Showing posts sorted by date for query bouchercon. Sort by relevance Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by date for query bouchercon. Sort by relevance Show all posts

05 October 2021

Some Reasons Short Stories Get Rejected ... Again!


I published the following column three years ago this week. With my time in such a crunch it could be dried leaves underfoot on a cold November day, I've decided to share it again. I hope you find it helpful.

Whether you're a seasoned writer or a first-timer, submitting a short story to any publication probably involves anxiety. You wouldn't have written the story if you didn't enjoy doing it. You wouldn't have submitted the story for publication if you didn't hope it's good enough and want the editor to say yes. Hearing that someone else likes your work is validating. Knowing that strangers will read your work is invigorating. Telling your family that you made a sale is good for the soul.

But not every story sells, especially on first submission. Editors usually try to be kind in their rejection letters, at least in my experience. They might say that they got a lot of submissions, and  many of the stories were wonderful, but they simply couldn't take them all. Or they might say that your story just wasn't a good fit for the publication, but please don't take it personally. Or they might say that they received a very similar story from someone else and simply couldn't publish both in the same book. It's this last type of rejection I'm going to focus on here. It sounds made up, doesn't it? Like an excuse.

There are all kinds of rejection.
And yet ...

I can tell you from personal experience that authors sometimes get very similar ideas. Sometimes this might be expected, especially when anthologies have narrow(ish) themes. For instance, Chesapeake Crimes: They Had It Comin' (which I co-edited) received a bunch of submissions involving revenge. (No big surprise.) A call for stories for a culinary anthology might result in a bunch of submissions involving poisoning. A book that wants weather-related short stories might receive multiple submissions about folks who are snowbound and someone is murdered.

But even when an anthology's call for stories is broad (let's say, the editor wants crime stories with a female protagonist), you can still end up with several similar stories under consideration. One reason could be that authors are subject to the same national news, so it would make sense if several might be inspired by the same news story, especially a big one. For example, I'd bet there are lot more #MeToo-type stories being written and submitted now than three years ago.

Authors also might be inspired by other industry successes. For instance, when vampire novels were all the rage, I knew several short-story authors writing about vampires, too. These authors weren't necessarily following the trend just to be trendy. Instead they were taking advantage of the trend to write about something they were interested in and that they thought they could sell.

I imagine that when novels with unreliable protagonists became big, more than one editor received short stories with unreliable protagonists, too. Perhaps some authors were following the trend, but I bet others simply were inspired and wanted to see if they could pull off an unreliable narrator, as well.

There's nothing wrong with any of these scenarios, but you can see how editors might end up with two similar stories to choose from. Or more. They all might be great, but an editor likely will only take one because he doesn't want the book to be monotonous.

And then, of course, there's the weird scenario, when two authors respond to a very broad call for stories with an oddly similar idea that isn't inspired by the news or trends or, it seems, anything. These two authors were simply on the same wavelength. This scenario is what made me decide to write about this topic today.

When Bouchercon put out its call for stories last autumn for the anthology that came out last month (Florida Happens), they asked for stories "set in, or inspired by, Florida and its eccentricity and complexity. We want diverse voices and characters, tales of darkness and violence, whether they are noir, cozy, hard-boiled or suspense. Push the boundaries of your creativity and the theme! Note: the stories don't have to actually be set in Florida, but can be 'inspired' by itso a character can be from here, it can be built around a piece of music about Florida; etc."

That's a pretty broad theme. With that theme, I wouldn't be surprised if they got a bunch of submissions involving older people, since Florida is where many people retire. And I wouldn't be surprised if they received a lot of submissions involving the beach or the ocean, since Florida is where so many people vacation. But what are the odds that two (or maybe more) authors were going to submit stories about missing cats?

And yet, that is nearly what happened. Hilary Davidson wrote one such story. Her story in the anthology, "Mr. Bones," is about a missing cat. My story in the anthology, "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast," involves a missing pot roast. But as originally planned, that pot roast was going to be  ... yep ... a cat.

If you've read my story, you can imagine how changing the pot roast into a cat would make the story incredibly darker. It was the darkness that got to me. When I was writing and reached page two of the story, I knew I couldn't do it. I couldn't write the story as planned with the object going missing being a cat. (Sorry for being vague, but I don't want to spoil things if you haven't read the story.)

Thank goodness for my unease, because I like the story much better with the pot roast. It makes the story lighter. Funnier. And it turned out that using the roast likely increased my chances of my story being accepted because I wasn't directly competing with Hilary Davidson (who wrote a great story). Indeed, imagine if I had gone through with my story as originally planned. The people who chose the stories would have had two submissions involving missing cats! And they likely would not have taken both stories.

So the next time you get a rejection letter and the editor says, please don't take this personally, take the editor at her word. You never know when someone else has an idea quite similar to yours. The world is funny that way.

18 September 2021

Ten Years at SS


  

As you know from my friend Brian Thornton's post yesterday, we Sayers of Sleuth have been at it for ten years now. None of us who started the blog, way back then, knew if it would work or not, and if it would be even half as successful and as enjoyable (to us) as its predecessor, Criminal Brief, had been. All we knew for sure is that we had a good group and we all loved mystery fiction. (By the way, Brian, thanks for the kind words.)

Since I was chosen by my SleuthSayers co-conspirators to "kick off" our new blog with the first column on September 17, 2011, I've been asked to write today about what the blog has meant to me over this past decade (plus one day). The request caught me by surprise, because the anniversary caught me by surprise. Until then, I'd never thought much about how long we've been doing this. Most of the thinking I've done about the blog was probably along the lines of How in the world will I come up with something to write about for my next post?

There have been a lot of them. FYI for those of you who don't read us: I post a SleuthSayers column every first, third, and fifth Saturday, whether I have anything meaningful to say or not--and when I totaled them up the other day (not counting "guest posts" done by my writer friends), it came to 258 columns. Most of those have been on the subject of short mystery stories because that's what I write most. Others were about novels, some were about movies, and some were my random thoughts about the mystery genre or the writing life or the writing process. Looking back over the posts, I found that a surprising number were about style--punctuation, grammar, spelling, capitalization, abbreviation, sentence construction, paragraph construction, word choice, word usage, etc. The kinds of things that I hated during high school English classes but that I now realize are vitally important. At least if you want to get published regularly.

Some of the columns I most enjoyed writing: "Deja Vu All Over Again," about "writing tight"; "The Washed and the Unwashed," about literary fiction vs. genre fiction; Crime (and Other) Scenes," about favorite movies; and "Candy Is Dandy," about the late Ogden Nash.

As for what the blog has meant to me as a writer, here are a few things (besides our fantastic salary) that come to mind:

I've made friends who are now dear to me. Some only online, but many face-to-face as well. At every Bouchercon I've attended I've run into fellow SleuthSayers and "commenters," and when we meet in person it's as if we've known each other for years. Which we have, in a way, because of many, many blog posts, emails, and Facebook messages. I won't name names here because I would certainly miss someone, but you know who you are--and I will always treasure your friendship.

I've learned a lot about the craft of writing. The folks who post and guest-post at SleuthSayers read and write all kinds of fiction, not just mysteries, and many of them have great tips about how to create effective short stories and novels. Some of this stuff you can't find in the style manuals and the how-to books.

I've found out about new markets to target for my stories, as well as helpful facts about publications I was already familiar with. Some of these markets are not well known, and even if they are, the insider information is sometimes the kind they don't include in their submission guidelines.

I've discovered stories, books, and movies I would otherwise never have read or watched. All of us like to pass along recommendations based on what we've enjoyed or learned from, and when you hear these suggestions from those whose opinions you've come to trust, it makes a difference.

I've been forced to write to a deadline. When you know you have to produce an article of around 1000 words at least once every couple weeks, it keeps the writing muscles working. It's nothing like the pressure of a daily-newspaper deadline, but it's still something you're expected to create and deliver on time, and it means you can't just take long breaks from writing. I think that kind of discipline also helps in producing fiction, and is one of the reasons I've been able to turn out so many short stories.

In addition to all these things, I've had a chance to tell others about my own writing. Often that means giving them a behind-the-scenes view of my stories, and sharing whatever information I've picked up about the writing and marketing of those stories. That usually leads to a discussion, and I usually wind up learning more than I'm trying to teach. The bottom line: To be able to reach and swap views with a large number of readers and fellow writers on a regular basis is a rare opportunity, and as a member of SleuthSayers I have that.

In closing, I'd like to thank a few folks. One is James Lincoln Warren, who was the Head Fred at our Criminal Brief blog (without CB there would've been no SleuthSayers) and who was kind enough to recruit me to write the Saturday columns there, back in 2007. JLW, you might not be running the factory anymore, but you're still my hero. Special thanks also to my old friends and SS colleagues Leigh Lundin and Robert Lopresti for putting up with my foolishness and my stupid questions for ten years (fourteen, actually) and to all the other SleuthSayers as well, present and former. If you look at that list, you'll see that it includes some of the best mystery writers anywhere.

I can sense that Velma, our longtime and bossy assistant/receptionist/first-sergeant, is rolling her eyes and signaling me to wind this up, so I will. My final and most important thank-you is to our faithful readers. Your friendship and loyalty is much appreciated by us all.

I hope you'll stay with us for ten more years.





07 September 2021

Maps


author Mark Thielman
Mark Thielman

     When my wife and I got married 30+ years ago, our friend Kathy gave us the Complete Atlas of the World as a wedding present. The book is an oversized coffee table volume with a jet-black cover. The blue marble of the world as seen from space adorns the front. It was intended as a metaphor for our new life. Kathy challenged us to explore and to dream of the places we'd go. We thought it was a cool gift at the time. We still do.

    What's interesting about pulling out that old atlas now is to see the changes written across the pages. The book seems heavy, fixed, and permanent. But there on page 50 is the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, one solid band of unified color spanning a huge piece of Eurasia. Or on page 98, the Africa map with its hard, unchanging boundaries for Ethiopia and Sudan. I could go on but you get the idea.

atlas

    I've been thinking a great deal about travel lately. This was supposed to be my first SleuthSayers blog after Bouchercon. I had assumed I'd jot down some observations about the conference, congratulate the winners, reference the people I'd been able to meet in person, and intersperse those thoughts with the smells, tastes, sights, and sounds of New Orleans. That blog will have to be postponed until after the 2022 conference in Minneapolis. (I anticipate different tastes and smells.)

    I've been looking forward to traveling. I've missed waking up someplace different, knocking about exploring and discovering. I've missed seeing sights and trying foods. A couple of weeks ago in this blog, Robert Lopresti mentioned a bit of a conversation he overheard at a previous Bouchercon. Those lines made their way into a story. Let me add that to the list. I've missed collecting dialogue souvenirs. Not only have I missed going away, but I've also missed returning home to my familiar, and the simple joy of knowing where the things I use to construct my daily life are located.

    Although my wife and I haven't been hermits since the COVID onset, we have limited our venturing out to new places. The question, "where should we go?" as often as not has been replaced by "should we go?" Although the answer has sometimes been yes, spontaneity has seen an additional hurdle placed in its path.

AHMM

    The September/October issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine includes my story, "The Map Dot Murder." The tale is set in a small west Texas town. The high school's social studies teacher is murdered. His classroom is map festooned. Yet, most of the town's inhabitants are people who haven't gone anywhere. They've lived their lives within the town's boundaries. Some residents like it that way. Others resent it. A few have never bothered to think that they might have options.

    Just as I should have been finalizing my plans for Bouchercon– circling topics on the schedule of events, composing snappy answers to questions for my panel, and sending final emails to arrange get-togethers– comes my story about staying put. You know the timeline for stories. Tapping out the story on your keyboard takes a while. Rewrites, edits, and polishing add some more time. Then you send it off, drumming your fingers while waiting for an acceptance email. Finally, the movement to publication requires another chunk of time.

    The story should have come out as I was preparing to travel. Instead, it was published as I was sitting at home, folding my map from the journey I didn't take. Like the Complete Atlas of the World, perhaps it serves as a reminder about the illusion of fixedness.

    I hope you enjoy the story. And, whether you're at home or on the road, stay safe.

    Until next time.

woof

03 September 2021

How I Spent My Summer Vacation


 Every couple of years or so, I find myself traveling somewhere that takes me out of my comfort zone. When my wife and I dated, I had intended to propose to her in Put in Bay, a quaint summer village on an island in Lake Erie. Yes, it's in Ohio, but it's an entire world away from there. (The ring didn't come back from the jeweler in time, so I had to propose when we got back.) 

Put in Bay is many things. Historically, it's where Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry launched his famous counterattack against the British during the War of 1812. But the pace of life there is slower. You're surrounded by a large inland sea, and the sound of water lapping against the beach reaches the entire island.

These kinds of trips always have some sort of impact on my writing. No two places are the same. When I attended Bouchercon semi-regularly, I loved going to Toronto, Chicago, and Madison. (Indy is close enough to my home to be familiar.) Writing trips to Baltimore and even Frankfurt, Kentucky, an evening drive round-trip, took me away from normal. And it always finds its way into my writing.

Two years ago, my wife, her mother, and my stepson took a long-awaited trip down Route 66 that included me taking a frantic phone call at work. Candy informed me that she was driving through a blizzard.

In Arizona.

Four days before Memorial Day.

I couldn't get a full two weeks off at work but I wanted my own cross-country drive. So after meeting the family in San Francisco for the weekend, my stepson and I took a rented Ford Fusion back to Cincinnati, which took a week. We saw snow again on Memorial Day, drove through the alien landscape that is the Nevada desert, visited Vegas and Hoover Dam, snapped a photo of me holding a cup of Starbucks over my head in front of the Mormon Tabernacle (My former mother-in-law was offended, my ex-wife thought it was hilarious, and Candy's cousin, a Mormon preacher, thought that was the funniest thing he'd heard all summer.)

Every state was different. Arizona was freaking gorgeous. I got why the original Mormon settlers came to Utah in the first place. Wyoming is literally the big empty, and Colorado is nothing but mountains. Big mountains. We won't speak of Kansas other than to say after staring at a horizon curving away from me for six hours, flat earthers should be ashamed of themselves.

Which brings me to the most recent trip: New England. Through two marriages and even my dating life, I'd always wanted to take whoever the woman in my life was at the time on a romantic tour of the six states east and north of New York. Candy's health has made the romantic getaway a bit unfeasible, but we made it a family vacation. 


But because Burlington, Vermont, where we stayed our first night in the region, is so remote - No major airport and not really on any of the main Interstates - we used Buffalo as a layover. So, Niagara Falls served as our stop on the way up. And let me tell you, you need to see the falls up close and personal at least once in your life. That much water moving between two inland seas is amazing. And the Seneca tribe of New York have built a really nice resort nearby.

The next day, we had to go cross western New York to get to Burlington. Candy's health prevents her from going more than seven hours a stretch by car, and the trip to Burlington went past that limit. We ended up getting lunch in Rome at a little hole-in-the-wall diner. While this was not a truckstop, it still proved the adage "Eat where the truckers eat." Had Eddie's been near an exit, they would have eaten there.


Vermont and New Hampshire were mostly pass-through states, and what pass-through states they were. Driving through the mountains, we saw our first bear, a cub crossing the road. But no moose. Lots of moose signs, but no moose. Maine, however, was the entire point of this trip. Specifically, Bar Harbor. Crossing the state put us in the real-life inspirations for Stephen King's fictionalized Maine. We even drove through the town that inspired Pet Semetary. Naturally, while in Bar Harbor, I bought a copy of Mr. Mercedes. Of course, I'm going to buy a Stephen King novel in the state where he lives. What kind of writer would I be if I didn't?

Bar Harbor is on an island, and there is something different about life on an island. Yes, Bar Harbor is crammed with tourists, even during the pandemic, but life is still slower paced. And the island is bigger than Ohio's South Bass. So there are multiple towns on it. The rest cater to boaters and hikers in search of Maine's Acadia National Forest.


Most of our money went into Bar Harbor. But most of our time was spent there. Massachusetts was almost a pass-thru, but we intended to stop at Quincy Market to get chowda from the source. (No kidding, both chowder shops we saw spelled it like that.) Had it not been raining so bad, we'd have toured the Samuel Adams Brewery as well. Rhode Island was most definitely a pass-thru, but I count it among states visited. Connecticut...

My wife fell in love with Connecticut. We stayed in Hartford and walked around the city center that evening. She wanted to move there. I wanted to move to Burlington, Vermont, but Hartford most definitely was easier to get to and from. A stop in Buffalo on the way back introduced us to the original Wings (the Anchor Bar) and weck (Schwabl's, which predates the Civil War) and home again the next day with a stop in Cleveland to see my brother.

Every town and every state had its own vibe. The further from the major cities we traveled, the more laid-back the attitude. But even Hartford, whose metro area bleeds into Boston's, seemed calmer than the industrial cities of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. It had none of Boston's traffic congestion or cramped streets, nor did it bustle like New York City to the south. It was the perfect balance between urban area and isolated region. If I worked in NYC, I could see myself taking the train from Hartford and back daily.

And now, as I wrap up the follow up to Holland Bay (out November 22 from Down and Out Books. Thanks for asking.), I have a week spent in a part of the country I've never seen before. The history, the accents (I said "Bah Hahbah" and "Baston" for over a week), where the roads are laid out differently, the dialect is different, and so is the food. I crushed a lobster dinner. My wife got to indulge her inner shutterbug. And now I have a deeper well to draw creative inspiration from. "Write what you know" might be a cliched and ultimately debunked bit of writing advice, but it does make it a lot easier to make stuff up when you have more to model from.

27 August 2021

What Every Author Should Be Carrying in Their Pockets


I read a post once by the author Joe Konrath in which he went off on bookmarks. He started confronting authors at conferences who were pressing bookmarks into his hands. He says he finally asked them, "Have you ever bought a book because someone gave you a bookmark?" Their eyes boggled, the wheels turned, and maybe he changed a few authors’ minds about the wisdom of spending money on a marketing tool that doesn’t perform the way you’d like it to.

I’ve got two drawers in our office filled with bookmarks. The publishers print ’em up for my wife’s books, so I dutifully mail them to people whenever we send out a book or a bookplate. And if I’m anywhere near the table when Denise does signings, I always slip a bookmark into the reader’s book before they leave the table. Why? Because I hate the damn things, and I can’t wait to get rid of them. Thanks to my efforts, I predict we will finally finish them all by 2063.

I don’t like them because I don’t know how to carry them easily. No matter what I do, they end up crinkled, bent, or worse in the backpack I carry to book events. Or, if I do carefully preserve them in a little cardboard box toted for this purpose, that box and backpack are usually not on my person when I need it most.

If I do have them with me, I am treated to the same dispiriting spectacle every time. Immediately upon being handed a bookmark, people hesitate, trying to decide what to do with it. If a purse or backpack is handy, the person will stuff it in there. If not, I watch them fold the bookmark to fit it into their pockets. So much for trying to keep them pristine.

In my non-pandemic life I spent an inordinate amount of time sitting at bars, coffee or otherwise. Which, let’s face it, is where people schmooze. Just as often, we’d get invited to neighborhood potlucks, musical concerts, art showings. Places where people stand around with little plates and guzzle alcohol and talk.

Inevitably, you strike up a conversation with people, they discover you write books, they’re impressed, (yes, I think that’s funny, too), and upon leaving the venue they promise to go right home and immediately order your book.

But before they depart, they say things like:

What’s your name again?

How do you spell that?

What’s the name of the book you mentioned? The one for kids? The mystery one? The one about rutabagas?

Where can I buy that?

Can I get it on Amazon/B&N/the place where I buy batteries?


(Seriously, they really ask where they can buy it. It’s a wonder books are bought at all in this country.)

In those moments, sweet Joe Konrath help me, I wish I did have a damn bookmark with all that information on it. These sort of encounters happen so often that they are beat-by-beat predictable.

Good example: I’m writing this in Charleston, South Carolina, where we are on a research/vacation trip. Before we left home, I reminded Denise to bring along her stash of bookmarks/bookplates/business cards. She balked, but brought them nevertheless. The first afternoon in town, we explored the city and ended up at the bar of a restaurant.

Somewhere between the she-crab soup and the fried fish platter, Denise naturally struck up a conversation with a woman who is fascinated with writing, and has recently begun journaling her heart out. Just before she and her boyfriend settle their tab and go, the woman asks Denise for a card, or something, so she can check out Denise’s books. And Denise laughs. Why? She left all that crap in the hotel because she didn’t think she’d run into someone on the very first night of our trip. But she did. She always does. Like I said, beat-by-beat predictable.

To get around the Dilemma of the Inconvenient Bookmark, here’s what I did pre-Covid, and what I hope to start doing again. You see these here? They’re business cards.



On one side is my name, contact details, website, and social media details. On the other side is the cover of one of my books. I got them printed up by a company called Moo, and no, I don’t get a kickback. I’m just a stationery geek, which in my book is preferable to being a bookmark geek. Moo has a special customized business card option that allows you to print up to 50 different images on the backs of your business cards for one fixed price. (The link in this paragraph will take you right to that page.)


When I ghost-wrote a book for a restaurant guru, 
I had these cards made up for the launch event.

Moo says that they envisioned these cards as portable portfolios for creative types. And while Denise and I were researching in Charleston, I noticed that the librarians and archivists at the place we were working every day also used Moo for their business cards, which showcase the sort of one-of-a-kind artwork and printed ephemera from books the library holds in its collection.


If this sort of card makes sense for librarians, photographers, artists, designers, and maybe engineers or architects, why not writers?

Because they’re business cards, they fit in my wallet or a business card holder. I don’t hand them out promiscuously, so they feel more cost-effective than bookmarks, he said hopefully.

Sure, there’s no guarantee that the person to whom you give these cards will ever buy the book. But who cares? Because they’re business cards, they don’t weigh on my mind like those damn bookmarks. I don’t ever feel compelled to use them up. They don’t feel like a waste of money because in certain professional situations, I actually do still need business cards. At least, I did before the world crashed and burned.

Now: Sometimes you don’t want to give complete strangers your contact details. Fine. That’s why I print up a second, “blind” batch; no address, phone number, or email, just name, website, and social. That’s all the person needs anyway. That, and the title and cover of the book you somehow happened to mention in your chat. My “blind” stash is always readily available in my wallet, the “full” version less so. You can color-code the cards if you want, but why make yourself crazy?

I probably don’t need to say this, but the book cover image you print on the card should absolutely be the version that people will most likely encounter in a store or online. So if your publisher recently issued paperbacks with a new cover, print that cover. Ditto if you, the self-pubbed author, recently changed the cover of the book. (I recently changed the covers of some of my books, so I need to update the cards.)

Lastly, despite my lovely cards, I was sad to hear that in-person Bouchercon was canceled again this year. But please, feel free to mail your bookmarks to the home address not printed on the obverse of my card.

* * *

See you in three weeks!

Joe


18 August 2021

A Trend, An Anecdote, and an Exhibit



Sometimes I get a story idea in one nice neat package, a blast from the muse.

More often it comes in pieces.  I call some of those tales mash-ups.

It isn't that one type is necessarily better than the other.  Two brands of cars, but they both get you to the same place, if you're lucky.

Take "Taxonomy Lesson," my story in the September/October issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which was published yesterday.  It is a definite mash-up of three elements:

A TREND.  I worked as a librarian in academia for more than three decades.  Like any other field, higher education has its trade publications that talk about what's new in the biz.  

And one trend I've been reading about for a decade has been sexual harassment.  The reports started long before the #Me Too movement. 

The classic scenario is a male tenured professor pressuring a female grad student with promises of support if she gives in and threats of punishment if she doesn't.  The power differential between, say, a Ph.D. student and a professor on her dissertation committee is extreme, the ability to make or break a career.  

There has long been a whisper network in academia (as in many other fields) in which women warn each other not to do field research with Professor X or, if you must go to a conference with Professor Y, don't go to his room for a chat, or even get in an elevator with him.

Dr. Karen Kelsey created a website called Sexual Harassment in the Academy: A Crowdsource Survey.   She eventually closed it to new entries due to trolls and hackers, but you can read enough to spoil your lunch.

I was ignored in meetings when I was the most knowledgeable about the content (in favor of a male new hire with less experience/education); inappropriate comments made about my body while pregnant; a female colleague was called a slut by our chair when she reported a job candidate had stalked her while they were in school.  When issues were reported to HR/Title IX/ Dean's Office, grossly inept responses were provided (Female Dean invited me to meeting to talk about these issues and then said "do you want to hear my stories? It could get worse" and proceeded to suggest that I do not fit in at my institution.  Ultimately, I was denied a promotion on the grounds of my pregnancy.

I knew I wanted to write about  this sort of thing in fiction someday.  But a premise is not a plot, and I needed more.  It turned out I needed...

AN ANECDOTE.  Back in 2015 Bouchercon was held in Raleigh, North Carolina.  A tiny but riveting  event happened there which I witnessed and the moment it happened I grabbed my notebook and started writing.  "That's going to go into a story!" I announced.  Amazingly enough, I was right.

I can't tell you what happened that day, but when you read my story you will probably have a pretty good idea.  

But I still didn't have my story yet.  That required...


AN EXHIBIT.
  My family enjoys visiting the Pacific Science Center in Seattle.  One of the parts we always explore is the Butterfly House which has live insects from around the world.  The last time we visited I noted an exhibit just outside on scientific names.  Homo Sapien. Helianthus Annuus.  Gorilla Gorilla.

And bingo.  That was the one missing piece.

My story is about a taxonomy professor - that is, an expert on how species are biologically related to each other, and on  scientific nomenclature.  He is at a conference where he will receive a major award for his work.  But alas, his relationships with  students haven't been as excellent as his research.  And that is about to become a big problem...

I hope you enjoy it.

 


06 August 2021

The Birth of a Hard-Boiled Detective


My friend Terry Roberts has a new book out that’s set in 1920, but as I was reading it on the beach a few weeks ago I felt like I was reliving our national drama of the past few years. Toward the end of the novel, his detective delivers a line that has stuck with me since: “There’s something inside all of us that loves to hate.” Terry is the winner of numerous awards for Southern literary fiction, and I’m pleased to share his guest column with you today. Welcome, Terry! —Joseph D’Agnese



Is a true detective born … or made? Some of each, I imagine—both in life and in fiction. For me, one of the most fascinating transformations in all of crime writing is when a character realizes that he or she has a gift. And that the gift has to do with seeing behind the surface of things, reading the depths of people, finding the truth when it’s badly obscured. In other words, when a man or woman discovers they possess a hidden talent for detection.

As a reader, one of the most enjoyable transformations of this kind is the one that takes place in Walter Mosley’s 1990 novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, when Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins realizes that he can make a living—a good living—in the detective business. Which apparently, he can, because Blood Grove, published in 2021, is the 15th Easy Rawlins mystery, each as rich and thought-provoking as the first. I, for one, would follow Easy Rawlins almost anywhere, as long as Mouse is along for the ride. Even so, Easy wasn’t born a detective; Walter Mosley made him one.

On a much smaller scale, something similar happened to me when I began to imagine the book that became My Mistress’ Eyes Are Raven Black, a mystery set on Ellis Island in 1920. I knew that the book was about xenophobia, the disease that haunts our species, causing us to hate and fear the other. I knew that the story was a murder mystery in which the murderers were killing off those whom they would deny entry into the country as a way of protecting the Nordic purity of the American population. In fact, I knew a lot about the setting and plot of the story I wanted to tell, but I needed a detective.

As history and fiction would have it, the narrator of my first novel, A Short Time to Stay Here, was alive and well in 1920, living in Manhattan, where he’d sought out a woman, Anna Ulmann, with whom he was in love. This character’s name is Stephen Robbins, and quite unexpectedly, he stepped forward and offered his services in the detecting line. At least in my imagination, he did.

At first, I didn’t buy it.

Stephen’s origins were about as alien to New York as they could possibly be. He was born in an extremely isolated community in the Southern Appalachians. He ran away from home when he was ten years old and made his way in the world by working at a famous resort hotel in the tiny hamlet of Hot Springs, North Carolina. He was largely self-educated, quiet, watchful, considerate. Full of humorous cynicism and stubbornness. Loyal to a fault. Drank too much. Violent streak. All of this and, as his relationship with Anna showed, capable of real tenderness.

Fair enough, I told Stephen in my mind. Alcohol and gunplay, seeing without being seen. Sounded like the makings of a hard-boiled detective to me. But there was a problem; he had no real experience, no procedural expertise. He was a native of the Southern mountains, and his dialect was so thick that he could barely make himself understood when he first came to New York. As for Ellis Island, he was as much a foreigner as the immigrants themselves.


Terry Roberts

Despite all my initial reservations, the Stephen Robbins of my imagination convinced me that he had the makings of a sleuth. A shamus, a dick, an operative. And not only could he operate at home in the isolated coves of the Southern mountains, but he might be an equally good bad man in that fraught whirlpool of humanity … Ellis Island.

Under the pressure of the moment, Stephen Robbins evolved.

By the time we see him in the opening pages of My Mistress’ Eyes Are Raven Black, he and Anna have grown apart, his job as manager of the fabled Algonquin Hotel has grown stale, and he worries about his “slowly falling-apart life.” When offered an opportunity by the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI) to go to Ellis Island to search for a missing Irish immigrant girl, he leaps at the opportunity.

I wrote earlier that Walter Mosley made Easy Rawlins a detective, or at least gave him the realization that he had talent. The same could be said of Stephen Robbins. Out of his personality and life experiences, I created the stubbornness, the toughness, the instincts of a truly gifted hunter. Early in the novel, he sees his beloved Anna in the passionate embrace of another man and the resulting trauma sends him spiraling into a series of self-examinations that parallel his increasing awareness of what is truly going on at Ellis Island. We are, he realizes, each of us mongrels, each of us immigrants.

Along the way, he forms a personal and professional partnership with Nurse Lucy Paul, a tough cookie in her own right, who is equally determined to put an end to the murders and disappearances on the island. Together, they make a pair straight out of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, Dorothy B. Hughes or … Walter Mosley. Their life and love are sometimes harsh, sometimes fearful, sometimes soaked in pre-prohibition Scotch. But while saving each other from despair, they also save the Ellis Island from the monsters who haunt it.

And so it was that out of Stephen Robbins, the hard-headed romantic from A Short Time To Stay Here, was born Stephen Robbins, the federal op who could find any lost thing or missing person. Late in the novel, after a formal inquiry into the deaths of two of the secret “congregation” who have been killing unwanted immigrants, Stephen’s contact in the Bureau of Investigation threatens to pull him out of the dangerous situation on Ellis Island. “You were never trained for this type of work,” he says.

“Maybe I’m just a goddamned natural,” Stephen replies.

In retrospect, maybe he was. Maybe I just needed to realize it.


(From Turner Publishing, $16.99 paperback.)



I hope you enjoyed this visit from a possibly new-to-you author. You can check out the book at Bookshop.org, visit Terry’s website, or read the Publishers Weekly or Washington Independent Review of Books reviews here. Terry recently did a post for Crime Reads on hard-boiled detectives, which you might also enjoy.

Unfortunately I won’t be at Bouchercon, but I will be back here in three weeks. See you then!
— Joe

25 May 2021

The Best Closet


     Earlier this month, O'Neil De Noux wrote about the death mask of Napoleon on display at the Cabildo in New Orleans. The article got me reminiscing. I've always liked museums, the ones with stuff rather than just art. The good ones tell stories. As a child, the Pettigrew Museum in Sioux Fallas was a might bike ride from my house. The old Victorian house held a fascination for me. It was a great old closet, full of Native American arrowheads, geodes and other rocks, and the implements with which the settlers scratched out a living on the Great Plains. 

Jerry, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, 

via Wikimedia Commons

    The great museums are must-see tourist stops. They can also be overwhelming. I've taken power naps on the lawns of some of the world's great exhibit halls after plodding through floors of priceless artifacts. Today I shall praise the small museum. They tell a specific story. These museums help people to find the treasure in their own backyard. They are often staffed by people who care deeply about their niche subject. A little bit of customer interest makes them giddy.

    Not far from the Cabildo, just down Chartres Street in the French Quarter, is the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum. Shelves chockablock with glass dispensing bottles, the labels listing the original ingredients. Louisiana was the first state to license apothecaries. The state was cutting edge for health practices. But it was also New Orleans so they dispensed voodoo. The museum focuses on 18th and 19th-century health care. This isn't the Metropolitan Museum; a visitor won't be here all day. But as people who occasionally think about poisons, this could be your spot. 

    One caveat: The docent-guided tour helped me see things I would have missed. He pointed out Love Potion #9 as well as the ceramic jar near the cash register holding the leeches. The website says that guided tours are suspended during the pandemic. Perhaps they'll be back again by Bouchercon. 

    If you find yourself near the western entrance to Yellowstone National Park, consider visiting the Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot, Idaho. You'll know you've arrived when you get to the potato sculpture out front. The price of admission included a package of freeze-dried hash browns when my family and I visited. Shockingly, they didn't have any other visitors that afternoon. The attendant at the register was happy to talk about the exhibits. Want to see the world's largest potato crisp? She'll make sure that you don't miss it. 

    If you're passing through west Texas, stop by the Odessa Meteor Crater Museum. There you'll see...a meteor crater. Or you will if you hurry. Originally 115 feet deep, the winds of the last 65,000 years have filled the crater with sand. It is now only 15 feet deep. Your time is limited. 

    Last October, my wife and I were driving through New England checking out the fall foliage. On Main Street in Winstead, Connecticut stood a grand building. The sign out front identified it as the American Museum of Tort Law. Sadly, COVID-19 had it shuttered. Small surprise, I suppose. I'd expect a tort museum to think about potential liability. A virtual tour is available through the website. I'll be back if only to check out the gift shop. 

    Museums make great locations for mystery tales. The Smithsonian and the Louvre have been the setting countless times. By their nature, museums hold rare things. Even in the specialty museums, the collections are valuable to someone. Museums have quirky exhibits. If you want to bump someone off with a Lakota Sioux arrowhead, have them visit the Pettigrew. And never underestimate the lethality of a potato fork. 

    To safeguard the collections and to simplify ticket sales, access in and out of a museum is limited. A diverse group of people gathers there. Tourists from various walks of life collect at museums mingling with locals. Museums store secrets from the past. They host social events, weddings, parties, and fundraisers. Elegantly dressed people attend soirees at them. Or they will again soon. Intrigue and mayhem easily follow. 

    A museum closely based on the Idaho Potato Museum provides the setting for "The Case of the Brain Tuber," my story in the current Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I rely upon all the elements of a museum: the social center, limited access and, the odd assortment of items collected to tell the story. 

    In March, Mystery Weekly published "Exhibiting Signs of Death," a story set in an imagined tort law museum. I've had a good year placing my stories in exhibit halls. I'm glad that museums are opening again. I look forward to visiting. 

    If you're thinking about Bouchercon 2022, pencil in the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota. 

    Until next time. 

11 May 2021

Creating a Believable Character Requires Knowing Their Heart


Writing what you know is advice beginners often get. You want to write something that seems real to the reader, so you need to really know it to write it correctly. Beginners sometimes think the advice means they can only write about something they've experienced personally. Only somewhere they've been. Only a job they've done. There's a funny old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in which Calvin says he's writing a novel about a guy clicking through TV channels with his remote control; he's writing about what he knows. With time, however, writers usually realize that they can know anything well enough to write about it if they do enough research.

Or can they? Is the answer different when you're talking about voice?

I found myself wondering about this before I wrote my newest story "James." My main character, Nick, is a rock star, and that's something I definitely am not. Sure, I could do research about rock stars, what their lives are like, about touring and writing music and all of that. But could I understand the persona well enough to bring my character to life in an authentic way? The way he'd think. The words he'd use. When I write, I basically become that person in my head. Could I become a big bad rock star? (Those of you who know me in real life, stop snickering!) 

It worried me at first, but eventually I realized that I did know something about who Nick is, something important. Deep down, he's a person with a heart. And I know how to write that.

The big bad rock star
who inspired the story
Sure, there are people--and characters--who have no heart, no soul. But most people do. They care about specific people and specific things. Once you know what a character cares about, you can tap into it, and that enables you to make that character real.

What does Nick care about? His family and his friends. He cares about letting down his grandmother and wanting to make things right. He might be a big bad rock star, but he still has feelings. And these specific ones, I'd think all readers can relate to them. By tapping into them as I wrote the story, it made Nick relatable too.

That was a point I tried to make with the first line: "Even big bad rock stars can feel nostalgic." It's Nick's nostalgia that kicks off the chain of events in the story. It's his heart that drives the plot from there.  

That all said, while knowing a character's heart helps you understand him or her deep down--what pushes his buttons, how she'd react to pressure, for instance--to really bring the character to life, to really get the voice right, you also have to get the words right. And getting Nick's words right, in his thoughts and in his dialogue, wasn't easy. Nick might have been acting believably based on who he is deep down, but in the first draft, he didn't sound right. He didn't sound like a rock star.

He sounded too much like me. 

If you listen to me talk long enough, you'll hear me use whom when it's the correct word to use. A friend told me a year or two ago that no one uses that word, and I replied, "I do." The grammar is ingrained in me. That's not to say I speak properly all the time. But sometimes, perhaps often, I do, and it seeps into my writing.

My friend Tim reads a lot of my work before it goes out in the world. As he said to me after reading an early draft of "James," Nick sounded too grammatically precise. And he didn't use enough idioms. When I revised, I worked on that. I also worked into Nick's vocabulary some words that I would never use, words I find too off-putting, but they're words a man, especially a rock star, might use. So Nick uses them.

Making the right word choices also took due diligence in my next short story coming out, "A Tale of Two Sisters." In that story, my main character, Robin, is a twenty-four-year-old lesbian. I could relate to who she is deep down, and her personality is more like mine than Nick's is. But to ensure my word choices for her (and other characters) were right and that I didn't have the characters do or say anything that seemed off, I not only did research while writing the story, but I also used a subject-matter expert--a sensitivity reader--after I finished it.

Getting a character's voice right isn't always easy, but when you put in the work, you can make that character come alive off the page. That's what I tried to do with Nick in "James" and with Robin in "A Tale of Two Sisters." I hope you'll read these stories and let me know if I succeeded. 

"James" appears in Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Billy Joel. The anthology came out last month from Untreed Reads Publishing. You can buy it in ebook and trade paperback wherever books are sold, but you can get the best deal at the publisher's website. Just click here

"A Tale of Two Sisters" will appear in Murder on the Beach, which will be published on May 28th in ebook form and in trade paperback sometime this summer. The ebook version is on sale for 99 cents until the publication date. To pre-order the anthology, click here. It will take you to a landing page with links to nine retailers that are selling the book, including the usual suspects.

***

Before I go, a little BSP: I'm so happy that my story "Dear Emily Etiquette" has been nominated for the Anthony Award for best short story published last year, along with stories by Alex Segura, Art Taylor, Gabriel Valjan, and James W. Ziskin. People attending Bouchercon in August will be eligible to vote for the winner. In advance, you can read all five of the nominated stories through the Bouchercon New Orleans website. Just click here. The title of each of the nominated stories is a link.

23 March 2021

Fare Thee Well, Paul D. Marks


Paul D. Marks joined SleuthSayers in 2015 and has been a treasured member of the gang ever since. He died on February 28th of this year. His wife Amy Marks wrote on Facebook: "He died peacefully listening to Beatles and cowboy music. He loved sharing his film noir alerts, his dog walking pictures, his love of writing and his thoughts on life with you. He used to boast that he could go anywhere in the country and would have a Facebook friend he could have lunch with." Some of us had a few thoughts to share:

Eve Fisher: While I never met Paul, I loved his SleuthSayers posts, because they were always centered around L.A. Often the L.A. of the past, which was my stomping grounds back in the very early 1970s. His writing was so time, place and music centered that it enveloped you in the past: time travel for pedestrians. I remember reading the 8/3/20 interview with him on Mystery Playground, where he said, interestingly enough, that, "My favorite book of all time isn't a mystery. It's The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham. It's about someone trying to make sense of the world and where they fit into everything, which is something I relate to and which also comes through in Bobby's character. Another favorite book is Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. I like revenge stories and that's the revenge story to end all revenge stories. My favorite mystery would probably be Chandler's The Long Goodbye. Just so good." I love all three myself, which are set in a very specific time / place / mood. At the time I thought, I'll have to talk / write to him about that some time. I never thought that time would run out.

Melodie Campbell: I didn't know Paul well, but I always enjoyed his posts. And he was kind in his comments when responding to my posts, which I always appreciated. I feel so sad. We've lost one of our own.

David Dean: Paul's death affected me far more than I thought it could. After all, we'd only met briefly in NYC and corresponded through email and Facebook for a few short years. Yet, the words we shared revealed him to me as a kind, supportive presence that, over time, became a welcome part of my life. He had an honesty, an integrity, that was palpable even in the virtual sphere of our relationship. Paul seemed to me a quietly passionate man. He was a superb writer, an historian of both noir films and the gritty, decadent Hollywood that produced them, and a proud father to his "boys," the dogs he and Amy raised, both past and present. I'm proud to say that I made him happy once when I wrote a story that featured a relationship between a boy and a dog. They prevailed over adversity, of course, and that pleased him very much. I still have the email he wrote me about it. I miss you, Paul, but I, along with so many others, will remember you.

Janice Law: I am so sorry to hear about Paul. We all knew he was very ill but had hoped that he would recover. I never met him but enjoyed his glimpses of Hollywood old and new and respected him as a fine editor. He will be very much missed.

Leigh Lundin: Paul impressed everyone and me in particular with his historical knowledge of Los Angeles and his childlike love of Hollywood. I couldn’t watch an episode of Bosch without remembering what Paul said about Angel’s Flight or the Bradbury Building, or wanting to ask him something about Gehry’s concert hall. His memory seemed encyclopedic and detailed, knowing who attended which famed restaurant when and where. Paul, loyal to the core, cared about us and worried he might miss an article. His attitude was so positive, I thought he was going to make it and, if it was up to will alone, he would have. I’m grateful he had Amy by his side. Somewhere in old Hollywood, a young Paul still strolls those streets.

Barb Goffman: When I first got to know Paul over Facebook we bonded over our love of dogs. I loved when he shared photos of his dogs, walking them, playing with them, just being with them, especially Pepper, who I think held a special place in his heart. You could see the joy they shared spending time together. When my prior dog, Scout, slowed down with age, Paul was often ready with words of encouragement and support, which I'll never forget. It's often said that if dogs like you, it's a sure sign you're a good person. Paul was the ultimate good person. He'll be missed.

Lawrence Maddox: I met Paul in 2014 after reviewing his short story collection L.A. Late @ Night for All Due Respect Magazine. It was written with the voice of one who "got" L.A., who lived it from the inside out. I gushed about it in my review. Paul and I bonded over our shared Native-Angeleno status. We often reminisced about the city we loved, the places we remembered, and the vagaries of the movie biz. One of my favorite memories of Paul is bringing him to the set of Santa Clarita Diet, a TV show I edited. He was so excited to be there. He'd worked in production years earlier, and all the new tech fascinated him. "A lot is different, but a lot is the same, too," he said. I can still picture him grinning like a kid as he watched the crew shoot a scene. I was looking for the craft service table to get some coffee when Paul grabbed my arm. "Larry, is that her?" He pointed to an actress getting ready for a scene. "Is that Drew Barrymore?" Paul had told me about his own experiences working in Hollywood with weariness, but there he was, in awe. "I can't believe I'm practically standing next to Drew Barrymore! Do you think I can meet her? I can't wait to tell Amy." He was genuinely thrilled. The Drew sighting became a goofy joke between us. It would pop up in our conversations until some of our last emails together while he was fighting cancer. Paul could have a jaundiced view of L.A., as he expressed in his unforgettable novels and short stories. That day on set he was as star struck as any tourist at Grauman's Chinese Theater. It was uncharacteristic, which made it even more endearing. Besides remembering him as a dear friend, as someone who championed my own start as a writer, I'll remember Paul like he was on set that day. Smiling. Happy. Caught up in a dream.

Steve Liskow: I never met Paul, but I loved his stories, especially the ones about "old" Hollywood and L.A. His posts on Sleuthsayers were always both informative and entertaining, and they showed how much he loved and respected writing. Even though I never "really" knew him, I feel like I've lost a great friend. My thoughts and sympathy go out to his family and friends.

Travis Richardson: If you had the opportunity to meet Paul Marks for the first time, you would not have any idea that he had once directed movies and played in a rock band. Humble and soft-spoken, Paul was genuinely kind and caring. He always asked about my wife and daughter, and it was always a pleasure to see him at conferences, book launches, and SoCal MWA and Sisters in Crime meetings. As a crime writer, he wrote compelling stories with a spotlight on his hometown, Los Angeles. His award-winning stories captured various parts of LA, highlighting the city’s beauty as well as its warts. Whether he wrote about the LA riots, wandering ghosts solving murders, or a PI living in a bomb shelter, Paul’s stories always made a lasting impression. I wish his wife, Amy, strength in this time of sorrow. As his constant companion, she knew Paul better than all of us and saw his full greatness while we only caught glimpses of it. Rest in peace, Paul.

John Floyd: Like so many others, I never met Paul face-to-face but felt I knew him from his blog posts and emails. That was especially true for me because of the many notes he and I exchanged over the past few years about our mutual love of movies. I was always amazed and impressed by his firsthand knowledge of film and filmmaking, and we sometimes agreed that NO one else would probably be interested in the kinds of things we talked about. Which somehow made it even more fun.

Paul and I had planned to meet at the Dallas Bouchercon in 2019, and when he was unable to make it and then the pandemic came along we resolved to get together somehow after all this is over. Who could’ve known? it’s still hard to believe that this friend to so many of us was lost so early and unexpectedly. My heartfelt condolences go out to Amy and all of Paul’s family—he will be sorely missed. I’m grateful at least that we will always have his writing—both his novels and his short stories—to enjoy and to remind us of his great talent.

Art Taylor: While I was honored to share space with Paul here at SleuthSayers, we first “met” on another group blog, 7 Criminal Minds, where he and I alternated the Friday posts, batting clean-up each week. Even before I knew Paul as a gifted short story and novelist, I knew him as a dedicated and thoughtful blogger, and his posts there and here were always a marvel to read—whether he was writing about writing and reading or about music or film noir (an enthusiast and expert in both) or about more personal matters or more. Many Fridays at our first blog, I not only left a comment on his post but also reached out by email with an extra note. Over time, those occasional notes became a regular correspondence—and not just a correspondence but a friendship too, one of my best in the mystery community. He was a great supporter of my work—both when it was going well and when it was going poorly—and I was thrilled with every success he had, both at novel length (we talked often about his works-in-progress) and especially with his short stories, which I loved so much. He and I were both finalists for the Macavity Award for Best Short Story in 2018—both of us for stories from the second Coast to Coast anthology he edited—and as Janet Rudolph was on stage announcing the finalists, I kept thinking, “Paul’s story, Paul’s story, please.” An absolute joy to see him win that night, a writer who deserved all honors that came his way, and I just wish there were more books and stories ahead.

Stephen Ross: Paul and I were Facebook friends, but I knew him better through his writing and his posts on Sleuthsayers. We had a mutual love of noir. He will be missed.

Robert Lopresti: I thought Paul might enjoy my reprinting this from Little Big Crimes: "There's an Alligator in my Purse," by Paul D. Marks, in Florida Happens, edited by Greg Herren, Three Rooms Press, 2018. The latest Bouchercon anthology is all about that most interesting state in our southeast. This tale is by my fellow SleuthSayer, Paul D. Marks. Our narrator is Ed, a cheerful professional. He likes to satisfy his customers, so he takes lots of photos of the corpses. Corpses the clients wanted dead, obviously. In this case that client is Ashley Smith - the lady with the titular pocket book reptile. She had expected to inherit a lot of money when her elderly husband died happily due to her enthusiastic ministrations. When she found out the dough was going to the first wife, she went looking for someone with Ed's skill set. It wasn't really his photographic skills that she was interested in… A breezy tale of multiple conspiracies.

Elizabeth Zelvin: I'm shocked to hear about Paul's death. I met him several times in person at New York events—where he was usually getting an award—and both face to face and in cyberspace, he struck me as such a bounce-back kind of person that I fully expected him to beat his illness and get better. He's a great loss to the crime fiction and short story communities and to everyone who knew him personally. I went over to his Facebook page when I heard the news. Tributes hadn't yet started appearing, but a couple of weeks ago, Paul posted, "Don't give up," with a gallery of "famous failures" including Einstein, Michael Jordan, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Oprah, and the Beatles, who'd all been fired, demoted, or told they wouldn't amount to anything at some point. The tag line was, "If you've never failed, you've never tried anything new." What a heartening message to leave us with.

26 February 2021

All That Jazz


T.S. Hottle aka Jim Winter
T.S. Hottle aka Jim Winter

Hello, yes! I'm back. The Artist Occasionally Known as Jim Winter…

I did the formerly bit, but then Down & Out liked something I wrote, so here I am.

And what have I been up to? Well, I've gotten on a bit of a jazz kick, which is interesting. Because Robert Parker, Lorne Estleman, and to some extent, Michael Connelly all got static for having their primary protags – Spenser, Amos Walker, and Harry Bosch – into jazz the way 15-year-old boys in the 80s knew what the lead singer of Motley Crue had for breakfast.

A little background on how this came to be a topic, aside from Miles Davis blasting off my new turntable as I write this. (Yeah. I'm into vinyl now, too.)

In the beforetime, in the long, long ago,  when I first wrote crime fiction, I needed a way to differentiate my PI character, Nick Kepler, from every other PI character out there. He wasn't a bookstore hound like Tess Monaghan or a loud dresser like Elvis Cole. And he didn't have a minimalist lifestyle like Kinsey Milhonne. And forget the psycho sidekick. That trope needed to die a long time before Northcoast Shakedown saw the light of day in 2005.

The one thing I could do was make his taste in music parallel to my own. So, I put him in a blues band, had him blast Metallica on his way to lay the smack down on someone who killed one of his best friends, and even had him still using cassette as late as… Well, 2004. So, a blues guy. I didn't even bother listening to jazz. Why? I wasn't writing about it.

Fast forward to 2019. For my wife and stepson, our vacation would be the trip of a lifetime. They had wanted to drive Route 66 all the way to Santa Monica since years before I came into the picture. I could only get a week off work, but I hit on an idea. I would fly to San Francisco where we would spend a weekend, then Matt and I would drive back to Cincinnati in a rental.

While I waited for my family to show, I went to see Haight-Ashbury. Never went on two previous trips. This being San Fran, I Ubered everywhere. My very first driver taking me to Haight-Ashbury played jazz. I told him I, too, drove Uber and asked if the jazz was for him or for the passengers. "Oh, the passengers. I've had maybe two complaints since I started. You should play it. Watch your tips go up."

I took his advice, and lo, and behold, the passengers loved it. And I loved it. Why? Because like the 15-year-old boy named Jim Winter (OK, named TS Hottle) in the 1980s, I could tell you what Keith Richards had for breakfast this morning. (Corn flakes and a cup of black coffee.) I knew nothing of jazz but those wonderful sounds coming out of my speakers.

And then the pandemic hit. We are all now working from home, and my commute is down a flight of stairs. My wife bought me a turntable two years ago. Last year, she bought me Miles and Coltrane. And damn, but it sounds good on vinyl.

So, my days are spent now listening to either curated lists on Spotify, CDs of Frank, Tony, and Ella, or even some vinyl I got my hands on. Oh, the classic rock and grunge and even some punk slip in there And my wife has me listening to country, though not as often as she'd like. But the change reminds me of when I made Bouchercon annually. In the mid-2000s, many of the denizens then opened my ears up to Tom Waits, had me rediscover Johnny Cash, and dive into some of those latter-day blues guys like Rory Gallagher. Jazz has so many overlaps it's crazy. I heard it on albums by Kelly Clarkson, the Foo Fighters, and even Tom Petty (whom I'm still mourning.) So, how does that affect my writing?

I'm coming off an 18-month scifi writing binge, and 2/3 of my output was written to playlists that went from Bird Parker to a salsa princess from the 90s named Basia back to Sinatra and forward a bit into Weather Report.

And oh, the stories I could tell about the here and now driving people around the city to the sounds of Herbie Hancock.

It's been like a rejuvenation of my brain these last 18 months.

My ever-growing, very eclectic playlist is called Jazzhole.

Because I'm sometimes still a 15-year-old boy.

12 January 2021

Rolling With It: 2020 in Review


In “The End is Near,” my year-end wrap-up for 2019, I noted, “I ended my review of 2018 with a note that ‘2019 will be the year I just roll with it. I’ll try to take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way and see what happens.’

Includes my story
Final Reunion”
“That worked out well, so I’m going to approach 2020 the same way. A year from now I’ll let you know how it worked out.”

As it turns out, “rolling with it” was the only way to approach 2020. The pandemic threw a monkey wrench into every plan I had or might have considered making. Though Temple and I fared better than many others, my annual income dropped by several thousand dollars. Luckily, her income remained constant, and the money we saved from the cancellation of Malice Domestic and Bouchercon’s conversion to a virtual conference, combined with some belt-tightening, allowed us to end the year no worse off financially than when it started. So, even though we missed spending time with our friends in the writing community, we survived.

NEW WRITING

I previously wrote about the significant increase in my editing workload during 2020 (“Once More, With Feeling”), so I’ll concentrate on how my writing fared this past year.

I completed 104,196 words of new fiction (up from 67,200 in 2019). That’s 26 new stories (up from 14 the previous year), with an average length of 4,008 words.

The shortest was 136 words; the longest 15,000.

The 15,000-word story was the longest solo project I’ve written in decades.

ACCEPTED, PUBLISHED, AND RECOGNIZED

I received 37 acceptances (25 original stories; 12 reprints), up from 16 in 2019. Being an editor has its advantages because four of the year’s acceptances were for projects I’m editing or co-editing.

I saw 38 stories published (18 originals and 20 reprints).

My story “Love, Or Something Like It,” published the previous year in Barb Goffman’s Anthony Award-nominated anthology Crime Travel (Wildside Press), was short-listed for a Derringer Award and “The Town Where Money Grew On Trees,” published November 5, 2019, in Rusty Barnes’s Tough was selected as an “Other Distinguished Story of 2019” in The Best American Mystery Stories. Additionally, my stories “Dirty Laundry” (Tough, April 20, 2020) and “Woodstock” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, November/December 2020) made Robert Lopresti’s “best mystery story [...] read this week” at Little Big Crimes.

REJECTIONS

I once wrote that any year in which acceptances outnumber rejections is a good year, but is a year in which rejections outnumber acceptances necessarily a bad year? It might mean I’m doing a poor job of targeting my submissions or, on the flip side, it might mean I’m stretching myself by targeting new markets or by submitting more to high-end markets.

Regardless, even though it felt as if I received more rejections that I did, I actually received more acceptances than rejections.

I received 23 rejections.

LOOKING AHEAD

I have stories forthcoming in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Bullets and Other Hurting Things, Close to the Bone, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Great Filling Station Holdup, Guns + Tacos (Season 3), Jukes & Tonks, Malice Domestic 16: Mystery Most Diabolical, Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir Vol. 2, Mystery Tribune, Only the Good Die Young, and Unnerving.




There’s a taco truck in Chicago known among a certain segment of the population for its daily specials. Late at night and during the wee hours of the morning, it isn’t the food selection that attracts customers, it's the illegal weapons available with the special order.

Season 2 of Guns + Tacos (released as stand-alone novellas during the last six months of 2020) was released as a pair of paperbacks on January 1, joining the Season 1 paperbacks released at the beginning of 2020. Each novella stands alone, so they can be read in any order, and subscribers to the series get a bonus story at the end of each season.

Vol. 1 features novellas by Gary Phillips, me, and Frank Zafiro

Vol. 2 features novellas by Trey R. Barker, William Dylan Powell, and James A. Hearn (Subscribers get a bonus story I wrote)

Vol. 3 features novellas by Eric Beetner, Trey R. Barker & me, and Alec Cizak

Vol. 4 features novellas by Ann Aptaker, Ryan Sayles, and Mark Troy (Subscribers get a bonus story Trey R. Barker wrote)

Order directly from Down & Out Books or from your favorite book retailer.