Tag Archives: private eye

“Plans and Revisions” by Steve Liskow

Steve Liskow is the author of three mystery series, and his latest book is Hit Somebody. In 2016 he became the Black Orchid Novella Award‘s first repeat winner. You can read his winning story “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma” in the current July/August 2017 issue. Here, he talks about the evolution of this story, his previous winner, and the Woody Guthrie series.

“We live most of our lives in Plan B.” Was that a bumper sticker, a button, or a tee shirt? I don’t remember, but I agree with the claim.

In fall 2003, I wrote the first draft of a PI novel that went through dozens of revisions and several title changes. I sent it out with the PI named Rob Daniels, Eric Morley, and at least one other name I no longer remember. In 2013, I finally self-published it as Blood On the Tracks.

In late 2004, after attending the Wesleyan Writers Conference, I wrote “Stranglehold,” a short story installment in what I saw as a series set in Detroit. Unfortunately, it was almost 7000 words, too long for most magazines, and the others rejected it. I showed it to a fellow writer who said he had trouble keeping track of so many characters in the first three pages. I needed all those people, so I shelved the story and turned to other projects.

In fall 2006, a friend suggested I write a romance novel. Ghost Writers in the Sky became a romantic mystery spoof set in Connecticut with deliberately over-the-top characters, including a PI named Zach Barnes. Between 2007 and 2009, I sent it to nearly seventy agents and publishers with underwhelming success.

Late in 2008, I learned that the Wolfe Pack, named in honor of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, sought entries for the Black Orchid Novella Award. Stout’s work influenced both my prose and my tone, so I wondered if I could expand “Stranglehold” to 15,000 words and introduce the large cast more slowly.

Plan B, indeed. Over the next week, I added 9000 words and realized that nothing felt like padding. The story was a novella waiting to be recognized. By then, the Barnes novel was dead in the water, but I liked the character’s name. I gave it to my Detroit rock ‘n’ roll wannabe and sent the new and improved (I hoped) “Stranglehold” to the contest early in 2009.

A few months later, I learned of a new local publisher looking for Connecticut mysteries and sent the Zach Barnes novel out to them, too…with the same protagonist. My wife convinced me to change the title, to Who Wrote the Book of Death? This has to be about Plan C, right?

Six months later, Jane Cleland called to tell me “Stranglehold” had won—twenty-four hours after Mainly Murder Press offered me a contract for Who Wrote . . . ?. Now Zach Barnes had two cases, one in Detroit and the other in Connecticut, a tough commute.

I still saw the Connecticut novel as a stand-alone and thought the Detroit story had legs, so I decided to keep Zach in Detroit and re-name the Connecticut shamus. Years before, at that Wesleyan Writers Conference, Chris Offutt gave me a piece of advice that resonated now:

Beware of changing the name of a character because it will change the rhythm of every sentence in your story that names him or her. Ah, the joys of computer technology. I did a global edit and changed “Barnes” to “Nines.” Same rhythm, same consonant sounds. “Zach/Zachary” became “Greg/Gregory” and there we were.

I thought.

A few reviewers wanted to read more about “Greg” and his beautiful girlfriend. Some readers went to my website and told me they thought Greg Nines was a dumb name. By then I’d also noticed that Spell-check went spastic every time I used “Nines” as the singular subject of a sentence. Hmmm.

Eighteen months later, I parted company with that publisher and re-edited the book. The Detroit series was still generating huge waves of ennui, so I changed the PI’s name back to Zach Barnes . . . in Connecticut. Zach now appears in five books. In 2013, when I self-pubbed Blood On the Tracks, the first in the Detroit series, the PI formerly known as Zach needed a new name. My high school classmate, session musician Susie (Kaine) Woodman, inspired the character of Megan Traine, so I still wanted him to be musical.

After bouncing ideas off my wife (much better at names and titles than I am), my equally brilliant webmistress (ditto), and my cover designer, we came up with Elwood Christopher Guthrie, who goes by Chris. Naturally, everyone else calls him “Woody.” Woody’s fourth adventure, Before You Accuse Me, will arrive in December or January.

“Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma” is a sequel to “Stranglehold.” I actually planned the story as a novel, but didn’t find any of the possible subplots intriguing enough to bear writing, so it ended up as another novella—this time shrinking to size. If you read both stories in Alfred Hitchcock, you noticed the name change. Now you know why.

Plan G, Plan H, Plan I . . .

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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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“Chin Yong-Yun Stays at Home” by S. J. Rozan

Novelist and short-story writer S. J. Rozan is the award-winning author of Ghost Hero and co-author of of Blood of the LambShe writes the P.I. Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series, and the related series featuring Lydia’s mother. Here she talks about that series, including her story “Chin Yong-Yun Stays at Home” from the January/February 2017 issue of AHMM.

Lydia Chin’s mother, Chin Yong-Yun (her name means “always in motion”) is the dark horse favorite of many of the readers of my Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series. Lydia has her partisans, and so does Bill, but Chin Yong-Yun seems to appear on everybody’s list. Including mine.

I created her when I started out because although Bill Smith is the archetypal loner private eye, a character who continues to interest me deeply, his partner Lydia Chin comes from the opposite end of the spectrum: friends, community, abounding family. I was intrigued with how a character with many attachments would operate within the context of the private eye. I soon found out.

Lydia has four older brothers; their father’s passed on, though that doesn’t stop their mother from invoking his wishes in order to put pressure on the Chin children if she feels she needs to. (She’ll be doing that to Lydia in my upcoming novel, Paper Son.) I used her as an important, but not central, character in the series in a number of books. Then I was invited, in 2010, to contribute a story to an anthology called Damn Near Dead 2. All the detectives had to be at least sixty years old.

Now, Mrs. Chin doesn’t approve of Lydia’s profession, nor of her partner, and she’s never hesitated to say so. But she’s a smart woman. Over the years, sewing and cooking, she’s listened to Lydia talk about her work even while sniffing in disdain. And being a snoop and a gossip, she’s sort of a natural at it.

So, I concluded, if a case came along that Chin Yong-Yun would rather Lydia didn’t get mixed up in, for whatever reason, she might be tempted to take it herself.

That was what happened in “Chin Yong-Yun Takes a Case,” which I wrote for that anthology; and I had such a good time working in her voice that I’ve since written three more, “Chin Yong-Yun Stays at Home” being the most recent.

The cases Chin Yong-Yun takes on have involved crime, but so far not murder. In solving them she also finds the answer to some other problem that has been irritating her or someone close to her. She quietly revels in her own cleverness (to point it out would be unseemly) while delivering moral lessons to all involved.

Where does she come from? Is she based on any Chinese mothers I know?

You don’t have to be Chinese. Chin Yong-Yun is every ethnic mother any of us ever had. Any mother who left her home to find a better life for her children, but frets that in becoming Americans they’re losing the virtues of their culture. Most of the things she does (re-washing the dishes, for example, because she can’t tell from looking at them if Lydia’s washed them yet—though they’re in the dish drainer) are things mothers of my friends have done, as told to me by their children. Not my own mother; I didn’t use stories I or my sibs have about her because I didn’t want her to recognize herself. That fact notwithstanding, my mother, may she rest in peace, used to come to my book signings and tell anyone who’d listen that she was not the model for Lydia’s mother. Well, if Lydia had written a book . . . I rest my case.

Chin Yong-Yun is still a new voice for me, and one I enjoy hearing. I’m hoping readers enjoy it too, and I hope I can come up with things for her to do for a long time to come.

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“The Finlay Millions” and the Carr Detective Series by S. L. Franklin

S. L. Franklin, author of the Carr detective series, first appeared in AHMM in the July/August 1999 issue with “Capriccio with Unaccompanied Violin.” Since then he and R. J. Carr have appeared in our pages thirteen more times, most recently in the current issue with “The Finlay Millions,” which he talks about here.

The basic situation for “The Finlay Millions” came to me several years ago—the old house, the death of the reclusive owner, some heirs in the wings including an estranged wife—but converting the situation into an R. J. and Ginny Carr mystery wasn’t as simple as turning open a tap and letting a story run out.

I once heard the jazz musician Patricia Barber explain in an interview that to recast a classic standard song by, say, Rogers and Hart, into an effective jazz performance, she first had to find a way to “break into” the piece. That was my original difficulty in writing “TFM”—discovering a means of cracking this particularly hard nut of an undeveloped set of characters and situations. Those familiar with Carr mysteries will realize that my difficulty was compounded by the fact that the series stories are always told via multiple voices, those of R. J. and Ginny, but often those of other characters as well, so it’s a rare Carr mystery that follows a straight narrative line.

Another problem was—as it always is for me—bringing new characters to life. R. J. and Ginny seem, I hope, well-defined in every story, both in what they do and in how they think and express themselves. Other characters, especially those who narrate, need to be just as well-defined, and when the sometimes kindly but often dilatory muse of detective fiction finally fired my feeble brain cells with images of Bill Finlay—bulky, limping, seventy-three years old, a retired engineer from Syracuse—I had at last both a means to break into the plot outline and a narrative voice and perspective that actually drew me, the author, into the story even as I put Bill’s words down on paper. (Yep—Carr stories: still made by hand.)

Some mystery plots are schematic, others formulaic; some psychological, others ratiocinative. Mine tend instead to be intuitive and organic.

To illustrate what I mean with a rather trite and overblown metaphor: From the kernel of an original, dormant idea grows a story—living, if it succeeds—that is shaped and nurtured by its characters as they come to life and respond to the fictional situations they face. In the case of “The Finlay Millions,” the tale’s outcome is in many ways the product of R.J. and Ginny, the Finlays and Penny Wright, at least as much as it is a result of the tentative original design of the author.

Put in another way, “TFM” is not plot driven but character driven, as—within reason—is every Carr story. The basic premise of the Carr Detective Series, in fact, has always been a what if: What if real people with real human weaknesses and strengths, thoughts and feelings, were suddenly to find themselves in the artificially melodramatic strictures of a mystery plot? How would they behave? How would the action advance?

Ambrose Bierce defined literary realism as the “art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads.” He, of course, was a fantasist with a grudge, who had only the works of contemporaries like Theodore Dreiser to gauge by. The Dreiser version of realism, however, largely consisting of a mix of human failing, squalid situations, and cynical fatalism (which mix, incidentally, underpins many a noir mystery story) is not the only realism the mind can conjure. There exists a far different realism of everyday concerns and problems—e.g., Bill Finlay’s physical frailties and objections to his younger brother’s attitude; Penny Wright’s struggles to relocate her aged and ailing father—and this realism is what I have attempted to establish as the hidden though underlying scenario of all the Carr stories.

A final note. Anyone who has made it through to the end of this ramble and still wants to know more about the Carr Detective Series, especially about R.J. and Ginny, can satisfy his or her arcane tastes at www.carrdetective.com. No charge and worth every cent.

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