Tag Archives: history

Susan Breen on “The Countess of Warsaw”

Susan Breen is the author of the Maggie Dove series (Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency is available now from Penguin/Random House) as well as The Fiction Class, which received the Washington Irving Award. Here she talks about the genesis and plot of her story “The Countess of Warsaw” from the July/August 2017 issue.

What happens to assassins when they get old? This was the question that was the genesis of my story, “The Countess of Warsaw.”

To give a little background: I was visiting an acquaintance in a nursing home. She was a nice lady, but somewhat droopy, for obvious reasons. During the course of our conversation she happened to mention that she’d been a cheerleader in her youth. I was flummoxed. When I think of cheerleaders I think of bubbly, cheerful people, and this woman was nothing of the kind, and yet. Those qualities had to reside somewhere deep inside her. It made me think about how mysterious the elderly are. So often we look at them (and I should say I’m creeping up there myself) and see their exterior, but forget about all the history that lives inside them.

When I stepped into the nursing home hallway after our conversation, I looked at all the people sitting around and thought, I wonder what stories they could tell? I wonder who they really are? And then, because this is how my mind works, I thought: I wonder if any of them were assassins.

At the time, I had just started work on my Maggie Dove mystery series. Maggie Dove is a Sunday School teacher turned private detective. Because there’s not a lot of blood or gore (yet), my series is considered a cozy. But I didn’t want to be pushed into a cute cozy category. I wanted Maggie to grapple with serious antagonists, even if her story is taking place in a quiet little village. One of the things I’ve always loved about Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple is how ruthless she is. She’s not afraid to find evil in the most unlikely of places.

So when I began working on “The Countess of Warsaw” all of these things were going through my mind, but I had one big problem. And that was, for an assassin to wind up in a nursing home, it would have to be a successful assassin. After all, Lee Harvey Oswald was captured. So was Sirhan Sirhan and Mark Chapman. Most of the assassins in the twentieth century were executed or jailed. Unless. They were successful. Then people would assume that the assassinated person’s death was natural. No one would know otherwise. The assassin would go about his or her life, living and aging and perhaps winding up in a nursing home.

So what prominent figures died in the twentieth century?

I spent months going over the death of every major figure, trying to figure out whose death might not have been as it seemed. Who did I wind up choosing?

You have the read the story to find out!

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In Conversation with The Digest Enthusiast’s Richard Krauss

Richard Krauss is the editor and designer of Larque Press’s The Digest Enthusiast, which has appeared twice yearly since 2015. In today’s post, associate editor Jackie Sherbow talks with Richard about his work and the world of digest magazines. Find out more at the Digest Blog—and you can purchase all issues of The Digest Enthusiast here.

Richard Krauss, portrait by Joe Wehrle, Jr.

AHMM: Please tell us a bit about yourself. You’ve worked as a designer, marketing strategist, artist, and cartoonist. How did your interest in digests develop, and has that relationship changed over time?

Richard Krauss: AHMM is a long-time favorite, so it’s quite an honor to be here. I’d always read crime fiction, but Geoffrey O’Brien’s reference book Hardboiled America opened the floodgates to 1950s era paperback originals for me. The novels by these crime writers were too seductive to resist. Soon, I found these same authors wrote short stories for digests, by then the preferred format for fiction magazines. There were hundreds of titles—Manhunt, Jonathan Press, Pursuit, and of course Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen, to name just a few.

Collectors D. Blake Werts, Rob Imes, and I were chatting one day via e-mail about digests. As the brainwave to document them dawned, The Digest Enthusiast was born. Every potential contributor asked was eager to help: artist/writer Joe Wehrle, Jr., magazine historian Tom Brinkmann, author Lesann Berry, illustrators Michael Neno and Larry Johnson, cartoonist Bob Vojtko, and Hugo award-winning artist Brad Foster. Once the first couple of editions were out, our circle grew to include writers like Steve Carper, Peter Enfantino, and Gary Lovisi—and our contributor list grows with every new edition.

My passion remains crime fiction, but working on the magazine expanded my interest in all genres of fiction, and even nonfiction titles like True Crime Detective, Fate, and Exploring the Unknown.

The Digest Enthusiast, Volume 2

AH: Each issue of The Digest Enthusiast is full of a wide variety of content, from interviews to reviews (in many genres) to poems, artwork, and features like “Opening Lines.” What guiding principles help you maintain focus?

RK: Our purpose is to explore the diverse world of digest magazines. We cover all types of genre fiction digests and select nonfiction titles. Variety is essential. We want something for everyone, every time. We even include a few short stories. After all, fiction is what draws most readers to digest magazines in the first place.

Much of our content is a look back, but we also report on the current scene. Recently we started a column called “News Digest,” which includes all the late-breaking industry news we can gather as each issue enters final production. We present cover previews and news about the four Dell digests, F&SF, Nostalgia Digest, Fate, and the new generation of digests, mostly made possible by today’s publishing technology—Pulp Literature, Paperback Parade, Weirdbook, Switchblade, Mystery Weekly, Betty Fedora, and many others.

AH: And what motifs and themes do you see across the variety of digests?

RK: Editors like Ellery Queen, Ray Palmer, Robert A.W. Lowndes, and H.L. Gold were as important to their readers as their magazines. Publishing a genre fiction digest has always been challenging. The editors, artists, and writers that create them love what they’re doing, and readers know it. Readers want that affinity for their favorite writers and their stories and characters.

You expect crime and deception from a mystery digest; new ideas and concepts from a science fiction title. But with a closer look, you’re struck by the unexpected, and energized by the unbounded creativity in digests. For example, Robert Arthur’s Mysterious Traveler digest, with every tale hosted by the title’s namesake. In 1981, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine had flash fiction from Robert Lopresti before flash fiction was labeled. B.K. Stevens’ epistolary approach to her Bolt and Walt series for AHMM—and the inclusion of Dale Berry’s seven-page comic story earlier this year. Get a digest and get enthused.

For writers, these days, it’s all about platform. Most successful digests also leverage platform. Alfred Hitchcock, Isaac Asimov, The Man from UNCLE, and The Saint were all well established names/brands before their digests debuted. In 1953, Manhunt began serializing a brand new novel by Mickey Spillane, at the height of Spillane’s popularity. Manhunt sold over half a million copies of their first issue. In 1948, the UFO craze seized America. Fate Magazine debuted with Kenneth Arnold’s account of his famous 1947 sighting, catapulting Clark Publishing into success.

Slow and steady only wins if you can afford to stay in the race. Otherwise, better to hitch your wagon to a proven platform.

The Digest Enthusiast, Volume 4

AH: Can you talk a bit about the relationship between visual elements and copy in your favorite digests?

RK: You judge a book by its cover—or more precisely, you form your first impression from a book’s appearance. The cover is primary, but you react to the whole package. How does it look and feel? Digests have an inherently appealing size, easy to hold, easy to carry, and inviting to read.

Some fiction magazines use the same fonts for every story title, intro, text, and notes. Others vary the titles using different fonts to reflect the feel of the story to come. The text font is probably unconscious to many readers, but the magazine’s designer has given it a lot of thought, trying to balance all the options in style, size, weight, leading, and line length.

If the budget allows, an illustration can spark interest in a story in a heartbeat. The best are custom-made, depicting a scene from the story, or perhaps the overall feel of its milieu. Digest collectors follow their favorite artists as often as their favorite authors.

AH: What observations do you have about the community of digests enthusiasts (collectors, artists, writers, fans, etc.)?

RK: The community is as friendly and welcoming as you could ever want. Writers and editors, reviewers, contributors, collectors, and readers—they’ve all been enthusiastic and energizing. Just a terrific group of people, sharing and celebrating their common interest, a love for compelling fiction and artistry.

AH: What are the top three things you wish everyone would know about digests?

The Digest Enthusiast, Volume 6

RK: First, they’re a bargain. Probably no surprise to AHMM readers, but digests offer the best, most affordable short story writing available. Online, at your local newsstand, or by subscription, there is no better fictive bang for your buck.

Second, they gave many of the world’s favorite writers their start. Perhaps the biggest star, Stephen King, had his first professional stories published in Startling Mystery Stories. But there are plenty of examples: Orson Scott Card, Lawrence Block, John D. MacDonald, Joe Lansdale, etc. Art Taylor’s “Rearview Mirror” first appeared in EQMM and later won the Agatha Award for best first novel as On the Road with Del & Louise in its expanded version. If you want to discover tomorrow’s bestselling, award-winning author today, read a digest. (And many of the greats return to the pages of their earliest supporters.)

Finally, there are hundreds of terrific digest magazines available. Whether you want a new adventure or a new passion, digests are easy to find online, highly collectible, and more affordable than just about any other type of magazine.

AH: Are you working on or planning any other projects?

RK: Writer and filmmaker, Alec Cizak, published of one of the earliest digests to leverage the new publishing technologies, Pulp Modern. After a year hiatus, he and I teamed-up to revive the title and released our first new issue from Volume Two in May 2017. The next Pulp Modern will be out late this year, near the same time as The Digest Enthusiast #7.

I’m also working with Marc Myers on a collection of Clark Dissmeyer’s comix work from the 1980s, which will be released this fall.

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All Things About “Althing” by Stephen P. Kelner, Jr.

Massachusetts-based writer Stephen P. Kelner, Jr. is a management consultant and the author of Motivate Your Writing! (UPNE). His fiction appears in the Level Best anthology Undertow, featuring stories by New England crime writers. Here he talks about the history behind his story “Death at the Althing” from the November issue.

Vikings get a bad rap. The horned-helmet berserkers of cartoons bear little resemblance to the human beings of Nordic settlements between the 700s and 1066. The early descriptions of them as horrific attackers—“from the fury of the Northmen, God deliver us”—came from people who were not only victims, but, unusually for the time, literate. Imagine Twitter if only one party could type!

Most “Vikings” farmed, of course. History marks the Scandinavian people of this time out because they rapidly expanded into and colonized many areas—most of the modern UK and Ireland, Russia, France (Normandy is Old Norse for “North-Man-Town”—in other words, a Norse settlement), Greenland, and Iceland. Their explorations went even further: Norsemen composed the Varangian Guard of the Emperor in Constantinople. And, yes, many fought to achieve this dominance, but they also traded and settled to leave their profound impact on Europe.

Inspired by my Scandinavian blood, in college I discovered the richness of the Norse Sagas. They have been considered history, myth, and, since the discovery of the Newfoundland “Vinland” colonies, partway back to history again. They can give you a feeling for their culture, and make you confront assumptions in yours. Followers of the Old Norse religion believed they had a predestined fate, a “wyrd,” not unlike Calvinist beliefs of a later time, but reached very different conclusions on how to live your life. While some Calvinists were strict and dour, hoping that they would make it into heaven despite their sins, the Norse believed in living life to the utmost, because if your wyrd was written anyway, you might as well live large—a philosophy more “YOLO” than Puritan!

Iceland is home to some of the most famous sagas. Founded in the 900s mostly by Norwegians fleeing the unification efforts of King Olaf, Icelanders formed a surprisingly democratic state, where all landowners spoke their minds at the Althing—the “Everybody-meeting,” their “Congress,” and still the name of the Icelandic legislature. Admittedly, some of these debates and lawsuits devolved into combat; but they usually managed to work things out.

Like the sagas, myths and history blend in Iceland. To this day, you can see the rock where Grettir the Strong hid; discuss the misshapen skull of Egil the Seer; hear an Icelander describe an elf neighbor; or go to the site of the original Althing and the Law Rock where the Lawspeaker would recite one third of the laws each meeting.

For an amateur historian such as myself, it was tough tackling the academic literature. As a PhD in a different field, I understand that papers assume a common grounding possessed by any graduate student, but not me. At first, I read non-academic books and popular works to give me a basic view of the working society, roleplayers—guides for Icelandic garb, or even children’s books, if well researched. Why the latter? Because while an academic article might delve into the chemical formation of fabrics or distances a brooch may have traveled, an illustrated children’s book shows you what a person looks like wearing them, standing in their town.

I also visited places and things myself: a scaled-down replica of Leif Erikson’s ship came to Boston once for the millennium of his voyage, and I could discuss the realities of sailing with the crew. The Jorvik Viking Centre in York, UK—the heart of much Viking activity back in the day—is a wonderful resource to show you both how people lived and how modern archeology is done. (Hint: not like Indiana Jones.) I haven’t been able to go to Iceland myself, but Icelandair has a nonstop from Boston and specials, so someday . . .

As I dug into Old Norse and Icelandic culture, I found other startling differences. Most people have heard of “weregild,” money paid as partial compensation for an illegal death, e.g., murder. But did you know the weregild for a young woman equaled that of a adult male warrior? And the weregild for a woman who had given birth was more! This culture valued women, believing they had wisdom not accessible to men—sexist, yes, but at least both sides had special value. Again and again in the sagas, women initiated the events—whether negative or positive. (Sometimes as real-life warriors, too: Look up the formidable Freydis Eiriksdotter. But avoid for the negative stories propagated by early Christian missionaries making her “unwomanly” instead of courageous.)

The challenge of historical fiction is balancing today’s modern audience against yesterday’s realities to make it accurate yet understandable, sometimes despite assumptions that may shock today. Worse, we only know a fingernail fragment about these people, much written by the victims of Vikings, not by the Norse people themselves, and what we do have was not exactly annotated. For example, Viking-era storytellers loved using kennings—poetic metaphors for objects, many completely incomprehensible today. Things taken for granted then baffle us today—and no doubt vice versa, could we raise a few Viking shades to ask. Of course, this also makes it fun for writers and audiences: debunking a myth or two, illuminating what life might have been like, or drawing a conclusion obvious to an 10th century Icelander that pleasantly surprises the modern reader.

In this particular story, the characters obviously follow the classic “Holmes and Watson” pattern, with a Norse twist. Leipt-Egil and Thorbjorn not only represent Holmes’ brains and Watson’s heart, respectively, but also elements from Norse myth: the smart, tricky problem-solver (Loki) and the less-bright but strong, trustworthy one (Thor). At the same time, my characters are human beings, not mythic archetypes, each with their strengths and weaknesses. Thorbjorn is smarter than Egil, when it comes to people; Egil has strong feelings, but poorly expressed. They have histories and families, some of which may appear in later stories! And if you see them, trust me, they won’t have horns on their helmets.

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Out of History Comes a Story, “The Great Aul” by R. T. Lawton

R. T. Lawton is the author of several different series appearing regularly in AHMM. He is a former federal law-enforcement officer and he blogs for SleuthSayers.org. Here he writes about the background of his tale “The Great Aul” from the July/August 2016 issue.

The tomes of history are rich with strong characters whose actions influenced the future of nations, entire civilizations and even the course of world events. Much of known history is written by the winners, some accounts are retold by survivors of that same happening and some events are documented by independent observers who have no axe to grind concerning the facts or truth of those events. Often the perspective or alleged truth depends upon the teller of that history and many times there are gaps in what gets told. These gaps are fertile grounds for an author of fiction to create his own version of the story.

The Known History:

For centuries, the Tsars of Russia had pushed their country’s border southward into the Turkic lands. Their invasion vanguard usually consisted of freebooting Cossacks who lived in stockade villages along the frontier and raided their Muslim neighbors by horseback or by sea. Eventually, after many rebellions by the freedom loving Cossacks against their own Tsars, the Russian army quartered soldiers in each frontier village, made these Cossacks into subordinate military units and launched their own massive spring campaigns into Chechnya to subjugate the various hill tribes.

Imam Shamyl

Imam Shamyl

One of the opposition leaders was an Imam named Shamyl, who led a group of religious Chechens and Daghestans known as Murids in the northern Caucasus. At one point, the Russians offered to broker a peace treaty with the Murids. In order to guarantee the safety of the Russian negotiators, Shamyl was forced to give up one of his sons as a temporary hostage. The Russians, acting in bad faith, promptly whisked the young boy off to Moscow, Russianized him over the years and made him a cavalry officer in one of their units.

During the summer of 1854, Shamyl put a plan in motion to recover his now grown son. On the morning of July 4th, a detachment of Murid horsemen clattered into the Tsinandali palace courtyard of King George XII, the last king of Georgia and an ally of the Tsar. They seized the two princesses, their children and their governesses. The women were tied to the horsemen’s saddle frames and the small children were stuffed into large saddlebags. In short time, the entire group rode off into the mountains headed for the Great Aul, a mountain fortress in the heart of Daghestan. Imam Shamyl had plans to trade the hostages for his son Jamal al-Din (various spellings depending upon the source). As a matter of history, the trade did take place, but there is a gap in the details.

Members of Shamyl's band.

Members of Shamyl’s band.

Filling the Gap:

Constantly researching for more Russian history on their invasion into the Caucasus to use as story background, this event is a great find for me. I already have two story characters, the Armenian and his helper the Little Nogai Boy, trading goods with the Cossacks on the Terek River and with the Chechens south into the Wild Country. Since the Armenian is already trusted by people on both sides of the river (as shown in previous stories), who better to act as intermediary for the exchange of hostages? These two fictional characters can fill the existing gap and write their own story as to their part in what happened.

It’s now time to invoke the writer’s famous What If . . . clause. What if the Armenian and the Little Nogai Boy are crossing a shallow river deep in the Wild Country when the raiders fleeing with their prisoners happen upon them?

The Story is Born:

The young orphan boy, from the Nogai split out of the Great Mongol Horde after the death of Genghis Khan, tells “The Great Aul” story as he sees these hostage events through his own eyes. Using the young boy as the Point of View also allows for a more emotional impact upon the reader at the end. So, let’s get down to the bare bones.

Our two protagonists, all their trade goods, plus their string of pack animals are taken by the Murids and are forced to travel along with the hostages to The Great Aul high up on a mountain top. Here, the Armenian is offered freedom for himself and his helper if the Armenian takes a letter from the Imam to the Tsar, offering the Georgian hostages in exchange for his son Jamal. However, the Nogai boy must stay behind to ensure the Armenian’s return.

It’s a long trip to Moscow and back. Many things could happen to the Armenian along the route, and the boy doesn’t know if his master will even return to get him out of the aul. To pass time, the boy starts selling their trade goods in the local market place and making his own plans for escape just in case things don’t work out according to the plan of others. But, he has to be careful in his actions because he is closely watched by one of the Murids assigned to guard him, a Murid who has lost his entire family to earlier Russian incursions. Plus, it seems not all Murids are happy to have outsiders on the inside of their fortress.

Sorry, but that’s all you get here. To find out what becomes of our young orphan after the Imam’s son is returned, you’ll have to read the story for yourself. If you are female, you might want to have a tissue handy. If you’re a guy, well, you’re on your own.

In any case, be sure to leave a comment after you read the story.

 

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Behind the Scenes at 267 Broadway: Jackie Sherbow

Jackie Sherbow is the senior assistant editor for EQMM and AHMM. This post will also appear at Something Is Going To Happen.

My recent contribution to SleuthSayers, an inside look at the submissions process, had me wondering if people wouldn’t be interested in a literal inside view of our offices. So, come on in!

267 Broadway

267 Broadway

267 Broadway has been the NYC home of Dell Magazines since 2009. Its residents include the editorial staff for AHMM, EQMM, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Dell Horoscope, and a variety of Dell’s puzzle titles. We work closely with our two other outposts, both in southern Connecticut (Milford and Norwalk).

The view across Broadway: City Hall Park

The view across Broadway: City Hall Park

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