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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.

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Yes, But Why? by Marcelle Dubé

I recently moved to Alberta after 35 years in the Yukon. I love the Yukon—its wilderness and wildlife, the calibre of people it attracts, its artistic soul . . . The Yukon is in my blood and I would never have left it.

Except . . .

Except. That’s the thing, isn’t it? The why of someone’s actions. I’m an avid reader of crime reporting but news stories inevitably leave me frustrated. They almost never address the motivation behind the crime. And that, more than anything, is what I want to know.

Why did the real estate agent risk their career by facilitating fraud when it was so easy to get caught?

Why did the gang member shoot three innocent people before finally hitting their target? What was so vital about killing that one person that they were willing to kill innocents?

Why did the father choose to kill his children instead of walking away? Mental illness? To hurt his wife?

These questions baffle me, especially with the benefit of hindsight (“Yes, but why didn’t you do this instead?”). That’s why motivation is so important in my writing.

I have always thought of myself as a novelist, not a short story writer, though in the last few years, I’ve written more and more short fiction. Long or short, the question always remains the same: Why? What motivates my characters to do the things they do?

In The Shoeless Kid, the first of my Mendenhall Mysteries, brand new Chief Kate Williams finds herself wondering why an old homeless man would brave the police department to report a monster abducting a child if there wasn’t a kernel of truth in it. What she can’t admit—even to herself until much later—is that the case reminds her too much of an event early in her career where her lack of action led to a boy’s death.

In The A’lle Murders, the first in the A’lle Mystery series, Constance becomes the first A’lle investigator for Lower Canada. Her motivation for becoming one is to bring a regular pay cheque home to her family, but deep down, she wants to chip away at the discrimination she and all A’lle on Earth face, especially in Lower Canada.

Short story, novella or novel, the motivation for each character has to make sense. Don’t give me a character who does something just for the heck of it (or because the author needs the character to do it). The character may not know why he or she is doing it, or other characters in the story may not know, but the reader has to know. At least, eventually.

In Identity Withheld, my most recent standalone novel, all Cleo wants is to keep her parents safe from whatever has been chasing them all her life—even if it means lying to the police. Her motivation is crystal clear and drives all of her actions.

In “The Mittens,” my story in AHMM, Estelle Martin is the retired commanding officer for the Yukon RCMP. She’s based on a boss I once had, a woman close to six feet tall who strode through life like a Valkyrie. I wanted to be her when I grew up. But Estelle—Stella to everyone else—is unlike my former boss in that she is jaded, impatient and intolerant of stupidity. And she absolutely does NOT want to have anything to do with police work anymore. That part of her life is done.

So why does she get involved in the murder? It all has to do with the mittens.

As for me moving to Alberta, what could possibly have motivated me to leave my beloved Yukon? Well, it turns out Alberta is where they grow the grandchildren.

Best motivation of all.

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Tom Larsen on His Ever-Expanding Influences

I’ve always loved reading but my introduction to crime fiction didn’t come until I was in college—the same time I discovered The Blues. I bought my first Muddy Waters album at a used-records store in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and my first Raymond Chandler work—a short story anthology entitled The Red Wind—in a nearby used-bookstore. Just as I was hooked by the sound of Muddy’s voice growling the opening lines of “Blind Man Blues” I read this passage in the bookstore and I knew that I had to buy the book:

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”

Chandler led me to Hammett of course, and then McBain and the MacDonalds—John D. and Ross. Through the years I’ve read—and attempted to write—every kind of story imaginable, but I always seem to come back to crime fiction, specifically those in the Noir genre.

I think Netflix more than anything is responsible for piquing my interest in foreign authors. I’ve always loved British mysteries and at one point I stumbled upon a short-lived BBC series based on Ian Rankin’s John Rebus character. I’ve since read all the Rebus novels, and I’m currently awaiting the October release of “A Heart Full of Headstones”—Book # 24 in the series.

When I used to read Stephen King—I still think he’s a great writer, but I only have room in my head for so many 700-word novels—it wasn’t for the horror aspect but because of the characters and the sense of place. The same thing goes for Rankin. In all his Rebus novels, Edinburgh Scotland is as much a character as Rebus himself. Chandler’s L.A, McBain’s New York—I know he didn’t call it NYC, but c’mon—and the Russia of Martin Cruz Smith led me to Stieg Larrson’s Sweden and Jo Nesbø’s Norway.

As far as movies and series, I’ve now become a fan of Australian, Polish, German, and even Icelandic mysteries.

I am a huge fan of the Akashic Books series of Noir anthologies from around the world. Since I lived in Ecuador from 2014 to 2020, I particularly enjoy the South American anthologies. I even pitched an Ecuador Noir anthology to Akashic but alas, it was not to be.

I was able to create a series of my own featuring Wilson Salinas, an Ecuadorian P.I. I based the character—very loosely—on the Ecuadorian taxi driver who picked us up at our hotel in Guayaquil and took us on the four-hour drive through the Andes Mountains to our new home in Cuenca. Wilson’s exploits led me to the creation of another character. Capitán Ernesto Guillén of Ecuador’s policía nacional is a corrupt cop, but also an excellent detective.

Stories featuring these two characters have been published in AHMM, Mystery Tribune, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. Throughout these stories I’ve tried my best to give readers a sense of the beauty as well as the darkness and complexity of life in this wonderful country.

One of my favorite pastimes of late is to discover new authors in the genre—at least new to me. Over the past year I’ve discovered some fine authors who let you travel the world without leaving home: Caimh McDonnell—Ireland, Renee Pawlish—Denver, and Lee Goldberg—L.A. If you haven’t read anything by these authors, you owe it to yourself to check them out.

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Characters are People, Too by Sharon Hunt

What I have found most interesting to me as a writer is how my characters become real people, to me.  This is especially true of the characters in my fictional town of Ellisville, Ontario.

When I began the Ellisville Stories—of which there are currently four, featuring Detectives John Turner, Bruce MacDonald and Francie Jenkins, with a fifth one in the works—the first person to introduce himself was John Turner, the senior detective on the town’s police force.  He came to me almost fully formed, although bits and pieces of his character were still to be discovered, as the stories progressed.

He said he was “Turner” (although others called him by his first name). I realized that I would call him Turner, not only because that was how he introduced himself but, also, because he is an old-fashioned man in some ways and wouldn’t appreciate people he doesn’t yet know well—including his creator— calling him by his first name. (I grew up with a grandmother who didn’t appreciate familiarity from strangers, so I understood this immediately). Nor would he want me—or anyone—to call him “Mr. Turner” because that was his father, an abusive man who had made Turner’s childhood and his mother’s life a misery.  He would hate that association.  So, Turner it was and Turner it remains.

Bruce MacDonald, on the other hand, was just Bruce, from the beginning. Although he has as complicated a backstory as his best friend, John, he doesn’t mind if stranger or friend alike calls him Bruce.  I have to follow a character’s lead in such things.

I also have to follow a character’s lead when he or she exposes an unsavory side that I didn’t see coming (this is especially true in my story “A Stranger in The House”, in the September/October issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine).  I didn’t see the unsavory side of Francie Jenkins, who worked alongside Turner and Bruce for many years, until it appeared in this story.

It was as much a shock to me as it was to Turner, who had quickly advised that Francie Jenkins was the best detective he had ever worked with, as well as a good friend. He trusted her implicitly. Bruce, who for a short time had been in a personal relationship with her, also thought he knew her well. Both men were shaken when Francie turned out to be a stranger to them. So was I.

Originally, I hadn’t intended to give her such a prominent role in these stories, as I wanted to concentrate on the relationship between Turner and Bruce, partners at work and friends for decades.  I was interested in discovering what a longstanding friendship between two men, carrying burdens of childhood trauma, broken relationships and the deaths of people they loved, might look like.   

Then, Francie stepped up and said, “Here I am and I’m not going to take a back seat,” and she quickly came to the fore.  I liked her.

When she went over “to the dark side” or, more truthfully, returned to it, I kept trying to figure out a way to lure her back into the light, but by the end of “A Stranger in the House,” I admitted defeat and let her be who she was.  To have dismissed that, in hopes of forcing her to be the character I first imagined her to be, would have been to be untrue to her and to the story; still, I mourned Francie, not only because I loved her intelligence and wit but also because of what she first represented to me, a character who believes that things will work out well, in the end. Turner and Bruce were always leery of such as that. 

Eventually, though, a character, like a person, shows you their true nature and things work out as they will. I am looking forward, though, to seeing how things work out with these three people in the next Ellisville story.

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The Tales We Tell by Michael Nethercott

In thinking back, perhaps it was that story my mother once read aloud, the one which lurks now just beyond the grasp of remembrance. All I can tell you is that it had something to do with a deep woodland, wandering children, and shadowy mystic creatures—elves? gnomes? fairies?—and that it touched something in me that has never fully left. Like a wispy mist drifting on the far edge of a town.

Or, more concretely, it could have been that film The Magic Sword, an early sixties, low budget affair (which somehow managed to land Basil Rathbone) about a group of knights on a far-flung, danger-laden quest. That movie with its armor-clad band of brothers and seven curses/obstacles deeply struck a chord in my six-year-old self.

Or it could even have been the thousand-and-one tales overheard from the horde of uncles and aunts in my sprawling Irish-American family. They were tales of a lost land, old customs, rebel grandparents, and, of course, ghosts. Many, many ghosts. True ghosts, it was claimed, ones “seen with my own eyes.”

Yes, any of those things might have fueled my desire to tell stories (like peat blocks tossed upon a cottage fire). And quite probably all played their part. But one specific memory, which seems almost too idyllic not to be contrived, is an image that I link directly to my life as a teller of stories, as a writer. In my boyhood Connecticut home, just beyond a sliver of a brook, stood a line of pine trees, perhaps a dozen in all, separating our land from the neighbors’. At some point in my adolescence, I took to going out to that lonesome stretch and sitting with a book. No doubt, a few volumes made it out there with me, but my most frequent companion was a brick-red hardcover called The Family Album of Favorite Poems.

As the fairly corny title suggests, this collection, first printed in 1959, was a gathering of chestnuts. The usual suspects were all there, from Shelly to Whitman to Frost, with stopovers at Dickinson and Kipling. The collection wouldn’t pass modern muster, what with its lack of diversity and experimentation, but it served then to enamor me to the written word. The section I chiefly gravitated to was Chapter XII: Story Poems and Ballads. There I first encountered such worthies as The Raven, The Highwayman, Casey at the Bat, The Cremation of Sam McGee, and the epic The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. All of these offered full tales, with points of departure and arcs and outcomes.

The summons to narrative was compelling—Listen, my children, and you shall hear Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere—and, as instructed, I did listen. I not only read those story poems, I memorized several, further strengthening my bond with them. And just to jack up the romance of that lad-among-the-trees imagery, I’d pluck the old brown pine needles from the forest floor and use them as bookmarks. True.

At some point early on, I made the transition from absorbing these tales to wanting to create them. Composition assignments in grammar school paved the way for this; for example, I recall some noble fledgling effort about a spaceship called Pegasus. The first fully realized short story I wrote—with the emphasis on short—came when I was a high school freshman. I don’t think it was assigned, though, just something I felt drawn to do. It was a three part tale, each section from a different character’s viewpoint, and I still remember the title: “Memory of a Storm on the Irish Sea, 1913.” Poetic? Pretentious? Overwrought? To this day, by God, I stand by it. The title was arguably the best thing about the story. That said, my plot of a doomed fisherman did hint at something worthwhile, and I’ve retained enough it that I may actually try to give it new life someday. What I like about that title, I think, is that it could be something I’d currently conjure up for one of my stories. For better or worse, my sensibilities as a writer have shown some consistency over all these years.    

 At its heart, storytelling is, I believe, not an indulgence but a human necessity. On the heels of any joy, tragedy, or absurdity, often comes an urgent need to recount what befell us. It’s not enough for the knight to live through a curse/challenge/merriment, he must share it with his fellows in the mead hall. Speaking of mead, several years back I was chatting with my adult daughter and, for whatever reason, I brought up the fact that she’d never seen her father drunk. Mildly tipsy perhaps, but never inebriated. I added that on those rare times, mostly in my youth, when I had imbibed too much, I was never a particularly moody drunk nor an insulting one nor certainly not a combative one. I would just start telling stories without stopping. On hearing this, my daughter stared at me and, without missing a beat, said, “My God, you’ve been drunk my whole life.” I think that sums up my place as a storyteller pretty well.

Moving from the spoken account to the written one, humanity at large arrived at fiction, which is, at its core, sanctioned lying. Stylized gossip about things that never happened. When writing fiction, I’m sometimes struck by the notion that I can make anything happen to any of my characters at any point in the story. And then, if I did my job well, it will seem to the reader that, of course, that’s exactly what had to happen in the narrative, as if no other trajectory was feasible. That may seem like a terribly basic and obvious observation, but it still fills me at times with a quiet sense of wonder.

In my latest piece in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (Sept/Oct 2022), “Polk, Pitts, and Cadaver,” I’ve fashioned a suspense tale set in the 1930’s vaudeville world. Vaudeville itself, like other stage and screen arts, can be seen itself as a form of storytelling. As I recall, this story came out at a fairly brisk pace, more or less dragging me along in its wake. It seemed to know where it wanted to go. This will be the tenth time I’ve appeared in Hitchcock, which has a particular savor to it. At one point, as a child, my family had a subscription to the magazine. It’s warming to think that that boy, with his story poems and pine needles and aspirations to tell tales, would one day find himself in the very magazine that lay there on the living room coffee table.      

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Martin Limón on “Dragon Well”

The late Dorothea Brande in her 1934 book “On Becoming a Writer,” crystallized a thought I had sensed intuitively during my early years of striving to become a published writer.  She explained that in order for a story to be successful, in order for it to have life, both the conscious mind and the unconscious mind have to work together in both counterpoint and in harmony.  The impetus for the story had to arise from somewhere deep inside.  Somewhere visceral.

Love of a child is perhaps the most visceral emotion I’ve ever experienced.  And that’s where the “First Dragon” series comes from.

My son was living in a Third World country which I’d rather not name.  In an unannounced police raid, he managed to escape from a friend’s twenty-fourth floor apartment by climbing off the balcony and dropping to the patio below.  A fugitive now, the police tagged him with guilt by association.  He lived on the fringes of society for some years; afraid to venture to the international airport because he was convinced that he’d be arrested as he tried to flee.  I was beside myself with worry.  I hired a local lawyer to help.  His advice was to lay low, out of the clutches of the police, until formal charges were brought.  This can take months and even years—with plenty of opportunities to exchange cash for special treatment along the way.

During this time of anxiety, I decided to write about my son.  He has both a legal American name and an unofficial Korean name, since his mother is Korean.  From birth, we called him “Il Yong” which means First Dragon, primarily because he was born in the Year of the Dragon and he was our first child.  Using that name, and some of the basic outlines of his biography, I moved my son—fictionally—to the Chinese capital of Beijing and turned him into a Private Investigator working for foreigners living in China.  The result was six short stories, all of which were published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

When I submitted the first story, the very perceptive editor, Linda Landrigan, asked me immediately, “Is this the beginning of a series?”  Although so far I’d only completed one story, I immediately told her it was.  I sensed that as long as my son lived in constant danger, I would need the solace of imagining him in another city, in another country, and doing a dangerous, yet rewarding, job.  The stories that appeared in AHMM were as follows:

            1.  “First Dragon,” April 2015

            2.  “The King of K-pop,” June 2016

            3.  “Hominid,” March/April 2017

            4.  “The Smuggler of Samarkand,” September/October 2017

            5.  “Bite of the Dragon,” November/December 2018

            6.  “Dragon Well,” September/October 2022

“Dragon Well” was written long before the current publication date but I held on to it because I knew it would be the last.  My son, living for so long on the fringes of society, had finally found a way to get safely through the airport.  He e-mailed me while he was waiting to depart and then again when he landed in Narita Airport in Japan, where he was transferring to a trans-Pacific flight.  At last, he emerged from the International Arrivals Gate at Seattle-Tacoma Airport.  It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

 A death knell, however, for the First Dragon series.

I’ve learned to believe what Dorothea Brande wrote so long ago.  Writers must trust both their conscious mind, the one that is “opinionated and arrogant” and their unconscious mind, which is “shy and elusive.”  And my unconscious mind has told me that the First Dragon is home and safe and no longer needs to wander—neither in reality, nor in fiction.

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Kevin Egan on Shaping “The Harbinger”

Fifteen of my sixteen stories that have appeared in AHMM are set in the New York state court system, and nine of these feature Foxx, a court officer who is assigned to Manhattan Supreme Court and who doubles as an undercover agent for the Inspector General. Having worked in that same courthouse for over 30 years, I have drawn ideas for these stories from various sources. A story may be suggested by a character (real or imagined), a case I may have encountered (with the names changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty), or some weird internal design feature within the hexagonally shaped building.

For “The Harbinger,” my inspiration was an instructional pamphlet with an intriguing title: “The Sovereign Citizen Movement and Its Impact on New York State Courts.”

The pamphlet was written in 2013 to instruct judges on how to handle the disruptive tactics of an organized group of pro se litigants. (Pro se is the Latin term for someone who represents himself or herself in court.) It briefly described the Sovereign Citizen ideology and its core belief that no legitimate form of government exists above the county level. Since the federal and state governments are, by definition, illegitimate, Sovereign Citizens firmly believe they are not subject to federal and state laws or to the jurisdiction of federal or state courts. Therefore, suing or prosecuting a Sovereign Citizen in state court is problematic at best.

I came across the pamphlet in 2018 and immediately saw the possibility of a story. I had experience with pro se litigants as a law clerk. Most of them either could not afford a lawyer or wanted to pursue a case no lawyer would touch. They may have been ignorant of the law or misguided in their legal tactics, but they usually were respectful of the court and the judges. The Sovereign Citizens described in the pamphlet were a different breed of pro se litigants. Their sophisticated tactics included voluminous paper filings, absurd discovery demands, exhaustively redundant oral arguments, and personal lawsuits filed against the judges presiding over their cases.

Tactics like these could bring a relatively small, rural courthouse to a standstill. I wanted to explore how these tactics would affect the busiest trial courthouse in the country. But the idea of injecting a Sovereign Citizen into the New York County Courthouse merely created a circumstance, not a story plot. And so, after several false starts trying to tease a workable story out of the pamphlet, I needed to ask myself some questions.  

            —What would the Inspector General ask Foxx to do?

            —How would Foxx handle this assignment?

            —What would Foxx think of the person he is asked to pursue?

            The answers to these questions helped shape “The Harbinger.”

Robert;Young, a man ostensibly employing all the legal tactics of the Sovereign Citizens, is defending himself in a routine case involving a credit card default. (According to the pamphlet, Sovereign Citizens use punctuation marks in between their names.) The Inspector General instructs Foxx to befriend Young and learn whether he is an advance representative (i.e., a harbinger) of a group intending to move their anti-government operations downstate. Foxx, posing as a pro se litigant himself, engages Young in conversation while the two men pass long hours waiting outside the courtroom for the judge to rule on their cases.

Foxx quickly sees that Young does not resemble the stereotypical pro se litigant. First, he seems almost too comfortable in the courthouse setting. Second, although Young peppers his conversation with anti-government rhetoric, Foxx detects as an underlying personal animosity toward the judge, whose name is Thomas Dalton. That evening, Foxx reports his suspicion to the Inspector General. The next morning, Young is found stabbed to death in a courthouse lavatory.

Foxx’s investigation reveals that Young had been living as a squatter in the disused courthouse library while awaiting the judge’s ruling. Among Young’s meager possessions are newspaper articles about a scandal that occurred in the 1990s and involved a high-profile law firm filing hundreds of fraudulent personal injury claims against the City. All of the lawyers in the firm were prosecuted, even those who denied any knowledge of the scheme. Several, including the innocent lawyer who later became Robert;Young, went to prison. Meanwhile, Thomas Dalton, the lawyer who masterminded the scheme, not only avoided prison but also went on to become a judge. Though Young may have joined the anti-government group while in prison, his presence in the New York County Courthouse was unrelated to any of the group’s intentions. He was simply a guy with a vendetta—revenge against the man who ruined his career and his reputation. Unfortunately, that plan did not work out so well.

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Writing Yourself Into Corners by Christopher Latragna

In his book “Which Lie Did I Tell?”, William Goldman interviews fellow screenwriters about the craft of writing. He talks about when you get into a spot and you don’t know what happens next, and the Farrelly brothers’ answer surprised me:

Peter Farrelly: You said once you were in a spot where you didn’t know what was going to happen next.

Bobby Farrelly: Well, that’s we do. We write ourselves into a corner purposely-

Peter: Because we think if we can go into a corner where there’s no way out, and then we take a week . . . and we find a reasonable way out without making it absurd, then nobody in the audience is going to sit there and get it within a minute and get ahead of us.

Goldman theorized that they could work out of corners because there were two of them, and was hesitant to recommend this to the solo writer. He says he can’t work this way, because “there’s only me, trapped helpless in my pit, no way out.”

I agree with Goldman. And the Farrelly brothers.

Writing into corners isn’t a great plan. It’s time consuming. If you hope to keep up any kind of pace (and sanity), then “taking a week” or however long it takes seems soul-crushing. You lose momentum. And being “trapped” and “helpless” is unpleasant.

When a dead-end happens, maybe it’s best to set the piece aside and start something else.

On the other hand, when I do find myself in a corner, I take solace thinking there are people—famous, successful screenwriting brothers—who do this on purpose.

And I realize, if I can work it out, I may just come up with something really clever. Or at least something the reader can’t anticipate.

I write a series of detective stories featuring a riverboat gambler from the 1950s named Henry. I never plan on it, but his stories get complicated. They seem to always have two or three plot twists too many. I love a twisty plot but in Henry’s world of murderers, gamblers and con artists, the complexity can get confusing. Which is not entertaining.

It has been become so common that I now have go-to remedies I rely on to guide me back to land:

1. Walking.

There’s something about taking the steady pace of a walk that can help. I also talk to myself a lot, so I make sure to wear ear buds so people think I’m on the phone.

2. Find one solution for two problems.

For whatever reason, I usually find that if I can’t quite figure out, say, a character’s motive for murder, then there’s usually a complementary problem I’m ignoring. This seems to work a lot. I’m not sure why but I am sure I don’t want to question it.

3. Take away the complexity.

Here’s where talking to yourself really helps. Complex plots often tangle because, by the virtue of writing a mystery, you’re writing the events backwards – from crime to motive. By saying what happened in order, in plain terms, and reminding yourself constantly why people are doing what they’re doing—you can at least untangle things.

4. The last resort: Rewrite.

Sometimes the problem doesn’t have a solution, and you have to back up and start over. It’s unpleasant, but if you do throw out what you’ve written and find yourself somehow relieved—you know you did the right thing.

And if you take solace in anything, just know that when William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett were adapting Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” for the big screen, they couldn’t figure out who murdered the Sternwood chauffeur. So they called Chandler. He didn’t know either.

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A Writer’s Tears by James A. Hearn

TWO LIFE-CHANGING PHONE CALLS . . .

“When the Dams Break” is my first solo sale to AHMM, but it’s not my first story to appear in my favorite mystery magazine.  Last year, my friend Michael Bracken and I had the good fortune to see our collaboration, a football-themed short story called “Blindsided,” in the Sept/Oct issue of AHMM.

That sale was especially significant for me, the realization of a lifelong dream to walk into an actual bookstore, take something off the shelf with my name on it, and pay for it.  To be honest, I shed a tear the day Michael called me and said “Blindsided” had been bought; I teared up again in the Barnes & Noble parking lot, several copies in hand to share with family and friends.

If that had been all “Blindsided” gave to me, it would’ve been enough.  But on January 19, 2022, Michael once again called with news that would change my life.  I was working, so I let it go to voicemail.  “Holy mother of God,” Michael said when I finally listened to the message.  He was stoked about something, and I had to play it twice to absorb the incredible news: “Blindsided” was a 2022 Edgar Allan Poe Award Nominee for Best Short Story.

Wow.  When Michael Bracken calls, pick up the damn phone!

THE EDGAR AWARDS

Last April, my wife and I attended the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Awards in New York City.  Dawn and I did the usual touristy things, but one of the highlights was my visit to Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop, where I drank too much champagne and insisted that Mr. Penzler sign my copy of the new MWA anthology, Crime Hits Home.  He was a gracious host and accommodated me, but he asked me not to call him Mr. Penzler.  I said, “Yes, sir,” and he poured me another glass of champagne.

At the Edgar Awards banquet, we were seated at the AHMM table with editor, Linda Landrigan; two Dell Magazines employees, Abby Browning and Chris Begley; Brendan DuBois; Michael Bracken and his wife, Temple; and fellow nominee, R.T. Lawton and his wife, Kiti.  During the ceremony, I tried to track the number of Edgar statuettes on the table behind the podium.  Was there an extra award for two short story winners—Michael and me—while accounting for the remaining categories?  But I was too far away to see clearly.

When R.T.’s name was called for his excellent story, “The Road to Hana,” a cheer went up from our table.  He gave a model acceptance speech—gracious, insightful, and witty.  (I must admit, R.T.’s speech made me curious enough to try a bottle of Crown Royal’s Vanilla Whisky, his drink of choice when a story is sold.  I find I still prefer my favorite Irish whiskey, the appropriately named Writers’ Tears.)

Though “Blindsided” didn’t win, I returned home with new friends and good memories.  As Michael said in that second life-changing phone call, being an Edgar nominee is an achievement in and of itself.

“WHEN THE DAMS BREAK”

My second sale to AHMM was inspired by my wife, Dawn.  (She’s my best friend, first reader, and inspiration for life in general.)  Dawn, an interior designer, told me about one of her clients who was building a lakeside home.  In the middle of construction, the client learned that state authorities had decided to drain four Texas lakes, including hers, due to concerns with aging dams.  Cue the lawyers.

Originally constructed in the 1920s and ’30s, these dams were only supposed to last for 75 years or so.  Two other Texas lakes, Wood and Dunlap, have already been drained following floodgate failures on their dams.  Flooding is nothing new for Texas, but perhaps climate change is impacting the frequency and intensity of these floods.

The state’s early history is rife with stories of catastrophic floods leading to loss of life, livestock, and property, particularly along the Brazos.  In the early twentieth century, the state began constructing dams along many rivers.  The theory is that these flood control reservoirs would absorb rising water levels and prevent disasters.  Today, these dams are being tested by Mother Nature, and efforts are underway to strengthen or replace the aging infrastructure of these lakes before tragedy strikes.

As for my story, I immediately began wondering what secrets might be uncovered when a lake was drained, and what a person might do to keep those secrets.  “When the Dams Break” was born—now I just had to write it.

Since the pandemic, I’ve been working from home exclusively.  While I’ve enjoyed being with my other best friend and writing partner, a Labrador retriever named George, working from home was initially problematic for creativity.  At the end of the work week, I couldn’t sit in the same room, at the same desk, and write fiction.  The dining room became “my office” and the breakfast room—just twenty steps away—became my writing room.

On weekends, I move my laptop and George’s bed to the breakfast room, put on my writing music (usually a digital “mix tape” of my favorite film scores), pour a few drinks (iced coffee for mornings, ginger whiskeys at night), and write short stories.  In this way, I’m able to separate my work and writing areas.

I eventually sold “When the Dams Break” to AHMM.  On August 16th of this year, the day the Sept/Oct issue hits the shelves, people in the Barnes & Noble parking lot might wonder to see a crying guy with a big stack of magazines.  If they ask what’s wrong, I’ll just tell them, “These are a writer’s tears . . . of joy.”

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Finding Inspiration in Gardens of Stone by J.M. Taylor

My neighbors are quiet. I mean, really quiet.

Just outside my window, the numberless dead sleep peacefully (one hopes) in one of several cemeteries that are grouped near my home. My quiet neighbors include e. e. cummings (his name rendered in all caps on the simple marker), Eugene O’Neill (whose previous home, by morbid coincidence, was also my college dorm room), and Anne Sexton. With so many literary neighbors, is it any wonder I turned to writing?

I live in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston, which was once the far frontier of the city, hence the collection of burial grounds. I often walk our dog in St. Michael’s, which was founded in 1905 for the Italian community of Boston. True to its first residents, many of whom came here as stone masons, the cemetery boasts ornately carved memorials, some with statues of the deceased, others with dramatic biblical scenes. Some have early photographs attached to them, while hand-tinted portraits collect dust inside family vaults. I like to practice reading the Italian inscriptions (thank goodness only Rosie ever gets to hear that!) and try to imagine who some of these people were. I’ve found war heroes, children, and even one woman who literally spanned centuries, born in 1900, and passing in 2000.

We started walking there because it was convenient and peaceful (and of course, dog-friendly!). Only later did my uncle Angelo, the family’s historian, tell me that I have a lot of relatives buried here. The possibility never occurred to me, since that side of my family was from East Boston, across the harbor and the rest of the city from here. It must have been an extraordinary trip back in the early twentieth century, to organize a funeral at such a distance. It turns out that, in addition to several aunts and cousins I had never heard of, my great-grandparents and my great-great-grandparents are here. Once, in another morbid accident, I literally stumbled on the marker of an uncle that Angelo hadn’t told me of, Rocco, who died of the flu in 1918.

Seven years after Rocco’s passing changed the family’s future, my grandfather watched on helplessly as his brother Angelo drowned in Boston Harbor. That would have been my uncle’s older brother—my great-grandmother was pregnant with him when this occurred, and the name got recycled (in fact, my uncle was the third to carry the name). Today, that uncle lies in an unmarked grave in a shady corner of St. Michael’s.

Cruelly, my grampa’s aunt accused him of murder. To his dying day, he carried that guilt and it’s a story that still hangs over my family. With his permission, I took the story and turned it into a fictional murder scene in my first novel, Night of the Furies.  I like to believe, in some strange way, that “putting it in the book,” as he was always telling me to do with family stories, helped ease his mind.

It was on one of my dog walks that I noticed the name Florence Uglietta. At first, to our ears, that name might sound both old fashioned and, well, ugly. But as I tried to sound out her name, I imagined it would sound more like “yulietta,” perhaps even related to “Juliet.” I began to think it was beautiful. I imagined that it meant “Flower of July,” though none of my research supports that. Another stone nearby carries the name “Solari,” and that, along with the woman who spanned the centuries, became the seed for “Florence Uglietta Solari: A Full Life in 19 Fragments.”

Once I had my main character, I wondered what that “full life” would have been. What does a 100 year old woman know? How many secrets would she take to her grave? More immediately, what would she accumulate in all that time? If it was anything like the papers I’ve gathered in only half that time, it would be a lot. And despite her pretty name, Florence didn’t strike me as a particularly organized person, hence the jumbled documents some poor soul would find among her effects. Her story came to me as I sifted through those scattered pages as presented in the story.

Since then, my uncle himself has passed into part of the family’s history, though he his not here among our other relatives. As Rosie and I continue our exploration, we’ve found clues to many other tales hidden in the names and dates and hopeful prayers inscribed on the stones here and the other nearby burial grounds.

Who knows what I’ll dig up next?


J. M. Taylor has published more than two dozen short stories, appearing in such mags as Thuglit, Tough Crime, and Wildside Black Cat. “Florence Uglietta” is his first to appear in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. His first novel, Night of the Furies was published by New Pulp Press, and Genretarium has just released his second, Dark Heat, which PW calls an “impressive noirish tale.” Both of them are set in or near Boston, and are retellings of ancient Greek myths. He lives in JP with his wife and son, and when he’s not writing or reading, he teaches under an assumed name. You can read more at jmtaylorcrimewriter.com and follow him on Twitter at @taylorjm7.

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