Tag Archives: detective fiction

“Plans and Revisions” by Steve Liskow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I thought.

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

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

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

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

Plan G, Plan H, Plan I . . .

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Creating Bad Girls of Mystery by Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith is the author of the Detective Ariel Lawrence mysteries, among other tales. Her story in the July/August 2016 issue, “Beauty Shop of Horror,” revolves around a heroine connected to that series. Here, the author talks about character development and inspiration.

From an amateur sleuth to a trained police detective, the heroines who drive my stories defy stereotypes of race, gender, and age to buck authority and fight for justice.

When I first began writing mysteries, I knew I wanted to showcase fierce, fiery, and fearless women who succeed against the odds. I call them my “Bad Girls,” and to create them I did three things:

1) Drew from the lives of real women I admire.

My strong mom and six aunts are models for some of my characters. In my short story “Beauty Shop of Horror,” featured in the Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine July/August issue, Vera Ames is a 54-year-old, designer shoe wearing, beauty salon owner/cosmetics entrepreneur. Opinionated and wise, Vera is like a human truth serum. People tend to confess their inner most secrets to her. My mom had this gift, and one of my aunts was a hair stylist whose salon chair served as a psychiatrist’s couch.

2) Gave protagonists family/friends who hand them situations many of us can identify with.

Chicago Police Detective Ariel Lawrence has appeared in several stories. She can take down criminals and out maneuver police brass, but sometimes her skills are no match for her three interfering sisters.

3) Used short stories for a character test run.

Short stories allow me to build a protagonist’s persona and see if she’s engaging enough to carry a series. This has been especially helpful as I tackle a historical mystery. My protagonist Eve Dawson, a jazz entertainer, solves murders in between gigs with her husband in 1930s Chicago. Her story appears in the Speed City Sisters in Crime anthology Decades of Dirt.

This approach, I hope, has helped create characters who readers want to spend time with, who feel like real people—right down to their love for family and designer shoes.

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“The Finlay Millions” and the Carr Detective Series by S. L. Franklin

S. L. Franklin, author of the Carr detective series, first appeared in AHMM in the July/August 1999 issue with “Capriccio with Unaccompanied Violin.” Since then he and R. J. Carr have appeared in our pages thirteen more times, most recently in the current issue with “The Finlay Millions,” which he talks about here.

The basic situation for “The Finlay Millions” came to me several years ago—the old house, the death of the reclusive owner, some heirs in the wings including an estranged wife—but converting the situation into an R. J. and Ginny Carr mystery wasn’t as simple as turning open a tap and letting a story run out.

I once heard the jazz musician Patricia Barber explain in an interview that to recast a classic standard song by, say, Rogers and Hart, into an effective jazz performance, she first had to find a way to “break into” the piece. That was my original difficulty in writing “TFM”—discovering a means of cracking this particularly hard nut of an undeveloped set of characters and situations. Those familiar with Carr mysteries will realize that my difficulty was compounded by the fact that the series stories are always told via multiple voices, those of R. J. and Ginny, but often those of other characters as well, so it’s a rare Carr mystery that follows a straight narrative line.

Another problem was—as it always is for me—bringing new characters to life. R. J. and Ginny seem, I hope, well-defined in every story, both in what they do and in how they think and express themselves. Other characters, especially those who narrate, need to be just as well-defined, and when the sometimes kindly but often dilatory muse of detective fiction finally fired my feeble brain cells with images of Bill Finlay—bulky, limping, seventy-three years old, a retired engineer from Syracuse—I had at last both a means to break into the plot outline and a narrative voice and perspective that actually drew me, the author, into the story even as I put Bill’s words down on paper. (Yep—Carr stories: still made by hand.)

Some mystery plots are schematic, others formulaic; some psychological, others ratiocinative. Mine tend instead to be intuitive and organic.

To illustrate what I mean with a rather trite and overblown metaphor: From the kernel of an original, dormant idea grows a story—living, if it succeeds—that is shaped and nurtured by its characters as they come to life and respond to the fictional situations they face. In the case of “The Finlay Millions,” the tale’s outcome is in many ways the product of R.J. and Ginny, the Finlays and Penny Wright, at least as much as it is a result of the tentative original design of the author.

Put in another way, “TFM” is not plot driven but character driven, as—within reason—is every Carr story. The basic premise of the Carr Detective Series, in fact, has always been a what if: What if real people with real human weaknesses and strengths, thoughts and feelings, were suddenly to find themselves in the artificially melodramatic strictures of a mystery plot? How would they behave? How would the action advance?

Ambrose Bierce defined literary realism as the “art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads.” He, of course, was a fantasist with a grudge, who had only the works of contemporaries like Theodore Dreiser to gauge by. The Dreiser version of realism, however, largely consisting of a mix of human failing, squalid situations, and cynical fatalism (which mix, incidentally, underpins many a noir mystery story) is not the only realism the mind can conjure. There exists a far different realism of everyday concerns and problems—e.g., Bill Finlay’s physical frailties and objections to his younger brother’s attitude; Penny Wright’s struggles to relocate her aged and ailing father—and this realism is what I have attempted to establish as the hidden though underlying scenario of all the Carr stories.

A final note. Anyone who has made it through to the end of this ramble and still wants to know more about the Carr Detective Series, especially about R.J. and Ginny, can satisfy his or her arcane tastes at www.carrdetective.com. No charge and worth every cent.

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