Tag Archives: story

“Writing with an Eye on the Supernatural” by Cheryl Skupa

Kansas-based author and English instructor Cheryl Skupa writes book reviews (Among Worlds) and poetry (Phoenix, Oklahoma Council of Teachers of English). Here she talks about writing with the supernatural in mind and about crafting her debut short story publication, “Ghost in the Nemaha County Courthouse” (from our current March/April 2019 issue).

I always perk up when I hear local folklore and superstitions, especially when told with relish by someone connected, however distantly (perhaps nebulously) to the people and places in the story. These little snippets of local history and tragedy have the deliciousness of gossip. Ghostly tales have the power to transform even the drabbest places on earth into something magical—and creepy!

“Ghost in the Nemaha County Courthouse” was born out of local stories and my penchant for driving out of my way, sometimes down gravel roads to visit small-town courthouses, little cemeteries, and old churches. The courthouse in my rural county and those in surrounding areas provided plenty of atmosphere—old clanking radiators, broom closets which were once jail rooms, fainting couches, shadows, dust, and the knowledge that many anguished people had passed through these halls over the years. Intensely personal tragedies and triumphs have been absorbed into the old ornate woodwork with the smell of the furniture polish.

The cleaning lady, Evelyn Eichman, was, of course, based on me. Who knew that all those hours working my way through college, pushing my cleaning cart down halls, sweeping, mopping, and dusting would somehow find its way into my writing? My least-favorite college job became the best writing fodder—but then, writers use everything; they are composters of experience! Thank you, fiction and AHMM, for sanctifying those lonely, boring experiences!

The only drawback of writing about ghosts was that humankind has been telling these stories since the beginning. For me as a writer to veer off into fresh territory, I needed to understand what was happening to my cleaning lady, Evelyn Eichman, as she experienced the visions of the white woman and her stained dress. That took some thought and time. I scoured the local small-town newspapers, especially the sections which recalled local events in history. I reread the account of my small town’s informal historian (a local school teacher.) I tried to recall old stories my grandma had told me, and cursed the gaps in my memory.

In the end, I did what writers do—told the story that I most loved to read. Ghost stories always remind us, not only of past sins, but also that death may not be the end, that insignificant people, places, and actions matter, and that tragedy, however devastating, may become immortal in the retelling!

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“Anatomy of a Short Story” by Mark Milstein

Mark Milstein is a Michigan author and restaurant owner. He is currently working on a historical whodunit, but here he tells us about writing his story “A Curious Transaction” from the current March/April 2019 issue of AHMM.”

Is there a story in that?

It’s a question I ask myself daily, as I suspect many writers do. You can wait for inspiration to strike, out of the blue, like the proverbial bolt of lightning. But I prefer to hunt it down aggressively, armed only with a mug of steaming coffee, a pair of earbuds, a mouse, and, increasingly, the tips of my thumbs. Two of my favorite silos of inspiration are NPR and The Drudge Report. Yeah, I know: strange bedfellows indeed.

I hit the Goebbels-esque clickbait on Drudge shamelessly, like a hungry smallmouth bass slamming a topwater plug. “Muslim Takeover of America,” it proclaimed. I was redirected to a story about Hamtramck, Michigan, where the tension between the growing population of Muslim immigrants and the Polish citizens who have long occupied the city was on the rise. The Poles were concerned, understandably, that their way of life was changing forever, disappearing. There was a lot of anger over a loudspeaker that called Muslims to prayer at a local mosque five times a day, justified by the largely symbolic argument that it was drowning out church bells from nearby, predominantly Catholic churches. There was even—gasp—a Muslim majority on the city council. I asked myself if this wasn’t appropriate for a representative democracy.

I also asked if there was a short story in all this. Turns out there was—it was the birth of “A Curious Transaction,” which appears in the March/April 2019 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. I knew right away I didn’t want the focus to be on the ethnic tension in the city. It is there, of course, lurking just behind the scenes. But I wanted to focus instead on how very different people, of all ethnicities and creeds, can work together, complement each other, and even thrive. And, oh yeah, since the story was intended for the illustrious AHMM, and wasn’t dark and twisty and sleep-depriving, it would need to be one heckuva mystery. Perhaps a new and original Pakistani sleuth who solves complex crimes by asking three simple questions? It was a tall order for a short story; I was pleased and a bit surprised to pull it off without straying into novella territory.

The fictional setting, a quick-service restaurant named Burgie’s, was a no-brainer, as I happen to own an establishment in Northern Michigan just like it. What better way to inject authenticity without wasting precious time on research? Every one of my employees, even the high-schoolers who can’t see past their smartphones, would instantly recognize their workplace, which is an integral part of the plot. While the old writer’s adage “Write about what you know” isn’t set in stone, it’s a good highway to take when you can get away with it.

The protagonist, Saalim Sayyid, a devout Muslim immigrant from Pakistan, is the general manager at Burgie’s, working toward a college degree in criminal justice. He has convinced the Polish owner of the restaurant, Mr. Micolajczak—whose name was chosen, I guiltily confess, as the most likely entry in an online group of Polish surnames to frustrate a reader attempting to pronounce it—to begin serving Halal food, which has significantly increased the customer base, and hence the sales. Saalim is also a burgeoning detective, and this story chronicles his first case (hint: not his last), which he must solve in order to prevent his incarceration and deportation.

Whoa, how can the son of a Russian Jewish father and a Swedish Lutheran mother write about the immigration experience of a Pakistani Muslim? Is that even allowed? Well, of course it is. Great writers (no implication intended) have for centuries brought every conceivable character in the universe to life, no matter the ethnic, cultural and ideological chasm between author and character. This they accomplish by avoiding stereotypes at all costs, doing an appropriate amount of research, and, most importantly, making their characters believable and intrinsically human (even the Vulcan Mr. Spock is essentially human at his core). Saalim is brilliant, confident, calm, kind, responsible and eternally optimistic. He also, like most people in the world—Agatha Christie wasn’t translated into every conceivable language for nothing—relishes a good mystery, and has a particular affinity for Hercule Poirot, whom he is able to emulate at the conclusion of the story.

I don’t believe it is possible to be even an average writer without being a voracious reader. Sadly, I find that many young people I know today aren’t passionate readers. There are many reasons for this, but I am grateful that my parents encouraged me to read at a very young age. They didn’t define or limit the subject matter, instead encouraging me to read whatever brought me joy. This included the latest issue of AHMM on my father’s nightstand, right next to the Playboy, which I of course, as a discerning young lad of ten years, avoided like the plague.

I literally grew up with AHMM; we were both Eisenhower babies, born in 1955. The magazine, a lifelong friend, has brought me a lifetime of joy. My favorite author was Jack Ritchie. I would scan the table of contents and jump to his stories first; they never failed to bring me joy. He was a master of dialog, and spinning a tale implicitly, between the lines. He was incredibly witty, with a wonderful, macabre sense of humor. Attempting to emulate him, an impossible exercise, fostered in me a passion for writing. I wouldn’t be appearing as a guest author on this blog today without Jack Ritchie and AHMM. I am deeply honored, beyond mere words, to appear in AHMM and as a guest author on Trace Evidence. I wish to express my warmest appreciation to Linda Landrigan and Jackie Sherbow for helping to make my dreams come true, and I sincerely hope that all of you can someday know how that feels.

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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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“A Twisty Path to Publication” by Dara Carr

Maryland writer Dara Carr is the author of the novel Angela Cray Gets Real, a Freddie Award finalist. Her short fiction can be found in Shotgun Honey and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Here she talks about the road to writing and publication of her clever and compelling story “Off-Off-Off Broadway,” from the current March/April issue.

The story, “Off-Off-Off Broadway,” was born in the wrong time and place. It began life as part of a disastrous first novel. Among this novel’s three hundred some pages of dreck, I retained a fondness for two characters, an ancient bulldog named Winston and a former beauty queen from Oklahoma. Not being prone to waste, I wondered if I might resurrect these two in a short story. And, just like that, an awful idea came to light, which I persisted with through many twists and turns.

The early junk novel had a photographer in it, as does the story, “Off-Off-Off Broadway.” But the novel’s photographer, a wiseacre with a bad attitude, wouldn’t join the story’s cast. I needed a different type of photographer, one who took up less oxygen, one who could bring a wry perspective to the unlikely drama the combustible former Miss Oklahoma would inevitably provoke.

This was how I started with two women and an elderly bulldog in a photography studio. The next obvious question: What could possibly go wrong? Determined to find out, I poked and prodded, exploring the possibilities for disaster. As I did so, the story became an odd but welcome mental escape from the terrible events unfolding in my personal life, where my mother was losing a battle against time and multiple illnesses.

Eventually, through a fog of grief, the story took shape. Hurrah! With the story finished, my focus returned to my job, another novel, and the bureaucracy of death.

Some while later, I realized the story still felt unresolved. At the same time, the sight lines through it were too clear. This was more koan than critique but nevertheless I set to work tinkering again. Once more, the story crystallized. Done.

Flash forward several months when, around bedtime, further changes to the story came to me. Bam! This was it, the fullest realization of the characters and plot. I couldn’t push the material any further. The end. Finally.

Unfortunately, the story was already in the submission queue at AHMM. After a quick investigation, I realized I couldn’t tiptoe into the system and quietly retract my story. I would have to issue a manufacturer’s recall. And I would have to do so knowing that writers, especially newer ones, were constantly being advised to never submit a piece until it was ready.

How do you know when a piece is ready? If the reader experiences twists and turns with a story, it’s quite possible the author experienced them as well, just earlier and in slower motion. In the case of my story, much slower motion.

After putting the final touches on the final version of the story, I reread it again with the distance of time. It struck me that every character in this story, my escape hatch from grief, was dealing with some form of loss. And thus, this piece had one last twist to offer up.

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The Origins of Wilson Salinas and “Los Cantantes de Karaoke” by Tom Larsen

Tom Larsen’s fiction appears in Flash Fiction Magazine, Everyday Fiction, and Big Pond Rumours. One of his stories, cowritten by his grandson, appears in the benefit anthology Friends in Foreign Places. Detective Wilson Salinas is featured in his novel Getting Legal. Here the author talks about his story “Los Cantantes de Karaoke” from the current March/April 2018 issue—his first published mystery story. (Make sure to read the tale first!)

I love to read, which is why I love to write. I love to read character-driven stories, so I tend to write character-driven stories. Of course, to do that requires that I develop characters—characters that are interesting, and most of all, believable. Of all the characters that I’ve developed in twenty years of writing, my favorite is Wilson Salinas, the Ecuadorian private investigator who finds himself a murder suspect in “Los Cantantes de Karaoke”—published this month in AHMM.

My wife Debby and I retired January 1, 2014. Within six months we had sold our house and most of our belongings, and began the move to Cuenca, Ecuador. Although we had made two exploratory trips, this was the real thing. No turning back.

We arrived in Guayaquil at midnight on a hot and steamy June night. The next morning we were on our way to our new home in Cuenca, a stunningly beautiful colonial city located at 8,500 feet elevation in the Andes Mountains.

We had contracted with a driver to take us on the four-hour, 120 mile journey to Cuenca. Emilio, a diminutive fellow with a wide friendly face and an engaging manner, met us at the hotel the next morning, and off we went.

From the vast rice and sugar cane fields and banana plantations of the coastal lowlands we ascended into the lush hardwood forest of the west slope of the Andes, through the dry grasslands and jagged peaks of the summit, and on to the east side. Imagine huge valleys, with far-off mountain peaks rising through the fog like islands out of the sea, pristine lakes too high to be affected by toxic runoff, llamas grazing along the side of the road, colorfully dressed woman milking cows in pastures that rose steeply above us.

We saw all of that and more, but the most memorable part of the trip was meeting Emilio, a proud descendant of the Cañari indigenous group. Ten years earlier, Emilio had emigrated to the United States, like tens of thousands of young Ecuatorianos, when Ecuador’s economy was in freefall. When the economy began to turn around and it looked as if the current president might actually serve out two complete terms (a rarity in Ecuador in recent years) Emilio fled the frigid winters of Minneapolis for the temperate climate of his mountain home.

Emilio’s English was as impeccable as our Spanish was limited, and his knowledge of the history, geography, and politics of his country was excellent. Ecuador couldn’t have chosen a better ambassador.

I’m a mystery writer, so while Emilio pointed out interesting sights and explained the politics of his country, my mind of course, wandered. What must it have been like, I thought, to leave the security and tranquility of the only home you’ve ever known, and head to a cold and frightening megalopolis 3,500 miles north? And, what must it have been like to return years later, with all the changes that you, and your former home, have gone through in the interim? Although I didn’t realize it until a few months later, that was the day that Wilson Salinas came into being.

Now, I have to say that Emilio is nothing at all like Wilson. Emilio’s a hard-working entrepreneur, completely dedicated to his family, and while that’s great, it doesn’t make for an interesting character in a mystery. So, I made Wilson an alcoholic, a smart-ass, and essentially a failure at everything he has tried to accomplish. I sent him off to Seattle for fifteen years, and brought him home to Cuenca at the age of 35, broke, disillusioned, and no more comfortable in his childhood home than he had been in his adopted one.

While living in Portland, Oregon, I had created a character with many of the same attributes as Wilson, and at one point I had begun a short story where the P.I. is duped by an old friend into providing an alibi for him as the friend murders his wife and his brother, whom he suspects of having an affair.

The story went nowhere, but a half dozen years later, as I sat at my desk in Cuenca watching the sun come up over the mountains, the idea came back to me, and Wilson fit seamlessly into the role of the hapless private investigator. I took it a step further and had his old friend frame Wilson for the murders, and that was the origin of “Los Cantantes de Karaoke.”

Fun Fact: Wilson’s name was inspired by a local realtor named Edison Salinas. Names such as Wilson and Edison are fairly common first names in Ecuador. Hitler and Stalin, while not nearly as common, are not unheard of.

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“One Last Job” by Michael Bracken

Fiction and nonfiction author Michael Bracken is the recipient of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s 2016 Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for lifetime achievement in crime fiction. He has also twice won the Derringer Award for short fiction. Here he talks about writing his story “The Mourning Man” from the current issue of AHMM.

Stories about a seasoned criminal’s “One Last Job”—a familiar trope in mystery fiction—often involve protagonists who desire retirement from their criminous careers. On occasion, “One Last Job” stories involve retired criminals roped back in through no desire of their own, and that is the structural framework for “The Mourning Man” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2018).

But that isn’t the story I planned to write. I planned to write a love story.

I have known several men of a certain age who find themselves lost after the death of their spouse. They haven’t shopped, cooked, cleaned, or done laundry in so many years that basic self-care eludes them. When I wrote the opening scene of “The Mourning Man,” I had all those men in mind, but I also remembered how I felt twenty-four years ago when my wife passed away after a protracted battle with cervical cancer and I found myself without sufficient savings to pay for her funeral.

I was lucky. Family stepped in. But what if Johnny Devlin—a cab driver who just lost the love of his life, the woman who convinced him to abandon crime when he was young and who kept him on the straight and narrow during the decades since—borrowed funeral money from a loan shark?

The question remained unanswered and the rough draft of my opening scene remained untouched until I read “Chronic Insecurity,” an article by William Wheeler in the July/August 2014 Playboy about the legal marijuana shops in Denver and the problems marijuana dispensers everywhere have banking their money. Wheeler quoted the owner of one dispensary who referred to a two-block stretch of Broadway in Denver that houses a dozen marijuana dispensaries as “Retard Row.” I thought those shops were ripe for robbery, and so does the loan shark who provides the money to bury Devlin’s wife.

Devlin finds himself torn between his debt, the promises he made to his dead wife, and the needs of his living friends and relatives. In the end, even though I used the tropes of the “One Last Job” story, I think I did write a love story because the decisions Devlin makes demonstrate his love for his wife, his friends, and his family.

 

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On “The Chinese Dog Mystery” by James Lincoln Warren

James Lincoln Warren is a Black Orchid Novella Award winner and prolific author of series as well as standalone short stories. Here, he talks about his story “The Chinese Dog Mystery” from the current issue of AHMM.

In the cover comments I submitted with “The Chinese Dog Mystery” to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, I described the story as a love letter to P.G. Wodehouse, the inimitable creator of that dimwitted but kind-hearted scion of the British gentry, Bertie Wooster, and his towering genius of a valet, the formidable Jeeves, for both of whom time all but stopped in the 1920s, even if it was the 30s or the 40s or the 50s.

Wodehouse is one of those rare authors who makes me laugh out loud when I read silently along. He’s one of my literary heroes.

I have always wanted to follow in his footsteps, as we all want to do with our heroes, and so to do my own take on the Wooster/Jeeves paradigm. But there was, I thought, an insurmountable barrier to doing so: If a writer is truly inimitable, then by definition he is utterly impossible to imitate, let alone duplicate. Especially regarding style, that most defining characteristic of a great writer, and as almost all of the Jeeves catalogue is written in the first person from Bertie’s point of view, that style is inextricably Bertie’s, which is to say Wodehouse’s, very own.

But faint heart never won fair whatever.

The challenge was to find a suitable replacement voice to put in the mouth of my Bertie analog, E. Cowes Crambury, a.k.a. “Bennie”—to find a voice that would convey Bennie’s amusing idiocy without merely parroting Bertie’s, with his signature What-ho!s and I-mean-to-say-what?s and the like, which add so much to Wodehouse’s gentle humor.

How to proceed? And then, as through a glass darkly, I recognized that I had a slight, albeit very slight, advantage.

You see, Bertie, like Wodehouse, was an Englishman—but Bennie, like me, is thoroughly American.

Q: What do American twits sound like?

A: A lot like English twits, I suppose, twittishness being no respecter of national origins—but not in English English, as in, “Hail, Good Fellow; Well Met!” Rather, it ought to be in American English, as in, “Howdy, Pardner; Happy to Meetcha!”

A character’s voice comes from two sources: the character’s personality and his formative environment. In Bertie’s case, he’s a young English gentleman of independent means who’s at one with a Roaring 20s background. Where might I find something analogous on this side of the pond? I suppose it was an inspiration, because it came to me immediately without me even thinking about it.

I decided to make Bennie a young American trust fund baby of not-entirely savory antecedents, and with a Golden Age of Hollywood background—movie stars being the closest thing the U.S. has to an aristocracy.

Instead of using Bertie’s most whimsical jazz age expressions and English slang, I had Bennie talk mostly in an American vernacular, and threw in a bunch of 1940s American pop culture references that would be wholly out of place in London, but perfect for L.A.

And remaining true to my quest, I made sure that Bertie and Bennie are enough alike so that the Wodehouse touch is clearly detectible, especially as I included the required Wodehousean ingredients, including a Jeeves-type servant savant (a chauffeur, though, not a valet—this is Hollywood, remember) and a sensible, talented, pretty girl to keep Bennie completely confused.

And when it all came together, I knew I had it. It ain’t as fine as Wodehouse, of course it isn’t, it never could be. But my love for him is there, and that’s why I wrote it.

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