Tag Archives: short stories

“‘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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How I Came to Write “The Hawaii Murder Case” by Terence Faherty

 

Terence Faherty is the author of The Quiet Woman as well as the Owen Keane and Scott Elliott mystery series. His recent short-story collection Tales of the Star Republic is available from Gisbourne Press. Here he talks about the inspiration behind and the writing of his story “The Hawaii Murder Case” from the January/February 2017 issue of AHMM.

My wife and I enjoy traveling, and I thought it would be fun to write a new short story for each place we visited. Instead of forcing a whodunit format on each locale, I decided to let the setting suggest the proper story to tell. For example, St. Simons Island, where we stayed in a creaking old carriage house, seemed like a good place for a ghost story. When we visited Scotland, we encountered the life and legend of Mary Queen of Scots everywhere we went, so I came up with a suspense story that used the famous queen.

But I was hoping for more inspiration than just what type of story to write. Years ago, I came across a writer’s block remedy. It consisted of a deck of cards that would randomly generate certain basics of a story, like setting, protagonist, and problem. Trying to weave together those random elements was supposed to stimulate creativity. I never used the card system, but it occurred to me that I could let our trips serve the same role. I began traveling with my notebook at the ready, so I could jot down random elements that I would later weave together in a story. I’m happy to report that the system worked. And it not only served as a creativity stimulus, it made each story a scrapbook of that particular vacation.

“The Hawaii Murder Case,” as the title reveals, was inspired by our vacation on Kawai. I came back with the following story elements. 1) During the trip, I was reading a Philo Vance mystery, The Kidnap Murder Case. 2) While we were standing at the edge of a remote waterfall, a branch the size of a suburban tree fell from the forest canopy and narrowly missed us. 3) To access the beach nearest our condo, we had to go up and down a long, steep stairway that was out of sight of anyone not on the stairway itself. 4) On the beach, we observed a May/December couple who barely spoke to one another. 5) Our condo building contained three units, all of which were owned by the same person and decorated identically.

From those major elements, and a dozen minor ones, I came up the story of a vacationer who is conked on the head by a falling tree branch and begins to take on the characteristics of the fictional detective he’s been reading about. There follows a sudden death, of course. I made it a comic mystery—told by the “famous” detective’s harried wife—because the crazy premise pointed that way and because I enjoy writing funny stories. They’re a nice break from the grim stuff. You can check out the results in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine’s January/February double issue. And if you’re ever facing writer’s block, try the random detail remedy. I recommend trying it in Hawaii.

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In Extremis

Mystery stories are often driven by people in dire straits—such as an accountant standing on a skyscraper ledge, waving a pistol. That’s the crisis facing Loren D. Estleman’s resourceful Four Horsemen police squad in “Tin Cop.” Meanwhile, broken ex-Wall Streeter Pit Geller finds himself holed up in Las Vegas with a family torn apart by a dead guy in John Gregory Betancourt’s “Pit and the Princess.” Jay Carey imagines policing a future Sarasota, Florida ravaged by global warming, destructive storms, and crumbling infrastructure in “We Are Not Insured Against Murder.” A literary publisher finds himself at the end of a rope—specifically, a noose—in John C. Boland’s “The Man Who Stole Trocchi.” A curious “curator” roaming Europe is unaware of the wolves at his heels in Stephen Ross’s “Gallery of the Dead.” And B. K. Stevens closes out her long-running series featuring Lieutenant Walt Johnson and Sergeant Gordon Bolt this month in “True Enough: Bolt’s Last Case.” To mark this transition, watch this blog space for the author’s reflections on her decision to say goodbye to one series and start another.

Plus we bring you a bit of espionage when radio producer Margo Banning visits a munitions factory in “Margo and the Locked Room” by Terence Faherty. John H. Dirckx, well known to AHMM readers for his Cyrus Auburn procedurals, translates and introduces this month’s Mystery Classic, “Justice by the Book” by Pedro de Alarcón. Finally, Robert C. Hahn introduces us to a new crop of bibliomysteries in his Booked & Printed column.

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The Short of It

There’s something deeply satisfying about the Nobel Prize for Literature being given to short story writer Alice Munro. Munro is one of the few authors who have received acclaim on the basis of short fiction only, and the award is an affirmation of the story’s significance. She even told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “I would really hope this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something you played around with until you got a novel.”

Hear, hear.

Personally, I think stories can be more powerful than a novel. You can’t really escape in a short story, it demands too much concentration. It demands that the reader bring as much to the story as the writer. I recall in another interview Munro said she often took more than a month to write a single story, and I think it can similarly take about that amount of time to come to an understanding of a story.

Often Munro’s stories seem, at first read, a somewhat haphazard amassing of scenes and recollections. But the second and third time through, I begin to see a pattern, an arc that builds, almost like an argument. I agree with this comment by Peter Englund, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize: “If you read Alice Munro, sooner or later you will stand face to face with yourself and you will go from that meeting a different person.”

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