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

22 July 2020

Charlotte Gray


My sister gave me Charlotte Gray, and I left it lying about for a while. I wasn't familiar with Sebastian Faulks, nor was I terrifically compelled by the jacket copy,  and when I did start reading it, I resisted. It seemed too domestic, it didn't appear to have much urgency, but then I fell into the rhythms of the story, and it caught me up. Charlotte Gray isn't a thriller, quite, although it has thriller elements, and it isn't a romance, either, although it's enormously romantic, in its own way. It's more of a meditation on those themes. Which doesn't mean Faulks is trying on literary costumes, or condescending to the genre; he's feeling his way into it, as if it were new to us.



The story is about a young Scots woman who's recruited to the Special Operations Executive during WWII and dropped into Occupied France to service a Resistance network. SOE did a lot of dodgy stuff in the war, some of it marginal, some of it extremely effective, and they had no problem using women for clandestine work. More than a few of their number were compromised, tortured, and then executed by the Germans.

As with an Alan Furst novel, or a le Carre, we learn about tradecraft, and the threat environment, and the strengths and flaws of character, but there's an interesting simplicity about Charlotte herself. As she inhabits her French cover story, she uses 'Dominique' as a counterpoint, one step removed, a frame of reference at right angles - not an alibi, but a different narrator, somebody else telling her own story. Charlotte is herself well aware of the ironies, but as a device, it allows her to hold the story up to the light and reexamine it. This isn't studied or self-conscious: the author isn't breaking in, it's the character who wonders what part she's playing. I found it compelling, and more than that, completely convincing. You might think, Jeez, c'mon, the SS and the Vichy milice are hot on your trail, you don't have time to second-guess your place in all this, but it makes Charlotte real.

There's an authenticity of feeling, throughout the book. I think what threw me, in the beginning, is that the story isn't told as a narative of event. The episodes are emotional, which just sounds unlikely, coming from a male writer. You're used to the idea that a guy is going to present building blocks, a structure, rising action. It took me by surprise to realize the story lay, not in what was happening, exactly, but in how people engaged with what was happening. Even a fatal hinge point, the moment where Charlotte and Julien realize they have to assassinate a collaborator, is necessary because of who they are, and its inevitability lies in their sympathy for one another.

Of course, the book is not entirely interior, and there's more than enough razzle-dazzle, as it develops, but I'm still struck by the method, the lack of the literal, even though the story is full of concrete, obdurate detail. There is, as it happens, a movie adaption. The novel came out in 1999, and the movie in 2001. I'm now curious to see it. Movies are nothing if not literal, in the sense that you see an object presented. I can't quite imagine how this reconnaissance of a story, this narrative of suggestion, would translate. Charlotte Gray isn't dreamlike, it's in fact very specific, but not specifically about the visible. It's specific about the heart.

20 July 2020

Plot versus Character


When I conduct a writing workshop, one of the questions people frequent ask is about the importance of plot versus character. I tell them that it depends.
If you're writing a novel, or maybe even a series, you need to know your main characters very well. These imaginary friends and co-workers need a biography that's complete enough to flesh them out and show what makes them who they are. You need to understand their strengths, weaknesses, and the lines they won't cross well enough to know what they want enough to risk dying for it. If you write mysteries, you need to understand how your protagonist's mind works so he or she can solve your mystery, too. You probably won't bring all this information on stage immediately, and some of it may never show up, but you need to know it. It's how you give your character depth.

If you're writing a series, this bio is even more important because some stuff may not matter until the third or fourth book, or even later. Publishers and agents love, love, love a series.

Lately, I've been moving from novels to short stories, and my thinking is changing, too. Maybe my attention span is waning, or maybe I'm just trying to go faster, but for short stories, it's all about the plot.

Remember, instead of 80K words or more, my short stories average about 4K, roughly 15 pages. Get in, get dirty, get out again. There's less room to present a complex and fleshed-out character. Unless you're trying to sell a story featuring a character from your series--which I've only done two or three times--you rely more on your premise, and that's more apt to guide your plot.

You need a character who will logically find herself in a particular situation. For a short story, once I have a premise, I start typing with generic names and see where those given circumstances lead me. I characterize the protagonist with action and his or her goal instead of with lots of description and back-story (both of which I tell my writing workshop students to leave out). If I go quickly and don't censor or force things, they will lead to the detail I need, and that often provides a plot twist, and maybe even a solution.

Let's say you're writing about a woman who qualifies as a "crazy cat lady." She has eight cats and has hidden her will somewhere in her enormous house. Cats suggest certain ideas: mice, purring, dogs, people who like or dislike them, people who are allergic to them. What if a supporting character loathes cats? What if she likes them but is allergic? Can you use that as a plot point, or even a clue? Maybe. It's a character detail, but it steers your plot. More and more, I discover details that flesh out the plot at the same time they delineate character, and when you get two for the price of one, it's even better.

As I re-wire my brain for short stories, I find that I'm writing them more quickly and maybe having even more fun. I'm fond of a few stories that have rich and complex characters, but several of them have never found a home except on my hard drive. The newer plot-premise stories seem to have more potential markets, so I can send them out with higher hopes.

That's a happy ending.


22 April 2020

The Unreliable Narrative


Preface
My apologies. This is unavoidably political, in the larger sense, but not a polemic. It's about grief.

***

Something is happening in this country, with regard to the coronavirus. If it were fiction, we could call it multiple POV, a chorus of voices competing for our attention.

The unreliable narrator is a longtime convention, in mysteries particularly, a famous example being The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, or more recently, Gone Girl. All the same, in fiction as (we hope) in life, our suspension of disbelief depends on accepting certain ground rules, and at the least an agreed-upon reality, a common yardstick.

So the question is, how do we engage, how do we maintain a sense of balance, or of structure, if the narrative keeps contradicting itself? In other words, how do we manage doubt? To return to the fictional model, mystery stories are inherently conservative, in that the crime, usually murder, violates the social contract, and resolution restores it. Even in noir, retribution is orthodox and rigid, a setting-right, with something almost Greek in its penalties, the appetites of the Furies satisfied. But if no weight is put on the scales, and no balance is required, nothing is restored. Order is relative, not absolute.

We have, in this strange political theater, not so much an unreliable narrator as an unreliable narrative, a story taken out of context. Exit, pursued by a bear. And this isn't simply one or the other, my way or the highway. It's a hall of mirrors, reflecting many alternatives.

In fiction, again, in fairy tales or fantasy, dystopian or post-Apocalyptic, mysteries, thrillers, cozies or Gothic or paranormal, the most outrageous or outlandish conceits can be convincing, if they're internally consistent. This is the most basic rule. You can bend time, or the laws of physics, you can disregard every convention except the one: that similar acts have similar consequences. 

We each and all, of course, believe we see reality. We might very well believe we see the only reality. This is certainly delusional, but it's comforting nonetheless. We have very little tolerance of ambiguity. Quite probably our belief systems are grounded in self-image, or our sense of self is reinforced by belief, two things integrated. I suspect we choose a reality out of necessity, and yours can conflict with mine, because they're mutually exclusive.

Darwin may sort this out for us, survival of the fittest being adaptive, not necessarily predatory. Then again, you might not believe in natural selection, you might prefer a different model, that we are Chosen. Either way, the rough numbers come out about the same.

The astonishing thing, to me, is that unlike a fiction, life is essentially messy, and has no shape or storyline, other than what we impose. To imagine that reality - as an absolute, not a construct - pays any attention to us is no more than vanity. And to pretend that we can pick and choose which reality we inhabit is foolhardy, although that seems to be the human experience, if history's any judge. More astonishing is the lesson fiction teaches us, in that we use stories to impose order, that narrative, or history, is necessary. Like sunlight, physically and psychologically.

All the crazier, then, that what we're seeing in our body politic, and the breakdown of our national conversation, is that chaos is self-inflicted. We've agreed to it.

***

Postscript
This, from The Atlantic, may be paywalled. I recommend it.
https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/underlying-conditions/610261/

20 April 2020

The Starless Sea



Although most of my writing has been mystery novels and short stories, I have also published a number of contemporary novels, as well as short stories in other genres. For this reason, I am always interested in novels that combine genres or generally break the usual compositional rules.
Erin Morgenstern's The Starless Sea, a love letter to reading, books, and stories of all types, is a fine example. Distinguished by an intricate plot that mixes myth, fable, adventure, and mystery, its greatest strength turns out to be an incredibly detailed and imaginative setting.

That's right, setting.

We like to say that character and plot are absolute keys to success and normally they are. In the case of The Starless Sea, however, while the plot is effective and the protagonists, likable enough, what one is apt to remember is the creation of an alternate world, dominated by books and stories, far beneath our feet.

Clearly this world, without sun or visible means of ventilation or food production has many, many implausibilities, not to mention the sea of honey, the bees, the Owl King, the seemingly wise cats, and the immortal Keeper. But never doubt the power of a good storyteller. The Harbor where Zachery Ezra Rawlins enters (via an elevator in New York's Central Park) is described with such precision and such a wealth of detail, that it is easy to suspend disbelief. And well worthwhile, too, because that alternate world is where the various stories, some no more than a page or two, some newly-invented fairy tales, and some full-fledged adventures, all come together.

Zachery is a graduate student in Emerging Media, who finds that all he really wants to do is read after a romance goes sour. Scanning his university library's bookshelves, he chances upon Sweet Sorrows, an anonymous volume from a mysterious donor, that recounts an incident in his own life. This triggers a bibliographic mystery, which, in turn, leads him to adventures with members of a mysterious society and their enemies; to Dorian, to whom he will lose his heart, and to Mirabel who may be human or may be a metaphor, but who knows her way around the starless sea and its harbors.

Zachery winds up below ground, while in the upper world, life goes on for people like his friend Kat, an aspiring game designer also enthralled by fiction. At the same time, in another dimension, one of fables and myths, various stories unfold, interesting oddities what will all be eventually pulled into the overall narrative. This complicated structure must have presented many challenges for the author, but the breaks have a useful function. They interrupt what might have become an overly claustrophobic and precious atmosphere of the vast libraries of the starless sea venues, whose very physical structures are sometimes devised from stories on paper.

The narrative spine is provided by Zachery's adventures, interwoven with the experiences of the heroic Dorian; of Eleanor, who literally fell into the Harbor as a young child and of Simon, later her lover and man lost out of time, along with appearances by the enigmatic Mirabel and her antagonist Allegra, the Painter, who wants to preserve a world that both Mirabel and the Keeper know is in decline.

Erin Morgenstern
The line of the novel only becomes clear in its closing stages, but the adventures of the main characters prove strong enough to support the weight of fantasy and myth and, yes, the many metaphors, that fill the book. A clue to the author's ambitions comes when Kat reflects on the type of game she would like to construct: " Part spy movie, part fairy tale, part choose your own adventure. Epic branching story that doesn't stick to a single genre or one set path..." She concludes, "A book is made of paper but a story is a tree."

So speaks the video gamer.

But in The Starless Sea Erin Morgenstern has done something similar the old fashioned way with print on paper.

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.


06 November 2019

How to Kill Your Story



I have been reading a novel by an author I much admire and have run into a roadblock.  About a third of the way through the main character began acting like an A.S.S.

I refer to a person with Amateur Sleuth Syndrome.

I will not name the author or title (I only review things I like) so forgive my vagueness in what follows.  X is in jail, accused of murdering Y.  Our main character, Hero, is trying to prove him innocent.  Hero gets a call from a Mysterious Stranger, offering to provide the evidence he needs, but when he goes to meet good 'ol Mysterious he is locked in a building and almost killed by the same M.O. that took out Y.

Okay, so far, so good.

But why didn't Hero have a cell phone when he got locked in?  This book was written well within the age of ubiquitous cells, so where the heck was it?

It gets worse.  Having escaped with his life Hero now has a compelling bit of evidence that X is innocent - specifically an attempted second murder.  Does he inform the cops?

Heaven forbid.  Instead, amateur that he is, he is determined to get at the truth himself.  His flimsy, off-the-cuff defense for this is that the cops have already made up their minds about X and wouldn't be interested.

So he is definitely acting the A.S.S.  But I  diagnose another illness complicating the case of this suffering piece of prose.  Namely, E.A.T.S.  Editor Asleep at The Switch.  Because any editor worthy of his two hour lunch should have spotted these issues, which the writer could have solved in a few minutes.

Dang, said Hero. I left my cell phone on the breakfast table.  Or forgot to charge it. Or there's no signal in this building.  How inconvenient, seeing as how I am about to die and everything.

And later:

I don't dare go to the cops, Hero explained.  They'll just think I faked the crime to try to get X out of jail.

Not a very good argument, that, but better than a whole heap of nothing.


As long as I'm complaining, let me tell you about two other plot-killers I have encountered. One was a short story featuring a woman suffering from U.G.  By this I mean Unnecessary Guile.  This private eye needed to know who owned a car so she contacted a cop friend and used all her Feminine Wiles to persuade him to look up the information for her.

Fair enough, I suppose.  Except that the car had just committed multiple traffic violations, endangering the public.  If you wanted to get police attention wouldn't you lead with that?  Or at least mention it?

And then there was a story in which a police officer was guilty of Cop Rejecting Accepted Procedure, or C.R.A.P.  He chose to get information in a way he knew would make it unusable in court.  Okay, there are lots of fictional fuzz who bust the rules left and right, but this guy was supposedly before (and after) a straight arrow.  So what were we supposed to make of this weird aberration?  Methinks somebody got lazy, and I don't think it was the character.

I hope you find these tips useful.  Follow them and it will be less likely that your reader will engage in something T.A.B.U. (Tossing Away Book Unfinished).

16 October 2019

Ten Things I Learned Writing Short Stories


Photo by Michael Fowles
As I mentioned in an earlier column, October 2019 was a special month for me. Not only is it my fortieth anniversary as a published writer but - by coincidence - the Northwest Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America asked me to be the speaker at their meeting. They suggested I review highlights of my career but that sounded boring even to me. I countered with the title above, which gave me a chance to do such a review but make it of possible interest to my fellow readers. So now I am going to summarize the words of alleged wisdom I shared with those who attended.


1. Editors don't reject you.  They reject words you have written. So don't take it personally, and try again.  I was rejected by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine 76 times before they bought a story.

2. When in doubt, don't throw it out. If a story doesn't sell does it mean that it stinks? No, it means that on a given day it didn't meet that market's needs. Really. So tuck it away and see what happens.

I wrote a story about a TV actor who kills a rival. All my favorite magazines rejected it. Years later the Mystery Writers of America announced an anthology to be titled Show Business is Murder. "On The Bubble" found a happy home.

3. Flattery and bribery are good for you. I don't mean that you should apply them to your editors, reviewers, or even readers. I am talking about the Miner, which is what I call the part of the brain that comes up with story ideas. (The other creative part of your brain is the Jeweler, which turns the raw material into something pretty and publishable. When an author says "I don't even remember writing it!" that means the Miner did ninety percent of the work.

Most people have trained the Miner to be lazy. How do you that? By ignoring the ideas he offers you. You can flatter him by taking those ideas seriously. Even if you don't have time to start that novel today, write down the concept. Spend five minutes brainstorming the idea. Don't in short, look a gift horse in the mouth.

And how do you bribe the miner? Spend money on him! Buy a writing text, get that new desk chair, go to a writing conference. Convince him that you are taking your writing career (yes, let's use that word) seriously. Who knows? Maybe you'll convince the rest of your brain as well.

(Interesting example: I gave this talk on Saturday.  Monday morning I woke up with two new ideas for short stories.  The Miner obviously liked the attention.)

4. It's okay to plagiarize. Sometimes. I'm talking about what Lawrence Block called "Creative plagiarism." That's when you take someone else's idea and use it differently.

Many years ago Fletcher Flora wrote a short story called "The Seasons Come, The Seasons Go."   It appeared in Ellery Queen in 1966.  The plot involved a wealthy man, his useless nephew (who narrated), an attractive young woman, and a plot to kill someone in the family.

The first story I ever sold to Alfred Hitchcock was originally called "My Life as a Ghost," but they changed it to "The Dear Departed." (The only time one of my stories was retitled, so far.) My story involved a wealthy man, his useless nephew (who narrated), an attractive young woman, and a plot to kill a family member.  It also featured a similar twist ending.

Stop thief, I hear you cry.  But the truth is, my version is completely legitimate.  The murder and  motive are quite different, and my victim is a person with no parallel in the original.  If you read the two in quick succession you would probably have a suspicion about how the second story would end, but that happens all the time.  There are only so many possible endings.

5. Self-publishing doesn't work.  Unless it does.  Since no one seemed to be clamoring to publish a collection of my short stories I did it myself.  Shanks on Crime includes 13 stories about mystery writer Leopold Longshanks, most of which had already appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  I hired a professional book designer and produced it both as a paperback and an ebook.

How did I do?  I lost a couple of hundred bucks on the deal.  Nothing that would keep me from buying dinner or make me lose sleep, so I was fine with it.

Then I received an email from a literary agent asking if I would like to sell the Japanese rights to Tokyo Sogen, the oldest mystery publisher in that country.  I said, why sure.  The amount they paid me would be less than a rounding error for, say, James Patterson, but it is the most money I have ever made on a piece of writing.  And they were so happy with sales that they just published a collection of some of my otherwise uncollected stories later this year.

Would any of that have happened if I hadn't bit the bullet and self-published my book?  Nope.


6.  Mash-ups are delicious. In computing a mash-up is an app that combines data or functions from two sources.  Classic example: you create a Google map using the addresses in a database of customers.

When I refer to a mash-up I mean taking several different sources to create something new.  For example, I have published six stories about Uncle Victor. These stories are a mash-up of The Godfather, I, Claudius, and Jack Ritchie's Henry Turnbuckle stories.   Uncle Victor is the eccentric relative of a mob boss.  Like Claudius, he survives in a deadly family because no one takes him seriously enough to kill him.  And his major asset as a private eye is the one he shares with police detective Henry Turnbuckle: self-confidence that is completely unjustified by reality.

Another example is my story "Brutal," which appeared in Alfred Hitchcock.   It combines Jim Thompson's The Getaway - about a robbery that goes perfectly, followed by a disastrous attempt to escape - with Neil Simon's movie The Out-of-Towners.  My story is about an assassin who completes his job perfectly and then is crushed by a series of average city-dwellers who are just carrying on with their lives, completely unaware of who they are dealing with.

7.  Be nice to your editors and they may be nice to you. Obviously good manners are important.  I am sure most editors have a list (at least in their heads) of writers who are Too Much Trouble To Deal With.  But I want to give a specific example.

A few years ago I wrote a story which looked at the very first mystery, Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" from the viewpoint of the murderer (that's right; the orang-outang).  I sent it to a magazine with which I had an excellent relationship.  And then I saw a notice for an anthology of Poe-related stories.  A perfect market for my tale! I didn't want to withdraw my already submitted story and risk the relationship with an on-going customer.  So  I wrote to the editor I had already submitted to and explained my plight.  I said I would be delighted to have my tale in their publication, but would it be possible t jump the queue and get an early decision so if they don't want it I could try the anthology?

And the editor went above and beyond by pulling my story out of the long stack and giving it a quick read.  Turns out they didn't want it, which was fine.  I submitted it to nEvermore! and not only was it accepted but  it was reprinted in two best-of-the-year collections. But this was only possible because the editor was willing to do me a favor by giving me a special read.

8.  One-market stories are dangerous temptations.  Ideally you want to write a story that could find a happy home in many different locations.  But sometimes an opportunity comes up for a niche market, usually an anthology.  Whether that's a good idea depends on a number of factors including: the speed you can write, the possible reward, and how intriguing you find the concept.  After George W. Bush was elected someone announced an anthology called Jigsaw Nation, in which all the stories would take place in the United States after the blue and red states separated.

I thought it was a great concept and wrote "Down In The Corridor," about the consul from the Pacific States of America dealing with a nasty situation in the San Diego Corridor which connected the greatly diminished USA to the ocean.  It was a crime story (my specialty) as well as a science fiction (or alternative almost-history) story.  It sold to Jigsaw Nation which was great but the book was pretty much ignored by the world.  Ah well.

A few years ago several cartoonists created an anthology called Machine of Death, with an intriguing concept. You put a drop of your blood in this machine and it tells you how you will die.  Not when; just how.  Car crash.  Gunshot.  Mary. Yeah, but which Mary?  Your wife Mary or Hurricane Mary?  Like all good oracles the machine is wickedly ambiguous.  Suicide could mean that somebody jumps out a window and lands on you. 

I loved the concept so much I wrote two stories for it: a historical and a police procedural.  The editors rejected both.  Those are two stories I can never use anywhere.

9. Network, network.  Also: network.  There are fine organizations out there looking for members: Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers,  Private Eye Writers of America.  There are conferences: Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, Malice Domestic. And here is a shocking secret: a lot of mystery writers are friendlier than you might expect.  They DON'T want to read your unpublished manuscript but they might be happy to hear what you liked about their latest masterpiece.  And if you see a lonely author sitting alone at a signing table, go up and chat.  It doesn't obligate you to buy anything.  And don't forget to read SleuthSayers!

Well, that's nine jewels of wisdom down.  In two weeks I will return to polish the last gem.







11 September 2019

The Disappeared


I wrote a story a couple of years back called "A Multitude of Sins," that got left out in the rain for a while, and eventually appeared in the January/February issue of Alfred Hitchcock. But how the story worked its way from the back row to the front seats illustrates something about our writing habits, and squirreling away the odd detail.



"A Multitude of Sins" is about the serial unsolved murders of women in Ciudad Juarez, the so-called feminicidio, which has been going on for the past fifteen years or so, or perhaps more to the point, since the establishment of the maquiladoras along the border. 

If you don't know what I'm talking about, the maquiladoras are an enterprise culture, factories established on the Mexican side, by American corporate, what they produce exempt from duties and tariffs. The idea, not in itself a bad one, is to provide jobs and raise income levels. If you consider that girls form the countryside might previously have spent a few years in the whorehouses of Villa Acuna or Piedras Negras, this seems like a better deal, or at least disease-free. It might remind us of the New England mills, early in the 19th century, when they recruited young female labor from the local farms, and put them up in dorms, and sent them home afterwards with a nest egg. Assuming they didn't lose a finger or an eye to the heavy machinery.




The problem here, and you can see the punchline coming, is that the girls crowding in to work at the maquiladoras develop the characteristics of a herd of wildebeest, and the predators wait in the tall grass to pick off the weak, the newborns, the stragglers. Four thousand deaths, by some accounts. Hard to write it off as a statistical blip.



So, not focusing on this, just having it in the background, my peripheral vision, I run across a story about bones being dug up at a building site west of Albuquerque. Dead girls, it turned out, maybe a dozen of them. Best guess, a window of four years, they were buried out there. Dental records identify some of them as reported missing by their families. They were in the life - they were users, they were hookers. You can see where I'm going with this. They were picked off when they fell behind. 



But the murders stopped. This graveyard had a start time, and a cut-off. What happened? Maybe the guy was doing time. Maybe he died. Maybe, my reptile brain suggested, he left town. He went to more fertile ground, where dead girls weren't even being noticed. What put this in mind was a series of portraits, an exhibit by the artist Erin Currier. She did a show of imaginary pictures, this is who these women were, these dead women in Juarez. They had names, they had moms and dads, they had ambitions, they had audacity. They had their own interrupted memories.



I'm thinking, wait one. There's a way to use this. Not to trivialize it, but a way to tell a story. And so I did.

Erin Currier at Blue Rain Gallery, in Santa Fe. Opening on Friday, 09-13
Erin Currier's website
http://erincurrierfineart.com/


All images copyright Erin Currier 


27 May 2019

Bob Dylan Crime Writer


Last Friday, Bob Dylan turned 78, so a bunch of my friends (Yes, I have friends; I pay them) got together to celebrate.

Jane, our hostess, with the whole motley crew
Everyone brought wine or pizza or dessert, and seven of us brought instruments. The hostess assembled a playlist of Bob Dylan songs to play in honor of the occasion, and she stipulated that we would play a few songs by The Byrds, too. I'm the only one of the invitees who has a 12-string, and never one to let good hubris go to waste, I tried to learn "8 Miles High."

I have four books of Dylan songs on a shelf with my other music.
One tome contains over 350 songs, about a quarter of his output. His Wikipedia bio lists 40 albums and CDs, not including collections, and I didn't count how many songs have been recorded or covered by other artists. I first became aware of him through Peter, Paul & Mary, who had the same manager in the early sixties.

Like most artists learning their craft, Dylan borrowed or stole lyrics from other work, some in the public domain, some not. So did Paul Simon, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and a host of others. Some blues lyrics show up so often I could fill in evening performing songs that use a few repeated lines.

Dylan's first album is traditional folk covers, one of which is "The House of the Rising Sun." He copied Dave Van Ronk's version, not long before Van Ronk planned to record the song himself on another label. Their relationship became strained. He kicked Phil Ochs out of his limousine in midtown Manhattan traffic after the latter told him one of his songs would never be a hit. In the 70s, Joan Baez wrote "Diamonds and Rust" as a kiss-off to the guy who dumped her after she helped him get his own foot in the Hootenanny door. Hey, Richard Wagner and Mozart made enemies, too. No one's perfect.
Me (left) with Paul McCarron and Paul Stevens, maybe the 2 best
musicians there. McCarron's wife is one of my former students

Dylan took a huge risk in the mid-sixties when he left folk behind and turned to electric instruments for his more personal and experimental songs. He was booed at the Newport Folk Festival, among other places. One of the "Bootleg" album collections captures his 1966 concert in Manchester, England, where his backing group is the musicians later called The Band. It's a tense affair with a hostile crowd, culminating in someone from the audience shouting "Judas!"

Dylan responds with a line from one of his own songs. "I don't believe you. You're a liar." Then he turns to the musicians and an open mic captures his command. "Play f#*%ing loud." They launch into their encore, "Like a Rolling Stone," and leave the stage in silence so thick you can chew it.

In the early 1980s, Dylan became a born-again Christian, having already explored his Jewish roots (His real name is Robert Allen Zimmerman) in earlier work. He has never stopped exploring his identity and his world--or ours. I've used his work for two of my own titles. Blood on the Tracks is one of my favorite albums, and it's the title of the first Woody Guthrie novel. Postcards of the Hanging, a line from "Desolation Row," became the title of one of my standalones.
Jim Roger and his wife, Dylan fans

Dylan's early protest songs told great stories, many of them true crime sagas. "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" recounts the case of a black server in a Baltimore club who was fatally beaten by a drunk wielding a cane. The wealthy white man served six months in jail (Sentence deferred so he could harvest his tobacco crop) and paid a $500 fine. Dylan's song showcases his trademark sarcasm, fueled with righteous rage.

"A Pawn in Their Game" is about the shooting of Medgar Evers. Both that song and "Who Killed Davey Moore?" about a boxer who died in the ring after suffering brain damage, use the common folk device of asking questions and having a series of people claim their innocence by passing the buck. Dylan revisited the genre a decade later in "Hurricane," about middleweight Ruben Carter, jailed for the shooting of a clerk during a liquor store hold-up.

My favorite crime song is made up, though. "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" features overlapping plots and a cast of characters taken from Western lore to tell of an unfortunate love affair, an unhappy marriage, a bank robbery and murder in about nine minutes (Sixteen verses). The backing band on that song includes the musicians who dubbed the music for the film "Deliverance." If you don't know the song, it's worth checking out on Youtube.

Over the last several years, I've played 25 or 30 Dylan songs live and several titles still fill my list of possible story titles for when I need them.
Former Hartford police officer Jim Howard also plays harmonica

It's just a matter of time.

(Thanks to Maureen McFarland for the pix of the whole group and me with the Pauls)

09 April 2019

Hey, Mister


Say, mister. Will you stake a fellow American to a meal?

            — Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Yes, it's very pretty. I heard a story once – as a matter of fact, I've heard a lot of stories in my time. They went along with the sound of a tinny piano playing in the parlor downstairs. “Mister, I met a man once when I was a kid,” it always began.

            —Rick Blaine (Bogart again, in Casablanca)


Okay, to be honest, I’m not really sure how apropos these quotes are for the following piece. But hey, mister (and Ms.), why not look for an opportunity to get Bogart into a piece?

I get the equivalent of “Hey, mister” sometimes when people that I know and sometimes people I don’t really know tell me they’ve got the greatest idea since the Moviola (remember those, Larry Maddox?) was invented. And if I write it for them we’ll both be rich. Or if I write it for them, they’ll take half of the gobs of profits and I can have the whole other half. So like Dobbs in Treasure of Sierra Madre, they want me to stake them to a completed script or manuscript from their original, fabulous, never-been-done-before, get rich quick, idea.

I have a friend, let’s call him Friend, who is a non-stop idea machine. Not just for writing projects (both film and prose) but for pretty much every other thing under the sun. If he could just get one done he might actually make that million bucks. But he never does. He’s all talk and no sit-down-and-do-it. Re: writing he wants me to sit down and do it and split the billions we’ll make. He’s enthusiastic and the ideas fly out of him at a million miles an hour. Some ideas better than others, but nothing that makes me want to pull out a contract and say “Yeah, let’s do it.” He’s a fount of ideas, but I’ve been approached by others as well. They don’t seem to realize that I have ideas of my own.

Moviola
On another occasion, an old girlfriend and I got back in touch for a short time – let’s call her Girlfriend. It was nice catching up with her. But right off the bat she said her husband wanted to talk with me. He liked film noir. He had friends who liked film noir. When she originally put me in touch with him I think I naively thought that he’d want to shoot the breeze about noir films or books…….or God-forbid even one of my books. But nope. Right away, he asked me to read a couple scripts by his friends and see what I could do with them. Well, both for legal and other reasons, I never even downloaded the scripts he sent me. Therefore, never looked at them. They, too, might have been the greatest thing since the Moviola, but I’ll never know. And I thought it was odd that he had the chutzpah as to ask something like that right out of the gate of someone he didn’t know, had never talked to, etc. But then, he’s a lawyer, so maybe it’s to be expected…

I’m approached fairly often with these fabulous offers, which I take about as seriously as the fabulous offers I see on late-night TV or hear from telemarketers. I try to help people whenever I can, as I’ve been helped by others. But one thing I don’t necessarily want to do is work on someone else’s idea at this point in my life. I’ve done that in the past. But that’s not where I’m at now. I don’t need the headaches of working with someone else, especially someone who wants it done their way but wants someone else to do it their way. And I have plenty of ideas of my own. Several hundred written down in a couple files on my computer.

So when someone gives me the equivalent of “Hey, mister, can you stake a fellow American to a script or manuscript or whatever,” I try to politely turn them down.

What about you?


~.~.~
And now for the usual BSP:

The Anthonys. Well, from the BSP Department and since Anthony voting is still in progress, I hope you'll consider voting for Broken Windows in the Best Paperback Original Department.



The third story in my Ghosts of Bunker Hill series, Fade Out on Bunker Hill, appears in the March/April 2019 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. If you like the movie Sunset Boulevard, I think you'll enjoy this story. In bookstores and on newstands now:



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com

07 November 2018

Snow Job


In September I mentioned one of the rare snowstorms my city receives.  Today I am going to talk about a different, more recent, one.

The storm was harsh enough to give both my wife and I the day off and so we decided to walk the half-mile to our closest grocery store for a look around and some lunch.

My back yard
As we trudged off through the beautiful whiteness I had a sudden thought: With our ski masks and scarves and gloves we were dressed exactly the way banks tell us not to.  You've seen the signs: "For your safety and ours remove hats, glasses, and scarves before entering." Or words to that effect.

Because I suffer from CWB (Crime Writer's Brain) an idea immediately appeared in my skull.  What if some bank robbers decided to take advantage of a blizzard to stroll into a bank unnoticed? 

Hmm.  How would they make their getaway?  Obviously they would have to steal some snowmobiles!

When you get right down to it, that was a pretty stupid idea.  But the great thing about writing fiction is that even a stupid idea can make a smart story.

And speaking of stupid, I realized instantly that this was a case for Officer Kite.  This peace officer has appeared in two of my previous stories, "A Bad Day for Pink and Yellow Shirts," and "A Bad Day for Bargain Hunters."

Kite is not a very competent cop.  In his first appearance he got run over by his own police car..  That made him seem like the perfect foil for my snowmobiling bandits.

All the "Bad Day" stories are set in fictional Brune County, and involve strangers getting involved in a tangled mess of bad intentions and worse planning.  So far each story is longer and more convoluted than the last.

If you pick up the current (November/December 2018) issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine you will discover "A Bad Day for Algebra Tests."  I hope you enjoy it.  And bundle up.

02 October 2018

The Impossible Dream


Today is a big day for me. The Best American Mystery Stories of 2018, edited by Louise Penny and Otto Penzler, hits the shelves. And my story Windward, originally published in Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea (from Down & Out Books, edited by Andrew McAleer and me), is in it.


It is truly one of the biggest thrills of my writing life and my life in general. I’m still in disbelief – still pinching myself. Still floating on air.

When we embark on this writing journey we have things we want to achieve. It’s a given that we want to write good and compelling stories. But aside from that I think most of us want to attain some kind of recognition, both from our peers and from a general audience. To that end we might have certain goals: getting published at all, getting published in more prestigious/bigger circulation magazines. Maybe winning an award or two. And getting into The Best American Mysteries series.

Otto Penzler
I woke up one morning a few months ago to find an e-mail from Otto Penzler saying that Windward had been selected for BAMS. Michael Bracken wrote a couple of weeks ago about his tears of joy upon hearing the news. My first reaction was total disbelief! I thought someone was scamming me, spamming me. Playing a prank on me. I’m so paranoid about being scammed and I believed this so much that I e-mailed fellow SleuthSayer and BAMSer John Floyd a copy of the e-mail asking if he thought it was legit. He did! So with his imprimatur I responded to the e-mail, relatively sure that I wasn’t going to be talking to a Nigerian Prince trying to scam me out of my Beatles and toy collections.

Louise Penny
Once I found out it was for real it was like fireworks on the Fourth of July, Old Faithful blasting towards the sky, the Ball dropping on New Year’s Eve. My wife Amy and I celebrated with a fancy dinner of take-out pizza and ice cream – because what’s better than pizza and ice cream 😃 ? (I’m not joking here.)

Windward was a fun story to write, partially because it’s set in Venice Beach, one of the most colorful areas of Los Angeles. Here’s an excerpt of the end-notes I wrote about Windward for the anthology:

Venice is a little piece of the exotic on the edge of Los Angeles. That got me thinking about setting my story there and showcasing the colorful and sometimes dangerous streets of Venice Beach in my story “Windward” for Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea. So I gave Jack Lassen, my PI, an office (complete with 1950s bomb shelter), amid the old world columns and archways of Windward.

With a setting like that I needed a crime that would be equally intriguing and what better fodder for crime than the façade of the movie business, where nothing is what it appears to be and a hero on-screen might be a monster offscreen.

Ultimately, Venice is more a state of mind than a location. But either way, a great setting for a story.


The stories in the book are arranged alphabetically by the author’s last name. Since my last name begins with M, the exact middle of the alphabet I always end up in the middle. I remember in school how for whatever things they were doing they often went from A to Z, but sometimes they switched it up so that the people whose names started at the end of the alphabet got to go first. But the Ms in the middle always stayed in the middle. So I’m in the middle again in the book. But that’s fine with me. I’m just glad to be in it, amongst such august company.

It’s a true thrill to be in this book along with Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Joyce Carol Oates – and all the other terrific writers, including my old professor at USC, T.C. Boyle, who I took classes from even though I was a cinema major. (And I was just going through some boxes from our storage facility and came across a postcard from him, which was a trip in itself.)

It’s also a thrill to be with friends and fellow SleuthSayers. And I’d also like to congratulate John Floyd, whose story Gun Work, also from Coast to Coast: Private Eyes, is in this year’s BAMS. And to fellow SleuthSayers Michael Bracken and David Edgerly Gates, who also have stories in it. And to pal Alan Orloff.

So these last few weeks have been very eventful for me, winning the Macavity for Windward, and with Broken Windows coming out and now BAMs. And I want thank everyone who voted for Windward, who bought Coast to Coast, the authors in it, the folks at Down & Out, and the same for those who reviewed Broken Windows, talked about it, bought it, etc. And thanks to our own Rob Lopresti for his review of There’s An Alligator in My Purse, my story in Florida Happens, the 2018 Bouchercon anthology. Wow! What a time!

***

And if that wasn’t enough of a BSP trip:

Here’s a small sampling of excerpts from reviews for Broken Windows:

Kristin Centorcelli, Criminal Element

"Although it’s set in 1994, it’s eerie how timely this story is. There’s an undeniable feeling of unease that threads through the narrative, which virtually oozes with the grit, glitz, and attitude of L.A. in the ‘90s. I’m an ecstatic new fan of Duke’s."

"Duke and company practically beg for their own TV show."

John Dwaine McKenna, Mysterious Book Report:

"This electrifying novel will jolt your sensibilities, stir your conscience and give every reader plenty of ammunition for the next mixed group where the I [immigration] -word is spoken!"

Betty Webb, Mystery Scene Magazine:

"Broken Windows is extraordinary."

26 June 2018

Welcome to my Universe


I recently read two books of the same subgenre which appeared within a month of each other.  Nothing odd about that, except the only other book I have ever encountered of that type I read decades ago.
Thekind  of book I am referring to a shared universe collection of mystery stories.  The concept of a shared universe is a group of authors writing about the same world with perhaps overlapping plots and characters.

To be clear I am not referring to:
* Authors co-writing a book (e.g. Ellery Queen)
* People merely writing new stories about an existing character (e.g. ten million post-Doyle Sherlock Holmes adventures.
* An author inheriting some earlier writer's franchise (e.g. Anne Hillerman).
* A single author writing a novel in stories, (e.g Art Taylor's On The Road With Del and Louise)
* A serial novel, in which each chapter is written by a different author (e.g Naked Came The Stranger, and several other books with titles starting with those first three words. Or The Floating Admiral, created by the Detection Club in 1931. By the way, Mark Twain hilariously described the writing of one of these in  Chapter 51 of Roughing It.) 

No, I m referring to an author deliberately setting up a playground and inviting other authors to play in it by creating tales of their own.

Shared universes are pretty common in science fiction and in fantasy.  Charles L. Grant even created one in horror.  (Greystone Bay is a lovely New England village, but I wouldn't recommend it to tourists.)

I read a mystery of this type back in the early eighties and if someone can remind me of the title and main author I would be grateful.   In the first story a private eye is hired to find six paintings that have been sold to different cities.  He subcontracts the job to different private eyes, and each story tells of a different hero's adventures in pursuit of the artwork.

And as I said at the beginning, that was the only example of the type I had read until this year, when Culprits appeared.  It was edited and conceived by Richard Brewer and Gary Phillips.  It's a caper novel and would appeal to fans of Richard Stark's Parker novels.

The first story, written by the two editors, describes the planning and the heist.  There is a double-cross (surprise!) and the old gang breaks up.  Then the remaining authors (Zoe Sharp, Gar Anthony Haywood, and David Corbett, to name a few) follow various members of the pack on their post-caper adventures.  Some tales are tightly connected to what you might call the main story line (hunting for the traitor) and some float free.

A week after Culprits was released Night of the Flood arrived.  The editors are E.A. Aymar and Sarah M. Chen.  This book takes place in the small fictional town of Everton, Pennsylvania.  A woman named Maggie Wilbourne is executed for murdering the men who raped her.  A group of women calling themselves the Daughters promised that if that happened they would blow up the dam, destroying the town.  The stories take place on the night they carry out their threat.

As in Culprits, some of the stories adhere to the main plot (the Daughters) and others have no connection except that they take place during the flood.  My favorite story in the book is an example of the latter.  In "The Curse," by Mark Edwards, a couple think they have been chased all the way from Britain by a demon who has attacked them with several plagues including, yup, a flood. 

Both books are enjoyable, and bravo to everyone involved for trying something different.

Have you read any similar books?  Whatcha think?