Category Archives: Uncategorized

Look Back in Envy by John Paxton Sheriff

The older we get, the more we look back and yearn for the good old days—usually forgetting that the good old days were what we used to complain about when we were struggling through them. But for some of those people involved in writing for a living the past is beginning to look more and more attractive, the frustration with the present day’s mounting difficulties making many wish they really had left school pursuing their ambition to be bin men—or whatever they’re called nowadays.

The people looking back with nostalgia are the freelance writers, those earning a living by selling articles and stories to newspapers and magazines in the UK and elsewhere. For the freelancer, the world has changed dramatically. The freelance photographer is also affected by those changes. Suddenly, publishers who would answer quickly and pay reasonably well for articles and photographs are able to get almost everything free. Just as some people will do anything at all to see themselves grinning and capering on television, so there are millions of people worldwide willing to accept zero payment for articles or photographs. Their reward is to see their literary or photographic efforts published in the pages of a magazine—which means another letter of rejection pops through yet another hard-working professional’s letter box.

Or perhaps not.

Perhaps it’s an email, pinging.

Or perhaps it’s . . . well, nothing at all.

Before I moved into novel writing, I used to concentrate on writing and selling short stories. Several were accepted by Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, bless them, and my latest will be published in AHMM in the March 2023 issue. That magazine, and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, remain unchanged apart from alterations in design, format, and the number of issues published each year. The quality of their crime stories was and is exceptional (and that’s me blowing my own trumpet!). However, their response times when a story is submitted now varies greatly, from weeks to several months.

It was inevitable

We all know the reason for the sometimes long delay between submission (as in sending in, not giving up) and reply. All kids nowadays pop out of the womb with fingers punching the keys on laptops, tablets or smart phones; and, since word processors came onto the scene, manuscripts fluttering about in editors’ offices are like plagues of locusts. And another reason why work might be rejected is that magazines publishing anything that takes more than ten seconds to read can be counted on the fingers of one hand—with a calculator, of course.

Did I mention that as well as markets disappearing, standards are dropping?

This, by the way, is not a rant by a frustrated author sitting staring at a blank screen. Back in 1995, after decades of writing articles and short stories, my novels began selling. In the twenty-seven odd years since then I’ve had sixty published, plus several non-fiction books on writing technique. Most have gone to large-print editions, but although the sheer volume of work puts me in the top 3% for PLR (Public Lending Right) earnings here in the UK, I’m still undeniably a mid-list writer. Or perhaps that’s me having delusions of grandeur. But whatever it is, I mentioned all that because it does lead neatly into another topic.

Look Back with Resignation

A friend of mine (now deceased) began selling novels some 30 years ago. The genre doesn’t matter, but at that time he got a flat fee for each book he sold. Since then, let’s say it’s from 1985 to the present day, average incomes for staff in most publishing firms have probably increased tenfold—and even that might be a conservative estimate. But my friend was a writer, an author, one of those unique, indispensable talents without which no publisher would have a business. So my friend’s flat fee for his novels didn’t increase tenfold, nor even fivefold. There was no increase at all. He was getting, in his final writing days, exactly what he got in 1985, which means that his flat fee had been decimated: it really was worth one tenth of what it was back then.

Remember? The good old days?

We talked from time to time, he and I. And, as you’ve probably twigged by now, we both wrote for the same publisher (now also gone to the happy hunting ground) so everything I’ve said about my friend applies equally to me. You’ll also have worked out that I’m way past retirement age, the income from writing doesn’t really matter. A hobby’s a hobby—and I appear to be stuck on one of those horses.

I’ll stay in the saddle for the moment, because I haven’t yet mentioned the internet. Not because I don’t use it, but because it’s too damned vast to comprehend. Yes, there are new markets out there. And, yes, some of them pay quite well. But it occurred to me the other day when thinking about magazines made from paper covered in real print that if college students can download essays and paste them into their exam papers, surely magazine editors could do the same. Find articles—I’m talking non-fiction here – in the bottomless Blue Nowhere and paste them on to the pages of their magazine. Because there used to be something called the public domain. I presume it still exists. But couldn’t that term apply to the internet? There are domain names, after all. And if anything is public, surely it’s the wonderful worldwide web (wwww?).

I mentioned falling standards a little earlier, and with written work that can be difficult to judge. But I also mentioned photography and, although everything is subjective, there the decline is quite clear. In the past, the covers of the magazines we’ve been talking about nearly always used images taken with medium- or large-format cameras, and the clarity was amazing. Then along came digital cameras. Suddenly everything was so simple. Images arrived at editorial offices as digital files sent as attachments to emails, and could be pasted straight on to a magazine’s pages. Convenient, but the cost was in loss of quality. Grass and distant trees began to look like watercolour smudges. Flesh tones could be peculiar. As for definition, that’s always been limited by the magazine printing process, but it’s been estimated that for a digital file to equal the clarity and definition of even a 35mm film transparency, it must be taken by a camera with a 25 megapixel plus sensor, at the very least. Nowadays that figure is beginning to look old hat (think mobile phones), and yet . . .

Which brings us back to the writing

If magazine covers are not what they used to be, what about the inside pages? Should we assume that the same drop in standards is evident there? And not because our (the professional writers) standards are dropping, but because—and here I’ll use a word I hate—some material is sourced from non-professionals willing to work for nothing. It can be understood—barely—but it fills a space, it’s free, so it’s used.

So where does all this leave us—or, to be more specific, those who need to earn their living from freelance writing? Soldiering on is probably the right term. If looking back nostalgically is always a waste of time, surely looking forward with optimism is to be preferred—isn’t it?

I’ll let a well known writer have the last word on that:

The man who is a pessimist before forty-eight knows too much;

If he is an optimist after it, he knows too little.

Mark Twain, Notebook (1935)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Problem of Plot by Bob Tippee

by Bob Tippee

Years ago, I attended a geophysical society’s convention with a smart, amiable guy who had moved to Texas from the East Coast to run business operations for the trade magazine I edited. Because the convention addressed oil and gas exploration, my colleague, as most newcomers would, expected the event to feature the metal and muscle of drilling, the clattering work with which most people are at least vaguely familiar. It was amusing to watch his preconceptions implode as we cruised exhibit-area displays of humming supercomputers, colorful seismic records, three-dimensional earth models, and demonstrations of virtual-reality and visualization technologies then in their infancy–with nary a drill bit or hardhat in sight.

The memory of this awakening of the uninitiated helped me contrive “Imperfect Data.” I wanted to write a story of detection to prove I still could do it. I had succeeded with that type of story once before with “Intensity” in the May 1994 issue of AHMM. Since then, however, I have avoided writing traditional whodunits, much as I enjoy reading them. The subgenre’s prominence of plot discourages me. When I conjure stories, plot tries to overpower the process. If I let that happen, overdeveloped problems strangle underdeveloped characters and everything stalls. I have to force myself to concentrate on characterization, conflict, and consequences and let plot simply evolve. For stories of detection, that approach doesn’t work.

With “Imperfect Data,” I uncharacteristically free-reined plot and encountered another hurdle. I knew my sleuths and had invented a hybrid investigative role for them. I knew I wanted them to grapple with corporate espionage leading to murder. I knew how and why the crimes would occur. But the elements needed a framework within which to interact and come alive.

An exotic setting, I knew, can lend structure and energy to otherwise disparate story fragments. Yet corporate espionage inescapably occurs in, well, corporations, stereotypically uncolorful palaces of cautious uniformity. How could I make a corporate setting exotic?

It was while struggling with that question that I recalled the way my colleague brightened in his first brush with the multihued electro-abstraction of modern geoscience. Like him, most mystery readers probably lack exposure to the arcane world of exploration geophysics and its principal tool: the seismic survey. In simplest possible terms, seismic surveys use reflected sound to make pictures of the dark, complicated realm deep below our feet. The collection and interpretation of seismic data are intricate, computationally intensive activities conducted by powerfully degreed scientists, mathematicians, and computer wizards. Much of the interpretive work occurs in “visualization centers” able to simulate immersion in the underground–or “subsurface” as the pros prefer. To readers in an electrifying culture lately reverential of all things STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), a geophysical corporation centered on a high-tech visualization center might, I thought, feel exotic.

A geophysical setting further helped by fortifying an analogy already shaping my ideas about the story. Deciding where and where not to drill oil and gas wells is much like investigating crimes. Both activities attempt to solve inaccessible puzzles. Criminal investigations use physical evidence at hand to formulate hypotheses about phenomena inaccessible in time. Geophysical methods use indirect observations to analyze rock layers inaccessible in visual space. Criminal investigations recreate the past. Geophysical methods depict the unseeable.

I worked some of this high-wire comparison into “Imperfect Data” but tried not to get carried away with it. The story does not (I think) depend on it. The creation of the story, though, most certainly did. An undergirding analogy, I have found many times, can leverage ideas and illuminate meanings. I’ll squeeze this detection-geophysics analogy for one more confession about the making of “Imperfect Data.” Detection and exploration geophysics both must accommodate uncertainty and approximation. Typical crime-scene evidence is haphazardly distributed and physically disturbed. Geophysical recordings are scrambled by subsurface irregularities and limited in precision by length of the foremost assessment mechanism: a sound wave. For these and other reasons, detectives and geophysicists alike must be comfortable with sparse information and flawed measurement. My title pays homage to the courage of anyone who acts decisively–in criminal investigations, in geophysical evaluations, or in life–while acknowledging that decision parameters sometimes are wrong.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

“Feasting With Felonies” by Robert Lopresti

It was just over ninety-five years ago, December 1927, that The Royal Magazine published a short story by Agatha Christie called “The Tuesday Night Club.”  It marked the first appearance of one of Christie’s most long-lasting sleuths, the shrewd village spinster, Jane Marple.

But the story marked another kind of first (as far as I can determine) and that is what I want to discuss.  In the tale a group of friends gather and one of them tells a yarn of murder, encouraging the others to solve the crime.  After all the clever, erudite people admit to being stumped Miss Marple reveals the solution.

This story is an example of what we might call the Least Likely Detective motif, but it is certainly not the first of those.  They go back at least to G.K. Chesterton’s invention of Father Brown in 1910.

No, I am referring to what we might call the Armchair Detective Club, where one member of a group tells a tale and the others are invited to solve it.  Christie wrote a whole book of these tales, published as The Thirteen Problems, and in the U.S. as The Tuesday Club Murders.

The next example I could find that seems to fit the category is a novel by E. and M.A. Radford called Death and the Professor (1961). I haven’t read it but it involves regular meetings of the Dilettantes Club, where a member called the Professor solves the enigmas.

A few years later Ellery Queen (the author) invented the Puzzle Club, whose members devised fictional criminal tales to be solved by Ellery Queen (the character).  Josh Pachter recently added five more stories to this series and The Adventures of the Puzzle Club was published as a book by Crippen and Landru last year.

In 1972 Isaac Asimov wrote “The Acquisitive Chuckle,” introducing the Black Widowers, an organization inspired by the Trap Door Spiders, a club he belonged to.  In this story a guest at the club’s monthly dinner posed a mystery which could only be solved by the waiter, Henry.

The tale featured a nice surprise but not as big a shock as Asimov received when the story appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and editor Frederick Dannay announced it was the first in a series.  That was news to its author.

But the ever-prolific Asimov was up to the challenge.  He wrote more than sixty tales of the Black Widowers, filling five books. (And by the way, he acknowledged Christie’s Tuesday Club as his inspiration.)  In each tale the shrewd and sophisticated club members pose countless theories on the crime, only to be upstaged by modest Henry, a classic Least Likely Detective.

The fun of dine-and-detect stories, of course, is that they are fair play tales (you know everything the detective does!), with the extra benefit of continuing characters interacting.

I contributed my own piece to the subgenre with a story about a group of “underemployed private eyes” who met in a bar to armchair-investigate the torching of a dollhouse.  “A Small Case of Arson” appeared in P.I. Magazine in 1991.  Alas, as occurred so often in what I laughingly call my writing career, I couldn’t think of a second adventure for the gumshoes.

But a few years ago I was pondering this subgenre and the writer chunk of my brain suddenly kicked in with a question: Why not reverse it?

These stories are always based on good guys trying to figure out how a crime was committed, or by whom.  What if the club members were all criminals and the storyteller challenged them to figure out how he had pulled off his latest caper?

That sounded like fun. The result is “The Accessories Club,” appearing in the March/April issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. And unlike the fate of my sad, orphaned private eye characters, I have already written a sequel for this sneaky crowd to lurk in.  I don’t know whether it will see the light of publication, but you can read the first tale now and see what you think.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Janice Law on writing “The Bosky Dell”

(Janice Law’s illustration of El Gordo, a character in her latest story for AHMM, “The Bosky Dell”)

“The Bosky Dell” was an unusual story for me, because the idea arrived nearly complete. No little hint of an idea followed by a frustrating search for what should come next. No big revisions needed, no second thoughts. There on two handwritten pages of my writing notebook was the whole thing, characters, setting, and, always most difficult for me, plot. A real gift of the Muse.

This was odd in one way, because I do few stories with any touch of the supernatural. Fantasy isn’t my thing, and like Steve, the true crime writer in “The Bosky Dell,” I have little enthusiasm for the elf realm and the stories of princes and princesses that feature so profitably in his Martha’s literary output. 

But certain things are universal. Who among us has not wanted to a do over? A mulligan in golf, a word unsaid, an act undone. Or regretted, conversely, some sin of omission? Writers, especially writers like Steve and most of the rest of us of the middling sort, are very prone to this desire. With so many scribblers of equivalent talent, success and profit do often depend on lucky reviews, powerful contacts, chance meetings, or good timing. 

Absent these, writers can easily fall, as Steve does, into envy, condescension, and bitterness. Against all his principles, he passes through the bosky dell that his wife sees as a charming fairyland feature of their property into another time and place. 

He discovers what the previous owner had hinted at: opportunity. In his case, the opportunity to secure the narco killer’s interview that, Steve is sure, would have made his first book a success and changed his life.

This turn of plot produced the second thing different about this story, namely the need to create a plausible, yet not totally realistic, alternate time line with a plausible, but not strictly realistic, El Gordo, the flamboyant killer. Logically, he should have been based in Mexico or Colombia or in some obscure corner of the States. 

I drew instead on a visit to Chile, to the far south, reflected in the name of our hotel, Finisterra, the end of the earth. The architecture looks Scottish—a product of the Scots sheep men who settled there. The country side is open and windswept; the night sky, unfamiliar and only sparsely populated by stars. 

I tried for a sense of difference, of things being not quite what they seem in that part of The Bosky Dell, because time travel would certainly represent a profound psychological shift, such as Steve experiences. We are not, after all, Dr. Who, for whom traversing an eon or two before lunch is all in a day’s work. Time travel is unnatural, and just as in the dark old fairy tales, the unnatural must be paid for.

This story also illustrated something about the limits of my imagination. Just for my own amusement, I sometimes do illustrations for my work, and my new iPad and drawing program make this easy. I tried three times to do a bosky dell, none were satisfactory. But when I turned to El Gordo with his pastel leisure suit and his Chihuahuas, I had no trouble. Magic landscapes are not my thing, but crooks and killers of the literary, and apparently the graphic, persuasion are right down my alley.

****

Janice Law’s The Falling Men, a novel with strong mystery elements, has been issued as an ebook on Amazon Kindle. Also on kindle: The Complete Madame Selina Stories.

The Man Who Met the Elf Queen with two other fanciful short stories and 4 illustrations and The Dictator’s Double, 3 short mysteries and 4 illustrations, are available from Apple Books.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

“The Poet Laureate of Dagus Mines” and Other Happy Accidents by Dennis McFadden

A funny thing happened on my way to publishing a best-selling crime novel: My agent said it stunk.

Well, not in so many words. But that was the message that came through. The way he all but held his nose when he talked about it with me was one clue, and, sadly, that wasn’t the only one. (I’m good at picking up on clues. I write mysteries.) His refusal to even consider sending it around was another, as was the unceremonious way he dumped me less than a year later. (To unceremonious I might add rude and unprofessional, considering he was not working out of his garage—I don’t think—but, rather, was an agent with an established and venerable New York City literary agency.)

[Sidebar: I know you’re curious as to how an agent in an established and venerable agency rudely and unprofessionally dumps his client. He quit answering my emails is how. That was it. The old silent treatment. No explanations, no I’m-sorry-buts, no letting me down gently. Just the silence that follows after you drop your email down an empty well. After about a year or so, I finally took the hint (I’m better at picking up clues than hints).]

So there I was, with no agent, and a spanking new crime novel.

Well, I figured I’d show him. What did he know? Here I was, an established crime writer, having had a goodly number of stories published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and in The Best American Mystery Story series. Not to mention national literary journals galore. I waited a couple of months to let it settle, worked on other things, cleared my mind. Then I got out the novel, dusted it off, and dived back in.

That’s when another funny thing happened. I found myself agreeing with my agent. My ex-agent. The book actually did kind of stink a little. I might have stopped answering my emails too.

Maybe I could have salvaged it. Maybe I could have made it . . . if not best-selling, then at least publishable. But it would have taken a lot of work, and I’m getting old. Old enough to avoid buying ripe bananas. Too old to be diving back into lengthy projects.

In desperate times such as those, you tend to remember the words of your grandmother. Or, if not your own grandmother, the words of some grandmother somewhere. Now, I know a lot of grandmothers tend to speak in cliches such as waste not, want not, or when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Or when the going gets tough, the tough get going, or use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without. That sort of thing.

Not my grandmother. What my grandmother once told me was, Denny, when you write a novel that’s not very good, and you’re not inclined to invest the time and effort to try and make it better, you should see if you can’t at least glean a good short story or two out of it.

Well, not in so many words. But that was the message that came through.

To make a long story short, I made a long story short.

As a matter of fact, I made a long story two shorts. I put on my gleaning hat and sat down and picked out a couple of plot lines, a few good scenes, some dialogue and characters, and carefully excised them from the novel that stunk, harvesting two short stories that apparently did not. One was already published, and the other is “The Poet Laureate of Dagus Mines,” included in the March/April issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

Don’t miss it. You’ll enjoy it more than you would a bad crime novel.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Who is This Person? by Susan Oleksiw

Whenever I’m asked the standard questions for writers such as “Where do you get your ideas?” or “Do you write by hand or on a computer?” I tend to give standard answers. These aren’t all that imaginative or accurate. “Everywhere you look there’s a story,” or “I saw a woman on the subway and thought she looked like someone who worked in the back of” fill in the blank. I can’t use any of the usual replies for Ginny Means, however, the main character in my short story in the November/December 2022 issue of AHMM. I’m not sure where she came from.

Family stories play a role in our lives by teaching us how the adults in our world behave, what they believe in and would work or fight for, but often the story carries another lesson, one that may be unintended but is far more potent. Those were the kinds of stories my father told. When he reminisced about the farm where my brothers and I were born, I scarfed up his stories about the other farmers, their quirks and histories. One in particular stayed with me.

This was a hair-raising tale about a Swedish farmer, someone he admired immensely, who had one nearly fatal flaw. That incident rattled around in my head for years until its usefulness became clear. I wrote “How Do You Know What You Want?” for the AHMM March/April 2017 issue with an unnamed walk-on character because I needed a social worker in child welfare to deliver a foster child to a farm family. I didn’t think to name her at the outset but remember distinctly describing her outfit because though she made more money than most of her foster parents (and it wasn’t a lot), she knew a social worker shouldn’t dress like it. Ginny Means, finally named, appeared to do the job, and I didn’t expect to see her again.

Opening the door to the peculiar, sometimes heart-breaking stories I was privy to in that job as a social worker in child welfare had unexpected consequences. Clients—both foster parents and foster children—I had long forgotten about tumbled into my brain, and their histories transformed into stories far more complex than anything they’d ever lived through. The second story in what was verging on a series came in the November/December 2019 issue. “Just Another Runaway” zeroed in on one of the recurring issues with foster teens—the boys who run away and are never found. Some join the army, glad to have regular work hours, square meals, and clear boundaries for their lives, while others set out to find birth parents or a single friend who moved away.

Young women were also prone to the same questions as the teenage boys—what were they going to do in their lives as adults? One girl in my caseload was determined to join the church as a nun, to the skepticism of those around her who didn’t believe she had a calling. That’s the inspiration for “The Deacon’s Mistake.”

The Ginny Means stories aren’t about any of the individual foster children or families I knew, but rather about the issues their lives raise for the rest of us. I don’t have the answers, but I continue to poke and prod a system that hasn’t changed much in the last fifty years. Over the decades we’ve developed new terms, new best-practices, new agencies, but the problems remain the same, expressions of intractable human nature that continue to defy our best solutions.

Now that Ginny Means has moved into my imagination, I want to know more about her. To that end I’ve put her in a novel, or at least a first draft. She’s turning out to be different from what I expected, and I’m enjoying discovering who she is.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Finding Trouble in “Elvis Duty” by Matthew Wilson

The first mystery story I published was “Burg’s Hobby Case” in the Department of First Stories, over at Alfred Hitchcock’s sister publication, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It features Hans Burg, an aging German detective haunted by his war memories. I had set the story in 1977 in the spa town of Bad Kissingen. I was a kid in Bad Kissingen in 1977, brought there by my father’s work as a soldier in the U.S. Army, so I knew it through a kid’s eyes, and it was fun to imagine an intriguing, grown-up suspense story taking place at that time and in that place.

I was so fond of Burg, that I decided to write a few more stories with him as my lead. But instead of setting them all in the 1970s, something I had seen done by Martin Limón with his Sueño and Bascom series set in South Korea, I decided I wanted to move Burg around a bit, to imagine him at different moments his career, and I decided on the time frame of 1945-1989. I find these years particularly interesting in the history of modern Germany, from the moment the war ended and the Third Reich crumbled, through the years of two Germanys, to the night the Berlin Wall fell (or as the historian Mary Elise Sarotte suggests, accidentally opened).

In my notebook, I started jotting down ideas, and these came out as sentence fragments: A Cadillac joyride in Bad Kissingen. Honor among pickpockets. A Bad Kissingen war widow and her suitors. A defector takes a spa. Ideas like these often go nowhere. They are only momentary flights of imagination. Sometimes I take one of these ideas and write a few paragraphs, not a story at all, but more like a rough treatment of a story, often with a beginning, some trouble in the middle, but no specific ending. And then somehow, I’m not really sure how other than stubborn persistence, a whole story comes out. This is the case with my current story, “Elvis Duty.”

I started it with just this little fragment: Elvis comes to Bad Kissingen. I liked the idea because now, instead of the aging detective approaching retirement, Burg is in the middle of his career. It’s 1959 and the biggest pop star on the planet has made his way to Germany, and he happens to wind up in Burg’s spa town. Elvis in Germany has always intrigued me because of the family legend of my parents meeting him in the Munich Hauptbahnhof a few days after their wedding. My mother would say Elvis looked like other GIs except for the diamond rings on his fingers, and my father would say Elvis complimented his jacket. They were both boys from the South and they had similar tastes in style. This was a story I’d found thrilling as a child but grew skeptical of in adulthood. How many people exaggerate their brushes with the very famous? It was an idea I came to use to open the story, as you will see in the first paragraph. Later, I lost my skepticism after reading Peter Guralnuik’s Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. I was able to confirm that Elvis had, in fact, traveled to Munich on a three day pass around the same date as my parent’s wedding. So I thought, if my parents could meet Private Presley, so could Hans Burg.

Still, I needed a plot. That came to me from another story from my parents, and another book. When I was three years old, my mother left me and my two brothers in the care of a neighbor so she could travel to Hawaii to spend a week with my father, who had been granted R&R from his duty in Vietnam. All I can remember is crying for a week. But I’ve seen the pictures of them in their swimsuits on the beach in Waikiki, my mother with her fair skin, my father with arms and neck burned by the tropical sun of Southeast Asia. In my mother’s recollection, my father was jumpy at the sound of slamming doors. The banging must have echoed the explosions in a war he was only a few hours removed from, and to which he would soon return. My mother also remembered the pills. She said my father popped them in his mouth regularly, and when she asked about them, he said, “It’s just medicine.” She let it go at that, but she was suspicious.

Later, I read about the “pep pills” distributed to soldiers during my father’s war. In “The Drugs That Built a Super Soldier” (The Atlantic, April 18, 2016), Lukasz Kamienski describes how the Vietnam War became known as the “first pharmacological war.” But I discovered that was not quite accurate after reading Norman Ohler’s Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich. Ohler writes of the pervasive use of amphetamines in the German military, particularly during their rapid invasions of Poland and France. Because the German attacks relied so heavily on up-tempo movement of forces, there was no time to rest, so a systematic use of amphetamines allowed combatants to “go on working for thirty-six to fifty hours without feeling any noticeable fatigue.” The GIs in Germany in the 1950s were most likely introduced to similar “pep pills.” Indeed, Guralnuik notes of Elvis that “with the pills that a sergeant had introduced him to when they were on maneuvers at Grafenwöhr, he was so full of energy he never had to slow down.”

With Hans Burg a veteran of that German army of the Blitzkrieg, and with Elvis’s army of 1959 almost certainly dabbling in similar pharmaceuticals, I could see some trouble, and from that trouble, I could see my plot. Now, I just needed an ending, which I will leave for you to discover when you read “Elvis Duty” in this month’s Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I hope you enjoy it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Plumbing Your Past for Fun and Profit by Andrew Welsh-Huggins

As a person who came to mystery publication somewhat late in life—past fifty for both my first novel and first short story—my mantra by default occasionally feels closer to “write what you lived” than “write what you know.”

Before landing my first full-time journalism job, I moved around a lot, both as a single man and later with my wife. I learned Gaelic in a village on Ireland’s west coast, volunteered on a South Dakota Indian reservation, and attended graduate school and later taught English as a Second Language in Providence, Rhode Island. Each experience transformed me in its own way, engraining in me lessons of success and failure that guide me to this day.

Yet not just years but decades passed before I finally started writing about those eras, inspired by my budding mystery career and the simple march of time. In the spring of 2017, I used the annual New England Crime Bake call for stories to summon up a tale of the mid-1980s Providence that I remembered. Mining my memory banks, I spun a story—“The Murderous Type,” anthologized later that year—involving mobsters, illicit love and Brown University (not necessarily in that order).

Later that year, my wife and I flew to Spain to celebrate the wedding of our oldest daughter to her Barcelona husband. Returning to Europe for the first time since 1984, recollections of my year in Ireland flooded back. By the time our flight home touched down, I had outlined in my head a story—“The Path I Took,” published in 2020—of a young linguistics scholar from Ohio whose early 1980s sojourn in a Gaelic-speaking village takes a dark turn when he discovers a murder victim tied to “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland.

At that point, I realized I was two-thirds into a trilogy of sorts, a trio of unlinked stories based on experiences from my early twenties. I knew the last entry would involve South Dakota, and that it would be the hardest to write. Volunteering on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was life-changing to say the least, as my wife and I found ourselves thrust into a world vastly different from anything we’d known before—socially, economically, racially, and geographically. We departed after two years buoyed by the adventure but also questioning our role as white volunteers trying to “help” people who never asked for our assistance in the first place.

With these concerns in mind, I set out to draft what became “Ignatius Rum-and-Cola,” appearing in the January/February issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I stuck with my lived experience, setting the story on a fictional Jesuit mission similar to the one we called home for two years. I made the conscious decision to feature a tribal policeman, but just as consciously chose to tell the story through the eyes and experiences of the mission superintendent—a white Jesuit priest—and the white mission volunteers. I did this not to elevate him or the volunteers in my story to any sort of superior status, but to honestly portray my own time on Pine Ridge, and to avoid as much as possible any hint of cultural appropriation.

So what did I learn from writing this personal trilogy?

Writing about one’s past is liberating, but it’s not a free pass to storytelling. Just as I do when writing contemporary stories, I did research and consulted experts along the way, from a retired Providence cop, to an Irish language specialist, to my wife and fellow reservation volunteer, to make sure I had my facts right after thirty-odd years.

One’s lived experience is the framework for a story set in the past, but it’s only half the picture. All three of my stories added the flight of fancy of a murder mystery to what were otherwise interesting but highly personal experiences—read: possibly boring without the discovery of a body.

As a writer, give yourself time. Lots and lots of it. I tell novice authors to brace themselves for playing the long game, encouraging them that success will come but it could be years in the making. Or decades, in my case. But I can say with confidence: it’s worth the wait.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Inspired by a Soggy Shoe by Floyd Sullivan

One daughter turned forty years old, another thirty. Two milestone birthdays.

Let’s get together for a celebratory weekend in the Finger Lakes! What a great idea!

(Family fun on Keuka Lake. Photo by Jeanne Sullivan Meissner)

So we traveled to Keuka Lake, New York, from Brooklyn and Peekskill and Chicago and Trumansburg on Cayuga Lake and had a wonderful time frolicking in the water and the sun for a few days. My wife and I, four adult kids with spouses, six grandkids, and a family friend. But all good times end eventually. For our daughter Anne Lise, who lived on a neighboring lake, the end meant cleaning up the rented house she had found for us, and returning the keys to the real estate company. We all offered to help, but she insisted that we get started on our drives of four hours back to Brooklyn and ten hours to Chicago.

A couple of days after arriving home I received an email from Anne Lise with a photo attached. The message read, “Pops! Your next Rick Peters story! ‘Dead Man’s Shoe.'” The picture showed a lone athletic shoe on a pier. “Found this in the lake as we were cleaning up.”

I loved the title, but wondered how a single black Merrell shoe could translate into a Rick Peters story. Peters is the first person protagonist featured in most of my crime fiction, including “The Beano” (AHMM, Sept/Oct 2021) and other short stories, and one (so far) novel. He is a commercial photographer with a portfolio that includes images of everything from nudes for a men’s magazine to a guitar once owned by Eric Clapton (see “The Beano”). Taking another look at the picture, I wondered what the shoe could possibly have to do with a photographer.

Maybe I should create a new hero, or antihero, because if it’s Rick Peters’ shoe that would mean he was the dead man in the title and I would be saying goodbye to my favorite protagonist!

The thought of creating a new Rick Peters made me dizzy just then, so once again I brought the image up on my cell phone to ponder other possibilities. The connection hit me like a high inside fast ball. 

Picture . . . photographer.

Photograph . . . photographer.

Rick Peters . . . photographer.

Rick Peters took the photograph of the shoe! It wasn’t his shoe and foot at all!

Voilà!

So what? A single athletic shoe on a pier on a lake. Why would he take such a picture, especially since he normally works in the controlled lighting environment of a commercial studio? Quick cell phone captures are not his style at all. They make him nervous.

Then the picture wasn’t taken with a cell phone. Peters took it with a professional digital SLR camera.

The question arose in my somewhat addled mind, why was Peters in the Finger Lakes Region of Upstate New York in the first place? He works at a studio in Chicago. The answer to that question came to me when I asked myself, why were we on Keuka Lake that weekend?

For fun! A brief vacation!

Peters would be in Upstate New York for the same reason—to get away from it all for a week or so. Peace and quiet in a beautiful, dare I say picturesque, part of the country, far away from the big city and its crowds and noise and . . . crime?

Okay, there has to be a crime. But it’s just a shoe on a pier. How to turn a simple shoe into a dead man’s shoe, that was the question.

Maybe this: I’ll put a man’s foot in the shoe. A dead man’s foot.

But was that realistic? An athletic shoe washing up on a lake shore with a severed foot still inside? I googled “feet in shoes washing up” and immediately this sentence appeared at the top of my cell phone’s display: “Since 2007, nearly two dozen human feet have been found in sneakers unattached to bodies . . .”

It was possible. There was precedent. My photographer protagonist Rick Peters could be hired to take a picture of a shoe still holding a disembodied foot; hired by the local, small town police because they needed a professional to take high resolution photographs of the evidence of a potential crime, at the possible scene of that potential crime.

I had the initiating action for “Dead Man’s Shoe,” and a location. Luckily we visited our daughter and her husband in the Finger Lakes on a regular basis which made adding descriptive location details a more reliable task than depending on my memory or photographs.

Next, I needed characters. I had a foot in a soggy shoe, but the victim himself needed to be fleshed out, so to speak. And who would be the perp? Or perhaps perps? And what would his (her? their?) motive be? The solutions to those problems came as I worked on the first draft of the story.

After several more drafts, frequent proofing, and final minor revisions, I was ready to submit. Soon after I sent in the manuscript Editor Linda Landrigan sent me the happy email informing me that AHMM would like to acquire “Dead Man’s Shoe.”

Thanks for the inspiration, Anne Lise! Now, please send me more story ideas. Your first was hugely successful. Keep ’em coming!

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Steve Hockenmith on Life in the Slow Lane

I.

Write.

Slowly.

Slooooooooooooooow.

Ly.

That’s part of the reason I haven’t had a new book out in a few years. (The other reason: These days, I’ve found, editors respond even more slowly than I write.)

It took me a year to write my first novel, Holmes on the Range. Now, with twenty books under my bulging belt, I’ve gotten a little faster.

A novel the same length? About 85,000 words? Requiring lots of research and outlining? At my new, comparatively blistering rate, I could probably crank it out in . . . oh, let’s say eleven months, three weeks, six days, twenty-three hours, fifty-nine minutes. Give or take a minute.

I know I should write faster. How am I going to become the new James Patterson at this rate? That guy puts out three new books in the time it takes me to eat a Tootsie Pop. (In fairness, I eat Tootsie Pops slowly, too. I’m not one of those lunatics who cheat and bite it after three licks.)

Yet despite knowing that I need to develop the proverbial need for speed, I’m boldly going in reverse: I’ve embarked on my slowest, most drawn-out book project yet. Eleven months, three weeks, six days, twenty-three hours and some-odd minutes? Ha! That would be writing at warp speed compared to this. I don’t think I’m going to finish this book in less than a decade.

Which isn’t to say you’ll have to wait that long to read it. A chapter appeared in AHMM two years ago under the title “The Last Noel.” Another appeared in AHMM last year as “Do Not Open Till Christmas.” And now a third—“The Grown-Ups Table”—is appearing in the magazine, as well.

All three take place in River City, Indiana, in the days leading up to the same Christmas. And I guess it’s one messed-up Christmas, because I’ve written another crime story about it, as well. Hopefully it’ll pop up in AHMM one of these days . . . followed by a fifth River City Christmas story and a sixth and a seventh . . .

Ten should do the trick. Or maybe a dozen. That would have me finishing the book, at the earliest, in 2032.

Maybe by then we’ll all have holographic wreaths and sentient A.I. trees that decorate themselves. I leave it to someone writing for Asimov’s or Analog to explore that. Me—I’ll be writing about Christmas crime for Alfred Hitchcock . . . for a very long time.


Steve Hockensmith is the author of the Holmes on the Range mysteries, the Tarot Mystery series and a variety of other novels and collections. You can learn more about him (and how he’s managed to write so much despite being sooooooooo slow) at stevehockensmith.com.

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized