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

07 July 2018

Unsung Heroes

by John M. Floyd

Today I'd like to talk about two deceased writers whose stories still delight and inspire me. One of these authors I heard about from an agent I had long ago and the other I discovered when I happened to stumble across one of his stories in an anthology. Both wrote mostly short fiction and were widely published, but almost no one seems to know their names.

The first is Jack Ritchie (born John George Reitci, in 1922, the son of a Milwaukee tailor). Over a period of 35 years Ritchie wrote and published almost 500 short stories, almost all of them mystery/crime/suspense tales, and--like O. Henry--his endings often had a diabolical twist. His fiction appeared regularly in Manhunt, Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine, The New York Daily News, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and many other publications. (He once had two stories in the same issue of AHMM.)

The only book I own by Mr. Ritchie is Little Boxes of Bewilderment, a collection of 31 of his stories--but I think I've found and read most of the stories that he published. As I've said, a lot of them were featured in mystery magazines, but many can also be found in anthologies, including more than fifty Alfred Hitchcock anthos.

One of Ritchie's stories, "The Green Heart," was adapted into the feature film A New Leaf, starring Walter Matthau and Elaine May, and another of his stories, "The Absence of Emily," has been filmed twice and won the Edgar Award in 1982. Several of his stories were also adapted for TV series iike Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of the Unexpected.

I actually have a connection, of sorts, to Jack Ritchie. His longtime agent, Larry Sternig, was also my agent for several years, until Larry's death in the late 90s. He was one of that rare breed of literary agents who represented short stories, and was in many ways a mentor to me back when I was just getting started in all this. (Larry once told me he talked Robert Bloch, another Milwaukee native, into writing Psycho.) Soon after agreeing to represent my stories, Larry said to me, "One of the things you should do to become a better writer is to read the stories of a guy named Jack Ritchie," and he mailed me two of Ritchie's collections, with an additional note telling me to send them back to him when I was done. I binge-read them both and returned them as requested, and it was only years later that I located a copy of Little Boxes of Bewilderment on Amazon and snapped it up. Ritchie's collections--and his only novel, Tiger Island--are mostly out of print and hard to find.

The other short-story writer I dearly love to read--and whose work has taught me a lot--is Fredric Brown. I had no idea who he was before finding one of his stories, "Voodoo," in an anthology years ago. That story, like many of Brown's, is only about 300 words in length--but it's brilliant.

Fredric Brown was born in Cincinnati in 1906, the son of a newspaperman, and worked as a journalist himself for most of his career. He wrote many novels and hundreds of short stories, and--oddly enough--his work was almost equally divided between mystery and science fiction. (His first novel, The Fabulous Clipjoint, won an Edgar Award in 1948.) I own several collections of his, including Miss Darkness (31 mystery/suspense stories), From These Ashes (116 science fiction and fantasy stories), and Nightmares and Geezenstacks (47 short-short stories, which Stephen King called a "particularly important work"). Interesting note: Brown seemed fond of punnish titles, like "Nothing Sirius," "A Little White Lye," and "Pi in the Sky."

Fred Brown's short story "Arena" was used as the basis for the episode of the same name in the original series of Star Trek, and was voted by Science Fiction Writers of America as one of the top twenty SF stories written before 1965. His short story "Naturally" was adapted into Geometrics, a short film by director Guillermo del Toro, and another story, "The Last Martian," was adapted into "Human Interest Story," an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. His novel The Screaming Mimi became a 1958 movie starring Anita Ekberg and Gypsy Rose Lee.

These two writers had one thing in common, besides their love of the short form and their talent with mystery/crime stories: both had a minimalist style that was long on dialogue and humor and short on exposition and description, and almost always included surprise endings. In their stories, things started out fast and never slowed down. I love that.

If you're interested in trying new authors, here's a list of some of my favorites stories by these two writers:

Jack Ritchie:

Shatter Proof
Traveler's Check
The Absence of Emily
The Green Heart
For All the Rude People
Play a Game of Cyanide
The Best Driver in the County
Memory Test
Number Eight

Fredric Brown:

Nightmare in Yellow
The Laughing Butcher
A Little White Lye
The Arena
Placet Is a Crazy Place

I encourage you to find some of these stories--reading them won't take long. I think you'll like their authors.

02 December 2015

Caching in on Uncle Victor

This is a somewhat convoluted tale about an old form of entertainment meeting up with a much newer one.

Back in the 1990s there was a publication called Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine. I used to write a column called FYI in every issue which allowed me to say anything I wanted as long as it was related to mystery fiction. Call it rehearsal for the blogging I have been doing for so many Wednesdays.

I also created my first series character there. Uncle Victor was inspired by Mario Puzo's The Godfather, Robert Graves' I, Claudius, and Jack Ritchie's Henry Turnbuckle stories.

You see, Victor was an elderly and eccentric member of an organized crime family. Like Claudius, he survived in his murderous clan because no one took him seriously enough to kill him. His brother, the actual crime boss, told his son on his death bed, "Take care of Victor. God knows he needs it."

Benny, the son and new boss, is not a nice man, and he doesn't like his uncle. But he wants to make a lot of changes in the business and so, to please the traditionalists, he has to honor his father's dying words. When Uncle Victor decides to become a private eye Benny pulls strings to get him a license. Alas, Victor's main qualification, like that of Henry Turnbuckle, Jack Ritchie's police detective, is totally unjustified self-confidence.

I wrote a bunch of stories about this gentleman and then Murderous Intent went out of business and I moved on to other subjects. But naturally I included the stories in my online bibliography.

And that's where things remained earlier this year when I heard from some geocachers. Do you know about geocaching? I first learned about it from Maphead, Ken Jennings wonderful book about people who obsess about geography.

Here is a definition, from

Geocaching is a real-world, outdoor treasure hunting game using GPS-enabled devices. Participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find the geocache (container) hidden at that location.

The geocachers who contacted me were Kathleen and Bob Loose (and like the fictional Henry Turnbuckle, they are residents of Milwaukee). Their nom de cache is Team~DNF (DNF stands for Did Not Find, a signal that either the hider or the finder went wrong).

And now I will let Kathleen Loose explain why they wrote to me, and what happened next. With her permission I have done a little editing.

Geocachers hunting for Uncle Victor
A team of geogcachers searching for Uncle Victor
Where do the ideas for a geocache come from? They can come from anywhere. Often a geocacher may find a geocache that is different and it inspires them to use a similar technique. That was the case for Team~DNF with Cache GC5XM0N. We had discovered the possible use of ultraviolet paint as part of a cache we attempted in Arizona. Upon returning home, we determined that there weren't any UV caches hidden in our area. We decided to change that and began to brainstorm ideas for possible caches incorporating UV paint/light.

We settled on making our next hide a two stage cache with the UV light needed to get the coordinates for the second (final) stage where the log would be hidden. We tested materials to use for the first stage. Our plan was taking shape. Besides the physical items for the first stage and the cache container for the final, the cache page was needed. Most geocachers try to make the cache pages for their hides interesting, intriguing and inviting to encourage fellow geocachers to go out and find them. We brainstormed ideas for working "UV" into the cache title and cache page ... besides listing the geocache attribute "UV light required". We tossed around word combinations using "U" and "V" starting with the military "Uniform" "Victor" which quickly morphed into "Uncle Victor". We then searched the web and found that "Uncle Victor" was the featured detective in a series of stories by Robert Lopresti.

Finding the first stage
Being a detective is what geocaching is all about. "Uncle Victor's First Case" sure sounded like a good cache title for this first UV hide. Mrs. DNF, figuring nothing ventured, nothing gained, decided to contact the author to see if there might be a way to weave the story in to the cache page. After receiving and reading the story, it seemed clear to Team~DNF that there was a good fit. They enjoyed working with Rob to get the cache page ready for publication. We hope that geocachers who find the first page of the story in our cache will finish the story by visiting Rob's website.

There were a few set backs in placing the cache. The initial location attempts ended up being unsuitable due to several mystery (puzzle) caches hidden closer than the minimum 528' distance between cache hides. A new location was found that met the hide requirements and the cache was published on August 1, 2015. The FTF (first to find) was claimed on August 2.

The successful hunters: Silyngufy, Mewwi101,
Ranger Boy and Ranger Rob, and Mrs DNF
While many in the geocaching community looked at the cache page, no one else was attempting a find. This may have been due in part to an intense competition going on involving many of the very active Milwaukee area geocachers during the time the cache was released. This competition ended in mid-October. After confirming the competition was over, Mrs. DNF decided to put in a plug on the local geocaching community's facebook page on October 18th. In the following days there was positive discussion and one geocacher decided to organize a hunt for Friday Oct 23 at 9:00 AM. Mrs. DNF was also available during that time, so she tagged along with the group of four as they hunted the geocache. Everyone had a good time and two of the four even gave the cache a favorite point.

As for Team~DNF, they are working on more ideas for geocache hides involving UV light and increasing their geocache find count.

19 September 2020

Who Are Those Short People?

A few weeks ago I did a column here about obscure movies. The point was, all of us have seen good movies that everybody knows about, but there are some good ones that almost nobody's heard of--and those can be fun to find and watch.

The same goes for short stories, and their authors. Just as we're familiar with the names of famous novelists, a lot of us also know the names of famous short-story writers: Chekhov, Munro, Cheever, Bradbury, O'Connor, Poe, Welty, Doyle, Saki, Twain, Hoch, Dahl, Serling, Asimov, Jackson, Kafka, Joyce, Carver, Oates, O. Henry, Lovecraft, Baldwin, Ellison, etc. (And yes, most of them are famous for novels as well.)

But . . . there are some lesser-known writers of shorts who I believe were equally as talented. Here are a few I happened to discover, later in my writing life than I would've hoped.

Richard Matheson -- A master storyteller, and one of the writers (along with Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, Earl Hamner, and others) for the original Twilight Zone. I first became award of Matheson when I found out he wrote the book that became the movie Somewhere in Time (which, God help me, I still love). I have here on my shelves two collections of Matheson's stories: Duel and Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. The title stories of those two books are among my favorites. Others are "Steel," "Prey," and "Third from the Sun."

Jack Ritchie -- My favorite short-story writer, period. He wrote many, many stories for EQMM and AHMM. I have only one of his story collections--Little Boxes of Bewilderment--but only because they're extremely hard to find. Some of my Ritchie favorites: "The Absence of Emily," "Traveler's Check," "The Green Heart" (adapted into the movie A New Leaf), "Shatter Proof," "The Operator," "Play a Game of Cyanide."

Augusto Monterroso -- A Honduran writer who, like Ritchie, wrote only one novel. Everything else was short stories, some of them flash-length and some of them humorous. Here are a few that I think are worth finding and reading: "The Eclipse," "The Outdoor Poet," "Dinosaur," and "Mister Taylor."

Cornell Woolrich -- A great writer who led an incredibly sad life. Known mostly for the movie Rear Window, which was adapted from his short story "It Had to be Murder." He also wrote many novels that were made into movies. I own one of his story collections, Night & Fear, but loaned it out years ago. (If the guy who "borrowed" it is reading this, may the fleas of a thousand camels infest your Fruit of the Looms.) My favorites, of Woolrich's stories: "New York Blues," "Detective William Brown," "For the Rest of Her Life," "Endicott's Girl."

John Collier -- A British novelist, Collier is best known for his short fiction, much of which is witty, dark, and full of plot twists. He wrote or contributed to a number of screenplays, and more than a dozen of his stories have been adapted for TV, radio, and film. I have only one collection of Collier shorts--Fancies and Goodnights--but the stories in it are wonderful. My favorites: "De Mortuis," "Youth from Vienna," "Over Insurance," "Bottle Party," "Squirrels Have Bright Eyes."

Charles Beaumont -- An author of mostly short science fiction and horror stories, and another of the many writers of episodes for the original Twilight Zone. He wrote only a couple of novels, early in his career, but wrote a lot of screenplays, including 7 Faces of Dr. Lao and The Masque of the Red Death. I have one of his short-story collections--Perchance to Dream--and I've enjoyed every story of his that I've read. Favorites: "The Jungle," "The Beautiful People," "The Howling Man," "Night Ride."

Fredric Brown -- My second-favorite short-story writer. Brown's story output was almost all crime and science fiction. Among other things, he was a master at what's now called flash fiction, and he wrote several novels that later became movies. I own three of his collections--From These Ashes, Miss Darkness, and Nightmares and Geezenstacks. I think his standouts are "Arena," "Nightmare in Yellow," "Voodoo," "Rebound," and "The Laughing Butcher." I'm always amazed that so few readers know about this writer.

Have any of you read these seven authors? If so, what do you think of their stories, style, etc.?

NOTE: Two years ago I posted a SleuthSayers column about both Ritchie and Brown, in case you want to know more about them.

Changing the subject, here– If you're interested in reading some excellent lesser-known short stories by the better-known writers, here are my suggestions:

"The Last Rung on the Ladder," Stephen King
"Never Stop on the Motorway," Jeffrey Archer
"Strangers on a Handball Court," Lawrence Block
"The Last Night of the World," Ray Bradbury
"The Blood Bay," Annie Proulx
"Torch Song," John Cheever
"Dead Man," James M. Cain
"Fetching Raymond," John Grisham
"A Retrieved Reformation," O. Henry
"Perfect Timing," Bill Pronzini
"Not a Drill," Lee Child
"Carrera's Woman," Ed McBain
"Survival Week," James W. Hall
"Poison," Roald Dahl
"Come Dance with me in Ireland," Shirley Jackson
"The Last Good Country," Ernest Hemingway
"A Happy Man," Anton Chekhov
"Running Out of Dog," Dennis Lehane
"A&P," John Updike
"The Mule Rustlers," Joe R. Lansdale
"Tenkiller," Elmore Leonard

I can't finish a discussion like this without mentioning the many other short-story writers whose work regularly appears in magazines like AHMM, EQMM, BCMM, Strand, etc. I won't try to list them because I would probably leave someone out, but many of those fellow writers (and friends) are famous as well, and some have oatbags right here in the SleuthSayers stable. I hope you're already reading their stories.

In closing, who are some of your favorites short-story authors, known and unknown? (And some stories to point us to?)

Keep writing, and be safe.

17 June 2017

Talk/Don't Talk

Everybody seems to like dialogue. It can do a lot of things for a story, writingwise: advance the plot, deepen characterization, "show" rather than "tell," improve the pacing, etc. Besides, its just fun to read. I think it was Lawrence Block who said nothing engages a reader like listening to the people in a story talking things over.

It's also fun to write. And it's easier to write, I think, than plain old description and exposition, because when my characters speak I can hear them in my head.
Enrolling in discourse

The truth is, most of my short stories are heavy on dialogue. I've even begun a few of them with the intention of writing the whole thing in nothing but dialogue. One such story, "Careers," was published in AHMM years ago and another, "Doctor's Orders," at Amazon Shorts--the first was 1000 words in length, the second 6000--and I can still remember the fun I had writing those. It'll probably be no surprise to you when I say that many of my favorite genre writers--Harlan Coben, Joe Lansdale, Nelson DeMille, Stephen King, Lee Child, Greg Iles, Janet Evanovich, Steve Hamilton, Carl Hiaasen, Robert B. Parker, Jack Ritchie, Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake--are/were absolute wizards in the use of dialogue.

Some movies that are almost all-dialogue come to mind: Sleuth, Twelve Angry Men, The Hateful Eight, Proof, The Breakfast Club, and Glengarry Glen Ross, to name only a few. Several of these were originally plays, which makes sense.

BUT . . .

(You knew there had to be a but in there somewhere, right?)

. . . there are also some well-known stories that don't include much--or any--dialogue.

Personally, I've only created a few (none of them well-known) that are seriously short on dialogue. One of my stories, "Bennigan's Key," a 5000-worder published a few years ago in The Strand Magazine, has no dialogue at all. But since it was prose, I was at least able to use unspoken thoughts (sometimes called "internal monologue"). The same could be said about Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire."

The sound of silence

In movies, the no-dialogue approach is harder to pull off. After all, a screenwriter can't tell you what the characters are thinking. He or she has only two ways to convey information to the audience: action and speech. And if no one's speaking . . .

Even so, here are some excellent films that contain little or no dialogue: Life of Pi, Quest for Fire, The Bear, Cast Away, GravityAll Is Lost, The Revenant, Apocalypto, Walkabout, and The Gods Must Be Crazy.

One of those--All is Lost, a 2013 film with Robert Redford as a lone seaman who battles the elements--contains only one spoken word: a common and graphic expletive, uttered after a frustrating setback. And despite the fact that nothing else is said during its almost-two-hour run, the movie manages to hold the attention of the audience throughout. An impressive feat.

NOTE: It occurred to me only after jotting down those little-or-no-dialogue movies that all ten of them involve characters who spend the whole story walking around (or running around or floating around) in the Great Outdoors. I suppose a lot needs to be happening around them, to have any kind of interesting plotline.

Speaking your mind

Can you think of other movies, or stories or novels, that tell the entire tale using no dialogue? If you're a writer, have you published anything written that way? How hard was that to do? Have you written any plays, or other kinds of fiction, that use almost nothing but dialogue? If you had to pick one of the two extremes--all or none--which would you prefer?

"Let's hear it for a lot of talking," Dialogue Dude says.

Quiet Dude makes no reply…

17 September 2011

Plots and Plans

by John M. Floyd
32/365 The Idea Machine
Welcome to SleuthSayers!

My name’s John Floyd, I live in Mississippi, my wife and I have three grown kids, and I write mystery stories. Writing is actually my second career—IBM was my first, and as Clint Eastwood said after the final gunfight in Unforgiven, I was lucky in the order. If I had discovered my love for writing when I was twenty years old, my family would probably have starved.

I’d like to begin by making something clear: I’m not writing this first column at our new blog because I’m the best choice for that. I’m writing it because for almost four years I wrote the Saturday column at the Criminal Brief blog, and since we contributors to CB are finally turning in our badges and guns, and since several of us are migrating here from that site, and since today is Saturday… well, you get the picture. I’ll be alternating Saturdays with my friend Elizabeth Zelvin, who writes wonderful mysteries.

By the way, this is a blog for both readers and writers. Mostly readers and writers of mystery/crime/suspense. And when someone asks me what I enjoy most about the writing process, the answer is an easy one, because it’s also what I enjoy most about reading. It’s the plot.

Spin Me a Web

To me, coming up with the plot of a story is more fun than everything else put together. I don’t deny that characterization and description—and all those other things that you must do well to be a successful writer—are important. Of course they’re important. Without them your piece of fiction isn’t interesting and it isn’t marketable. But I think the pure enjoyment of weaving a good plot, one that’s suspenseful and believable and entertaining… well, that can’t be beat.

Since I write mostly short stories, much of that plotting is done ahead of time, in my head, before the first word of the story is put on paper. Is that outlining? Probably so—at least mental outlining. And what I’ve outlined sometimes changes once the writing starts. But to me, some measure of before-the-fact brainstorming is not only necessary, it’s fun.

My story process consists of three steps: planning, writing, and rewriting. For a typical short story, the research and planning (pre-plotting?) phase probably takes the longest, maybe a couple weeks; the writing of the first draft might take a day or so; and the rewriting and editing can take another few days, or as long as a week or two. These times are directly proportional to the length of the story. Then I let my wife read it, I incorporate (or not) her ideas, and I mail it off into the great beyond. And then I start on another one. I’ve gone through that cycle so many times it’s as natural as climbing out of bed in the morning.

Teachable Moments

I hope I’ve done it enough that by now I know what I’m doing. But anytime I start patting myself on the back, anytime I even begin to think I’ve mastered the art of plotting a mystery story, I think of the last time I read a novel by Nelson DeMille or Harlan Coben, or Block or King or Lippman or Deaver or Sandford—or the last time I read a short story by someone like Jack Ritchie, Bill Pronzini, Roald Dahl, Ed Hoch, or Fredrick Brown. These folks are, to use the current catchphrase, amazing. Their expertise in creating compelling plots can inspire amateurs and veterans alike. Read them and learn.

I also like the way great authors incorporate plot twists, not only at the end of a story but in the middle. Read a novel by Lee Child, for example. You might think you know what Jack Reacher will try next, and you might think the story will turn out a certain way, but at least two or three times during the book, the plot does a one-eighty and takes you in a completely different direction. Child’s talent for that kind of reversal, for keeping the reader off-balance, is one of the many reasons he’s so successful, and so enjoyable to read.

Fun and Games

I think most of us agree that a mystery (novel or short story) is essentially a puzzle. The writer is presenting the reader with a question to be answered, a puzzle to be solved, a situation in which a likeable character (cop, PI, ordinary Joe, whatever) faces a difficult problem. And the writer’s job is to somehow solve that problem for the character, and thus for the reader, in a way that is (1) satisfying and (2) unexpected. That’s not as easy at it sounds, and it’s always a challenge—and a thrill—to find a way to steadily build the tension and make things eventually “turn out right.

I love all kinds of puzzles, and I think almost anyone who likes puzzles also enjoys reading mysteries. And I think anyone who doesn’t like puzzles shouldn’t try to write one. He probably wouldn’t even want to.

Tell Me a Story

A quick word on the old argument about whether plot is more important than characterization, or vice versa. Both—obviously—are vital ingredients of good fiction. But I’m always amused when I hear fellow writers say, “Don’t worry about the plot. Just choose interesting characters and then give them something to do.” Well, here’s a news flash: What they do is the plot.

I like the following quote from Secret Windows, a collection of essays by Stephen King:
“All my life as a writer I have been committed to the idea that in fiction the story value holds dominance over every other facet of the writer’s craft; characterization, theme, mood, none of those things is anything if the story is dull. And if the story does hold you, all else is forgiven.”
I wish I’d said that myself.

21 July 2018

Full Disclosure

by John M. Floyd

One of my former students asked me a good question the other day. It was a question I've heard before--all writers have--but it's still an interesting one: How much backstory should I include in my work?

As it turned out, she was asking about short fiction, and that's a whole different animal, but the answer's the same. My take is, you should include enough backstory to explain to the reader why your characters might later act the way they do. Sometimes it's a lot and sometimes it's not. Done well, backstory can give depth to the characters and make the plot more believable and strengthen the reader's connection to the story. Done poorly, it's a prime example of telling instead of showing.

My favorite definition of backstory comes from Story author Robert McKee. He says it's "an oft-misunderstood term. It doesn't mean life history or biography. Backstory is the set of significant events that occurred in the characters' past that the writer can use to build his story's progression."

Spelling it out

If you want to see backstory galore, read almost anything written by almost any old-time author--Daniel Defoe and Edgar Rice Burroughs come to mind. Not only was there a ton of backstory, it often happened at the very beginning of the tale--something contemporary writers are warned not to do. (Remember the first chapter of Hawaii?) But that was a different era, with very few things competing for one's time and attention. A reader was more apt to hang in there and wade through pages and even entire chapters of a character's (or a setting's) history before anything really happened. Today, it's a good idea to have the dinosaur eat one of the scientists on the first page.

(Maybe it's a sign of the times. When my 92-year-old mother meets someone, she likes to know (beforehand, if possible) where he's from, who his parents were, where his parents were from, and what church he attends. Folks of my generation, and certainly of our children's, don't worry about all that. Just the facts, ma'am.)

While there are many, many authors who prepare and forewarn readers with a lot of character history (the first page of The Great Gatsby was almost all backstory), I can also think of many who don't. My most recent SleuthSayers column discussed two of these. The late Fredric Brown and Jack Ritchie both had a spare and straightforward style that included almost nonstop action and not much exposition or description (or backstory). For them, that worked well. Also, of course, they were short-fiction writers as well as novelists--Ritchie wrote almost nothing but short stories--and most shorts don't need much in the way of backstory.

Motivation, anyone?

How much, one might well ask, DO short stories need? And I think the answer's still the same: enough to make it clear why folks later take the actions they do. If your protagonist experienced a traumatic event during her childhood, or has lived his entire life in an Eskimo village, or recently won the state lottery, or lost both legs in Desert Storm, or was just released from a mental institution, etc., those things are important to the story. They influence the way that character thinks and acts and reacts in certain situations. (And this goes for the antagonist as well as the hero.)

Again, though, this doesn't have to be revealed in an information dump at the beginning. It can be filtered in later, when needed, as a part of the narrative or via dialogue. A question from one character to another, like "How's Joe doing, since his wife passed away?" can be considered a piece of backstory.

One more thing: properly-timed backstory can be one of the tools that allows the writer to increase the suspense of the plot.

True confessions

That student I mentioned earlier also asked me how much backstory I use in my own stories, and cornered me a bit when she suggested I give her some examples. Before sending those to her, I pulled out my story file and did some quick research, and what I found surprised me a bit. Most of the recent stories I've written that somehow went on to achieve at least a bit of after-the-fact recognition did include backstory.

Some of the examples I gave her, from my own creations:

"Dentonville," a story that appeared in EQMM and won a Derringer Award, featured a full page of narrative backstory about the main character, although not at the beginning of the story. First, I introduced the three main characters and got the plot going. (And while one page doesn't sound like much, it amounted to about five percent of the story.)

"Molly's Plan," written for The Strand Magazine and later chosen for Best American Mystery Stories' 2015 edition, included maybe half a page of detailed narrative backstory about the two main characters--and pretty early in the story.

"200 Feet," another Strand story--it got nominated for an Edgar that same year--had a fair amount of backstory, but all of it was injected via dialogue between the two lead characters throughout the first half of the piece.

"Driver," yet another Strand story that won a Derringer and was shortlisted for B.A.M.S., crammed all of its backstory into the opening two pages, as soon as the three main characters were introduced, and it was mostly revealed through their dialogue.

"Gun Work," which appeared in Coast to Coast: Private Eyes last year and is upcoming in Best American Mystery Stories' 2018 edition, included substantial backstory about its protagonist, but this was sifted in through both dialogue and exposition throughout the story.

But, having said that, I've also had several earlier stories (four shortlisted for B.A.M.S., one Derringer winner, and two nominated for the Pushcart Prize) that included no backstory at all. What the reader saw onscreen, happening right then, was all he got.

One size seldom fits all

Bottom line is, I think backstory can be useful but isn't always necessary. Too little can be confusing and too much can be boring. Because of all that, this whole discussion is one of the more subjective issues in writing fiction, and especially short fiction.

What are your thoughts on backstory, in both novels and shorts? Do you find it difficult to write? Tedious to read? Do you welcome it because of the clarity it provides? Do you think editors do? Any examples from your own works, or the works of others?

Speak up--don't be shy.  Full disclosure!

07 December 2013

Grand Theft Litto

by John M. Floyd

One of the things beginning writers seem to worry a lot about is that their stories might be stolen by the editors who receive and read their submissions. Because of that, we usually spend some time in each of my writing courses talking about it, along with the inevitable discussions of copyright, lawsuits, etc. The truth is, it's rarely a problem. I tell my students that editors of respectable publications aren't going to steal your work; worry instead about getting them to buy your work. (Editors of fly-by-night publications probably won't steal it either, but you shouldn't be sending stories to them anyhow.)

The folks who do the stealing are other writers. Even this, though, isn't a cause for concern. Most writers don't steal stories--they steal ideas, and they steal those from stories that have already been published.

Hands up, and back away from the register . . .

It's a fact: all authors, eventually and to some degree, steal ideas from other authors' work. I'm not referring to plagiarism here, or anything overly obvious. I'm talking about reading something by another writer and thinking Whoa, that's a great clue, or an interesting style, or a clever twist--and finding a way to include a version of that in what you're planning for your next story or novel. (It's one of the many reasons that good writers are avid readers as well.) The source of this ripe-for-the-picking idea might bear little resemblance to the final result, but that's okay too. The important thing is, it served as a catalyst. As an inspiration.

In movies, plot theft is done all the time, either subtlely or blatantly, and if you watch enough of them you can pick it out. I knew immediately that Pale Rider was a thinly disguised rehash of Shane, and everyone knows that The Magnificent Seven came from The Seven Samurai. The list goes on and on: The Shop Around the Corner/You've Got Mail, Battle Royale/The Hunger Games, Big/13 Going on 30, Yojimbo/A Fistful of Dollars/Last Man Standing, The Innocents/The Others, Turner & Hooch/K-9, Dances With Wolves/The Last Samurai/Avatar, Here comes Mr. Jordan/Heaven Can Wait, etc. Some of these were authorized remakes and others were just similar. Either way, the plots were recycled, and in a few cases produced as good a result, or better, the second or third time around.

Examples closer to home

In one of my stories, "The Powder Room" (the title refers to an explosives bunker, not a ladies' comfort station), I took an idea that I'd seen in a Jack Ritchie short story years ago and turned it around a bit to suit my purposes. In the Ritchie story a good guy who was about to be murdered secretly placed a wine glass bearing the bad guy's fingerprints into a safe as a way to make sure the holder of the glass didn't go through with the hit. Sort of a reverse blackmail. In my story I had the hero snap a photo of the villain and then put the camera into a vault with a time-lock. I also added a lot more twists to the story, but the threat of the "insurance" in the safe was an important plot point. The resulting story was accepted by AHMM and was later listed in Best American Mystery Stories as one of the "Distinguished Stories of 2009."

In another tale, I used an escape method that I'd once read about in the William Mulvihill novel The Sands of Kalahari. In that book, a murderer had been captured by a band of good guys in the middle of nowhere, and--being good guys--they decided to imprison him rather than kill him. Their makeshift jail was a deep stone pit with smooth, unclimbable sides. The problem was, it rained all that night, and the next morning they discovered that the runoff from the mountains had filled the pit with muddy water. Too bad, they thought--he's drowned. But he hadn't. They later found the pit empty. The captive had simply treaded water until the level rose high enough for him to climb out. One of my characters did the same kind of thing in my story "The Messenger," which first appeared in the magazine Futures, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and was reprinted four times in other publications.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should reiterate that both those stories were bridesmaids instead of brides. The first one was only listed in the Best Mysteries anthology; it wasn't one of the featured stories. And the second one was nominated; it didn't win. Oh well . . .)

Picky, picky

A basic part of this "acceptable" literary theft is that you don't steal the whole story--that would be at worst illegal and unethical and at best unoriginal (as well as stupid). What you do is, you pick out a small part that fascinates you and then weave that idea into an idea of your own. I recently read a Carl Hiaasen novel in which a voodoo queen put a curse on someone but accidentally evil-eyed the wrong person. It was only a tiny part of a subplot, but it got me to thinking. I wound up moving the setting from the Florida Keys to New Orleans, and changed a bunch of things about the hexer and the hexed and the motive and the process, and added some reversals here and there, and came up with what I think is a neat little mystery story. Whether it gets published is another matter, but I did the best I could.

This kind of copying/imitation/larceny can also be less specific. Maybe your inspiration is James Lee Burke's beautifully descriptive settings, or Janet Evanovich's constant use of action verbs, or Robert Parker's nonstop dialogue, or Lee Child's "slowing down" of action scenes to tell the reader exactly what the hero is thinking during the fights, or Harlan Coben's double and triple plot twists, or Kathryn Stockett's use of dialect without phonetic (mis)spellings, or Stephen King's fondness for using brand names for products and using children as protagonists. These ultra-talented authors, by the way, are particularly good candidates to steal from. Pickpockets don't go to the poor side of town; they hang around the country club and the opera house and the financial district.

Masters of fine arts

In closing, I should mention that the premise of Ronald Tobias's outstanding book 20 Master Plots is that every plot in existence is just a variation of one of those twenty. What you write is almost always a different take on an already-used idea. You're just writing it in your own words.

What are your views on all this? Do you find yourself getting story ideas from what you read, or see in movies? Have you ever taken someone else's plot structures, description methods, themes, quirky POVs, dialogue techniques, etc., and remodeled them to come up with your own versions? How far do you go with something like that? How far is too far?

I once heard that it's okay to steal others' ideas as long as you don't steal others' expressions of those ideas. I like that. Another observation that I recall, from someplace: Stealing ideas is an art, and stealing them well is a fine art.

I think it was T. S. Eliot who said, "Mediocre writers borrow. Great writers steal."

Go thou and do likewise.

17 February 2021

Brand New Cliches


Yesterday the March/April issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine hit the newsstand, assuming such institutions still exist.  I am delighted to be making my 33rd appearance in those distinguished pages.  "Shanks' Locked Room" is the eleventh showing there by my grumpy crime writer, so he stars in one-third of my tales  in that market.

You may notice the "locked room" in the title.  It is a subgenre of the mystery story, of course, going all the way back to the very first: Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue."  I thought it might be fun to play around with the old gimmick and I wound up turning it inside out.  The puzzle Shanks has to solve is not "how did the villain get into a room without a key?" but "why did the villain steal the key and not enter the room?"

I enjoy turning a cliche around.  I had written what I thought would be a follow-up called "Shanks' Last Words," involving the famous dying-message clue, but it turned out that technology had gotten ahead of me and made my story outdated.  Such is life.

One master of the upturned cliche was Jack Ritchie, a genius of the comic short story whom John Floyd and I have praised to the sky on this page.  He wrote a book about Henry Turnbuckle, a Milwaukee police detective.  Henry loved mystery fiction and was constantly being disappointed that reality cruelly ignored the cliches and motifs of the field.

For example, in one story two of the suspects are identical twins.  Alas,  in violation of every rule of mystery fiction that turns out to have nothing to do with the solution.  In another tale Henry gathers all the suspects and dramatically reveals the killer - only to have the suspects point out a fatal flaw in his logic, which involved a fact no one had bothered to mention to him.  Why is it in crime fiction the detective always gets all the necessary information?  Doesn't happen in real life.  

 By coincidence I was reading a story today and gave up on it because it stuck to a very tired cliche: The villain was about to kill the hero but first gave him a detailed explanation of his plan, and damned near a blueprint of the house where he was being held.  

This peculiar generosity on the part of some bad guys was brilliantly skewered in the movie Austin Powers.  

So, which cliches of the field bug you the most?

14 December 2019

The Absence of Emily

by Robert Lopresti

John Floyd and I have both  said before that Jack Ritchie was one of the greatest writers of short humorous mysteries.  I just discovered that his Edgar-winning story "The Absence of Emily" was adapted into an episode of the British TV series Tales of the Unexpected.  And here it is!

02 May 2015

Pace Yourself

In his book Story, screenwriting teacher Robert McKee says:

"Because a story is a metaphor for life, we expect it to feel like life, to have the rhythm of life. This rhythm beats between two contradictory desires: On one hand, we desire serenity, harmony, peace, and relaxation, but too much of this day after day and we become bored to the point of ennui, and need therapy. As a result, we also desire challenges, tension, danger, even fear. But too much of this day after day and again we end up in the rubber room. So the rhythm of life swings between these poles."

We all know that in a short story or a novel, the proper pacing is vital to its success. And in the case of mystery/crime fiction, the pace has to be fast. Nobody likes being bored, and nothing is so boring to a reader as a story that drags along and doesn't do something.

Ideally, this building of suspense has to happen throughout the narrative. A good, exciting opening is always important, but the challenge is then to keep up that pace afterward as well. Personally, I'd almost rather read a story or novel that starts slowly than one that starts strong and then bogs down in the middle; if it has a poor beginning I can at least stop reading sooner. As I've said before, there are too many good books and stories and movies out there for me to waste my time reading one or watching one that doesn't hold my interest.

So yes, good pacing is essential. But--as the little boy said to the magician--how do you do it?

At the risk of oversimplifying, here are three ways that we writers can control the pacing of our fiction.

1. Style

- Dialogue speeds things up; description slows them down

- Short, simple sentences speed things up; long, complex sentences slow them down (think Hemingway vs. Faulkner)

- Action verbs speed things up (sprinting vs. running, slamming vs. closing, gulping vs. eating, stomping vs. walking)

- The overuse of certain kinds of punctuation (commas, ellipses, parentheses, etc.) slows things down

- Active voice speeds things up; passive voice slows them down

- Short scenes/chapters speed things up; long scenes/chapters slow them down (think Patterson vs. Michener)

2. Action

As mentioned earlier, the best way to keep the reader interested is to make things happen--preferably exciting things and preferably often. There should be plenty of confrontations, obstacles, and setbacks. Internal struggles of course create tension, but in genre fiction the conflicts should be external as well. According to Jessica Page Morrell in her book Thanks, but This Isn't for Us: "If too many scenes in your story feature a character alone, the story won't work. Especially if in most of the scenes the character is thinking, musing, recalling the past, or sighing. Especially sighing."

3. Reversals

I'm a big fan of plot twists--and by that I don't just mean O. Henry-type surprise endings. I love it when the story takes a sharp and unexpected turn at any point, even near the beginning. It keeps me guessing and therefore keeps me reading. (Or watching. Reference the shower scene in Psycho.) I can't remember who said it, and I'm paraphrasing here, but if you're the writer and you think things might be moving too slowly, that's a good time to have someone burst through the door holding a gun.

Those are just a few thoughts--please feel free to contradict them or to add to the list.

Finally, no discussion of pacing would be complete without at least mentioning the concept of "scene and sequel." Scenes are units of story action, and sequels (in terms of writing) are breaks in the action--rest periods when the hero/heroine takes a timeout to think about what just happened and to consider what might happen next. Properly alternating scenes and sequels is a pacing mechanism, to allow the reader to--along with the protagonist--catch his breath and calm down a bit before facing the next challenge.

If you want to read some really fast-paced mystery fiction, I suggest stories and novels by the following authors: Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Robert B. Parker, Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, Jack Ritchie, Joe R. Lansdale, and Elmore Leonard.

It won't take you long.

17 July 2013

Two writers, One set-up

by Robert Lopresti 

The great picture on the right is the illustration by Tim Foley which appears with my story in the October issue  of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  It is used here with his gracious permission.  You can find much more of his work at his website. 

This particular issue of AHMM has stories by two SleuthSayers: David Edgerley Gates and yours truly.  I thought I would write about one of those stories and since I haven't read David's yet, what the heck, I'll discuss mine.

Which brings me to Jack Ritchie.  As I have said before I have probably stolen more from Mr. R. than any other single author.  He was a master of the comic short crime story.

A while back I was pondering one type of story he was fond of.   These stories begin with two men in a room, one of whom is holding a gun on the other.  (Two examples you can find in his Little Boxes of Bewilderment are "Shatter Proof" and  "A Taste For Murder.")

As a set-up this has a lot to recommend it.  Suspense?  Built-in.  Starting in the middle of the action?  Absolutely.  Character motivation?  Well, we can assume one guy is hoping not to get shot.  As for the other guy's motive, that''s how a set-up turns into a plot.

While pondering this concept I came up with what I hoped was an original take on it, and "Two Men, One Gun" was born.  As for motivation, here is how the tale begins:

"Here's the story," said the man whose name was probably not Richard.  "Once upon a time there were three men who hated each other."

That's the gunman's motive.  He wants to tell the other guy a story.  Surely there must be more going on.  Why choose this man as the audience?  Why use a gun to hold his attention.  But I make it clear right at the beginning that this is a story about storytelling.  The act of telling this tale will change lives, Richard's included.

By the way, last year when my short story "Brutal" appeared in Hitchcock's I told you that it was one of two stories that begin in the same seedy office building I visited years ago.  No idea why that run-down place made such an impression on me, but "Two Men" is the other story set there.

One odd thing about this.  Although it was inspired by a great writer of humor, my story isn't particularly funny.  There's some wit, I hope, but it's more about suspense than guffaws.

 And if you don't like it, try David's!

24 November 2012

The Next Big Thing

by John M. Floyd

A few weeks ago author B.K. Stevens invited me to participate in a "blog chain."  It's called The Next Big Thing, in which writers share information about a future project--or, as one author called it, a current Work in Progress.

Here's the deal.  Each writer posts a blog entry and answers ten questions about his or her upcoming book, story, or whatever, and provides links to similar pieces written by the inviter and the invitees (are those real words?).  For me, participating was an easy decision because I needed to come up with a column for this Saturday anyhow, and since the subject of my post will be a collection of mystery/suspense stories, the "interview" seemed to fit SleuthSayers' crime-writer theme.

Anyhow, here goes . . .

1.  What is the working title of your book (or story)?

Deception.  It's a collection of short fiction--the book's title is also the title of one of the included stories.

2.  Where did the idea come from for the book?

Since this is a collection of different stories, the ideas came from all over.  But most of my ideas begin when I examine ordinary people or ordinary situations and ask myself "What if such-and-such happened?"

3.  What genre does your book fall under?

Mystery.  There are a few other genres mixed in--fantasy, humor, Western, etc.--but almost all the stories include a crime of some kind, and every story involves suspense and deceit.  (In fact I think deceit performs a double duty in a story or novel: when the characters are deceived, the reader is often deceived also--and if it's done well and done fairly, that's something I enjoy, as a reader.)

4.  Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

That's something all writers like to think about and very few get to do, right?  As for me and this project, it would take a hotel full of actors to play all the characters in thirty stories, so that question's hard to answer.  But the title story features a resourceful and catburglary guy who's fairly young, so if I had my druthers I'd choose someone like Jude Law, Leo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, etc.  

5.  What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Thirty stories of mystery, intrigue, and deception.  (Make that a one-sentence-fragment synopsis.)

6.  Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Neither.  I have an agent who represents my novels, but not my short stories or collections.  The book will be released in hardcover by a small, traditional publisher called Dogwood Press.  DP also published my first three story collections.

7.  How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Again, this will be an unconventional answer to a conventional question.  Since this is a group of stories, putting the book manuscript together didn't take a long time.  Mostly, it involved arranging individual stories into a lineup that properly mixes settings, genres, types of crimes, longer stories vs. shorter, lighthearted stories vs. gritty, and so on.  Each story's first draft probably took anything from several hours to several days to finish, and rewriting took from several days to several weeks.

8.  What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

If I weren't the modest fellow I am, I would compare it to similar collections by authors like Jeffery Deaver, Jack Ritchie, John D. MacDonald, Stephen King, Bill Pronzini, etc.  Too bad I can't come right out and say that.

9.  Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My publisher is the one who first suggested that I group some of my previously published stories into a collection, the first of which was called Rainbow's End (2006).  After that book sold well, he encouraged me to follow it with other collections:  Midnight (2008), Clockwork (2010), and now Deception.  Authors who have inspired my fiction and my writing style are Steve Hamilton, Carl Hiaasen, Joe R. Lansdale, Harlan Coben, Nevada Barr, Stephen King, Nelson DeMille, Robert B. Parker, and others.

10.  What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

One thing all four of my books have in common is that each includes a handful of lighthearted "series" stories about retired schoolteacher Angela Potts and a former student of hers who is now the sheriff of their small southern town.  Also, most of the 130 stories that are featured in the four books were previously published in places like The Strand MagazineWoman's WorldAlfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, etc.  If you like to read those publications, I think you might enjoy my stories as well.

Now it's time to pay my dues and keep my promise.  Here are links to my host and to my invitees.

B.K. Stevens is a Derringer Award winner and author of stories in AHMMWoman's World, and many other publications.  Her Next Big Thing piece appears at the Untreed Reads blog

Police officer and author Frank Zafiro is probably best known for his River City novel series.  He will discuss his upcoming project at his blog.

Jan Christensen's fiction has appeared in many different publications and anthologies, as well as two novels. Her post is at her web site.

Please take a look at all those sneak prevews.  BY THE WAY . . .  my friend and SleuthSayers colleague David Dean will also be participating.  Be sure to tune in for his answers to the ten interview questions on November 27, right here at SS.

And then get back to working on your Next Big Thing.