Tag Archives: literature

“Channeling Sally Field” by Doug Allyn

Doug Allyn is the author of novels including The Burning of Rachel Hayes and the forthcoming The Jukebox King, and a multiple winner of the Edgar Award for Best Short Story as well as the EQMM Readers Award. His last tale to appear in AHMM was “Message from the Morgue” (January/February 2015). Here, on the reflective occasion of our 60th anniversary, he talks about publishing his first short story “Final Rites” in the December 1985 issue—and winning the Robert L. Fish Award for it.

Some memories never fade. Your first kiss. First car. First serious love affair. (Not necessarily in that order, but often as not, I suspect.)

But for writers, the First that ranks right up there with the aforementioned big 3, is the First Story that doesn’t come limping home with a business card stapled to page one: Sorry, but your pathetic offering doesn’t measure up to our lofty standards, mwa-ha-ha-ha. (Or words to that effect.)

Instead, you get a brief letter of acceptance and a contract. And after the initial confusion, (what? No rejection card?) you realize you’ve actually made your First Sale.

Wow. What a freaking rush! A high equal to the best buzz sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll can offer, and I’m speaking from experience. (Well, okay, maybe not quite as good as sex. And Shanghai speed can be—but I digress.)

The rush of elation is, for most writers, geometrically intensified by the number of rejections we received prior to that First Acceptance.

And that truly is the feeling. Acceptance. Some far off, godlike editor in the Big Apple (in my case, Cathleen Jordan, of AHMM) was offering to publish my puny little story.

Remember the night Sally Field won her Oscar? “You like me,” she babbled. “You really like me.” And the world chuckled indulgently. And maybe her speech was inane, but it was from the heart, and a lot more moving than some vapid diva thanking everybody from Krishna to her pool boy.

That’s the feeling of a First Sale. Sally Field on Oscar night. A once-in-a-lifetime rush that has nothing to do with the numbers at the bottom of the contract.

My First Sale was a story called “Final Rites.” Often, I have no idea where stories come from, but “Final Rites”? That one’s easy. One of my son’s high school buddies had a summer job as a gravedigger. A tough kid, a football player, hardcore jock.

“What’s it like, digging graves?” I asked.

“It gets weird sometimes,” he said. “If I’m down in the hole, squaring it up, and the mist rolls in off the river . . . ? Whoah!” And the burly football player shivered.

And gave me a story. About a gravedigger, who shivered, when he was down in a hole.

I still remember that rush. Even now, a hundred-plus stories later, I get that same lift when I find a story that needs telling.

But for “Final Rites”? The amazing First Buzz was about to get even better.

A few months after the story appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Cathleen Jordan called to inform me that “Final Rites” had won the Robert L. Fish Award, for best first story.

I was stunned, overwhelmed, reduced to tears, right? Wrong. I had no idea what she was talking about. Literary awards? I grew up in northern Michigan where wealth is measured in wives, dogs, and rifles. (Just kidding. About the wives part.)

“If you’re serious about a writing career,” Cathleen said, “I strongly suggest that you come to New York to accept your award.”

“Do I have to wear a tie?” (I didn’t own one.)

“It’s black tie,” she said.

“I have to wear a black tie?”

“No, you putz, it is black tie. It’s the Edgars, the Oscars of the mystery world. It’s . . . New York! Formal dress, tuxes and evening gowns.” (Cathleen didn’t actually say ‘you putz’, she was far too refined. Bet she was thinking it, though.)

Without further ado, my wife and I were off to NYC, to party for a week, collect the award, (plus a check). And Cathleen was exactly right.

That first story, and the award it won, got my career up and running. In addition to meeting the staff at Dell Magazines (Cathleen, Eleanor Sullivan, et al, I acquired an agent, had lunch with Ruth Cavin, the legendary editor of St. Martin’s Press, who published my first five novels. (My eleventh, The Jukebox King, will be released by Stark House in February.)

All this, from a gravedigger’s shiver, and a first story Cathleen rescued from Dell’s towering slush pile.

Some memories never fade. Some debts can never be repaid. I will be forever grateful to the folks at Dell, for inviting me into this game, and letting me play.

And I’ll never forget Sally Field’s Oscar speech, either.

Because I know exactly how she felt.

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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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Welcome to Glasgow by Russel D. McLean

Novelist, short-story writer, editor, reviewer, and author of the J McNee series Russel D. McLean’s upcoming novel is And When I Die, to be released this year from Contraband Books. Here he discusses setting and his story “Tout” from the September issue of AHMM.

My first story for AHMM, back in 2004 (I was twenty-four at the time!) was set in Dundee and featured a detective by the name of Sam Bryson. I liked Sam then, and I still like him now. He was a hardboiled kinda guy, with a few problems, a supportive partner and a best friend who had more than a few of his own demons. His stomping ground was the city of Dundee, on the east coast of Scotland. I’d been living there since I went to uni, and was getting to know the place well.

One Sam story led to another. And another. A few more. Sam was meant to get his own book, too, but I was persuaded to “reboot” the character by my then agent. I handed Sam’s offices to an even more tragic and dour PI by the name of J McNee (we never did find out what the J stood for), although Sam himself has made a few more appearances in the pages of AHMM since then (notably last year’s “The Water’s Edge”).

But you can’t keep doing the same thing forever.

In 2014 I moved to Glasgow for personal reasons (my girlfriend and our cats were there, so it made sense) and began writing full time soon after. The more I explored the city, the more I realised there was something here that made it very different to Dundee, and a place I wanted to explore through my writing. I began work on a novel—And When I Die—set in the city. But I wanted to flex my literary muscles a little first. A short story seemed the ideal way to try and feel my way around this new city, to get a hint of the ways it operated that were distinct from what I knew so well in Dundee.

I also wanted to create some new characters, too. Another PI would have been lazy. And since I like a challenge, I figured that, for this particular short, I’d have a stab at something I’d always been scared of: a procedural.

The story itself—concerning the death of a man who was selling fake tickets for the Commonwealth Games—seemed an obvious choice. At the time of writing the story, we were in the midst of preparation for this major event (that went off without a hitch in 2014), and it seemed to me like an obvious hook.

Any time you have a major event, someone, somewhere will want to try and take advantage. A ticket tout seemed an obvious place to start. I already had a fictional gangland in mind to explore in And When I Die, and so I connected the tout tangentially to one of a pair of warring gang bosses. The two cops—Stringer and White—never made it into the book, but I have a feeling that this isn’t the last time that we’ll see them in action. I enjoyed writing them too much; these sparring coppers whose mutual respect is unstated and yet obvious.

I’m proud of “Tout” for a lot of reasons, and I’m glad Linda and the team at AHMM like it, too. I hope the readers of the magazine get a kick out of it—the new detectives and location, especially.

But even though I write about crime and the darker side of the Scottish urban experience, the one thing I’ve found with the real life Glasgow is that it’s an incredibly welcoming city. I’ve been here for three years now, I’m very proud to call it my new home. I hope that as my fictional exploration of it continues, I’ll continue to find new surprises, unexpected nuances and hidden secrets around every corner. The deeper I delved into the city after writing Tout, the more fascinating things I discovered to explore in my new novel. But this isn’t the end. No, I have a feeling there’s plenty of intrigue left in this place. And I hope that readers will enjoy discovering it alongside me.

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On “Louisa and the Silver Buckle” by Marianne Wilski Strong

Lecturer and writer Marianne Wilski Strong is the author of over forty published short stories. Here she talks about “Louisa and the Silver Buckle,” from the September 2016 issue of AHMM, the first in a new series.

My inspiration for “Louisa and the Silver Buckle” began in a small bookstore in Massachusetts where I found a treasure. I was scanning the bookshelves in the back of the store when my eye caught a title that arrested my attention: The Lost Stories of Louisa May Alcott. Within a minute, I had marched up to the register, paid, and left with my treasure. I delayed my visit to Thoreau’s Walden Pond, took the shortcut back to my hotel and settled in to read.

I had, of course, read Little Women years ago, loved it, and like most young girls read it several times, always imagining myself to be Jo. But I had never read Alcott’s short stories. Now I began reading. Within a few days I finished the last of the stories and began hungering for more. Not able to find another edition, I reread my favorites: “Betrayed by a Buckle;” “Ariel: A Legend of the Lighthouse;” “Lost in a Pyramid.” The inspiration for my stories began to take hold in my brain. I would write stories in which the key character would solve mysteries by referring to Alcott’s gothic tales. But I wasn’t sure yet how to handle what I wanted to write. What setting should I use: Concord, where Alcott had lived for many years? I had visited Concord several times, touring the homes of Alcott and her fellow writers: Emerson and Hawthorne. But I knew Concord only as a tourist, not as a resident. In what time period should I set my stories: in the early or mid nineteenth century when Alcott had lived? That wouldn’t work because I wanted my main character to be an avid reader of Alcott’s stories and to have all of them on hand when she needed them.

So the inspiration floated around in my mind, only half formed, until I spent a week in Cape May, New Jersey at the house of my stepdaughter and her friend. Cape May, I realized would be the perfect setting for my stories. Cape May had all the ingredients I wanted. First, Louisa May Alcott herself had vacationed in this Victorian seaside resort. The city abounded in Victorian homes if I wanted such a home in my stories. Cape May had a lighthouse, a lovely beach, a bird sanctuary. It was steeped in history. My inspiration now became a full-blown idea and I began the first of my Louisa stories.

My narrator Amanda owns a condo in Cape May as well as several editions of Alcott’s stories. As with my stepdaughter’s house, the narrator’s condo lies not far from the beach, very near the pedestrian shopping street. Most important of all, the condos, Amanda’s and my stepdaughter’s, are surrounded by homes under renovation. One day, walking along a Cape May Street, I watched workers renovating: knocking down walls, ripping out sagging windows, tearing up old floorboards. Who knew what the workers might find as they demolished parts of the house. Since Alcott had vacationed in Cape May, she could well have visited friends and could well have stayed with them overnight in one of the houses now being renovated. The story took off from there. Louisa wrote a short story for a friend and gave it to her. The manuscript had remained hidden for over a hundred years. Now, it is, of course, valuable and a number of people who suspect the existence of such a manuscript and want it at any cost: even murder.

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Toasts and Resolutions

Resolutions first: and for would-be bloggers, this ranks up there with “lose weight” and “exercise more” as a resolution cliché, but here goes anyway. In 2013, I resolve to blog more regularly. (Also, to lose weight and exercise more.)

The arrival of the new year is also a traditional occasion for offering toasts, and I have a great one for you. Earlier, I mentioned the wonderful Black Orchid Banquet that I attended December 1st. This is the annual fete of The Wolfe Pack, the Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe appreciation society, and for the past several years, I have had the pleasure of presenting the Black Orchid Novella Award, co-sponsored by the Wolfe Pack and AHMM.

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