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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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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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“De-Mystified” by Randall DeWitt

Randall DeWitt  is the author of an upcoming flash-fiction collection, Blunt Flash Trauma, which will also include stories by Sharon Daynard, Ruth M. McCarty, and Kathy Chencharik. He is a three-time winner of AHMM’s Mysterious Photograph contest; one of these winning stories, “The Cable Job,” went on to win the 2012 Derringer Award for Best Flash Story. Here he talks about the experience of writing flash fiction and entering the contest.

When the latest edition of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine arrives, the first thing I do is turn to “The Story that Won” to see who authored the prevailing 250-words for the latest Mysterious Photograph contest. I read the story, and then scan the honorable mentions for names that I know. I remember what it was like to see my name on that list and the feeling of accomplishment when the winning story was mine. If my stories and name can appear on that page, anyone with a fertile imagination and half-decent writing skills can too.

As a past winner of the contest, I have a secret I’d like to share with you—I don’t consider myself a writer. I base this conclusion on years of marriage to a mystery writer who is much more talented and by having read the stories of many of her friends in the writing community. I get jealous just thinking about how they can masterfully fill page after page describing something as simple as a sneeze if they wanted to. Me? My version would read Achoo! and that would pretty much be it. But in the world of flash fiction, my shortcoming might be my biggest asset. I don’t have to tamp down the urge to paint a Rembrandt to illustrate my story because I don’t possess that kind of a brush. Low word counts are my friend. And if the result is a picture worthy of hanging in Boston’s Museum of Bad Art, and people want to look at it, I’ve done my job. I’m happy.

Everything begins with the Mysterious Photograph itself of course and the search for an answer to why? Why is this picture integral to the story? I try not to overthink it. If there’s a title to the picture, I consider those words too just like everyone else. And there it is, the phrase that probably dooms most submissions—like everyone else.

Not every story has to end in a gruesome murder. I’ve written dark submissions but in my experience it’s the light-hearted ones I’ve sent in that have won. So sometimes I concoct new ways to attempt, pull off or stop a robbery. Other times I test the judges with a caper that borders on the absurd. Whatever I come up with, it has to be out of the ordinary. That doesn’t mean I don’t try to incorporate something that everyone may relate to. I think that sort of connection with the reader helps sell the story. In my winning entries, one had a familiar tempting smell. In another, it was dealing with the cable company. In my last, it was the annoying habits of a co-worker.

Finally, I’m sure it doesn’t have to be said but the ending has to be satisfying. I often prefer to add a small twist as long as it plays fair with the reader and makes sense. If it’s written well enough, who knows?

If all goes well, I’ll see you in “The Story that Won.”

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“INSERT CLEVER TITLE HERE” by Robert Lopresti

Award-winning short-story writer Robert Lopresti has been writing fiction for almost 40 years. He is the author of Greenfellas and, recently, the nonfiction When Women Didn’t Count: The Chronic Mismeasure and Marginalization of American Women in Federal Statistics, among other books. Here he talks about his story “The Chair Thief” from the November/December issue and the role of titles in fiction.

I am delighted to have “The Chair Thief” in the November/December issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. But the question I want to address today is this: Why is it “The Chair Thief?” Why didn’t I call it, say, “Two Guys Harass A Co-Worker,” which is a more accurate description of the plot. (The commandeering of a prime office chair is just the last straw that provokes the trouble.)

Of course, conveying the plot is not the real purpose of a title. The goal is to sell the story to the editor and then to the reader. The title should be intriguing, but it must also relate to the story somehow. (For example, I could have called my tale “Marilyn Monroe Versus Dracula,” but readers would probably be miffed when neither of those worthies made an appearance.)

Years ago I wrote a story in which three strangers escape from a nasty mess by blaming it all on a completely non-existant fourth person. Since they don’t want the cops arresting an innocent bystander they make the fictional felon’s description as unlikely as possible. That meant then when the story appeared in AHMM the reader had to reach the last page to find out why it was called “A Bad Day for Pink and Yellow Shirts.”

The latest story in that series, by the way, is about a snowfall heavy enough to cancel school and it will appear as “A Bad Day For Algebra Tests,” unless editor Linda Landrigan changes the title.

Which editors have a right to do, of course. And I have the experience to prove it.

Back in the 1980s a title popped into my head: “My Life as A Ghost.” Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine bought the resulting story—my first sale there, hurray!—but changed the title to “The Dear Departed.” What can I say? I liked mine better. Maybe I’ll use it again sometime.

One day I was driving along listening to Bob Dylan’s song “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and I noticed his line about the streets being “too dead for dreaming.” I almost drove right off the road. What a title for a mystery novel! Too Dead For Dreaming.

So I wrote one, set in Greenwich Village during the great folk music scare of 1963. Unfortunately Dylan’s company wouldn’t give me the rights to use that line as a title, so I switched to Such a Killing Crime, which comes from a song that was out of copyright long before Bob was born.

With my second novel the choice was easier. A comic crime novel about mobsters trying to save the environment? It had to be Greenfellas.

Sometimes you can outsmart yourself. I published a story in The Strand about a woman buying a gift for her son, but the story was really about her obsession with the past and her hopes for the future. I called the story “The Present” but I doubt if anyone got the double meaning. Except me, of course. I thought it was brilliant.

And sometimes the problem with a title is not what it means, but the way it sounds. If it is a long phrase, you really want it to scan. I wrote a story about the race riots of 1967 and my original title was “Bullets in the Firehouse Door.” That captured what I wanted to say but it felt long and awkward. I came up with “Shooting at the Firemen,” and was very pleased with myself, but two early readers told me to drop the word “the.” Maybe it depends on whether you pronounce “fire” with one syllable or two? In any case the story appeared in AHMM with the shorter moniker.

I am delighted to report that I will have a story in the next issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine too. The title I used was “Train Tracks,” but I wasn’t thrilled with it and invited Linda to improve it. She looked at the first sentence: “The best day of my life started when I got arrested,” and suggested using the first six words as a title. I thought it was an improvement but, after much debate, we wound up back on the train tracks (which sounds dangerous). Maybe when you read it you can offer us an improvement.

Just for fun, here are some of my favorite titles of mystery novels. You can add your picks in the comments.

  • The Big Boat to Bye-Bye, by Ellis Weiner
  • The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  • Bimbos of the Death Sun, by Sharyn McCrumb
  • Fletch Won, by Gregory Mcdonald
  • Friday the Rabbi Went Hungry, by Harry Kemelman
  • I, the Jury, by Mickey Spillane
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Last Camel Died at Noon, by Elizabeth Peters
  • The League of Frightened Men, by Rex Stout
  • The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover, by Kinky Friedman
  • Mackerel by Moonlight, by William Weld
  • The Man Who Would be F. Scott Fitzgerald, by David Handler
  • A Murder Is Announced, by Agatha Christie
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré
  • When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, by Lawrence Block
  • Who the Hell is Wanda Fuca? by G. M. Ford

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Elizabeth Zelvin Visits “The First Two Pages” Blog

Readers, fans, and friends will be glad to know that B.K. Stevens’s daughter is continuing her The First Two Pages blog, where authors talk about the beginnings of their stories and novels. This fall, the blog will feature contributors from Where Crime Never Sleeps: Murder New York Style 4 (Level Best, 2017), the fourth anthology by members of the NY/Tri-State Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Today at the blog, contributor to and editor of the anthology Elizabeth Zelvin talks about the first two pages of her story “Death Will Finish Your Marathon.”

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“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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The Making of “The Making of Velveteen Dream” by Chris Muessig

Author, editor, and instructor Chris Muessig’s fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories; he is also a contributor to AHMM and EQMM. Here he talks about the background to his unique and compelling story from the July/August 2017 issue, “The Making of Velveteen Dream.”

Both my sons, Travis and Jeff, pitched their way up from Little League diamonds to college baseball scholarships.  Jeff had the added good fortune of being picked in the 20th round of the 2001 Major League draft but “retired” from pro baseball in 2008 after two decades of involvement in the sport—a time span associated with career servicemen and police officers, not a 26-year-old.

High-level competition put a lot of wear and tear on those bodies—in Jeff’s case necessitating Tommy John surgery and several knee and shoulder operations.  Along with the physical damage came extreme frustration as each setback seemed to occur when he was about to break through to the next level. Recovering from these repeated injuries required a work ethic, mental toughness, and level of patience that he did not inherit from me. Although my wife and I shared plenty of excitement with him, we were also privy to the long stretches of painful rehab. Those are among the closely personal makings of the story.

Meanwhile, there is a funny amateur indie out there that was put together a dozen years ago by a trio of Jeff’s Stockton teammates.  Dream Revolver, the creation of Ben Winslow, Eddie Cornejo, and Jed Morris (they lend their names to some of the fictional teams in the imaginary Pacific Valley League), began as a day-in-the-life video spoof. Hours of footage later, the project had snowballed (not the most apt metaphor for the San Joaquin Valley) into a surrealistic feature in which every member of the team got to appear on screen and which may very well have been key in reversing what began as a lackluster season.

I recall briefly contemplating a novelization of the film, but found myself too busy trying to sell shorter fiction to well-known mystery magazines.  The makings, however, kept simmering on the back burner, until three years ago when I resolved to revive the “dream” in the guise of a crime story and pitched it (no pun intended) to Jeff to get his help in developing background and motivation.

As we went back and forth, I aimed for exposition-lite while slipping in as much detail about minor league life as the story’s confines allowed.  I think most of it was relevant, the rest revelatory. And since I was fashioning a crime story, I had to juxtapose the exhilaration of playing and contending at that level with other less positive issues that open the door to corruption and violence.

Firstly, there are so many empty hours to fill “at home” and during the long and uncomfortable “away” trips on cramped buses and in distant motels—the proverbial idle hands. Players have to contend with a guaranteed half-year’s separation from family and friends, not to mention the pressures, demands, uncertainties, and illusive lucre of a sport in which only a small fraction make it to the Show, and not all of them under innocent circumstances. For many players, only the supporting fabric of their communal living keeps their careers above water, no matter what their talent. So what happens if they don’t fit in?

On the brighter side, the Stockton Ports roster for 2005 lists the names of more than a dozen players who eventually stepped onto major league ball fields.  Perhaps the movie magic had something to do with that high success rate. Eddie and Jed remain active in baseball as successful college coaches, Benny is still making action-filled films of men in uniform (Navy and Marine Corps), and Jeff has become part of another special team, albeit law enforcement—which just goes to show how persistent some dreams can be.

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