Tag Archives: mystery

“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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All in the Family (September/October 2018)

Old songs notwithstanding, we are not, strictly speaking, required to always hurt the ones we love—but as this issue’s stories demonstrate, things often work out that way. Ah, family!

Consider siblings. In R. T. Lawton’s “The Chinese Box,” for instance, the city-bred and educated son of a Shan Army warlord finds himself in stiff competition with his own older half-brother, while two actors who once played brothers on a hit TV show have a very different off-screen dynamic in Brendan DuBois’s “The Wildest One.” Ecuadoran P.I. Wilson Salinas, meanwhile, must retrieve his neighbor’s granddaughter—snatched by her own father in Tom Larsen’s “En Agua Caliente.” A woman working a prison kitchen is tested when the man who killed her father demands that she help him escape in Janice Law’s “Good Girl.” And a family inheritance is at stake in our Mystery Classic, “Betrayed by a Buckle” by Louisa May Alcott, introduced by Marianne Wilski Strong.

Conventioneers extraordinaire Spade and Paladin see their extended family of SF fans and writers divided by a bitter schism with criminal consequences in Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Unity Con.” A mob family’s brutal management of a co-op inspires two retired seniors to act in “Rats” by Tom Savage. And new to our pages this month, Matthew Wilson brings a tale of an army sergeant confronting racism among his brothers-in-arms at a training base in Germany in “The Cook Off.”

A man who once looked for unexploded WWII ordnance in Europe must confront his own past when he encounters an old lover in Mark Thielman’s atmospheric “Buried Past.” Loren D. Estleman’s Four Horseman return with a case involving a patriotic “Scrap Drive.” Feuding neighbors bring color and headaches to Detective Sergeant Fritz Dollinger’s investigation of the murder of a young musician in John H. Dirckx’s procedural “Counterpoint.”

History repeats itself in Dennis McFadden’s dual coming-of-age story, “Coolbrook Twp.” And a bad actor gets a shot at auditioning for a psychological thriller in this month’s cover story, James Lincoln Warren’s “Casting Call.”

Once again, these stories show that blood will tell.

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“Documents”: A Mystery That Came Out of the Archives by Linda Mannheim

Linda Mannheim is the author of works such as Above Sugar Hill and Noir. Her short stories have appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Ambit, New York Stories and New Contrast. She was a visiting associate at the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town, and here she discusses the research and source materials for her revealing and unique story “Documents” in the current issue of the magazine.

I was up to my elbows in archival material when I found the note, handwritten on a scrap of paper:

There’s a little surprise carefully concealed in a Click’s carrier bag in the fridge for little Ekraam (who speaks so well on the phone) who could be forgiven for not being circumcised before he knew the way to heaven (so long as you don’t mention the word Palestine). So…. Es mein kindt. Forward the people’s struggle (on chicken bones and gefilte fish)!

I couldn’t stop thinking about the note, wondering who it was written by, who it was left for, what their story was.

The archives belonged to the University of Cape Town library’s special collections. I was visiting from the US, having pitched my project as “research for a collection of unconventional war stories.” Almost ten years after the end of South Africa’s apartheid era, when it was spring in the Southern hemisphere and autumn back home, I was trying to solve a mystery of my own. How had the white minority government stayed in power for so long? What was the apparatus that they’d used to divide, rule, and remove people from their homes?

The answer was in those archives—in the legal documents, political pamphlets, and handwritten letters in those boxes. In 2003, much of the material was still uncatalogued, so when I opened each box and examined the documents on the long tables in the whispery special collections room, I didn’t always know what I would find.

 

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I photocopied some of those documents, and the copies are spread before me again now: a notice informing a property owner that their town had been declared a “a White area” and as they were not white, they would have to sell their property and “settle in their own area”; a pamphlet from an activist advising residents of “mixed race areas” of what to do when police came calling to harass residents; a notice of appeal to authorities who had undervalued the home of a family forced to leave an area that had been “declared White.”

The minutiae of apartheid, the documents used to control people’s lives, fascinated me. Every American of my generation (who came of age in the 1980s) knew about whites only areas, the shanty towns where black South Africans were forced to live, the banning of anti-apartheid political activists and the brutality of the pro-apartheid police. But the depth of that brutality, the reach of the apartheid government’s control, became clearer to me when I looked at official documents—in the decrees and the laws that dictated the movements of people’s day-to-day lives.

I was also riveted by the documents from the anti-apartheid activists and one group of documents in particular seemed so familiar to me—I kept imagining the person who they’d belonged to. There were letters to universities in Britain from an activist who had to flee South Africa, budgets worked out in sterling and in rand, notes from meetings to encourage disinvestment in apartheid South Africa. And then, in the margin of a page of notes, an aside written in bubbly ornate lettering: “This is a wonderful pen!”

It was easy to wonder who the activist was, who his family was. The note about the treat in the fridge (in a carrier bag from a discount drugstore chain) had to be from a mother-in-law, and the mother-in-law was clearly Jewish. The child was not named Ekraam, but his name made it clear that some of the family members would have been designated white in apartheid South Africa and others non-white, which in and of itself would have been illegal during that time. I wanted to tell the story of the imaginary family by incorporating some of the documents from the archives as well as through a fictional set of notes and letters.

After I’d written the first draft of “Documents,” I found out more about the person whose papers had inspired the story. His story, and the story of his family, was not the story I told in “Documents.” I was happy to find out that he and his family were well, though. He hadn’t even realised his papers from the 1980s were in the archives, but he graciously gave permission to use to segments that are verbatim.

From the pages of “Documents” by Linda Mannheim in the July/August 2018 issue of AHMM.

I love that Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, in guidelines for writers, asks “only that a story be about a crime (or the threat or fear of one).” The most compelling mysteries, to me, are ones where the crime is carried out by the state or other official bodies and the protagonist has to break laws to cope with that crime. I’m a sucker for the kind of Noir tales where a private eye confronts crooked cops. I’m interested in 1970s muckrakers uncovering city corruption. And South Africa in the 1980s too, was a place where individuals had to use subterfuge to survive a brutal and corrupt system.

Nearly all of the stories that I pitched as “unconventional war stories” when I went to South Africa turned out to be mysteries in the end. Nearly all were about people who became fugitives or victims when the law turned against them. Nearly all had to break those laws to challenge injustice.

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“Pulling Off a Heist Story” by Rebecca Cantrell

USA Today and New York Times bestselling author Rebecca Cantrell is the author of the Joe Tesla thrillers and the Hannah Vogel mysteries, among several other series. Her work has won the Thriller, Macavity, and Bruce Alexander awards. Here she talks about “Homework,”  her story in the current July/August issue of AHMM.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine requested a piece about writing heist stories, presumably because I have one in this month’s magazine. Or maybe they’ve discovered my plans for Fort Knox.  I’m going to play it straight and pretend it’s about writing. No spoilers. So, here’s the skinny.

A good heist takes planning. Everyone needs to know their role. Character expertise is crucial. The execution needs to be solid. And a little misdirection doesn’t hurt either. Those are the elements of a heist, and a short story isn’t so different.

First, I had to figure out what to steal.  The story started with a writing prompt from my teenaged son. The first line had to be “Flames licked the ceiling.” Max is a fantastic writer, and I wanted to have fun with his prompt,  to write about flames and licking and ceilings and not have a fire.

So, it started with the dog, Flames, and her owner, Ada. I followed Flames along, as surprised as she was by how things unfolded. If the story had been a real heist, I’d say that by the end of the first draft I knew what I wanted to steal.

Now I knew the crime, but like a good heist, this story took some planning.  In the second draft I tightened up the action and descriptions. I made sure every character in the caper was properly trained. Training wasn’t enough though because characters are more than their training. Everyone had secrets, too.  I wanted the reader to sense that all wasn’t quite well, but still be surprised at the ending. I slipped in shiny little nuggets of misdirection for the reader, for the characters, even for the dog as the heist was executed.

As a person, you live life in one direction, today gives way to tomorrow. But that’s not true for a writer. As a writer, you can go back and forth in a story like a crazy person with a time machine, changing the future and the past. Nobody knows if it took one draft or twenty. This is handy in writing, and I imagine it would be useful in pulling of a heist, too. Luckily, writers have some advantages over thieves. They get one chance.

The last thing to arrive was the title.  I wanted a title that didn’t make sense until the very last line. It slipped into my head like that ring slipped on Ada’s finger. Then, hopefully, the meaning of the title and the aftermath of the heist became clear. Or maybe you’re just left with a dog and a handful of . . . pumpkin pie.

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“Stagecoach Mary” by Leslie Budewitz

Leslie Budewitz is the author of the Spice Shop and Food Lovers’ Village mysteries. She was the first author to win Agatha Awards for both fiction and nonfiction (for Death al Dente and Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure). The fifth book in her Food Lovers’ Village mysteries, As the Christmas Cookie Crumbles, is out this week from Midnight Ink. Here she talks about the inspiration for her story “All God’s Sparrows” from the current issue of AHMM.

In “All God’s Sparrow’s” (AHMM May/Jume 2018), we meet Mary Fields, a historical figure also known as Stagecoach Mary and Black Mary. Born in slavery in Tennessee in 1832, Mary worked after the Civil War as a domestic servant in Ohio, where she met Ursuline Sister Amadeus Dunne.

In 1884, Amadeus—by then the Mother Superior—took a small group of nuns to St. Labre, in Montana Territory, to start a school. The next year, the Jesuits asked her to start a school serving Blackfeet Indian girls and white settlers’ daughters at St. Peter’s Mission near Cascade.

In 1885, Amadeus became ill with pneumonia, and Mary traveled west to nurse her. Amadeus recovered, and Mary remained to work at the Mission. Legend says she created more than a bit of trouble, and eventually, the bishop forced Amadeus to fire her. Amadeus helped her get the postal delivery route in Cascade, leading to the nickname “Stagecoach Mary.” Later, she became postmistress, the second woman and first black woman in the country to do so. She was known for her love of baseball, children, and flowers. Mary Fields died in Great Falls, Montana in 1914.

I’d long heard of Mary and wanted to write about her, but had no idea what kind of story I could tell. Though literate, she left no written record, although extensive archives at the state historical society and Ursuline Center document the mission and her life.

Writing in Montana 1889: Indians, Cowboys, and Miners in the Year of Statehood, historian Ken Egan, Jr., notes that racial and ethnic minorities played a greater role in territorial Montana than one might think from the monolithic appearance of the present-day state. The war displaced many people, white and black; the vast lands of the West beckoned.

But as statehood approached, pressures increased. Native peoples were forcibly moved onto reservations. National events, such as the Exclusion Act of 1882, devastated the Chinese community, which had grown up around railroad construction. The lands were harsh, and many early settlers moved on.

Mary stayed. Why? Clearly her bond with Amadeus was strong. But difficult as life here was, I think the West gave her a freedom she lacked in Ohio. In the last few years, I’ve fallen in love with historical mysteries. Finally, I realized, I’d found a format that would allow me to explore the life and times of this astonishing woman. I hope you enjoy taking the trip back in time with me.

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“In a City of Magic . . .” by Thomas K. Carpenter

Thomas K. Carpenter writes in diverse genres including historical mystery. His short fiction appears in a variety of magazines including AHMM and EQMM, and he writes the Dashkova Memoirs series, the Digital Sea trilogy, and the GAMERS trilogy. Here he talks about his story “The Worth of Felines,” from the current May/June issue of AHMM.

Ancient Alexandria, the setting for the story “The Worth of Felines,” is a city of magic.

Not the kind of magic we might recognize from the latest Marvel movie, or the type that people believe can be summoned from spells and tomes, but the kind that today we call: technology. Alexandria was a strange intersection of knowledge and superstition. This dichotomy was never more present than in the temples of the city, which used technological wonders to provide “miracles” for their followers, so that they might prove their special relationship to the gods and separate their followers from their hard earned coinage.

One of the greatest purveyors of these miracles was Heron of Alexandria, the real life inventor from the story. He accomplished many technological feats during that time, including creating what could be called an early precursor to the steam engine, in service to these temples.

But Heron is not the central focus of the story. That honor goes to Magistrate Ovid, who unlike Heron, was not a real historical figure, though he owes his fictional existence to the inventor.

The original launching point for these stories was the Alexandrian Saga, a seven book series I published earlier in this decade about Heron and how his inventions might have changed the world under different circumstances. The first book, Fires of Alexandria, deals with the mystery of the burning of the Library of Alexandria, and the development of a primitive steam engine, which threatened the slave trade and made enemies for the inventor. Magistrate Ovid has only a bit part in this book, hardly more than an extra in the grand scheme of things.

The books follow how this spark might have changed ancient history forever, bringing about massive technological change, nearly two thousand years before the industrial revolution. But when I finished the seventh and final book (you can find them at all major retailers), I felt like I wasn’t done with Heron, or the city of ancient Alexandria. So I decided to write some smaller mysteries involving the inventor.

In the early stories, Heron is a Sherlockian figure, solving what appear to be intractable problems—in stunning fashion, no less. The magistrate merely provides a Watson to Heron’s Sherlock to hide the solving of the mystery until the last possible moment. They were fun, little mysteries, but ultimately derivative, failing to illustrate the full scope of the character, Heron of Alexandria, from the novels, or allowing Ovid a shred of humanity.

All that changed when I wrote The Curse of the Gorgon. Feeling limited by the structure I’d placed on myself, I decided to try something different, and allowed Magistrate Ovid to become the focus of this story. In Curse, Ovid must solve what appears to be a supernatural crime—the murder of an awful family by the mythical gorgon. While Heron makes a cameo, the story ultimately rests on Ovid’s shoulders and considerable girth.

Thus, the real Magistrate Ovid is born.

But his development wasn’t finished. I wrote a story for a workshop with Kris Rusch a number of years ago. That story was “The Trouble with Virgins.”

In it, Magistrate Ovid is confronted with an impossible situation involving a wealthy Alexandrian and his son, one that mirrors his own struggles with his father. This story was purchased by Janet Hutchings at EQMM in the Department of First Stories.

With a more flesh and blood Ovid, the stories came alive. In the latest AHMM, Magistrate Ovid must save his friend Heron from a Machiavellian rival in the story “The Worth of Felines,” and in a future issue of EQMM, Ovid explores the political implications of the Great Lighthouse in “The Lightness of Man.”

I’m not finished with Magistrate Ovid by any stretch. One of the fun parts about writing these stories, besides getting to explore the characters in more depth, is visiting ancient Alexandria and all her splendor. The story that I’m currently working on involves the Great Library herself. I’d tell you more but I don’t know what happens yet either!

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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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