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Dan Warthman received the Robert L. Fish award for Best First Short Story for “A Dreadful Day” (AHMM, January/February 2009). He introduced Jones and Akin, the characters in this month’s cover story, in “Pansy Place” in our January/February 2011 issue. I was immediately struck by the rapport between these two men and the way they work in unspoken coordination with surprising results.
1) My friend Bill visited me several times when I lived in Beijing. More than once, we went on Saturday evening to the Sanwei Bookstore and Teahouse to listen to live performances of traditional Chinese music. A woman was playing the guzheng, the music was mesmerizing, the place was hushed. And then a mobile phone rang. And the guy, who happened to be another expat, answered it. And talked. And then made another call himself. During the break, Bill said, I’m going to talk to that guy . . .
2) I remember the first time I heard music through earbuds. The sound quality (though I don’t have, nor ever have had, a particularly refined ear) coming through those little globs of plastic was astounding, as if it were inside my brain. It was magical. Now, though, sitting in the coffee shop or trying to relax on an airplane, what I hear is that gaudy little, atonal, arhythmic, chh-chh-chink-chinka-chink tinkling out of other people’s earbuds. If I protest, most people say, Oh, sorry, and lower the volume; some people get belligerent, almost combative, No, you’re not hearing anything, you’re just an uptight….
3) I remember my dad looking out the window and saying, There’s the neighbor’s dog again, and calling the cops, asking for the dogcatcher. And when the cops didn’t do anything and the dogcatcher didn’t show up, my dad threatened to collect all the dog poop in our yard and take it to the neighbor’s yard. We lived in a row house, on the end, in a break between two rows of six houses, and our yard formed a cut-through between the alley and the street. People, kids especially, used our yard as a shortcut, and so did dogs (and cats and squirrels and a couple raccoons and one time a skunk). My dad didn’t like any of it, but he was especially disconcerted when the dogs made pit stops in my mom’s flower garden . . .
4) Maybe I’m just getting old, intolerant of all annoyance – people talking in full voice on their cell phones (it’s different, hearing only one side of a conversation, than eavesdropping on two or three people chatting); the over-loud and cacophonous ring tones people use in public; people taking up two spots in the grocery store parking lot or not closing the gap when parallel parking on unmarked streets; tying their dogs outside the coffee shop and letting them bark up a storm while they debate between skim or two-percent for their lattes; people moving slowly, idly, inattentively as they cross the street, holding up traffic, flipping the bird when urged by a car horn . . .
5) And related to getting old, it hit me a while back that twenty gazillion Baby Boomers are retiring . . . some of them must be criminals . . .
5) Finally, here’s a good one—I’m always amazed by people’s general intolerance of other people’s quirks and foibles and lapses . . . Yeah, well, as Emerson said, Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds . . .
Jones popped into my head. Someone who could—he’s a retired killer—and would—he’s a retired killer—deal with life’s small perturbations and injustices and unkindnesses. Someone who helps people with everyday problems, applying his unique skills to matters the legal system doesn’t have time to look at twice. An old guy who . . .
Who what? I don’t know for sure . . . what.
Jones has lived his life outside the normal patterns, oblivious to the usual ways that people relate to each other, get along with each other, care for each other. He’s been—still is—a criminal, a very, very bad guy, capable of the worst. He doesn’t have a problem hurting people, though he says he’d rather not hurt people who don’t deserve it, meaning people who aren’t in the crime business. He doesn’t seem to be motivated by a desire to do good, to improve the world, to right wrongs in general. He doesn’t exactly have a code (at least not that he expresses clearly).
No, he deals with things as they come up, one situation at a time, singular problems that either he himself or his old boss Konnie Kondrasin or his protegee Akin Stringfield decide need fixing.
Mostly, he’s retired. He bought his condo in Buffalo, he hangs out at the coffee shop, he’s trying—perhaps not assiduously and not too effectively—to fit in. But things get under his skin. He doesn’t like thoughtlessness, inconsiderateness, unfairness. He doesn’t like it when people mistreat each other, when people don’t have any recourse for small injustices.
He seems like a normal guy. Seem like . . .
As for the stories.
The first Jones story I wrote did not—or has not ye—worked out. He was in a diner and overheard a conversation between two women, one of them had a husband who was suffering from a lingering, painful, debilitating, hopeless illness. The woman said, Where is Dr. Kevorkian when you need him? And Jones thought to himself, I can help. That story was a little too gruesome.
But the idea of Jones helping people surfaced.
The stories come from things that happen. Things that interest or irritate or amuse me. Little snarls with no real solution, maybe even no real problem. I see or hear or read something, and I think . . . Hmm, Jones should look into that.
In any case, I’m pretty sure that Jones would be appalled to have made the cover of AHMM. I, though, am honored and thrilled.
AHMM regular Robert Lopresti is the winner of the 2012 Black Orchid Novella Award, or BONA, for “The Red Envelope,” which appears in our July/August issue. We co-sponsor the BONA contest with The Wolfe Pack, the Nero Wolfe appreciation society, to encourage the ratiocinative detective style exemplified by Wolfe. Here, Rob discusses the important matter of finding the right name for your character.
If you’re a writer creating a character, you need a name. (Oh, there are exceptions: Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op and Bill Pronzini’s Nameless, for instance, but if you fill an entire book with Anonymous and Mr. X it might get tiresome pretty fast.)
I’m usually pretty casual about names, but when I started writing “The Red Envelope,” my entry for the Black Orchid Novella Award contest, I was hoping that this might be the beginning of a series. That meant that if I were lucky, I might have to live with those characters for a long time.
So I gave a lot of thought to matching the characters to their names. Consider my detective. The story is set in Greenwich Village in 1958 and the hero is a beat poet, a bit of an oddball, and definitely a man who likes to be the center of attention. Surely his name would be unusual. Something that stood out in some way. Hmm . . .
What follows is an example of why smart writers keep a notebook in their pocket at all times, and never throw an idea away, no matter how useless it may seem at the time.
Let’s go back in time to San Francisco, 2010. I was there for Bouchercon, and being a cheap cuss I was staying at an inexpensive hotel miles from the convention site. One day I was walking back toward my room and–
Yeah, I got that. What does it mean?
I looked around for a store sign or something else with the name on it. Nothing. The name had just popped out of thin air and refused to go away.
Okay, if you write creatively you know that when your subconscious mind delivers agift like that you had damned well better pay attention. So I grabbed my pen and notebook and wrote down the name.
In the days that followed I tried to attach a story to Mr. Delgardo, or at least give him a character. (Huh . . . How did I know he was male? I just did, that’s all.) It went nowhere, but when I was looking for a name for my beat poet, there he was in myh files, waiting. And one detail from that abortive brainstorming did stick: I knew that Delgardo cheerfully changed his first name depending on who he was talking to, and what about. So that became a characteristic of my poet.
Now, since the BONA is a salute to Rex Stout I had noticed that most of the winning tales were narrated by the detective’s younger assistant, like Archie Goodwin in the Nero Wolfe books. My narrator would be a naive young midwesterner, the recent inheritor of a Greenwich Village coffee shop. But I needed the proper name: something bland and uninteresting, but ideally something that my poet would find a hidden meaning in.
I went through lists of older British authors and there I found the perfect moniker for my narrator: Thomas Gray! What could be blander than that? And here’s a bonus: Gray wrote “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” Perfect for a murder mystery.
So, that’s what I started with: Delgardo and Thomas Gray. All I had to do to win the contest was add 14,997 more words. Who said it was going to be easy?
In this post. John R. Corrigan meditates on the personal life experiences that can shape an author’s fiction. His story “Autumn’s Crossing” appears in the July/August issue of AHMM.
I hope you enjoy “Autumn’s Crossing.” Ironically, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agent and single mom Peyton Cote owes her foray into the short-fiction genre to none other than Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine Editor Linda Landrigan.
I met Linda at Bouchercon in 2003. Her husband, John, was my book editor back then, and I was working on the second of what would be five Jack Austin PGA Tour novels. “Why don’t you write a short story?” Linda asked me at the awards dinner. I was sitting next to S. J. Rozan, whose novels and stories I adore, and I thought about S. J.’s ability to cast her series character in both short-story and book-length genres. So I considered it that evening. But after the conference I fell back into my daily routine of working on my novels in the early morning, teaching, coaching, parenting, sleeping deeply, and getting up and doing it all over again the next day. And so I forgot all about the short-story genre until a decade later, when I sent Linda a story. No longer was I working with her husband, so I sent a brief cover letter that was something along the lines of “I don’t know if you remember me, but you asked for a story. I’m ten years late, but here it is.” She bought that story and another and subsequently “Autumn’s Crossing,” which appears in this issue.
Peyton Cote is a vast departure from Jack Austin, so I was thrilled when Linda wanted the story because the sale validated a risk I’m taking. You see, the short story bears the namesake (or, rather, title-sake) of a novel that my agent and I hope will launch a new series.
All told, I’ve written three series characters, an amateur sleuth, a P.I., and a law-enforcement official, although not of the traditional ilk. Each character is unique from the others, and each has been created for a different reason.
From 1999 to 2006, I published five novels in the Jack Austin series and spent an exorbitant, yet highly enjoyable, amount of time researching all things PGA Tour to do so. The books are—if such things exist—golf procedurals. I had grown up reading traditional P.I. novels—I loved Philip Marlowe and Spenser—and my Jack Austin books offer an amateur sleuth with a traditional P.I. code. Jack is a man of honor, one who does the right thing because it’s the right thing. Therefore, setting the books in the world of golf seemed natural. I was an athlete, having played college hockey. And I love and respect the game of golf and view it as the lone professional sport yet to be tarnished by performance-enhancing drugs; it is the final frontier where a competitor calls a penalty on himself and loses both riches and the fame that accompanies winning. It’s a game of integrity. If Philip Marlowe or Spenser were athletes, they’d be PGA Tour players. Just bigger and tougher than the guys you see on TV.
But everything ends, and after more than a decade, I wanted to try something new. As crazy as it sounds, hockey actually led to my second series character, single-mom and U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agent Peyton Cote. Living along the Canadian border in Aroostook County, Maine, I started playing pickup hockey on Sunday nights with several U.S. Border Patrol agents. I love to research and wanted to write a law-enforcement series no one had written yet. The border patrol seemed the logical choice—I certainly couldn’t find much written on it.
Problem was, I’d soon learn that was by design.
The only thing harder than finding reading material on the border patrol was acquiring permission to ride along with an agent. It took three months to be cleared and a lot of locker-room chit chat, but eventually, I was granted several “border tours.” These tours are to be brief. Yet my smooth-skating hockey-playing brethren stretched these rides to several hours during which I’d watch, listen, and ask literally hundreds of questions. This information makes its way into my works by adding what I hope readers find to be rich details—items like black electrical tape covering dashboard instruments inside agents’ vehicles at night.
Partly why I wanted to write Peyton Cote was the challenge she presented: I wanted to see if I could write a female. Jack Austin is a tough guy, a dyslexic, one I didn’t have to step far out of character to create. Peyton, by contrast, is a divorced single mom struggling to balance her career with her desire to be there for her son. Her mother, a traditional farm wife who lives nearby, is constantly troubled by the thought that her daughter not only works, but (God, save us) carries a gun. And her ex-husband somehow is always present, despite Peyton’s continual reminders that it’s over between them. I like conflict. I like dialogue. And I enjoy putting Peyton on stage with all these internal and external issues and seeing how she handles them. Getting the character and the voice of the novel version of Autumn’s Crossing just right took a lot of work, many drafts, and several years.
Max Tyger, on the other hand, was written in under a year, while I was still tinkering with Peyton. He appears in This One Day (Five Star, December 2013), which will be published under the pseudonym K. A. Delaney. (My daughters are Keeley, 4; Audrey, 12; and Delaney, 15.) But it’s me; and this sleuth, a traditional P.I., is—once again—very different from the other two.
If Jack Austin was created because I wanted to honor the traditions of the genre, and Peyton was spawned from my desire to challenge myself artistically, then Max was created because I was angry at the world. And writing was the best way to deal with that. In 2006, my father and I were grilling one evening. I took a piece of sausage off the grill, cut it in two, and handed a piece to him, then watched as he coughed it up. He hadn’t choked on the meat. Something had prevented it from going down. That was September. By December, he was diagnosed with stage-three esophageal cancer. At 7:14 a.m., on April Fool’s Day he died.
I spent the first two weeks following his death in my back yard with a stack of two-foot-by-two-foot pool pavers, crushed stone, a radio, and a shovel. I dug, leveled, placed the pavers, and replaced them over and over again until I’d finished an outdoor patio. Alone. Just me and my thoughts. It was cathartic, but it wasn’t enough. I needed to write something about my father, about sitting in that goddamned ICU for three weeks as I watched him die. The result was This One Day featuring Max Tyger, a down-on-his-luck, Connecticut-based P.I. who’s just been diagnosed with stage-two esophageal cancer. He’s hired to find a teen who has been failed by all the adults in his life. Max is sick, but he sees the search for seventeen-year-old Tommy Lewis as a chance for redemption. And given the life he’s led, redemption means everything to him. It’s a dark book, written from a very dark place, but one I like a lot, and one that offers a character who I think has much more to say.
My three series characters are all different, all born of unique circumstances. The only commonalities (at least those that their author sees) are that they have too much to say for a single book, and they’re fun as hell to write.
What is the role of place in a story? Tom Savage’s “Jumbie Tea” offers a strong sense of place, but as he explains in this post, that’s only one ingredient in the creative stew. “Jumbie Tea” appears in our June issue, on newsstands now.
Writers are human sponges; there’s no denying it. From childhood’s earliest hour, we soak up every detail of the world around us and store it somewhere close to our brains. Then, at any given moment, the sponge will squeeze information and images into our conscious minds. The result is a story, and we don’t always know which part of our past experience inspired it. This explains our blank expressions when people ask us that timeworn question, “Where do you get your ideas?”
But sometimes we know. In the case of “Jumbie Tea,” my new story in AHMM, I remember exactly what happened. Three things:
- Rereading a favorite story by a favorite author
- Memories of my childhood in the Virgin Islands
- An invitation from one of my mystery writing organizations (I belong to several) to submit a story for a proposed anthology called MURDER AROUND THE WORLD
Actually, it was #3 above that activated #1 and #2. The assignment was to write a short mystery set in a specific part of the world, using elements of that place in the plot. When the request arrived, I was rereading one of my favorites, “Don’t Look Now,” the creepy 1971 novella by Daphne du Maurier. A British couple, grieving the recent death of their child, take a business trip to Venice, where all sorts of weird, supernatural things begin to happen. It’s a chilling tale with a famous shock ending, but what most impresses the reader is the description of the setting–the sights, sounds, smells, and moods of that ancient city. I’ve been in Venice, and I’ve experienced its strange allure firsthand. Reading her story, you get the distinct impression that these bizarre events could only occur there. This aspect of her work spilled onto the invitation on my desk, and they were both lapped up by the sponge in my head.
I needed an exotic locale for my story, and I happen to have grown up in one: St. Thomas, V. I. My hometown would do quite nicely, and I certainly knew the geography, landmarks, and folklore of the region. I would use as many details of the West Indies as my plot would bear. But, what would the story be? Well, I’d just been reading a masterpiece wherein beautiful Venice is the symbol of all that is evil and corrupt, practically a doorway to Hell. So…
Unable to shake the supernatural angle of du Maurier’s tale, I immediately recalled the superstitions and religions of the Islands. And–again inspired by Dame Daphne–I created a pair of American tourists in the Caribbean who would somehow be confronted by these things. Instant Culture Clash. Voodoo and Obeah are alien to most of us; we don’t understand them, so we fear them. As a child in St. Thomas, I was fascinated by the otherworldly elements of those beliefs, and I never forgot them. The fierce heat, the sudden rain, the winding mountain roads, the lovely old buildings and lush palms and white beaches of my youth would all play their parts as well. I added everything I could remember to the mix. I took all these beautiful things and rendered them sinister, recasting them as my own, personal version of Hell’s Waiting Room.
The sponge was squeezed, as it were, and out came “Jumbie Tea.” To top it all off, I borrowed one final element from Daphne du Maurier–or, rather, from Nicolas Roeg’s brilliant 1973 film version of “Don’t Look Now.” The terrified couple in the story, John and Laura Baxter, were played in the film by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, so my tourists became “Donald” and “Julie,” and Julie’s last name is “Baxter.” The French have a word for this: hommage. In America, we simply call it theft. Anyway, that’s how this particular story came to be. Where did I get the idea? My answer is the title of this essay.
The proposed anthology never materialized, so I submitted “Jumbie Tea” to AHMM and hoped for the best, which is what happened, and here it is. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed revisiting my past–and squeezing my sponge–to create it.
The nominees for Derringer Awards have been listed, and we are delighted to see three AHMM stories among those short listed. Chris Muessig’s story “The Sunny South” (March 2012) is nominated for Best Novelette and David Hagerty’s story “The Pot Hunters” (June 2012) is nominated for Best Long Story. And one of our Mystery Photograph contest winners was nominated under the category of Best Flash Story: Randy DeWitt for his winning entry “The Cable Job,” which appeared as The Story That Won in our September 2012 issue.
The Derringers are presented by The Short Mystery Fiction Society, a group that works to promote the appreciation of short crime fiction. Only SMFS members can vote for the Derringer-nominated stories, but if you are a member, you can read the stories at the SFMS site.
Congratulations to all the nominees!!
Angela Zeman did such a wonderful job creating the world that Roxanne lives in for “The First Tale of Roxanne” that by the end of the story you are ready for more. And the title indeed suggests a second, and a third . . . So we asked Angela to talk to us about her creative process when starting out a new series.
A few days ago I was thrilled to read in the NY Times section of Unrequested Advice that dark chocolate is now healthy to eat all you want. Yes! Then my copy of AHMM came in the mail and my story was on the cover. I forgot chocolate. Nobody from AHMM had mentioned “cover” to me, so I was shocked and thrilled. And reminded of my very first story sale—my first sale of anything—to the late Cathleen Jordan, the editor of AHMM at that time. She phoned me to buy it, too, which made the event all the more stunning. Then, in the throes of my euphoria, I exposed the enormous amount of water behind my ears and requested that my name be put on the cover. She kindly said, “maybe another time.” From that sale came the Mrs. Risk story series and a novel, all now re-published as e-books by Mysterious Press.
Fast forward, many story sales later . . . AHMM editor Linda Landrigan chose my story for May’s cover. I’m thrilled and gratified, and enormously surprised now that my ears are drier.
For this blog, Linda asked me if I could explain why I often write series. She asked how I plan them. Plan? Tough question. I don’t know.
Right now, I’m in the middle of the third entry to another series, nothing to do with Roxanne. I call it the Trueden Falls series because that’s its fictional location in the Adirondacks. Also now, another magazine is mulling over whether or not to purchase the second in a newer series, which I call the Pete Murphy stories. (Pete’s first story is in Robert Randisi’s anthology, CRIME SQUARE.) That action is 1956 post war harsh and hungry Times Square. My narrator is Petey, an eleven-year-old boy forced by his father’s death in the Big War to take on adult responsibilities, and who manages creatively. Not a young adult series.
My characters are so alive to me that last year I combined heroes from three different well-received stories to create a thriller novel. (The main protagonist came from, “Green Heat,” chosen by Nelson DeMille for Otto Penzler’s Best American Mystery Stories of 2004, from that year’s Jeffrey Deaver anthology.)
How do these things result in a series? I know only a few things. People fascinate me, but boring people bore me. So if anyone catches my eye as “interesting,” chances are good that something about that person will appear in a story.
I’m a listener and a watcher. I strike up spontaneous conversations. I see feelings. How you feel, how you express your feelings, why you feel this way. No one is simple (even if simple-minded), things hit the fan, and life is short. All of which makes a good story.
Another thing. My story characters don’t function in my mind as “characters.” To me they’re people. As are the others in the story. All vivid individuals in his/her own way. By the time the story ends, I have collected an ensemble. All ages, backgrounds, income level, talents, or non-talents. Just like the people outside my door. But then, in imitation of real life, some people just won’t go away. They become a series.
My first series was about Mrs. Risk. Many never realized it, but I used those stories to experiment using various people’s voices. So the POV would always be omniscient, limited by one viewpoint character. And I made that one character be whoever came to Mrs. Risk asking for help. It was educational and fun to do for a while, and incidentally created a love for experimenting when I write.
Gary Provost, a late mentor I still obey said, “You’re like me, you want to write everything.” He nailed me. That’s the explanation for my forays into the lives of unusual people, into history, villages, stark plots, cute plots, and this latest thriller book. POVs of all kinds. I just gotta try it. At least once!
When I write, my goal is always to write a stand-alone. True. Then some protagonists’ personalities somehow invite odd or crazy situations, and I start writing it down.
Wait until you see Roxanne’s dilemma in her Second Tale! The Emperor Vespasian takes advantage of her integrity and gift for languages to ask a private favor that would keep him from embarrassment . . . See? I couldn’t resist. Maybe her Third Tale should involve chocolate. Seems healthy to me.