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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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On “Bothering With the Details” by Dayle A. Dermatis

Dayle A. Dermatis is the author of several novels (including Ghosted, in the Nikki Ashburne series) and over 100 short stories in the mystery, thriller, romance, YA, science fiction, fantasy, and other genres. She is also a founding member of the Uncollected Anthology project. Here she talks about her story “Bothering With the Details,” from the current May/June issue of AHMM.

Some stories have tenuous beginnings: a phrase, a scrap of dialogue, a what-if, an interesting fact that sends the brain spinning. Other stories have such murky origins that by the end of writing, whatever sparked the story is long lost.

“Bothering With the Details” is not one of those stories.

In 2015 I took an intensive Mystery Writing Workshop run by Edgar- and Shamus-nominated writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch. I’d taken such writing workshops from her before, so I should have known what I was in for. I knew I’d be writing a story ahead of time, and at least three stories during the week-long workshop, along with novel sketches and technique assignments and more.

Before the workshop, Kris asked for several pieces of information, including one or two things we were proficient at doing. Along with writing, my “day job” is publishing: copyediting, design, etc. Having just finished a copyediting job, I responded to her question with “copyediting.”

As I said, I should have known better. At the workshop, she assigned us to write a crime story in which the thing we were good at was integral to the story. In other words, if you take out that skill, the story doesn’t work.

I found myself faced with writing a crime story in which copyediting was paramount.

Well, hell.

As a copyeditor, I’ve encountered many writers who think they don’t need a copyeditor. (My own mother, for instance, was sure that her first readers would catch everything. When I published her novel, I hired an outside copyeditor . . . who, unsurprisingly, found errors.) Yes, most folks—such as my own husband—can catch typos. But it takes another level of skill to know, say, when to use “a while” versus “awhile,” or the nuances of the n-dash. The difference between “my husband Ken” and “my husband, Ken” speaks to how many husbands I might have.

You get the idea.

So I started with a woman who’d been downsized because the company didn’t think they needed someone who bothered with those details . . . and off I went. I haven’t got the Chicago Manual of Style memorized like Lydia does, but I had a great time researching (one might say bothering with) the details as I wrote the story. Reader, I laughed.

A possibly interesting side note: at the workshop, we were later charged with writing a story using a secondary character from one of our other stories. I chose Brittani, the granddaughter of Lydia, the protagonist in “Bothering With the Details.” Delving into Brittani’s past, I’ve written several stories about her history as a “fixer” at her high school, including ones that are slated to appear in Pulphouse: A Fiction Magazine and Fiction River: Dark and Deadly Passions.

Finally, if you’re a writer interested in learning more about the craft of writing mystery, Kristine Kathryn Rusch will be teaching the above-mentioned workshop again in 2019.

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On “The Chinese Dog Mystery” by James Lincoln Warren

James Lincoln Warren is a Black Orchid Novella Award winner and prolific author of series as well as standalone short stories. Here, he talks about his story “The Chinese Dog Mystery” from the current issue of AHMM.

In the cover comments I submitted with “The Chinese Dog Mystery” to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, I described the story as a love letter to P.G. Wodehouse, the inimitable creator of that dimwitted but kind-hearted scion of the British gentry, Bertie Wooster, and his towering genius of a valet, the formidable Jeeves, for both of whom time all but stopped in the 1920s, even if it was the 30s or the 40s or the 50s.

Wodehouse is one of those rare authors who makes me laugh out loud when I read silently along. He’s one of my literary heroes.

I have always wanted to follow in his footsteps, as we all want to do with our heroes, and so to do my own take on the Wooster/Jeeves paradigm. But there was, I thought, an insurmountable barrier to doing so: If a writer is truly inimitable, then by definition he is utterly impossible to imitate, let alone duplicate. Especially regarding style, that most defining characteristic of a great writer, and as almost all of the Jeeves catalogue is written in the first person from Bertie’s point of view, that style is inextricably Bertie’s, which is to say Wodehouse’s, very own.

But faint heart never won fair whatever.

The challenge was to find a suitable replacement voice to put in the mouth of my Bertie analog, E. Cowes Crambury, a.k.a. “Bennie”—to find a voice that would convey Bennie’s amusing idiocy without merely parroting Bertie’s, with his signature What-ho!s and I-mean-to-say-what?s and the like, which add so much to Wodehouse’s gentle humor.

How to proceed? And then, as through a glass darkly, I recognized that I had a slight, albeit very slight, advantage.

You see, Bertie, like Wodehouse, was an Englishman—but Bennie, like me, is thoroughly American.

Q: What do American twits sound like?

A: A lot like English twits, I suppose, twittishness being no respecter of national origins—but not in English English, as in, “Hail, Good Fellow; Well Met!” Rather, it ought to be in American English, as in, “Howdy, Pardner; Happy to Meetcha!”

A character’s voice comes from two sources: the character’s personality and his formative environment. In Bertie’s case, he’s a young English gentleman of independent means who’s at one with a Roaring 20s background. Where might I find something analogous on this side of the pond? I suppose it was an inspiration, because it came to me immediately without me even thinking about it.

I decided to make Bennie a young American trust fund baby of not-entirely savory antecedents, and with a Golden Age of Hollywood background—movie stars being the closest thing the U.S. has to an aristocracy.

Instead of using Bertie’s most whimsical jazz age expressions and English slang, I had Bennie talk mostly in an American vernacular, and threw in a bunch of 1940s American pop culture references that would be wholly out of place in London, but perfect for L.A.

And remaining true to my quest, I made sure that Bertie and Bennie are enough alike so that the Wodehouse touch is clearly detectible, especially as I included the required Wodehousean ingredients, including a Jeeves-type servant savant (a chauffeur, though, not a valet—this is Hollywood, remember) and a sensible, talented, pretty girl to keep Bennie completely confused.

And when it all came together, I knew I had it. It ain’t as fine as Wodehouse, of course it isn’t, it never could be. But my love for him is there, and that’s why I wrote it.

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“INSERT CLEVER TITLE HERE” by Robert Lopresti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Elizabeth Zelvin Visits “The First Two Pages” Blog

Readers, fans, and friends will be glad to know that B.K. Stevens’s daughter is continuing her The First Two Pages blog, where authors talk about the beginnings of their stories and novels. This fall, the blog will feature contributors from Where Crime Never Sleeps: Murder New York Style 4 (Level Best, 2017), the fourth anthology by members of the NY/Tri-State Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Today at the blog, contributor to and editor of the anthology Elizabeth Zelvin talks about the first two pages of her story “Death Will Finish Your Marathon.”

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