“Plans and Revisions” by Steve Liskow

Steve Liskow is the author of three mystery series, and his latest book is Hit Somebody. In 2016 he became the Black Orchid Novella Award‘s first repeat winner. You can read his winning story “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma” in the current July/August 2017 issue. Here, he talks about the evolution of this story, his previous winner, and the Woody Guthrie series.

“We live most of our lives in Plan B.” Was that a bumper sticker, a button, or a tee shirt? I don’t remember, but I agree with the claim.

In fall 2003, I wrote the first draft of a PI novel that went through dozens of revisions and several title changes. I sent it out with the PI named Rob Daniels, Eric Morley, and at least one other name I no longer remember. In 2013, I finally self-published it as Blood On the Tracks.

In late 2004, after attending the Wesleyan Writers Conference, I wrote “Stranglehold,” a short story installment in what I saw as a series set in Detroit. Unfortunately, it was almost 7000 words, too long for most magazines, and the others rejected it. I showed it to a fellow writer who said he had trouble keeping track of so many characters in the first three pages. I needed all those people, so I shelved the story and turned to other projects.

In fall 2006, a friend suggested I write a romance novel. Ghost Writers in the Sky became a romantic mystery spoof set in Connecticut with deliberately over-the-top characters, including a PI named Zach Barnes. Between 2007 and 2009, I sent it to nearly seventy agents and publishers with underwhelming success.

Late in 2008, I learned that the Wolfe Pack, named in honor of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, sought entries for the Black Orchid Novella Award. Stout’s work influenced both my prose and my tone, so I wondered if I could expand “Stranglehold” to 15,000 words and introduce the large cast more slowly.

Plan B, indeed. Over the next week, I added 9000 words and realized that nothing felt like padding. The story was a novella waiting to be recognized. By then, the Barnes novel was dead in the water, but I liked the character’s name. I gave it to my Detroit rock ‘n’ roll wannabe and sent the new and improved (I hoped) “Stranglehold” to the contest early in 2009.

A few months later, I learned of a new local publisher looking for Connecticut mysteries and sent the Zach Barnes novel out to them, too…with the same protagonist. My wife convinced me to change the title, to Who Wrote the Book of Death? This has to be about Plan C, right?

Six months later, Jane Cleland called to tell me “Stranglehold” had won—twenty-four hours after Mainly Murder Press offered me a contract for Who Wrote . . . ?. Now Zach Barnes had two cases, one in Detroit and the other in Connecticut, a tough commute.

I still saw the Connecticut novel as a stand-alone and thought the Detroit story had legs, so I decided to keep Zach in Detroit and re-name the Connecticut shamus. Years before, at that Wesleyan Writers Conference, Chris Offutt gave me a piece of advice that resonated now:

Beware of changing the name of a character because it will change the rhythm of every sentence in your story that names him or her. Ah, the joys of computer technology. I did a global edit and changed “Barnes” to “Nines.” Same rhythm, same consonant sounds. “Zach/Zachary” became “Greg/Gregory” and there we were.

I thought.

A few reviewers wanted to read more about “Greg” and his beautiful girlfriend. Some readers went to my website and told me they thought Greg Nines was a dumb name. By then I’d also noticed that Spell-check went spastic every time I used “Nines” as the singular subject of a sentence. Hmmm.

Eighteen months later, I parted company with that publisher and re-edited the book. The Detroit series was still generating huge waves of ennui, so I changed the PI’s name back to Zach Barnes . . . in Connecticut. Zach now appears in five books. In 2013, when I self-pubbed Blood On the Tracks, the first in the Detroit series, the PI formerly known as Zach needed a new name. My high school classmate, session musician Susie (Kaine) Woodman, inspired the character of Megan Traine, so I still wanted him to be musical.

After bouncing ideas off my wife (much better at names and titles than I am), my equally brilliant webmistress (ditto), and my cover designer, we came up with Elwood Christopher Guthrie, who goes by Chris. Naturally, everyone else calls him “Woody.” Woody’s fourth adventure, Before You Accuse Me, will arrive in December or January.

“Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma” is a sequel to “Stranglehold.” I actually planned the story as a novel, but didn’t find any of the possible subplots intriguing enough to bear writing, so it ended up as another novella—this time shrinking to size. If you read both stories in Alfred Hitchcock, you noticed the name change. Now you know why.

Plan G, Plan H, Plan I . . .

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Susan Breen on “The Countess of Warsaw”

Susan Breen is the author of the Maggie Dove series (Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency is available now from Penguin/Random House) as well as The Fiction Class, which received the Washington Irving Award. Here she talks about the genesis and plot of her story “The Countess of Warsaw” from the July/August 2017 issue.

What happens to assassins when they get old? This was the question that was the genesis of my story, “The Countess of Warsaw.”

To give a little background: I was visiting an acquaintance in a nursing home. She was a nice lady, but somewhat droopy, for obvious reasons. During the course of our conversation she happened to mention that she’d been a cheerleader in her youth. I was flummoxed. When I think of cheerleaders I think of bubbly, cheerful people, and this woman was nothing of the kind, and yet. Those qualities had to reside somewhere deep inside her. It made me think about how mysterious the elderly are. So often we look at them (and I should say I’m creeping up there myself) and see their exterior, but forget about all the history that lives inside them.

When I stepped into the nursing home hallway after our conversation, I looked at all the people sitting around and thought, I wonder what stories they could tell? I wonder who they really are? And then, because this is how my mind works, I thought: I wonder if any of them were assassins.

At the time, I had just started work on my Maggie Dove mystery series. Maggie Dove is a Sunday School teacher turned private detective. Because there’s not a lot of blood or gore (yet), my series is considered a cozy. But I didn’t want to be pushed into a cute cozy category. I wanted Maggie to grapple with serious antagonists, even if her story is taking place in a quiet little village. One of the things I’ve always loved about Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple is how ruthless she is. She’s not afraid to find evil in the most unlikely of places.

So when I began working on “The Countess of Warsaw” all of these things were going through my mind, but I had one big problem. And that was, for an assassin to wind up in a nursing home, it would have to be a successful assassin. After all, Lee Harvey Oswald was captured. So was Sirhan Sirhan and Mark Chapman. Most of the assassins in the twentieth century were executed or jailed. Unless. They were successful. Then people would assume that the assassinated person’s death was natural. No one would know otherwise. The assassin would go about his or her life, living and aging and perhaps winding up in a nursing home.

So what prominent figures died in the twentieth century?

I spent months going over the death of every major figure, trying to figure out whose death might not have been as it seemed. Who did I wind up choosing?

You have the read the story to find out!

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Brian Cox’s NYT Crossword Puzzle Constructor Debut

AHMM author and former managing editor (1985-1989) Brian Cox made his debut as a New York Times crossword puzzle constructor Wednesnesday, July 25. You can read some insights into the puzzle in the Times’ Wordplay column here.

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In Conversation with The Digest Enthusiast’s Richard Krauss

Richard Krauss is the editor and designer of Larque Press’s The Digest Enthusiast, which has appeared twice yearly since 2015. In today’s post, associate editor Jackie Sherbow talks with Richard about his work and the world of digest magazines. Find out more at the Digest Blog—and you can purchase all issues of The Digest Enthusiast here.

Richard Krauss, portrait by Joe Wehrle, Jr.

AHMM: Please tell us a bit about yourself. You’ve worked as a designer, marketing strategist, artist, and cartoonist. How did your interest in digests develop, and has that relationship changed over time?

Richard Krauss: AHMM is a long-time favorite, so it’s quite an honor to be here. I’d always read crime fiction, but Geoffrey O’Brien’s reference book Hardboiled America opened the floodgates to 1950s era paperback originals for me. The novels by these crime writers were too seductive to resist. Soon, I found these same authors wrote short stories for digests, by then the preferred format for fiction magazines. There were hundreds of titles—Manhunt, Jonathan Press, Pursuit, and of course Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen, to name just a few.

Collectors D. Blake Werts, Rob Imes, and I were chatting one day via e-mail about digests. As the brainwave to document them dawned, The Digest Enthusiast was born. Every potential contributor asked was eager to help: artist/writer Joe Wehrle, Jr., magazine historian Tom Brinkmann, author Lesann Berry, illustrators Michael Neno and Larry Johnson, cartoonist Bob Vojtko, and Hugo award-winning artist Brad Foster. Once the first couple of editions were out, our circle grew to include writers like Steve Carper, Peter Enfantino, and Gary Lovisi—and our contributor list grows with every new edition.

My passion remains crime fiction, but working on the magazine expanded my interest in all genres of fiction, and even nonfiction titles like True Crime Detective, Fate, and Exploring the Unknown.

The Digest Enthusiast, Volume 2

AH: Each issue of The Digest Enthusiast is full of a wide variety of content, from interviews to reviews (in many genres) to poems, artwork, and features like “Opening Lines.” What guiding principles help you maintain focus?

RK: Our purpose is to explore the diverse world of digest magazines. We cover all types of genre fiction digests and select nonfiction titles. Variety is essential. We want something for everyone, every time. We even include a few short stories. After all, fiction is what draws most readers to digest magazines in the first place.

Much of our content is a look back, but we also report on the current scene. Recently we started a column called “News Digest,” which includes all the late-breaking industry news we can gather as each issue enters final production. We present cover previews and news about the four Dell digests, F&SF, Nostalgia Digest, Fate, and the new generation of digests, mostly made possible by today’s publishing technology—Pulp Literature, Paperback Parade, Weirdbook, Switchblade, Mystery Weekly, Betty Fedora, and many others.

AH: And what motifs and themes do you see across the variety of digests?

RK: Editors like Ellery Queen, Ray Palmer, Robert A.W. Lowndes, and H.L. Gold were as important to their readers as their magazines. Publishing a genre fiction digest has always been challenging. The editors, artists, and writers that create them love what they’re doing, and readers know it. Readers want that affinity for their favorite writers and their stories and characters.

You expect crime and deception from a mystery digest; new ideas and concepts from a science fiction title. But with a closer look, you’re struck by the unexpected, and energized by the unbounded creativity in digests. For example, Robert Arthur’s Mysterious Traveler digest, with every tale hosted by the title’s namesake. In 1981, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine had flash fiction from Robert Lopresti before flash fiction was labeled. B.K. Stevens’ epistolary approach to her Bolt and Walt series for AHMM—and the inclusion of Dale Berry’s seven-page comic story earlier this year. Get a digest and get enthused.

For writers, these days, it’s all about platform. Most successful digests also leverage platform. Alfred Hitchcock, Isaac Asimov, The Man from UNCLE, and The Saint were all well established names/brands before their digests debuted. In 1953, Manhunt began serializing a brand new novel by Mickey Spillane, at the height of Spillane’s popularity. Manhunt sold over half a million copies of their first issue. In 1948, the UFO craze seized America. Fate Magazine debuted with Kenneth Arnold’s account of his famous 1947 sighting, catapulting Clark Publishing into success.

Slow and steady only wins if you can afford to stay in the race. Otherwise, better to hitch your wagon to a proven platform.

The Digest Enthusiast, Volume 4

AH: Can you talk a bit about the relationship between visual elements and copy in your favorite digests?

RK: You judge a book by its cover—or more precisely, you form your first impression from a book’s appearance. The cover is primary, but you react to the whole package. How does it look and feel? Digests have an inherently appealing size, easy to hold, easy to carry, and inviting to read.

Some fiction magazines use the same fonts for every story title, intro, text, and notes. Others vary the titles using different fonts to reflect the feel of the story to come. The text font is probably unconscious to many readers, but the magazine’s designer has given it a lot of thought, trying to balance all the options in style, size, weight, leading, and line length.

If the budget allows, an illustration can spark interest in a story in a heartbeat. The best are custom-made, depicting a scene from the story, or perhaps the overall feel of its milieu. Digest collectors follow their favorite artists as often as their favorite authors.

AH: What observations do you have about the community of digests enthusiasts (collectors, artists, writers, fans, etc.)?

RK: The community is as friendly and welcoming as you could ever want. Writers and editors, reviewers, contributors, collectors, and readers—they’ve all been enthusiastic and energizing. Just a terrific group of people, sharing and celebrating their common interest, a love for compelling fiction and artistry.

AH: What are the top three things you wish everyone would know about digests?

The Digest Enthusiast, Volume 6

RK: First, they’re a bargain. Probably no surprise to AHMM readers, but digests offer the best, most affordable short story writing available. Online, at your local newsstand, or by subscription, there is no better fictive bang for your buck.

Second, they gave many of the world’s favorite writers their start. Perhaps the biggest star, Stephen King, had his first professional stories published in Startling Mystery Stories. But there are plenty of examples: Orson Scott Card, Lawrence Block, John D. MacDonald, Joe Lansdale, etc. Art Taylor’s “Rearview Mirror” first appeared in EQMM and later won the Agatha Award for best first novel as On the Road with Del & Louise in its expanded version. If you want to discover tomorrow’s bestselling, award-winning author today, read a digest. (And many of the greats return to the pages of their earliest supporters.)

Finally, there are hundreds of terrific digest magazines available. Whether you want a new adventure or a new passion, digests are easy to find online, highly collectible, and more affordable than just about any other type of magazine.

AH: Are you working on or planning any other projects?

RK: Writer and filmmaker, Alec Cizak, published of one of the earliest digests to leverage the new publishing technologies, Pulp Modern. After a year hiatus, he and I teamed-up to revive the title and released our first new issue from Volume Two in May 2017. The next Pulp Modern will be out late this year, near the same time as The Digest Enthusiast #7.

I’m also working with Marc Myers on a collection of Clark Dissmeyer’s comix work from the 1980s, which will be released this fall.

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The Making of “The Making of Velveteen Dream” by Chris Muessig

Author, editor, and instructor Chris Muessig’s fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories; he is also a contributor to AHMM and EQMM. Here he talks about the background to his unique and compelling story from the July/August 2017 issue, “The Making of Velveteen Dream.”

Both my sons, Travis and Jeff, pitched their way up from Little League diamonds to college baseball scholarships.  Jeff had the added good fortune of being picked in the 20th round of the 2001 Major League draft but “retired” from pro baseball in 2008 after two decades of involvement in the sport—a time span associated with career servicemen and police officers, not a 26-year-old.

High-level competition put a lot of wear and tear on those bodies—in Jeff’s case necessitating Tommy John surgery and several knee and shoulder operations.  Along with the physical damage came extreme frustration as each setback seemed to occur when he was about to break through to the next level. Recovering from these repeated injuries required a work ethic, mental toughness, and level of patience that he did not inherit from me. Although my wife and I shared plenty of excitement with him, we were also privy to the long stretches of painful rehab. Those are among the closely personal makings of the story.

Meanwhile, there is a funny amateur indie out there that was put together a dozen years ago by a trio of Jeff’s Stockton teammates.  Dream Revolver, the creation of Ben Winslow, Eddie Cornejo, and Jed Morris (they lend their names to some of the fictional teams in the imaginary Pacific Valley League), began as a day-in-the-life video spoof. Hours of footage later, the project had snowballed (not the most apt metaphor for the San Joaquin Valley) into a surrealistic feature in which every member of the team got to appear on screen and which may very well have been key in reversing what began as a lackluster season.

I recall briefly contemplating a novelization of the film, but found myself too busy trying to sell shorter fiction to well-known mystery magazines.  The makings, however, kept simmering on the back burner, until three years ago when I resolved to revive the “dream” in the guise of a crime story and pitched it (no pun intended) to Jeff to get his help in developing background and motivation.

As we went back and forth, I aimed for exposition-lite while slipping in as much detail about minor league life as the story’s confines allowed.  I think most of it was relevant, the rest revelatory. And since I was fashioning a crime story, I had to juxtapose the exhilaration of playing and contending at that level with other less positive issues that open the door to corruption and violence.

Firstly, there are so many empty hours to fill “at home” and during the long and uncomfortable “away” trips on cramped buses and in distant motels—the proverbial idle hands. Players have to contend with a guaranteed half-year’s separation from family and friends, not to mention the pressures, demands, uncertainties, and illusive lucre of a sport in which only a small fraction make it to the Show, and not all of them under innocent circumstances. For many players, only the supporting fabric of their communal living keeps their careers above water, no matter what their talent. So what happens if they don’t fit in?

On the brighter side, the Stockton Ports roster for 2005 lists the names of more than a dozen players who eventually stepped onto major league ball fields.  Perhaps the movie magic had something to do with that high success rate. Eddie and Jed remain active in baseball as successful college coaches, Benny is still making action-filled films of men in uniform (Navy and Marine Corps), and Jeff has become part of another special team, albeit law enforcement—which just goes to show how persistent some dreams can be.

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Staging a Mystery: Nero Wolfe Comes to the Midwest (by Linda Landrigan)

E.J. Subkoviak as Nero Wolfe; photo by Park Square Theatre.

Recently I had the pleasure of attending the premier of “Might as Well Be Dead,” a new play by AHMM contributor Joseph Goodrich. The play, produced by the Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota, is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Rex Stout.

Naturally, the story features Stout’s famous sleuths, the corpulent Nero Wolfe and his wise-cracking right-hand man, Archie Goodwin. We fans love these books for the lively writing, the bantering dialogue, and the vivid characters. I’m happy to say that Joe captured these dynamics nicely in his adaptation.

Adapting any novel-length work to the stage is necessarily an exercise in condensation, which Joe and the director, Peter Moore, handled beautifully. As Joe later explained, because the novel is so plot driven, it was essential that the story of the play “take off like a bullet,” and not flag from there.

This production featured a single main set—Nero Wolfe’s office—with side wings where a handful of off-site scenes were staged. On several occasions, characters addressed the audience directly, which also helped to keep things moving. In this production, most of the actors doubled up on roles, though I didn’t catch on to this until well into the second act. (I prefer to think of this as a tribute to the actors’ skills, rather than a comment on my observational skills.)

It’s interesting to note that the Park Square Theatre has a special group of supporters—the Mystery Writers Producers’ Club—who encourage and support the bringing of mystery plays to the stage.

I attended the play as part of a program organized by the Wolfe Pack, AHMM’s partner in sponsoring the Black Orchid Novella Award. Members from around the country converged for a fun weekend that also included the post performance party with the cast and crew, brunch the next day with the playwright, director, and members from the cast, and a book discussion. It was a terrific time-out to meet new friends who share a passion for the inimitable Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

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Robert Mangeot on “Let It Burn”

Robert Mangeot talks about his story “Let It Burn,” from the magazine’s current issue, on his blog. Check it out here!

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