“Write What You Don’t Know” by Matthew Wilson

Matthew Wilson’s first short story appeared in EQMM in January 2018. Here he talks about his story “The Cook Off” from the current issue and his approach to writing in settings he both knows and doesn’t.

Right now I’m trying to write a mystery story set in Las Vegas. My only problem is I’ve only been to Las Vegas once. I stayed overnight in a Motel 6 on a cross-country move—me, my wife, two cats, and a U-Haul. Needless to say, we didn’t have a lot of time to do Vegas. I remember my wife emptying a jar full of quarters into a slot machine. That was about the extent of our Vegas adventure. But lately I’ve gotten this idea for a story set there, so I found myself facing the dilemma of “write what you know” when I don’t know much at all.

In his book How to Not Write Bad, Ben Yagoda takes on the old adage of “write what you know.” Yagoda says writers too often interpret “write what you know” to mean “write what you already know.” But what would that look like? A lot stories with writers as protagonists? A murder mystery involving paper cuts, query letters, and rejections? No, of course not. “Write what you know,” Yagoda argues, should mean that if we “read, research, investigate, and learn,” we can write beyond our immediate personal experience, and ultimately we will be writing what we know.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because as I try to write mystery stories, I find myself attracted to characters and situations that come from both what I know and what I don’t know. My story “The Cook Off” is just such an example. I started out with what I already knew. The tiny American village not far from the Iron Curtain border that split Germany for forty years—that was home to me as a young teenager when my father was stationed near the spa town of Bad Kissingen. The gymnasium full of soldiers where my story culminates—that was a kind of home for me too—I spent many hours there trying to become a basketball player and not succeeding. The late 70s GIs who inhabit this gym in the story—in their Pumas and tube socks—they are inspired by the real GIs I met in all my sweat and hopeless effort.

What I didn’t know much about was Grafenwöhr, the training area where accidents could kill men rehearsing for war. But I had heard about it, from the same young GIs I shared that gym with, and from my father, who would disappear from our family for weeks at a time to go to Graf, as everyone called it. What I already knew about Graf was that it was cold and miserable, that every GI griped about it, and that when it was a man’s turn to go, he dreaded it. Who could blame him—Bad Kissingen was a resort, and the beer was good. I think it was this not knowing much about Graf that made me want to write about it. I had also heard about a strange thing called a “cook off” from my father, and of a man killed by one. A dangerous place no one wanted to be and an unusual way to die—it sounded like a good mystery story to me.

Since Graf was mostly outside of what I already knew, I did what Ben Yagoda suggests—read, research, investigate, learn. There are a lot of ways to start such research. First person accounts are always the best place to start, and I had my father. I also wanted to know more about armored cavalry units, live fire exercises, training accidents, the history of Grafenwöhr, and that thing called a “cook off.”

Tom Clancy wrote a series of military reference books, and his Armored Cav edition taught me much. From this book, I learned what an armored cavalry unit actually does (the dangerous job of reconnaissance, often behind enemy lines), and what a live fire exercise is like (with all of its noise and destruction, there are also plenty of safety precautions and stationary plywood targets).

I learned much about Graf through a deep graze of the web. Back in 1910 the Kaiser requisitioned eighty-three square miles of Bavaria near the town of Grafenwöhr to train a military that would fight the next two world wars, only to see it all carpet bombed and then re-requisitioned by a new tenant, the U.S. Army. Graf became the home especially for what was called Reforger, an enormous annual exercise meant to simulate a NATO response to a Soviet invasion. I also learned that Graf, with all of its tanks and guns and bombs, had been the setting for more than a few fatal training accidents. The most tragic occurred in 1960, when a 200 pound artillery shell overshot its target and killed 15 men billeted in tents. All of this was good background for Graf, but part of me also wanted to sense the place, and although I could not feel the cold or smell the fumes, I could at least see the place. Absent a time machine, I would have to rely on other means, mostly photos and videos collected from books and web sources. Here is one of my favorites. Yes, that’s Elvis Presley in Grafenwöhr. It’s cold and you can tell—he’s got his field jacket on, and his Elvis hair is hiding under the standard issue cold weather MQ1 pile cap.

The “cook off” was another investigation. I had heard my father’s story of a man accidently killed when a belt-fed .50 caliber kept firing even after the gunner took his finger off the trigger. This is due to the intense heat in the firing chamber, which literally cooks any remaining rounds unless the gunner clears the belt from the chamber. A cook off is not uncommon, although a fatal one is.

In my search for background on Daley Barracks, the American garrison adjacent to Bad Kissingen, I often visited Eaglehorse, a site dedicated to the history of the armored cavalry unit stationed at Daley Barracks for many years. There is a lot to look at on the site, with a great collection of photos and first-person accounts going far back. And here is the story memorializing a man killed by a cook off, the same soldier my father had told me of. I can tell because the date is perfect for when we lived there in the late 1970s. I printed this memorial out and sent it to my father, who is close to eighty now. For years, I have often wondered how much of my father’s army stories were factual and how much were more akin to legend. When he received the printout, we had a good talk on the phone, and he said, “Yes, that was the man I told you about. It was a cook off, and it was a shame because it should have never happened.” After we hung up, I felt the sensation of traveling in a circle. I had come back to a story my father mentioned years before, a story I already knew.

This is one of the joys I get from writing—uncovering real mysteries of places and people and times both close to me, and also quite remote. It is a bit of detective work I like to do on the way to imagining a story of detection. What I already know and what I come to know—I hope it all adds up into a good piece of mystery fiction.

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RMMWA’s annual Six-Word Mystery Contest is now running!

The Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America is currently hosting its annual Six-Word Mystery Contest. From now through October 31, contestants can try their hand at a very short mystery story, to be judged by a panel of RMMWA members in mid-December. Submissions are available in five categories: hard-boiled, cozy, thriller, police procedural, or romance. The winner of the contest will receive $100, while category winners will receive $25 gift cards to the Tattered Cover Bookstore. Good luck!

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“‘Coolbrook Twp’ and Other Characters” by Dennis McFadden

Upstate New York writer Dennis McFadden is the writer of the collection Jimtown Road, which won the 2016 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. Here he talks about his story in the current issue and writing vivid characters.

My stories all start with character. There’s a very good reason for that: When you’re as lousy at plotting as I am, they almost have to. I’d love to be able to craft a pristine Rubik’s Cube of a tale that leaves readers nodding in admiration at the sleight-of-hand they should have been able to detect along the way, but Agatha I certainly ain’t. Memorable characters are my best hope to connect with a reader.

The smallest seed can blossom into a good character. The characters I come up with originate in different ways, but primarily they fall into one of two categories: those based on real people I’ve known, and those I essentially invent—people I wish I had known? Well, maybe. Except for the psychopaths.

I’m not sure what it says that my most successful stories seem to be based on a character, Terrance Lafferty, who falls into the latter category, a complete product of my imagination. Maybe my real friends and acquaintances are too bland to compete with him? Or maybe this invented guy couldn’t be my real-life friend, because he might be somebody I wouldn’t want to be seen hanging around with in public? Naw—I’d love to go on a pub crawl with him. Of course, I’d have to buy. Lafferty is an Irish rapscallion, an antihero, fond of the horses and allergic to labor, whose fight or flight instinct came minus the fight part, and whose dimple just below his smile seems irresistible to most members of the opposite gender. I like him so much he’s starred in multiple stories, many of which have found fine homes, such as Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and The Best American Mystery Stories, a couple of times. Colorful—that’s the word. Maybe to achieve real memorability, a character has to be bigger-than-life colorful, more colorful than the real folks we know.

Or maybe not. Jimmy Plotner and Buster Clover (our heroes in “Coolbrook Twp,” who transform before our very eyes into James and Russell) are not bigger-than-life colorful. Maybe everyday, run-of-the-mill colorful, tops. And maybe that’s because they’re based on me and my lifelong best friend.

“Coolbrook Twp,” for those of you who haven’t yet read it (and what are you waiting for?), is constructed of alternating sections set in 1994 and 1954. This much, from the earlier sections, is true: My friend—we’ll stick with his fictional nickname, “Buster”—and I attended a four-room country schoolhouse, we competed climbing the tilting flagpole in the yard, we had a severe teacher much like “Mr. Fenstemaker,” famous for his huge paddle and readiness to use it, and we devised the brilliant scheme of hiding in the playroom cubby hole one afternoon after school so we could have the place all to ourselves. And we peed on the furnace, casting an unholy stench over the rest of the school. Or one of us did. We’ll stick with his fictional nickname too, “Jimmy.” Oh, and the first-ever orgasm “Jimmy” experiences at the top of the flagpole? Yep. True. Can’t make this stuff up. Stranger than fiction and all that.

What didn’t happen? Pretty much all the rest of it. We didn’t get caught, our teachers weren’t carrying on (that we know about), “Mr. Fenstemaker” was not murdered forty years later.

But the bits that did happen were enough to make me want to mine them for a story years later when I started writing fiction. The whole sexual awakening theme was already there, so, to enhance that theme, I invented the teachers’ affair, the boys getting caught, Buster getting a beating, the “Man, are we in for it now,” and there the story sat, contained in 1954, for years. Recently, I brought it out and dusted it off, looked at it with older, fresher eyes. I’d learned by then that a good way to give depth and resonance to a story, to make a story better, is to tell two stories at once; and so the 1994 plotline fell into place—you see, by then too, the mysteries of everyday life, the utter unknowability of exactly what the hell’s going on around us as we live out our years, had become my main preoccupation in story-telling, the underlying theme in nearly all my stuff.

One of the most rewarding things about writing “Coolbrook Twp” was the chance to play with the perspective offered by the distance of time—that wider, wiser perspective, the way lifetimes fall into focus, patterns and destinations become revealed, is one of the nifty things about getting older. (And there aren’t all that many nifty things about it.) Over forty years is a long time for a friendship to endure, and “James” and “Russell” are every bit as grounded in reality as are “Jimmy” and “Buster.” And, then again, maybe the 1994 plotline was motivated in part by the desire to extract a bit of revenge on “Mr. Fenstemaker” for the real-life beatings he inflicted on many a poor boy, “Buster” included.

And “Jimmy”? No. He was far too angelic and well-behaved to ever have encountered that fearsome and legendary paddle.

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All in the Family (September/October 2018)

Old songs notwithstanding, we are not, strictly speaking, required to always hurt the ones we love—but as this issue’s stories demonstrate, things often work out that way. Ah, family!

Consider siblings. In R. T. Lawton’s “The Chinese Box,” for instance, the city-bred and educated son of a Shan Army warlord finds himself in stiff competition with his own older half-brother, while two actors who once played brothers on a hit TV show have a very different off-screen dynamic in Brendan DuBois’s “The Wildest One.” Ecuadoran P.I. Wilson Salinas, meanwhile, must retrieve his neighbor’s granddaughter—snatched by her own father in Tom Larsen’s “En Agua Caliente.” A woman working a prison kitchen is tested when the man who killed her father demands that she help him escape in Janice Law’s “Good Girl.” And a family inheritance is at stake in our Mystery Classic, “Betrayed by a Buckle” by Louisa May Alcott, introduced by Marianne Wilski Strong.

Conventioneers extraordinaire Spade and Paladin see their extended family of SF fans and writers divided by a bitter schism with criminal consequences in Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Unity Con.” A mob family’s brutal management of a co-op inspires two retired seniors to act in “Rats” by Tom Savage. And new to our pages this month, Matthew Wilson brings a tale of an army sergeant confronting racism among his brothers-in-arms at a training base in Germany in “The Cook Off.”

A man who once looked for unexploded WWII ordnance in Europe must confront his own past when he encounters an old lover in Mark Thielman’s atmospheric “Buried Past.” Loren D. Estleman’s Four Horseman return with a case involving a patriotic “Scrap Drive.” Feuding neighbors bring color and headaches to Detective Sergeant Fritz Dollinger’s investigation of the murder of a young musician in John H. Dirckx’s procedural “Counterpoint.”

History repeats itself in Dennis McFadden’s dual coming-of-age story, “Coolbrook Twp.” And a bad actor gets a shot at auditioning for a psychological thriller in this month’s cover story, James Lincoln Warren’s “Casting Call.”

Once again, these stories show that blood will tell.

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“Documents”: A Mystery That Came Out of the Archives by Linda Mannheim

Linda Mannheim is the author of works such as Above Sugar Hill and Noir. Her short stories have appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Ambit, New York Stories and New Contrast. She was a visiting associate at the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town, and here she discusses the research and source materials for her revealing and unique story “Documents” in the current issue of the magazine.

I was up to my elbows in archival material when I found the note, handwritten on a scrap of paper:

There’s a little surprise carefully concealed in a Click’s carrier bag in the fridge for little Ekraam (who speaks so well on the phone) who could be forgiven for not being circumcised before he knew the way to heaven (so long as you don’t mention the word Palestine). So…. Es mein kindt. Forward the people’s struggle (on chicken bones and gefilte fish)!

I couldn’t stop thinking about the note, wondering who it was written by, who it was left for, what their story was.

The archives belonged to the University of Cape Town library’s special collections. I was visiting from the US, having pitched my project as “research for a collection of unconventional war stories.” Almost ten years after the end of South Africa’s apartheid era, when it was spring in the Southern hemisphere and autumn back home, I was trying to solve a mystery of my own. How had the white minority government stayed in power for so long? What was the apparatus that they’d used to divide, rule, and remove people from their homes?

The answer was in those archives—in the legal documents, political pamphlets, and handwritten letters in those boxes. In 2003, much of the material was still uncatalogued, so when I opened each box and examined the documents on the long tables in the whispery special collections room, I didn’t always know what I would find.

 

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I photocopied some of those documents, and the copies are spread before me again now: a notice informing a property owner that their town had been declared a “a White area” and as they were not white, they would have to sell their property and “settle in their own area”; a pamphlet from an activist advising residents of “mixed race areas” of what to do when police came calling to harass residents; a notice of appeal to authorities who had undervalued the home of a family forced to leave an area that had been “declared White.”

The minutiae of apartheid, the documents used to control people’s lives, fascinated me. Every American of my generation (who came of age in the 1980s) knew about whites only areas, the shanty towns where black South Africans were forced to live, the banning of anti-apartheid political activists and the brutality of the pro-apartheid police. But the depth of that brutality, the reach of the apartheid government’s control, became clearer to me when I looked at official documents—in the decrees and the laws that dictated the movements of people’s day-to-day lives.

I was also riveted by the documents from the anti-apartheid activists and one group of documents in particular seemed so familiar to me—I kept imagining the person who they’d belonged to. There were letters to universities in Britain from an activist who had to flee South Africa, budgets worked out in sterling and in rand, notes from meetings to encourage disinvestment in apartheid South Africa. And then, in the margin of a page of notes, an aside written in bubbly ornate lettering: “This is a wonderful pen!”

It was easy to wonder who the activist was, who his family was. The note about the treat in the fridge (in a carrier bag from a discount drugstore chain) had to be from a mother-in-law, and the mother-in-law was clearly Jewish. The child was not named Ekraam, but his name made it clear that some of the family members would have been designated white in apartheid South Africa and others non-white, which in and of itself would have been illegal during that time. I wanted to tell the story of the imaginary family by incorporating some of the documents from the archives as well as through a fictional set of notes and letters.

After I’d written the first draft of “Documents,” I found out more about the person whose papers had inspired the story. His story, and the story of his family, was not the story I told in “Documents.” I was happy to find out that he and his family were well, though. He hadn’t even realised his papers from the 1980s were in the archives, but he graciously gave permission to use to segments that are verbatim.

From the pages of “Documents” by Linda Mannheim in the July/August 2018 issue of AHMM.

I love that Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, in guidelines for writers, asks “only that a story be about a crime (or the threat or fear of one).” The most compelling mysteries, to me, are ones where the crime is carried out by the state or other official bodies and the protagonist has to break laws to cope with that crime. I’m a sucker for the kind of Noir tales where a private eye confronts crooked cops. I’m interested in 1970s muckrakers uncovering city corruption. And South Africa in the 1980s too, was a place where individuals had to use subterfuge to survive a brutal and corrupt system.

Nearly all of the stories that I pitched as “unconventional war stories” when I went to South Africa turned out to be mysteries in the end. Nearly all were about people who became fugitives or victims when the law turned against them. Nearly all had to break those laws to challenge injustice.

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“Observing Venus on a Trip to Mars” by Mark Thielman

Every year in conjunction with The Wolfe Pack, AHMM presents the Black Orchid Novella Award to a work of fiction best exemplifying the tradition of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. The winner this year (and in 2015) is Mark Thielman, a Texas criminal-law magistrate.  Here he talks about his BONA-winning tale, “The Black Drop of Venus,” which you can read in the current July/August 2018 issue. We have more tales by Mark coming up in forthcoming issues.

I love killing people in ships from the age of sail.

The setting provides a natural locked room. The killer must be onboard somewhere. The location allows for the sleuth to exercise his/her full powers of ratiocination. (I didn’t know that word until the Trace Evidence blog promoting the July/August edition of AHMM used it to describe my character. Now, I feel educated and obligated.)

Exotic words I don’t get to use in my everyday life—part of the fun of writing a sea yarn: I get to exercise my inner Patrick O’Brian.

The Black Orchid Novella Award is a partnership between the Wolfe Pack, the official Nero Wolfe Society, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine honoring the novellas of Rex Stout. I have been fortunate to twice win the award. The challenge is to write a story which celebrates the components of the Rex Stout canon without being derivative.

I found my story this time in Captain James Cook’s voyage to Tahiti in 1769 to observe Venus crossing the sun. In modern terms, the voyage seems the equivalent of traveling to Mars. Both trips would take about an equal length of time and have the common goal of hitting a tiny point of land in a vastness of void. A principal difference, however, was that the technology for determining longitude, how far a ship had travelled east or west, was still being developed in 1769. The captain, a man who had the intellectual wherewithal and confidence to steer a ship to a pinprick of land, presented an authentic Wolfe-like character.

Somewhere on my shelves is a dusty edition of Alistair MacLean’s biography of Captain Cook. Captain Cook’s journals from his voyage may be read online. His observations are readily available. Drawings of the HM Bark Endeavour can also be found through the Internet. I hoped to give the story the proper nautical feel through the details obtained by study.

The 1769 voyage of the Endeavour was a joint project of the British Navy and the Royal Society. The scientists, being gentlemen, were not berthed with the sailors, but rather shared the Captain’s space. Joseph Banks, the chief scientist, was a gentleman, unlike Cook, a man born to working class roots who rose through the ranks. Banks, younger than Cook, with his own unique skill set, housed with the Captain. He seemed a natural fit for Archie.

The Endeavour’s odyssey had an additional mission. The plan remained a secret until the ship had set sail. The Navy wanted Cook to search for a hypothetical southern continent, a land mass to offset those of the northern hemisphere. Geographers postulated that such a land was necessary to keep the earth from wobbling in its rotation. Captain Cook also tested foods to avoid scurvy, a plague of long ocean voyages. Secret missions with a culinary angle, reminiscent of Mr. Wolfe and his chef, Fritz. A natural pairing of strong individuals living together. Each bit of research heightened my enthusiasm that I had found an ideal setting in which to recast a Wolfe tale.

The voyage of the Endeavour was a naval expedition. Yet its purpose was not victory in battle but rather a search for truth and discovery. The existence of the great southern continent, the dimensions of the galaxy, and an effective tool for combatting scurvy were all undertakings on Captain Cook’s expedition. This search for truth provides an excellent backdrop for a whodunit. I merely added a body.

And, it allowed me to use cool words like fo’cs’le and bowsprit.

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“Pulling Off a Heist Story” by Rebecca Cantrell

USA Today and New York Times bestselling author Rebecca Cantrell is the author of the Joe Tesla thrillers and the Hannah Vogel mysteries, among several other series. Her work has won the Thriller, Macavity, and Bruce Alexander awards. Here she talks about “Homework,”  her story in the current July/August issue of AHMM.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine requested a piece about writing heist stories, presumably because I have one in this month’s magazine. Or maybe they’ve discovered my plans for Fort Knox.  I’m going to play it straight and pretend it’s about writing. No spoilers. So, here’s the skinny.

A good heist takes planning. Everyone needs to know their role. Character expertise is crucial. The execution needs to be solid. And a little misdirection doesn’t hurt either. Those are the elements of a heist, and a short story isn’t so different.

First, I had to figure out what to steal.  The story started with a writing prompt from my teenaged son. The first line had to be “Flames licked the ceiling.” Max is a fantastic writer, and I wanted to have fun with his prompt,  to write about flames and licking and ceilings and not have a fire.

So, it started with the dog, Flames, and her owner, Ada. I followed Flames along, as surprised as she was by how things unfolded. If the story had been a real heist, I’d say that by the end of the first draft I knew what I wanted to steal.

Now I knew the crime, but like a good heist, this story took some planning.  In the second draft I tightened up the action and descriptions. I made sure every character in the caper was properly trained. Training wasn’t enough though because characters are more than their training. Everyone had secrets, too.  I wanted the reader to sense that all wasn’t quite well, but still be surprised at the ending. I slipped in shiny little nuggets of misdirection for the reader, for the characters, even for the dog as the heist was executed.

As a person, you live life in one direction, today gives way to tomorrow. But that’s not true for a writer. As a writer, you can go back and forth in a story like a crazy person with a time machine, changing the future and the past. Nobody knows if it took one draft or twenty. This is handy in writing, and I imagine it would be useful in pulling of a heist, too. Luckily, writers have some advantages over thieves. They get one chance.

The last thing to arrive was the title.  I wanted a title that didn’t make sense until the very last line. It slipped into my head like that ring slipped on Ada’s finger. Then, hopefully, the meaning of the title and the aftermath of the heist became clear. Or maybe you’re just left with a dog and a handful of . . . pumpkin pie.

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