07 September 2021


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.


    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 as often as not has been replaced by "should we go?"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.


    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.


06 September 2021

The Lewis Trilogy

Recently I caught up with Peter May's Lewis Trilogy, three mysteries published in the twenty-teens featuring sometime Edinburgh detective inspector Fin Macleod. May, a Scottish author and TV screenwriter, learned a good deal about the Isle of Lewis while working on the first-ever drama series produced in Scots Gaelic, a language Great Britain once proscribed as uncivilized and liable to promote sedition.

 The Gaelic (like a clan leader, the language has its own article) is the native language of almost all the characters, English being the subtly alien tongue of  school and foreign officialdom. It is The Gaelic, the mother tongue, combined with the harsh and isolated life of the Hebrides, that encourages the clannish intimacy of the island and lends a distinctive touch to May's three novels.

What is even more unusual is the structure of the books. Each one contains a criminal case, investigated, officially or not, by Fin Macleod. This procedural is wrapped around another story, Fin's childhood and youth in The Black House and The Chess Men, and Tormond Macdonald's in The Lewis Man. These are not just the familiar flashbacks to ancient and exciting crimes but nearly full dress novels within novels, Tormond's being a real tour de force, given that the old man suffers from dementia.

Reading the trilogy, even out of sequence, has made me think about mysteries' relationship to time. Romance and science fiction are forward looking genres, and arguably most thrillers, too. Will they marry? Will the explosion, assassination, loss of the formula be prevented? Will this be our future or some variant of what comes next?

Mysteries, like archeology and history, are backward looking and have been backward looking from their very earliest appearance. Genesis takes pains to elucidate the jealousy Cain felt for Abel, while the unfortunate Oedipus has to go back to events before his ill-fated birth. Clearly from very early on, people have felt that the violence of real life – so often impulsive, unpremeditated, and frankly stupid – was deeply unsatisfactory.

The quest for justice, for revelation, for the unveiling of secrets, especially those protected by hypocrisy or power, requires roots in the past, and the deeper the roots, seemingly the more gratifying the solution. With The Lewis trilogy, May found a fertile literary field for deep and entangled causes and effects.

The island population is so small and the communities so isolated, that everyone's business is a communal affair. Such secrets as there are – like the events on the grim gannet harvesting expedition to one of the dangerous rookeries – gnaw at everyone. What really happened, people ask Fin, but he doesn't remember – although he will.

And who was the now-senile Tormod Macdonald and what is his relation to the man found in the peat bog, the man preserved like the famous bog mummies but sporting an Elvis tattoo? And how did a pop star's plane wind up in a disappearing loch? Those are real secrets, and although their unraveling cannot comfort Fin, who has lost his small boy in a hit-and-run accident and, with him, his whole mainland life, the island with his own language and his old friends is home without a doubt.

Fin Macleod finds that he can go home again but he can't recover the raptures of careless youth or the boundless optimism and confidence of adolescence. That's a relationship to time that the now ex-detective inspector Macleod may find more difficult to reconcile than even the tricky history of old alliances, rivalries, loves, and hatreds that make up his community.

My Madame Selina mystery stories about a post Civil War spiritualist medium in New York City have been issued as an ebook on Kindle. Ten mysteries and a novella featuring Madame Selina and her useful young assistant Nip Thompkins are available on Amazon.

05 September 2021

7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

7½ (7.5)

weeks ago, Rob wrote about Stuart Turton’s 2018 novel, The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. He mentioned the ‘½’ had been added to the North American edition and I agree it’s an improvement on the original title. And, speaking of titles, one might notice this one could have more than one meaning.

Rob’s article prompted me to order the book. After finishing, I faced the problem of how to write about it without giving too much away. Don’t worry– Rob has done an excellent job of just that, so I refer you to his review without repeating it here.

When I think of experimental novels, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or the ‘constrained writing’ of L’Oulipo comes to mind. In a very real way, Turton’s non-linear book is as experimental as they come.

Consider the overarching premise, being careful to distinguish premise from plot. I emphasize overarching for a reason. The novel’s premise is as solid as quarried stone, precisely congruent with the property line of the set, but a larger concept remains hidden, nebulous at best.

Imagine walking outside your house in a dense fog. You can see a few feet before you and perhaps distinguish the sidewalk, but anything beyond that– if there is anything– curls away into nothingness. is like a Twilight Zone island– we sense something came before and, unless the author releases a prequel or sequel, we don’t have a clue what might come after.

The murder mystery isn’t difficult to solve. Whoops, I should specify the first homicide, because passes out of the cosy realm in the early chapters. Solving the first murder opens a Pandora’s box of murders that stack up like cordwood.

Stuart Turton must have created one hell of a Gantt chart to track the timelines. Rob said he’d give a shiny new dime for a peek at his templates.

As it turns out, Turton didn’t employ a Gantt chart at all, but said he used an Excel spreadsheet. He said fitting in a missing piece bejiggered the entire thing apart, requiring him to rebuild many parts from scratch. (Hint to writers: computerized Gantt charts can adjust to changes automatically.)

7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

The inside covers display a chart in the nautical sense, a map of the estate, which I referred to many times. I’m willing to bet the author worked from a detailed floor plan of the house, but editors refused to include it. “Now Stu, nobody looks at those mappy things.”

Hey! I do! And I appreciate the cast of characters as well. Why is it English novels still include maps and dramatis personae, while North American publishers have done away with them? Bless you, Lindsey Davis, bless you.

Besides a twisty mind, the author brings two gifts to the table. For such an intricately plotted story, he manages to make us care about characters, some nice, some not, some nasty, and several disappointing. Walk a mile in another man’s shoes is taken literally in Hardcastle.

Turton isn’t merely a good wordsmith, he’s a terrific phrasesmith, able to pop visual metaphors off the page. Yes, it slowed my reading as I savored them, appreciating the artist in him.

That made it jarring when I came across an occasional error, gremlins that apparently escaped a battalion of British editors and an American editor. Examples: nauseous⇐nauseated, there’s⇐there’re, and flounder⇐founder. Small stuff, but c’mon, editors!

My recommendation is almost as unusual as the plot. If you don’t understand all this ADD Detective nonsense, by all means do not read this book. You may think the manuscript fell scattered on the floor and a panicked copyeditor slapped the chapters back in the box out of order so it now plays like a Stravinsky symphony attacked by the Kronos Quartet.

But if you might enjoy a surreal, slightly psychedelic Edwardian journey, grab a copy. You now have two SleuthSayers recommending it.

04 September 2021

Two September Stories


No, they're not set in September. One takes place in August and the other in a month that I suppose could've been September, but a time of year was never stated (just that it was hurricane season). What both stories have in common with September is that they were both published on the first day of this month, in two different magazines.

One of the stories is "Friends," in the Sep/Oct issue of The Saturday Evening Post. It isn't a mystery story, although crime is included in the plot. "Friends" is mostly a leisurely conversation between two longtime buddies, one of them a fisherman and one an ex-con, sitting together on the beach of a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico following a tropical storm that wasn't quite a hurricane. The idea for the story came from no more than the fact that I once did a lot of that when I was stationed for six months on the Gulf Coast, in the Air Force. Just sitting on the sand and staring out at the water. I have great memories of that. And how can a few ideas NOT roll into shore when you do that, even if the waves are imaginary?

I think the most different thing about this story, for me, is that it probably comes closer to that vague term "literary" than most stories I write. I wanted to focus more on the complicated relationship between these two friends--and on some details of the setting--rather than on the plot. It's also a pretty short story, around 2500 words. That's not only short for the Post, it's shorter than most of the stories I write these days. It contains only those two characters and only one scene, though there are some things that happen off-screen. The supporting cast is made up of a woman they both know, who's only mentioned in their dialogue, and a truckload of guys who stop and talk with them for a minute about post-disaster cleanup work.

The other story, "The Delta Princess," is in the September issue of Mystery Weekly. As you might suspect with a market like that, it is a mystery, and is firmly centered around a crime--in this case a multi-step, Mission Impossible-like theft of money from the safe of a wealthy landowner. It's long, around 7000 words, and includes a lot of scenes and characters and locations, although the main setting is the cottonfields of the Mississippi Delta. (Write what you know, right?)

The thing I'll always remember most about this story is the idea that triggered it. I've often mentioned, at this blog and elsewhere, that I usually start first with a plot idea and only then create my characters. It was the same with this story, except that the plot began with something my wife said to me, about her sewing.

A little background, here. My wife Carolyn loves to sew. Always has. Not quilting or embroidery or tatting, but sewing. One room of our house is even called The Sewing Room, a mysterious place I usually avoid because I understand absolutely nothing about what goes on in there. Some of what comes out of there, though, are things I can relate to, like dress shirts that actually fit me and bathrobes that are so comfortable I could live in them 24/7 and coats and jackets that not only look good but keep me toasty warm even on the coldest outings. I'm not fond of cold weather.

Anyhow, my point is, she likes sewing the way I like writing--it's relaxing and satisfying to her--and one day I overheard her talking to a friend on the phone about a sewing technique involving something called water-soluble thread. When I asked her about it afterward, she said she occasionally uses it to test out patterns to see if certain things will work and fit the way she expects them to. When the test run (using a stitch called basting, with a long a, as in tasting) is finished, she just applies water to the seams in the fabric, and--presto!--the thread dissolves. It actually disappears, and fast, and the sample garment literally falls apart. Then she can start over and sew it with real thread because she now knows it's right.

I of course didn't hear the rest of what she was telling me. I was too busy thinking WhoaI see a story there. From that point on, all I had to do was come up with a situation where a devious person--a devious seamstress, in this instance--would use that disappearing thread to evil advantage. And all of you know the process: once the seed's been sown, it's not that hard to put together (weave, maybe?) the rest of the tale. The result was "The Delta Princess," a title that I think I can promise will not mean what you might think it means. As one of the characters says, "Sounds like a riverboat." It's not. 

And that's my pitch, about two stories published on the same day--far different from each other in terms of length, genre, mood, complexity, and the magazines that bought them. But both were fun to write. 

If you have occasion to read one or both, I hope you'll like it (or them). Please let me know what you think.

Meanwhile, I need more fodder for the idea machine. Where'd my wife go . . . ?

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.

02 September 2021

Summer Daze: Back to School Edition

Ahhhh the first week of September! Another Summer coming to a close, and Fall already in the air during the early mornings. School starting up again, and only four months left in a year that already seems to feel like it only started a few weeks back. The timeless march of the seasons.

And yet...of course this year is different.

Long-time readers of my turn in this blog rotation (BOTH of you!*rimshot*) will know that my day gig is

teaching middle school history. Specifically eighth grade. More specifically, Ancient and Medieval World History.

I'm an over-twenty-year-veteran of teaching, and approaching the end of the 2019-2020 school year, I was pretty sure that I had seen it all. Fashions changed, kids' names changed, but overall, the job remained the same.

And then....COVID.

We went remote in the middle of March of 2019, rallied and taught ourselves to use Microsoft Teams to conduct classes remotely, and then started the 2020-2021 school year remotely as well. With COVID numbers easing and vaccinations underway, we returned to the classroom (while maintaining a significant full-time online cohort) last April. Because of various delays necessitated by the unusual circumstances we found ourselves in, our school year didn't wrap up until nearly the final day of June.

And I gotta tell ya, I was just completely spent. Great kids, colleagues are the best team you could ask for. It just wore me out. Both teaching-wise and writing-wise.

Before I move forward on this front, I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention that so far during the pandemic I have had three books published (All by Down & Out Books): two thematically linked collections of crime fiction to which I contributed a story and which I collected and edited; and a collection of historical crime fiction novellas. You can find links to each of these books here, here, and here.

So it's not like I've been idle. But you know how it is. There are people out there more productive than I've been: especially with most everyone sitting at home during the last year-and-a-half.

With all that said, last school year took everything I had (aside from my wife and son. They always come first.). Balancing the day gig and a young and growing family has cost my writing before. There have been long droughts where I have written next to nothing.

I'm happy to say that this time around I managed the challenge. After the school year wrapped up, I took a week and didn't do anything but read, sleep, play with my son, and spend lots of time with him and my wife.

Oh, and on the first day I had projected for going back to writing, I started a summer writing class. 

I needed college credits to renew my teaching credential, so I took a college writing class. And it was a great experience.

Working in that class I worked up four different short pieces which I have gone on to flesh out into three new short stories and a long passage for my current work-in-progress novel. All in seven weeks.

That might not sound like much for many writers, but for me it's pretty great. (As we've established in previous rounds on this blog, I tend to write very slowly.). Plus this writing class I took (entry level, nothing fancy) really inspired me. Getting exposed to forms of writing I'd never encountered before was delightful (Hey, I'm an experienced reader and writer, but I'm no snob. There's stuff out there I haven't gotten to yet!), plus reading the work of the emerging writers I took the class with was just all kinds of fun.

My wife, who knows me and my writing better  than anyone, insists that I work best on a deadline. After this summer, I don't think there's any arguing that point at all any more.

The great news? I already had requests for stories from two different anthologies, and was able to get two of the stories I wrote to the editors who requested them. I'm optimistic that they'll soon be placed and sold.

So I've been hitting the writing goals I set for myself at the beginning of the year, with one big one left: finish my work-in-progress novel by the end of the year.

So I'd better get busy.

See you in two weeks!

01 September 2021

Pop Quiz


I've been (mentally) collecting books of a certain type and I am going to share the results with you here.  These are all well-known novels in our field, and they have one important characteristic in common.  Can you spot it? 

I will put the answer in the comments later...

J.J. Connolly. Layer Cake.


Len Deighton. The Ipcress File.






Daphne DuMaurier. Rebecca.






Dashiell Hammett. The Dain Curse.






Geoffrey Household. Rogue Male.

Bill Pronzini. Hoodwink.

31 August 2021

Guest Post: Room for Real Life

     James A. Hearn—Andrew, to his friends—first came to my attention when I found one of his stories in the slush pile for The Eyes of Texas. (He’ll tell you all about that below.) Since then, Temple and I have spent quite a bit of time with Andrew and his wife Dawn, and it’s safe to say our families have become friends.

      After you’ve read Andrew’s guest post, visit his website (https://jamesahearn.com) to learn more about this up-and-coming writer.

      —Michael Bracken

Room for Real Life

by James A. Hearn

“If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.”—Henry Ford

In the spring of 2016, the bean counters at my company relocated the entire Austin, Texas, office to Chicago, where a cheaper labor force of unemployed attorneys took our jobs. Before we were shown the door, management had us create written manuals of how our jobs were done (as they had no idea what we really did) and to train our replacements. I won’t bother explaining the nature of this job; it was an odd intersection of technology, law, and finance where I could work in jeans and a T-shirt.

James A. Hearn
My job wasn’t the greatest in the world, but it was comfortable. It was basically stress-free and, best of all, client-free. And it was gone. I had plenty of notions of what I didn’t want to do—no more jobs with Big Law, for example—but no idea of what I wanted to do.

I sat at home, collected unemployment, and fell into a strange combination of depression and anxiety. Some days, after my wife left for work, I crawled back into bed, as being asleep was preferable to being awake. Welcome to Rock Bottom, population one.

Get up, Andrew. Do something, or you’re going to lose everything. Your self-respect; your home; your marriage. Maybe even your life.

One day—I don’t know what day it was—I sat down at my computer and started to write. You see, I had always dreamed of being a writer (a science fiction and fantasy novelist, to be precise). I had a vision of walking into a bookstore and seeing my name on the shelf. After college, I dabbled with novels, never quite finishing, never quite knowing where I was going. There was always tomorrow to finish or get organized; gradually, the dream withered and died. I went to law school, made money, got married. I had a mortgage. Real life took over.

But in 2016, when real life got too real, I had to unplug myself. At the computer, I found new purpose in writing. Short stories were coming out, from years of crazy ideas and bottled-up dreams. I wrote about telescopes that could see into the future, of aliens discovered on a terraformed Mars, of monsters prowling train tunnels deep within mountains.

None of these stories sold (at that time), though I was achieving recognition through personal rejections from top markets and writing contests. I became a two-time Finalist in Writers of the Future, a quarterly contest for amateur science fiction and fantasy writers. Winning WotF would be like getting the Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory—you go to Hollywood, you meet contest judges like Orson Scott Card and Brandon Sanderson, and you get into a kick-ass anthology.

But each time, the calls from the contest came back with bad news. You didn’t win. You were one of eight best stories submitted this quarter, out of hundreds of submissions. But the judges can pick only three . . . Who were these judges? Was it Orson Scott Card? Did he read my story? Did he hate it? . . . However, we’d like to hold your story for possible inclusion as a Published Finalist IF there’s room and IF it balances with the other stories. Would you like that? “Sure, I’d like that!”

Months of agonized waiting would follow these calls. Did someone else write about aliens? Was there room for me? No, there wasn’t.

Somewhere along the way, I found a new job and forged a work-life balance: work Monday through Thursday, write on Friday. Life was settling back into a familiar pattern, one I could enjoy. Through writing, I’d found a way back to the real world again. But was I any good? Could I make even one sale?

Then ArmadilloCon happened. In the summer of 2017, I attended a panel on anthologies where I heard Michael Bracken talk about The Eyes of Texas, a private eye anthology he was editing. Something clicked. I’d never written a private eye story in my life. I wrote about robots and wizards! But I walked out of that panel determined to write a story.

A few weeks later, “Trip Among the Bluebonnets” was submitted to The Eyes of Texas. In late December, I received a belated Christmas gift: my first acceptance! Other sales in crime fiction followed—“A Beretta, Burritos and Bears” in Guns + Tacos; “I’ll Be Seeing You” in Peace, Love, and Crime; “Hard Luck Case” in Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir; “Becoming Zero” in Black Cat Mystery Magazine. (I also sold one horror story, “Tunnel Visions,” to Monsters, Movies & Mayhem, winner of the Colorado Book Award for Best Anthology).

I’m a football nerd. My Guns + Tacos story centers around Brian Piccolo, a die-hard Chicago Bears fan named after the Bears’ famous running back. Guns + Tacos editor Michael Bracken later came to me with a fantastic idea for a football-themed story. One problem: he didn’t know beans about football. Would you like to co-author the story? “Sure, I’d like that!”

“Blindsided” was born—and sold to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine! My childhood dream—walking into a bookstore and seeing my name on the shelf—will come true when I buy the September/October issue of AHMM. Next year, I will have the pleasure of repeating this experience when I buy “When the Dams Break”—my first solo sale to AHMM.

It’s been a crazy road for me. I’m not sure why I’ve found more success in the crime genre than others. Maybe my experiences in the law give me a unique perspective on those operating outside its confines. Maybe I have warped notions of justice in an unjust world.

I’ll continue writing about my robots and wizards. They make me feel good, and they may yet find homes. But there’s room in my heart for crime, mystery, and private eye stories. And there’s room for Real Life, too. 

30 August 2021

Where Do Characters Come From?

Last week, Barb Goffman talked about how your best characters are desperate. A character who doesn't want or need something  serves no purpose in your story except to drag things down. If nothing is at stake, why should we keep reading? 

Only days before Barb's post appeared, a friend at the health club (Yes, I have friends. I pay them.) asked me if I've used any real people in my stories. I said I had, but that he wouldn't recognize them.

Interviewing classmate, later to be Megan Traine

High school classmate Susie Kaine Woodman, whom I met at a reunion, inspired Megan Traine, the female protagonist in the Woody Guthrie series. I changed her appearance, but the important music details made her recognizable. She's the exception. Real people inspired characters in many of my other stories, but not as they really are.

A character is a combination of yourself, people you know, and stuff you make up. Someone told me once the ratio should be about 1/3 for each facet, but I disagree. I make up more details than I copy.

Using yourself helps you understand how a character might react to certain issues and situations, and you know your backstory and quirks. But nobody needs to know about 99% of that. Using yourself has two dangerous traps, too. First, you will take many details for granted and not explain them to readers even if they are important, which means the reader might not understand something. 

The other problem with a selfie character is that we often demonize people who disagree with us. If "We" are the hero, the villain becomes an ogre instead of a fully-developed foil or antagonist. I only use myself for a reality check. Would this situation shock or upset me? Would a particular injury handicap me (At my age, a hangnail is a major concern)? The character's reactions might be different, but would that be believable?

Somerset Maugham had a stammer. When he wrote Of Human Bondage, which was thinly-disguised autobiography, he gave his main character a club foot instead. I play guitar, but Woody Guthrie plays much better (We share musical tastes). It didn't occur to me until years after creating him, that he nearly lost his left leg in a shooting, and I blew out my left knee playing football. Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into The Night is his own family, which explains why the play was not produced until after his death.

People you know, the second part of the equation, can include relatives, childhood friends, teachers or coaches, and colleagues from work. They can supply physical mannerisms, speech tics, and maybe quirky behavior. Be careful, though. Sinclair Lewis used people from his home town in Main Street, and they recognized his portrayal of them as narrow-minded idiots and wrote angry, and in some cases, even threatening letters. Change enough so the person won't see himself or herself. It also prevents lawsuits, which is another reason not to base a villain on someone you know.

If it won't affect the plot--or will enhance the conflict in some way--I change the character's gender. If that's not possible, give him or her a different hobby, or job. I gave one character glasses and another one became left-handed. Give a single person a spouse, or vice versa. Many of the real people I've used have been composites of two or three people, too. 

Made up details are best because that is where you can create what you really need. If your character struggles with guilt, it's better to make it up. Woody Guthrie survived a shoot-out as a cop--that leg injury I mentioned above--but his partner, who had a wife and two children, died. Guthrie met the widow and the kids, and his survivor guilt is part of what drives him as a PI.

Give your character a fear of heights, dogs, or speaking in public. Karin Slaughter's Will Trent has severe dyslexia that he tries to conceal from everyone else while finding ways to investigate cases. Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder is an alcoholic. The protagonist in Chuck Palahniuk's Choke is a sex addict (Who doesn't see that as a problem).

I usually begin building a character with Barb's advice. She or he must desperately want or need something. It's life or death. Once I know what it is, I can explain why it's so important, and it's better to make that up, even if something in real life inspires it. If you can't manipulate a detail in service to the story, you need a different detail. 

The need builds the character because it dictates action and behavior. That drives the plot. I seldom describe characters in any detail. Readers won't remember the character's physical appearance unless she's seven feet tall or has six fingers on one hand, but they will remember that Megan Traine loves children because she miscarried several times, and the last time nearly killed her. 

Characters are looking for something that they think will make them "whole." That's why villains need money or power and why protagonists must fix a problem this time that they failed to fix before.

It all sounds so easy…

29 August 2021

The Good, The Bad, The Lemonade


 If you're writing short stories, I assume you have some sort of business plan for them. In which case, your plan may be as simple as:

Plan A: submitting only to prestigious and high paying markets. (Hey, you'll probably get more money this way, but your overall published stats won't be very high.)

Plan B: submitting to as many markets as possible without regard for pay or prestige. (In this case, your published stats will probably be up there, but you may not make much money.)

Plan C: this one is also known as a portion of the John Floyd/Michael Bracken Plan where you work frequently, write prolifically and submit enough stories in a year that you can do both Plan A and Plan B at the same time.

Now, let's go one step further. Don't some of your stories deserve a second life?

Plan D: keep your eyes and ears open for any reprint markets that accept previously published stories. My bank account knows I miss Great Jones Street, a short story on your cell phone company, which was conceived before its time. I received $500 for eight previously published short stories. There was also a nice chunk of change for a reprint in an Otto Penzler anthology about villains. You could probably get more information on how to find reprint markets from John  and Michael, but you generally need to know about these markets as soon as they open. Many of them are a limited time offer.

and, it's just possible that some of your short stories should get one more chance at a first life.

Plan E: gather your, preferably related, stories into collections. Submit them to a traditional publisher and see if you can get a contract. Of course, if you're in a hurry, or can't find a traditional publisher for your masterpiece, or don't like the terms of a potential contract, you can always put out your story collection in e-format or KDP Paperbacks,

BEST PLAN: if you are dedicated enough, creative enough and have enough time in the day, then combine all of the above plans and keep on going. Success for you as a writer may be just around the corner.

so, where am I at in all this?

The Good:

"Gnawing at the Cat's Tail" will be published in the Sep/Oct 2021 issue of AHMM. This is the 7th story in my Shan Army series set in the Golden Triangle of SE Asia during the time period of the Viet Nam War. It involves two half-brothers vying against their surroundings and each other to inherit their warlord father's opium empire. One brother was raised in the British education system of Hong Kong, the other grew up with the hill tribes in the mountain jungles.

The Bad:

It was a good run with seven published stories in the series. Unfortunately, Stories #8 and #9 were rejected. The reason given was that the stories were good, but the editor thought both stories worked better as part of a novel or in a serial rather than as standalone short stories. Since the editor is the boss, that is that. I will now go and make lemonade.

The Lemonade: 

I currently have six story collections out in e-format for Kindle and other e-readers, plus they are in KDP Paperback form at Amazon. So now in about March 2022, I will release 9 Tales of the Golden Triangle in e-format and KDP Paperback. This collection will include the seven previously published stories and the two rejected stories. It will be book number seven. Book number eight, to be released later that same year will be a second collection of historical mysteries, most of which were previously published in a magazine or an anthology.


and, that's part of my plan.

Tell us about yours.

28 August 2021

Chekhov's Gun - Why It's Important to Fiction Writers

Melodie here.  No one writes a more entertaining and informative blog than my pal Anne R. Allen.  If you only read one post on writing this year, make it this one. And if that last example doesn't put a smile on your face, I'm not Bad Girl.  (Which I am.) 

 Chekhov's Gun - Why It's Important to Fiction Writers

by Anne R. Allen

 Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright, also wrote short stories, essays and instructions for young writers.  Probably his most famous writerly advice is this admonition:

"If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.  Otherwise don't put it there."

In other words, remove everything that has no relevance to the story.  If chapter one says your mild-mannered reporter heroine won a bunch of trophies for archery which she displays prominently alongside her handmade Mongolian horse longbow, she better darn well shoot an arrow before the story is done.

"Mood and Setting"  Details vs. Chekhov's Gun

Yeah, but what if that longbow is there to show us what her apartment looks like?  It's good to show her decor, because it gives an insight into her character, right?

It depends.  Yes, we do want to use details to set tone and give depth to our characters, but the key is how you stress those details when you first present them.

If there's a whole paragraph about those archery trophies, or the characters have a conversation about the Mongolian horse longbow, you need to shoot some arrows.  But if there's just a cursory mention, "her apartment walls were decorated with an odd assortment of personal trophies and exotic weapons" then you can leave them on the wall.

So not every lampshade the author mentions has to show up two chapters later on the head of a drunken ex-boyfriend, but you need to be careful how much emphasis you put on that lampshade.

What about Red Herrings?

Wait a minute - what if you write mysteries?  Mysteries need irrelevant clues and red herrings.  Otherwise the story will be over before chapter seven.

This is true.  But mystery writers need to manage their red herrings.  If the deceased met his demise via arrow, probably shot by a Mongolian horse longbow, then Missy Mild-Mannered Reporter is going to look like a very viable subject to the local constabulary.

Only we're sure she didn't do it because she's our hero!  Okay, that means the longbow and the trophies are red herrings.

But they still need to be fired.  Maybe not like Chekhov's gun, but they need to come back into the story and be reckoned with.  Like maybe the real killer visited her apartment earlier when delivering pizza, then broke in to "borrow" the longbow in order to make Missy look like the murderous archer.

The Chekhov's Gun Rule Applies to Subplots

I've been running into this problem in a lot of fiction lately - both indie and traditionally published.

That's what inspired this post.

I sometimes find myself flipping through whole chapters that obviously have nothing to do with the main story.  That's because the subplot isn't hooked in with the main plot.  It's just hanging there, not doing anything.

The subplot has become the unfired Chekhov's gun.

For instance, one mystery had the protagonist go through endless chapter of police academy training after the discover of the body.  The mysterious murder wasn't even mentioned for a good six chapters.  I kept trying to figure out how her crush on a fellow aspiring policeperson was going to solve the mystery.

I finally realized it wasn't going to.  None of the romance stuff had to do with the mystery. When I finally flipped through to a place where the main plot resumed, the hot fellow student didn't even make an appearance.  He'd already gone off with a hotter female recruit.

It's fine to have a romance subplot in a mystery - in fact, that's my favorite kind.  But that romance has to take place while some mystery-solving is going on.  And hopefully it will provide some hindrances to the proceedings, and maybe some comic relief.

But if that romance doesn't "trigger" a new plot twist or reveal a clue, then it's an unfired gun on the wall.  It's just hanging there, annoying your reader, who expects it to be relevant.

Naming a Character Creates a Chekhov's Gun

Another "unfired Chekov's gun" situation often comes up with the introduction of minor characters and "spear-carriers."

You don't want to introduce the pizza delivery guy by telling us how he got the nickname "Green Arrow" followed by two paragraphs about his archery expertise - unless he's going to reappear later in the story.  And he better be doing something more archery-related than delivering another pie with extra pepperoni.

This is a common problem with newbie fiction.  In creative writing courses we're taught to make characters vivid and alive.  So every time you introduce a new character, no matter how minor, you want to make the memorable.  You want to give them names and create great backstories for them.

Don't give into the urge, no matter what the creative writing teacher in your head is saying.

If the character is not going to reappear or be involved with the plot or subplot, don't give him a name.  Don't even give him a quirky outfit.  Just call him "the pizza guy" or "the Uber driver" or "the barista." 

A named character becomes a Chekhov's gun.  The reader will expect that character to come back and do something explosive.

Beward Research-itis

A lot of unfired guns come from what I call research-itis.  That's when the author did a heckuva lot of research, and goldernit, they're going to tell you ever single fact they dug up.

You'll get three chapters on the historical significance of the Mongolian Longbow...and how Genghis Kahn used a smaller bow...which in the 17th century was replaced by the Manchu bow...And how the Manchu bows have larder siyahs and the presence of prominent string bridges...

None of which has anything to do with the dead guy in the living room with the arrow in his back.

If the reader doesn't need to know it to solve the mystery and it's not a red herring, keep it to yourself. 

Although a lot of that research will come in very handy for blogposts and newsletters when you're marketing the book, so don't delete all those research notes!

Beta Readers and Editors Can Take Chekhov's Gun Off the Wall

It's tough to weed out all those unfired guns in your own work.  You're sure you absolutely need to tell us that our heroine won those trophies when she was on her college archery team where her nemesis, Renee Rensinger, once stole her glasses before a meet...and she found out she could shoot better without them and didn't need glasses after all, which was great because her glasses made her look so dorky and after she stopped wearing them, Jake Hawkins noticed her for the first time.  Jake turned out to be a creep, but...

Your editor will tell you different.  And eventually you will thank her for it.

So will your readers.


Anne R. Allen (@anneallen) is the author of ten humorous mysteries, plus the bestselling writing guides The Author Blog - Easy Blogging for Busy Authors, and How to Be a Writer in the E-age, co-written with Catherine Ryan Hyde.  Anne blogs with NYT bestselling author Ruth Harris at

Anne R. Allen’s Blog…with Ruth Harris.

The Author Blog

Named one of the “Best Blogging Books of All Time in 2019, and “Best SEO Books of All Time in 2021” by Book Authority, this is an easy-does-it guide to simple, low-tech blogging for authors who want to build a platform, but not let it take over their lives.

An author blog doesn't have to follow the rules that monetized business blogs do. This book teaches the secrets that made Anne R. Allen a multi-award-winning blogger and one of the top author-bloggers in the industry.

And you'll learn why having a successful author blog is easier than you think.



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!