Category Archives: Criminal Masterminds

“De-Mystified” by Randall DeWitt

Randall DeWitt  is the author of an upcoming flash-fiction collection, Blunt Flash Trauma, which will also include stories by Sharon Daynard, Ruth M. McCarty, and Kathy Chencharik. He is a three-time winner of AHMM’s Mysterious Photograph contest; one of these winning stories, “The Cable Job,” went on to win the 2012 Derringer Award for Best Flash Story. Here he talks about the experience of writing flash fiction and entering the contest.

When the latest edition of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine arrives, the first thing I do is turn to “The Story that Won” to see who authored the prevailing 250-words for the latest Mysterious Photograph contest. I read the story, and then scan the honorable mentions for names that I know. I remember what it was like to see my name on that list and the feeling of accomplishment when the winning story was mine. If my stories and name can appear on that page, anyone with a fertile imagination and half-decent writing skills can too.

As a past winner of the contest, I have a secret I’d like to share with you—I don’t consider myself a writer. I base this conclusion on years of marriage to a mystery writer who is much more talented and by having read the stories of many of her friends in the writing community. I get jealous just thinking about how they can masterfully fill page after page describing something as simple as a sneeze if they wanted to. Me? My version would read Achoo! and that would pretty much be it. But in the world of flash fiction, my shortcoming might be my biggest asset. I don’t have to tamp down the urge to paint a Rembrandt to illustrate my story because I don’t possess that kind of a brush. Low word counts are my friend. And if the result is a picture worthy of hanging in Boston’s Museum of Bad Art, and people want to look at it, I’ve done my job. I’m happy.

Everything begins with the Mysterious Photograph itself of course and the search for an answer to why? Why is this picture integral to the story? I try not to overthink it. If there’s a title to the picture, I consider those words too just like everyone else. And there it is, the phrase that probably dooms most submissions—like everyone else.

Not every story has to end in a gruesome murder. I’ve written dark submissions but in my experience it’s the light-hearted ones I’ve sent in that have won. So sometimes I concoct new ways to attempt, pull off or stop a robbery. Other times I test the judges with a caper that borders on the absurd. Whatever I come up with, it has to be out of the ordinary. That doesn’t mean I don’t try to incorporate something that everyone may relate to. I think that sort of connection with the reader helps sell the story. In my winning entries, one had a familiar tempting smell. In another, it was dealing with the cable company. In my last, it was the annoying habits of a co-worker.

Finally, I’m sure it doesn’t have to be said but the ending has to be satisfying. I often prefer to add a small twist as long as it plays fair with the reader and makes sense. If it’s written well enough, who knows?

If all goes well, I’ll see you in “The Story that Won.”

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“INSERT CLEVER TITLE HERE” by Robert Lopresti

Award-winning short-story writer Robert Lopresti has been writing fiction for almost 40 years. He is the author of Greenfellas and, recently, the nonfiction When Women Didn’t Count: The Chronic Mismeasure and Marginalization of American Women in Federal Statistics, among other books. Here he talks about his story “The Chair Thief” from the November/December issue and the role of titles in fiction.

I am delighted to have “The Chair Thief” in the November/December issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. But the question I want to address today is this: Why is it “The Chair Thief?” Why didn’t I call it, say, “Two Guys Harass A Co-Worker,” which is a more accurate description of the plot. (The commandeering of a prime office chair is just the last straw that provokes the trouble.)

Of course, conveying the plot is not the real purpose of a title. The goal is to sell the story to the editor and then to the reader. The title should be intriguing, but it must also relate to the story somehow. (For example, I could have called my tale “Marilyn Monroe Versus Dracula,” but readers would probably be miffed when neither of those worthies made an appearance.)

Years ago I wrote a story in which three strangers escape from a nasty mess by blaming it all on a completely non-existant fourth person. Since they don’t want the cops arresting an innocent bystander they make the fictional felon’s description as unlikely as possible. That meant then when the story appeared in AHMM the reader had to reach the last page to find out why it was called “A Bad Day for Pink and Yellow Shirts.”

The latest story in that series, by the way, is about a snowfall heavy enough to cancel school and it will appear as “A Bad Day For Algebra Tests,” unless editor Linda Landrigan changes the title.

Which editors have a right to do, of course. And I have the experience to prove it.

Back in the 1980s a title popped into my head: “My Life as A Ghost.” Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine bought the resulting story—my first sale there, hurray!—but changed the title to “The Dear Departed.” What can I say? I liked mine better. Maybe I’ll use it again sometime.

One day I was driving along listening to Bob Dylan’s song “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and I noticed his line about the streets being “too dead for dreaming.” I almost drove right off the road. What a title for a mystery novel! Too Dead For Dreaming.

So I wrote one, set in Greenwich Village during the great folk music scare of 1963. Unfortunately Dylan’s company wouldn’t give me the rights to use that line as a title, so I switched to Such a Killing Crime, which comes from a song that was out of copyright long before Bob was born.

With my second novel the choice was easier. A comic crime novel about mobsters trying to save the environment? It had to be Greenfellas.

Sometimes you can outsmart yourself. I published a story in The Strand about a woman buying a gift for her son, but the story was really about her obsession with the past and her hopes for the future. I called the story “The Present” but I doubt if anyone got the double meaning. Except me, of course. I thought it was brilliant.

And sometimes the problem with a title is not what it means, but the way it sounds. If it is a long phrase, you really want it to scan. I wrote a story about the race riots of 1967 and my original title was “Bullets in the Firehouse Door.” That captured what I wanted to say but it felt long and awkward. I came up with “Shooting at the Firemen,” and was very pleased with myself, but two early readers told me to drop the word “the.” Maybe it depends on whether you pronounce “fire” with one syllable or two? In any case the story appeared in AHMM with the shorter moniker.

I am delighted to report that I will have a story in the next issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine too. The title I used was “Train Tracks,” but I wasn’t thrilled with it and invited Linda to improve it. She looked at the first sentence: “The best day of my life started when I got arrested,” and suggested using the first six words as a title. I thought it was an improvement but, after much debate, we wound up back on the train tracks (which sounds dangerous). Maybe when you read it you can offer us an improvement.

Just for fun, here are some of my favorite titles of mystery novels. You can add your picks in the comments.

  • The Big Boat to Bye-Bye, by Ellis Weiner
  • The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  • Bimbos of the Death Sun, by Sharyn McCrumb
  • Fletch Won, by Gregory Mcdonald
  • Friday the Rabbi Went Hungry, by Harry Kemelman
  • I, the Jury, by Mickey Spillane
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Last Camel Died at Noon, by Elizabeth Peters
  • The League of Frightened Men, by Rex Stout
  • The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover, by Kinky Friedman
  • Mackerel by Moonlight, by William Weld
  • The Man Who Would be F. Scott Fitzgerald, by David Handler
  • A Murder Is Announced, by Agatha Christie
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré
  • When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, by Lawrence Block
  • Who the Hell is Wanda Fuca? by G. M. Ford

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“Making Choices and Bridging Gaps: Writing Historical Fiction” by Anna Castle

 

Anna Castle writes two historical series: The Francis Bacon Mysteries and the Professor & Mrs. Moriarty Mysteries. She has a BA in Classics, MS in Computer Science, and PhD in Linguistics, and has worked a variety of careers (including in waitressing, in software engineering, as an assistant professor, and as an archivist). Here she talks about writing historical fiction and her story “For Want of a Book” from the current issue.

This post was prompted by Linda Landrigan’s question about the way I spelled the name of an historical figure in my short story, “For Want of a Book,” set in the late Elizabethan period. The character in question is the well-known Sir Walter Raleigh, who evidently spelled his name “Ralegh” more often than not. Spelling wasn’t fixed in those days; a standard English orthography took centuries to achieve, not beginning in earnest until long after Raleigh’s death. Historians these days write “Ralegh,” so I did too, in my first Francis Bacon mystery novel. Linda’s question made me revisit that issue and decide to go the other way. Readers of fiction don’t care that much about trends in historiography. Next time someone asks that question, I’ll probably flip back again—which, come to think of it, is the most historically accurate response of all!

Writing historical fiction is full of such minor leaps. The historical record is rarely complete enough for the full quotidian texture of a short story, much less a novel. I’m a bona fide Elizabethan history nerd with an excellent university library at my disposal, but even so, I make something up with each new person or place. My goal is to make my inventions blend invisibly into the documented realities.

Walking through my story in this month’s issue supplies an array of examples. I invented Francis Bacon’s desire to re-read Lucretius’s De rerum natura. No list of Bacon’s books exists, alas. He must have had an extensive library, but it apparently disappeared onto the shelves of his friends upon his death. It’s impossible that he wasn’t fully familiar with Lucretius, however, like every other well-educated man in England.

I know how bookshops smelled, thanks to works like James Raven’s The Business of Books: Booksellers and the English Book Trade 1450-1850 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.) But I have to invent the layout of the shop, which nobody bothered to describe. I also assume they shipped books and paper in barrels; they used barrels for everything in those days. Plus I like the word—it sounds round.

Happily, titles and authors of books of all kinds are preserved for all time in many places. I snag the ones that catch my eye as I’m reading history books and keep them in a list. I like to know what my characters are reading. And once I have a title, I can often find the document itself, either at Google Books or Early Modern Books Online. Yes, it’s a distraction, but I’m curious, and sometimes it’s fun to deploy a quote to give readers a taste of the real McCoy.

I can look at the images from Pietro Aretino’s Sixteen Postures, still shockingly explicit, on my screen while Bacon and his bookseller turn the pages in the shop. I can snag images from the Grotesque alphabet in mythological landscapes for my blog, thanks to the British Museum. But again, I don’t know what the interior of a mercer’s shop really looked like. I know they sold all sorts of luxury items, so I invent a few for show.

From “the grotesque alphabet in mythological landscapes.” The British Museum.

I do know where to put an upscale shop—in Thomas Gresham’s beautiful new Royal Exchange. I can look at a drawing of that important building made in the mid-seventeenth century on Wikipedia. How cool is that! I can pick a place to put my shop, upstairs on the corner, away from the whores and above the dust. I adore location-hunting in the past.

The Royal Exchange. Wikipedia.

I can chart a course from Gray’s Inn on the western fringe of the metropolis to St. Paul’s and from there to Billingsgate and back with perfect factuality, thanks to Adrian Proctor and Robert Taylor’s indispensable A to Z of Elizabethan London (Harry Margary, Lympne Castle, Kent, 1979.)

Edward de Vere, 1575. Wikipedia.

Thanks to that resource, I know where Edward de Vere lived, some of the time. I have to invent the interior, but not the earl’s atrocious character, thanks to Alan Nelson’s biography, Monstrous Adversary: The life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford ( Liverpool University Press, 2003.) Many of the earl’s letters were preserved. They’ve been transcribed and annotated, thanks in some part to the Oxford Authorship Society, a group of people who believe Edward de Vere wrote many of the plays commonly attributed to William Shakespeare. And now we’ve arrived at an interpretation requiring far greater leaps over historical gaps than I would ever dare to make.

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“Plotting a Dark and Twisty” by Jane K. Cleland

AHMM readers will be familiar with Jane K. Cleland‘s Josie Prescott Antiques Mysteries, both at novel and short-story length. Jane also writes about business communications, and her book Mastering Suspense, Structure, and Plot won the 2017 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction. Here she talks about suspenseful storytelling in a darker vein and her tale “Night Flight to Bali” from the September/October 2017 issue.

“Night Flight to Bali” is unlike anything I’ve written before. My long-running Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery series falls firmly into the traditional mystery genre. Cozies are firmly within my bailiwick, yet I want to write darker.

Darkness in storytelling derives from longing. Who longs for what and what are they willing to do to get it? It’s all about a deeply felt yearning that can’t be denied: This is true about all crime fiction, of course, but in dark and twisty crime fiction, the longing is closer to the surface.

“Night Flight to Bali” tells the story of Sabrina and Sam, a couple in love, a couple determined to be free. Sabrina will do anything to marry her soulmate, Sam. Sam will do anything to get rich. Sabrina longs for love, to belong to a man; Sam longs for independence, for the freedom that only money can buy. Since Sam doesn’t want anything Sabrina has to offer except money, her efforts to satisfy her longing are doomed to fail.

In plotting “Night Flight to Bali,” I aimed to introduce a plot twist every few hundred words or so. I use the phrase “plot twist” as an umbrella term, by the way, summarizing three specific plotting techniques, which I refer to as TRDs. (I wrote about TRDs in my Agatha-Award winning book, Mastering Suspense, Structure & Plot.) The three TRDs are:

  • plot Twists, something that takes your story sidewise
  • plot Reversals, something that takes your story in the opposite direction
  • moments of heightened Danger, something that adds urgency and dread to the story

I set out to use a variety of TRDs, the more the better, weaving them in every few hundred words or so. By showcasing Sabrina and Sam’s longings, my goal was to create a story that, because it was so twisty, got readers thinking about the unexpected and essentially fluid nature of authenticity—in art and in love.

One of the stand-out moments of my career was when Linda Landrigan, editor-in-chief of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, emailed me that she was going to publish “Night Flight to Bali,” She wrote: “Love it! So dark and twisty.” I shouted “Yes!” to my computer monitor, then did a happy dance around the room.

I hope you enjoy the story, my first effort at writing raw.

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“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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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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