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“Writing with an Eye on the Supernatural” by Cheryl Skupa

Kansas-based author and English instructor Cheryl Skupa writes book reviews (Among Worlds) and poetry (Phoenix, Oklahoma Council of Teachers of English). Here she talks about writing with the supernatural in mind and about crafting her debut short story publication, “Ghost in the Nemaha County Courthouse” (from our current March/April 2019 issue).

I always perk up when I hear local folklore and superstitions, especially when told with relish by someone connected, however distantly (perhaps nebulously) to the people and places in the story. These little snippets of local history and tragedy have the deliciousness of gossip. Ghostly tales have the power to transform even the drabbest places on earth into something magical—and creepy!

“Ghost in the Nemaha County Courthouse” was born out of local stories and my penchant for driving out of my way, sometimes down gravel roads to visit small-town courthouses, little cemeteries, and old churches. The courthouse in my rural county and those in surrounding areas provided plenty of atmosphere—old clanking radiators, broom closets which were once jail rooms, fainting couches, shadows, dust, and the knowledge that many anguished people had passed through these halls over the years. Intensely personal tragedies and triumphs have been absorbed into the old ornate woodwork with the smell of the furniture polish.

The cleaning lady, Evelyn Eichman, was, of course, based on me. Who knew that all those hours working my way through college, pushing my cleaning cart down halls, sweeping, mopping, and dusting would somehow find its way into my writing? My least-favorite college job became the best writing fodder—but then, writers use everything; they are composters of experience! Thank you, fiction and AHMM, for sanctifying those lonely, boring experiences!

The only drawback of writing about ghosts was that humankind has been telling these stories since the beginning. For me as a writer to veer off into fresh territory, I needed to understand what was happening to my cleaning lady, Evelyn Eichman, as she experienced the visions of the white woman and her stained dress. That took some thought and time. I scoured the local small-town newspapers, especially the sections which recalled local events in history. I reread the account of my small town’s informal historian (a local school teacher.) I tried to recall old stories my grandma had told me, and cursed the gaps in my memory.

In the end, I did what writers do—told the story that I most loved to read. Ghost stories always remind us, not only of past sins, but also that death may not be the end, that insignificant people, places, and actions matter, and that tragedy, however devastating, may become immortal in the retelling!

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“‘Shiva’s Eye’ and Other Doctor Watson Adventures” by James Tipton

California writer James Tipton is the author of Annette Vallon: A Novel of the French Revolution (HarperCollins, 2008) and the upcoming collection Adventures Without Sherlock. You can find his short stories and poetry in Nostos and Blue Unicorn. His first tale in AHMM to feature Dr. Watson was “The Vampire of Edinburgh” (September/October 2017), and here he talks about that character, the series, and his story in the current issue, “Shiva’s Eye”—just in time for belated celebrations of Sherlock Holmes’s birthday. (Editor’s note: The phrase “twenty-five hundred strong” at the top of page 86 of the current issue of AHMM, the fifth page of “Shiva’s Eye,” was misprinted as “twenty-five thousand strong.” We regret the error.)

Doctor John H. Watson is one of the great overshadowed characters of literature (for others, see Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Nausikaa in The Odyssey; there are many). Sherlock Holmes is not being ironic when, in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” he says, “I’m lost without my Boswell.” He would not only have been lost to current recognition and to posterity, but in his own self-absorption and ego. In this blog, however, I’m not writing about Holmes, but about his companion, who, in the story “Shiva’s Eye,” encounters mysteries long before he ever encountered his famous friend. Moreover, we must admit it’s because of Doctor Watson’s writing that his friend became famous.

“Shiva’s Eye” can be read as a prequel to the Sherlock Holmes canon. Watson tells us in the beginning of his narration of the first Holmes novella, A Study in Scarlet, that the Afghan campaign in which he participated brought him “nothing but misfortune and disaster . . . I served at the fatal battle of Maiwand. There I was struck on the shoulder [in later stories we also find he was wounded in the leg] by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery.” After he had “rallied” at the base hospital at Peshawar, he “was struck down by enteric fever [typhoid], that curse of our Indian possessions.” The battle of Maiwand was a major and unexpected defeat for the British in the second Anglo-Afghan war. Watson tells us that his “nerves are shaken,” and when he meets Holmes, the detective’s first words to him are, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” “Shiva’s Eye” sees this campaign, its disastrous outcome, and its seeming supernatural mysteries unfold through Watson’s eyes.

I am grateful to the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine for giving a chance for these Doctor Watson adventures to come out to the world. AHMM published “The Vampire of Edinburgh” in September/October of 2017, and now is set to publish two more of them after “Shiva’s Eye.”

These stories come from a collection of fourteen that I’m working on to be called Adventures Without Sherlock. There have been countless spin-offs of Sherlock Holmes in print and in film, but none that I know of which only features Dr. Watson, without the help of his illustrious friend. I’ve endeavored to stay true to the narrative voice of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories, but mine develop the doctor’s character much further, covering the range of Watson’s adult life: from a failed romance in the Highlands that resurfaces in the gold country of California (the latter refers to an unpublished play by Doyle in which Watson ventures to the Wild West); to his participation in the Afghan campaign; to his years with Holmes when he was on his own—either on holiday or shortly after his first wife’s death, and then Holmes’s presumed death; to his later years when he visits Ireland on the verge of Civil War; or a trip to Berlin in 1933, when, in his eighties, while being honored by his German publisher, he encounters the beginning of the Nazi terror. We also see Doctor Watson giving a nod to his friend, or perhaps in silent competition with him; for instance, in an early story we find that Watson hunted a demon cat on the craggy fells of the Lake District long before Holmes stalked a hell-hound on the misty moors of Devonshire. A post-World War I story even features Conan Doyle, who, as Watson’s editor and friend, asks the doctor to join him on a search for fairies.

So in these stories Watson finally gets his due. Through his presentational immediacy and objective but deeply personal involvement, we feel the presence of a brave, compassionate, and highly moral man. Traditionally, these qualities have been applied to his protagonist, but we must remember that Sherlock Holmes is filtered through the perspective and the values of Doctor Watson. Once we are familiar with Watson as a narrator, we cannot help but think of him, unlike Holmes, as a very human and most likable human being—as that rare thing among writers: a genial personality.

Doctor Watson is well overdue to be the hero of his own series. As readers of the Holmes stories, we are aware of the doctor’s keen sense of observation, his fine ear for dialogue, and his pacing to give a sense of suspense and adventure (the last being a quality for which Holmes chided him). We are also aware of Watson’s self-effacing habit of always putting himself in the background; the stories are not about him. In my stories, although Watson is still loath to talk too much about his personal life, we can’t help but see his character more: his self-reflections, doubts, epiphanies, his dedicated persistence in arriving at truth—and we see him growing in his abilities as a detective. In “Shiva’s Eye” we also see him go where the cold reason of Holmes would never venture: into the possibility that there is more to life than the rational mind can understand.

With any and all readers keeping in mind that they are following the adventures of Doctor Watson, not of Sherlock Holmes, and therefore may be exposed not to singular analytical reasoning from effects to causes but to a dogged, quotidian effort to get at the truth (or in “Shiva’s Eye” assistance from an unexpected source), I offer these stories to whomever may have a few quiet minutes to spend with the good doctor.

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“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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“‘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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The Origins of Wilson Salinas and “Los Cantantes de Karaoke” by Tom Larsen

Tom Larsen’s fiction appears in Flash Fiction Magazine, Everyday Fiction, and Big Pond Rumours. One of his stories, cowritten by his grandson, appears in the benefit anthology Friends in Foreign Places. Detective Wilson Salinas is featured in his novel Getting Legal. Here the author talks about his story “Los Cantantes de Karaoke” from the current March/April 2018 issue—his first published mystery story. (Make sure to read the tale first!)

I love to read, which is why I love to write. I love to read character-driven stories, so I tend to write character-driven stories. Of course, to do that requires that I develop characters—characters that are interesting, and most of all, believable. Of all the characters that I’ve developed in twenty years of writing, my favorite is Wilson Salinas, the Ecuadorian private investigator who finds himself a murder suspect in “Los Cantantes de Karaoke”—published this month in AHMM.

My wife Debby and I retired January 1, 2014. Within six months we had sold our house and most of our belongings, and began the move to Cuenca, Ecuador. Although we had made two exploratory trips, this was the real thing. No turning back.

We arrived in Guayaquil at midnight on a hot and steamy June night. The next morning we were on our way to our new home in Cuenca, a stunningly beautiful colonial city located at 8,500 feet elevation in the Andes Mountains.

We had contracted with a driver to take us on the four-hour, 120 mile journey to Cuenca. Emilio, a diminutive fellow with a wide friendly face and an engaging manner, met us at the hotel the next morning, and off we went.

From the vast rice and sugar cane fields and banana plantations of the coastal lowlands we ascended into the lush hardwood forest of the west slope of the Andes, through the dry grasslands and jagged peaks of the summit, and on to the east side. Imagine huge valleys, with far-off mountain peaks rising through the fog like islands out of the sea, pristine lakes too high to be affected by toxic runoff, llamas grazing along the side of the road, colorfully dressed woman milking cows in pastures that rose steeply above us.

We saw all of that and more, but the most memorable part of the trip was meeting Emilio, a proud descendant of the Cañari indigenous group. Ten years earlier, Emilio had emigrated to the United States, like tens of thousands of young Ecuatorianos, when Ecuador’s economy was in freefall. When the economy began to turn around and it looked as if the current president might actually serve out two complete terms (a rarity in Ecuador in recent years) Emilio fled the frigid winters of Minneapolis for the temperate climate of his mountain home.

Emilio’s English was as impeccable as our Spanish was limited, and his knowledge of the history, geography, and politics of his country was excellent. Ecuador couldn’t have chosen a better ambassador.

I’m a mystery writer, so while Emilio pointed out interesting sights and explained the politics of his country, my mind of course, wandered. What must it have been like, I thought, to leave the security and tranquility of the only home you’ve ever known, and head to a cold and frightening megalopolis 3,500 miles north? And, what must it have been like to return years later, with all the changes that you, and your former home, have gone through in the interim? Although I didn’t realize it until a few months later, that was the day that Wilson Salinas came into being.

Now, I have to say that Emilio is nothing at all like Wilson. Emilio’s a hard-working entrepreneur, completely dedicated to his family, and while that’s great, it doesn’t make for an interesting character in a mystery. So, I made Wilson an alcoholic, a smart-ass, and essentially a failure at everything he has tried to accomplish. I sent him off to Seattle for fifteen years, and brought him home to Cuenca at the age of 35, broke, disillusioned, and no more comfortable in his childhood home than he had been in his adopted one.

While living in Portland, Oregon, I had created a character with many of the same attributes as Wilson, and at one point I had begun a short story where the P.I. is duped by an old friend into providing an alibi for him as the friend murders his wife and his brother, whom he suspects of having an affair.

The story went nowhere, but a half dozen years later, as I sat at my desk in Cuenca watching the sun come up over the mountains, the idea came back to me, and Wilson fit seamlessly into the role of the hapless private investigator. I took it a step further and had his old friend frame Wilson for the murders, and that was the origin of “Los Cantantes de Karaoke.”

Fun Fact: Wilson’s name was inspired by a local realtor named Edison Salinas. Names such as Wilson and Edison are fairly common first names in Ecuador. Hitler and Stalin, while not nearly as common, are not unheard of.

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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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