother, who would undoubtedly covet the prize and seize it for her own adornment. Besides, she had things she wanted to think about and did not want anyone to know of the necklace until the moment of her choosing, specially, the three men who occupied the homes on the cul-de-sac. It had not escaped Mariel’s notice that only those three had easy access to the path that led into the woods and passed within yards of the secret grave.



The neighbor watched her emerge from the trees and march past his house. He studied her closely but could read nothing from her usual closed expression. Other than her clothes being a little dirtier than when she went in she appeared the same as always and he breathed a sigh of relief.

It was silly, he thought as he saw her raise and clumsily mount her bike, how one unpleasant child could instill so much unease. It was because he was a sensitive man, he consoled himself—he had been a sensitive boy and with adulthood nothing had really changed. He had always resented the unfeeling bullies of the world, child or adult. Children like Mariel had terrified him when he had been a school boy and apparently nothing had changed in that respect either.

The sudden jangling of the bell caused him to gasp and his eyes returned to the robust figure of Mariel. She surveyed the surrounding houses with her implacable gaze, studying each of the three on the cul-de-sac in turn, coming at last back to his own. He shrank back from the window once more, his heart beating rapidly.

Then, with a thrust of a large thigh, her bike was set in motion and she pedaled from his sight with powerful strokes. “Damn her”, he whispered defiantly as his earlier concerns returned with such force that his blood suddenly roared within his ears.

Finding an overstuffed chair to settle into, he peered around the plush, dim room with its collection of his own paintings on the wall, while around him song birds began to chirp and sing from their cages as if to restore and calm him. He smiled weakly in gratitude at their effort even as Mariel’s imperious face returned to his mind’s eye with a terrible clarity. He closed his eyes against her, massaging his now-throbbing temples with his soft fingertips. If she had discovered anything in those woods, he asked himself, she would have come out screaming, wouldn’t she? He lowered his head into his sweaty hands, while a blood-red image of Mariel shimmered on his inner eyelids …wouldn’t she?



Mariel had no trouble engineering her encounter with Mister Salter. He worked on his lawn from early spring until the cold and snow of January finally drove him indoors. As long as there was any light she knew that her chances were good of finding him in his yard. So after she was delivered home by her school bus and enjoyed a snack of cream-filled cupcakes she pedaled her bike directly to the cul-de-sac and his property.

Salter watched her approach with a sour expression meant to ward her away, but Mariel was not troubled by such subtleties. She came to a sudden halt in his driveway causing a scattering of carefully raked gravel. She watched Salter’s expression darken at this, but he refrained from saying anything. He shut off the leaf blower he had been using and its piercing whine faded away. Man and girl observed each other from several yards apart as his corpulent Labrador waddled happily toward Mariel, thick tail wagging.

“Bruiser,” Salter warned menacingly.

The dog ignored him and continued on to Mariel, pleased to be patted on his large head. Salter’s complexion went darker yet.

“Can I do something for you?” he asked, his tone clearly inferring the opposite.

Mariel regarded him without answering, while fingering the necklace she had retrieved from its hiding place before going out. Salter fidgeted beneath her round-eyed stare. “Be careful of the dog,” he muttered hopefully, “he might bite.”

As Mariel had surreptitiously recruited Salter’s dog during her many secret forays, she knew this to be untrue. She often went into Salter’s garage where he kept the dog food and fed the animal while he was away teaching shop at the high school, Bruiser was always pleased to see her as a result. As if to emphasize their relationship, the dog laid its great head on her thigh, sighed, and stared adoringly into her eyes.

This was too much for Salter, who turned his wide back on her and went to pull at the cord that would start his treasured leaf-blower.

Mariel glanced at the well-worn path that led from Salter’s back yard and into the woods. “I have this,” she said, pulling the necklace from her shirt and allowing it to fall down over her plump stomach. The sapphire shone in the late day sun like a blue flame. Her eyes remained warily on Salter, even as her small mouth puckered into a smile of possessiveness.

Salter, glancing over his shoulder, halted, and turned slowly back. “Where the devil did you get that?” he managed. He took a few steps closer as Mariel backed her bike away an equal distance. Bruiser’s head slid off her thigh leaving a trail of saliva.

Seeing this, Salter stopped and studied Mariel’s prize from where he stood. “Did your mother say you could wear that?” he asked.

As the girl did not reply, but only continued her unsettling scrutiny, he added, “Does she even know that you have it? For that matter, how the hell could your mom afford something like that…provided its real, of course?” Forgetting himself, he took another few steps, but Mariel was already turning her bike to coast down his driveway.

“I know that you’ve been coming onto my property,” he called to her as she picked up speed with each stroke of her powerful legs. “You’d better stop sneaking around here…it’s called trespassing you know, I could call the cops.” His voice grew louder as she added distance between them. “And maybe I will the next time,” he offered.

“Did you steal that?” he called out meanly as she disappeared around the curve.

Mariel only looked back as she sped up the street and out of sight of the cu-de-sac. A small smile played on her puckered lips. She scratched Mr. Salter off her list of suspects.



Mariel surprised Mister Forster in his own back yard. She had glided silently across his still-green lawn to roll to a halt at the back edge of his house. Forster had his back to her and was busily feeding and talking to his flock of tiny bantam hens. He did not notice her arrival. The hens themselves restlessly pecked and grumbled within the pen he had provided them and gave her no notice as Forster continued to scatter feed amongst them.

Mariel enjoyed watching these birds, and had several times in the past attempted to better make their acquaintance. On one such occasion, Forster had found Mariel within the pen itself attempting to catch one of his miniature chickens, feathers flying about in the air amid a cacophony of terrified squawking. He had been livid with rage at her incursion and had joined the ranks of other neighbors who had visited her home to complain to her mother. Mariel had learned to be more careful since that encounter and had not been caught since, but neither had she been successful.

“They’re funny,” Mariel lisped quietly.

Forster spun around scattering the remainder of the feed from the bowl he was using. “Oh,” he cried, as the small, black fowl swarmed his shoes and cuffs for the errant seeds. “Oh,” he repeated; then focused on his unexpected visitor. He brought a hand up to his heart and gasped, “You scared me half to death, Mariel. I didn’t hear you come up and you nearly scared me half to…” he caught himself. “You usually ring that little bell of yours,” he finished with a limp gesture at her bike.

Man and girl regarded one another across several yards of mostly grassless, churned-up soil…evidence of poultry. A worn path into the woods separated them. Mr. Forster set the metal bowl down and opened the pen door to come out. Mariel clumsily rolled her bike into a half-circle that left her facing in the direction from which she had come.

The older man appeared to note the child’s wariness and slowed his steps, easing himself leisurely through the door and taking his time in carefully closing and latching the wire-covered frame. When he turned once more to Mariel it was to find her holding out a large jewel pendant that hung about her neck from a gold-colored chain. She reminded him of the vampire-slayers in horror films attempting to paralyze and kill their undead foes with a crucifix.

“My goodness, Mariel that is some necklace you have there. It’s lovely. You are a very lucky girl to have that.”

Mariel continued to fix him with both her gaze and the pendant while her lips vanished into a grim, pensive line. Forster stared back uncertainly. “Was there something that you wanted?” he thought to ask at last.

The sapphire wavered in her grip and she slowly lowered and slipped it once more beneath her top. It appeared to have no power over this man either. As she puzzled over her lack of progress in her investigations thus far, Forster took two steps closer.

Forster was only slightly taller than Mariel and had no more than fifteen pounds over the ten-year-old, so she was not as intimidated as she might have been with other men in the neighborhood.

“It’s the hens, isn’t it?” he ventured. “You appreciate them like I do.” He glanced back over his shoulder at the chicken coop. “I was probably a little hasty last time you were here,” he continued. “I should have thought…but when I heard all that commotion and came out to find someone in the pen…Well, I should have realized that you were just as fascinated by them as I am.” He studied Mariel’s broad, unintelligent face for several moments. “Would you like to hold one?”

Mariel’s gaze flickered just slightly at this invitation. The thought of actually holding one of the softly feathered birds had become something of a Holy Grail for her and her breath caught at the idea.

Forster turned and retraced his steps to the coop and within moments returned stroking a quietly clucking hen. Mariel smiled and reached out both arms for the coveted bird, but Forster stopped a few paces short of her. Still running his hand over the bantam’s glossy feathers, he nodded contentedly at Mariel, and said, “Show me that necklace again, why don’t you? I was too far away to be able to see it well. How about another look…I won’t touch it; then I’ll let you hold Becky.” He smiled widely at Mariel and held the bird a few inches away from his chest to indicate his willingness.

Mariel quickly retrieved the necklace from within her shirt and held out the pendant for him to study, her small greedy eyes never leaving the near-dozing hen. Forster leaned forward onto the balls of his feet and studied the stone silently for several moments. Finally, Mariel heard him exhale and murmur, “You should be very careful with that, Mariel. That’s exactly the kind of thing that grown-ups will want to take from you.” He leaned just a little closer and asked, “Does your mother know you’ve got that?” And when she fidgeted and didn’t answer right away, added, “I wouldn’t tell her, if I were you…she’ll want to wear it…and keep it…for sure. Any woman would.”

Mariel stuffed the necklace back down her shirt and thrust her arms out once more for the agreed-upon chicken. Forster carefully placed it within her thick arms and smiled as Mariel’s normally glum face began to light up with the tactile pleasure of the silken bird. In her enthusiasm, she began to run her sticky hand down the hen’s back with rapid movements, even as ‘Becky’ began to squirm and protest volubly at the excessive downward pressure of her strokes. The contented clucking quickly became the frenzied cackles of a terrified chicken in the clutch of a bear cub.

Forster, seeing that Mariel’s technique required more practice and refinement, made to take the bird from the grinning school girl, but she turned away with her prize as if she meant to keep Becky at all costs. With that movement, however, the hen was given just the opening she required in which to free her wings. Becky began to flap them frantically in her rapidly escalating desire for freedom.

Startled, Mariel released the bird, which in a whirlwind of beating wings and flying feathers covered the short distance to her coop in awkward bounds only slightly resembling actual flight. Mariel was left with nothing but a few of the errant feathers and her hot disappointment.

With a frown of both disapproval and resentment, she pushed off on her bike and made for Crumpler Lane. Behind her, Forster called out, “They just take a little getting used to, Mariel. Come back when you want and I’ll teach you to handle them!”

After she had gone away, he turned to his precious coop to insure that Becky was returned and properly locked in for the night. Then, with a sigh, went up the back steps and into his house, turning on the lights in room after room as true darkness fell.



Mister Wanderlei was next on Mariel’s’ list and she was not long in cornering him. She found him that very Saturday as he was painting the wooden railing of his front porch.

Stopping at his mail box, she gave her bike bell several sharp rings to gain his attention. He glanced over his shoulder and smiled at her.

“Hello, Mariel,” he called, while lifting a paint brush in salute. “Another few weeks and it will be too cold to do this.”

Mariel could think of nothing to reply and so rung her bell once more. Mister Wanderlei set the brush carefully on the lip of the can and stood, wiping his hands on the old corduroy pants that he was wearing. “Is that a new bike?” he asked amiably.

Mariel nodded her big head at this, then thought to add, “My Grandma bought it for me…I didn’t steal it.”

Wanderlei smiled and answered, “I never would have thought so.” He ambled down the steps in her direction.

Mariel fumbled with the necklace and only just managed it bring it out from beneath her top as he drew near. This caused Wanderlei to halt for a moment as he took in Mariel’s rather astounding adornment.

“Goodness,” he breathed at last. “That’s some necklace for a little girl. Where did you get that?” He ran a large knuckled hand across the top of his mostly hairless skull.

As she had done with Salter and Forster, Mariel realigned her bicycle for a quick escape should it prove advisable, one foot poised on a pedal. She remained silent.

Wanderlei fished a handkerchief from his pocket and set about wiping his face and near-naked pate. “Such things cause great temptation,” he said finally. “Of course, I know that you’re too young to understand what I mean exactly.” He glanced up and down the street; then turned his gaze onto her once more.

“Where I work, there are men who have killed for such baubles.” A slight frown crossed his face. “Do you know where I work, Mariel?”

In fact, Mariel did know, as one of her uncles had pointed him out to her during a visit between incarcerations. She nodded slightly.

Wanderlei studied her face with interest, then said, “Well, then you know that I’ve spent my life amongst a lot of very bad people.” His eyes had taken on a sparkle that was beginning to make Mariel uneasy. He took another step and she eased her rump upwards in preparation for escape.

“Are you Christian?” he asked gently. “Does your mother ever take you to church?”

Mariel frowned, unable to follow Mr. Wanderlei’s drift. Even so, she nodded involuntarily out of nervousness.

“Is that right?” he smiled, completely ignoring her necklace. “Really, what church would that be?”

“We go sometimes,” Mariel whispered, for some reason not wanting to lie outright to this man. “We’re Cat’lics.”

Wanderlei’s expression became one of disappointment. “Oh, I see,” he murmured. “That would explain the love of gold and baubles,” he said quietly, as if Mariel were no longer there.

Mariel rose up and pushed down on the waiting pedal, she had learned what she needed to know here.

Wanderlei looked up as she pulled away, his expression gone a little wistful now. “You and your mother are welcome to attend the services here at our house anytime that you want,” he called after her. “God accepts anyone that has an open heart. Do you have an open heart, Mariel?”



To be continued… Part II