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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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Jeff Cohen on “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Girl”

Jeff Cohen is the author of the Aaron Tucker series, the Asperger’s Mystery series (as coauthored by E.J. Copperman), and three other series under the Copperman byline. He also pens the Double Feature series about Elliot Freed, to which his tale in the current AHMM belongs. Here, he talks about how that story came to be.

It was time.

I’d written three novels featuring Elliot Freed, a one-time novelist who was now running a one-screen movie theater that he dubbed Comedy Tonight. Elliot showed only comedies; one classic, one contemporary every night. But Elliot’s run had ended (the publisher’s decision) and he’d gone into retirement in my head.

Except that he didn’t. I kept thinking about the character years after the last book (A Night at the Operation) was published. How had he coped with his sort-of newfound financial security? How was he getting along with Sharon, his ex-wife, who was now carrying his child?

That was the thing—the baby. Readers would send emails asking about the baby. Was it a boy or a girl? (I’d always answer, “yes.”) Did Elliot and Sharon remarry? (I thought I’d made that one clear in the last book—no.) Was that all there was to say about the gang at Comedy Tonight?

Enough questions and enough random thoughts in my head led to my AHMM story, “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Girl!” I wanted to revisit Elliot and his entourage (his parents, his theater staff, Sharon) and see how they were doing. I wanted to answer the question and most of all I wanted to write in Elliot’s voice again.

Elliot is my favorite of my characters (sorry, Alison, Samuel, Kay, Rachel and others; I love you too) because he’s a comic hero—he fights back with humor. Writing for him is like writing for Groucho Marx. I wanted to see if I could get back in that groove.

Whether or not I did is up to you. But I’m pretty happy with where things ended up. Maybe in a few years I’ll miss Elliot enough again.

Jeff Cohen is the author of the Aaron Tucker and Double Feature (Elliot Freed) mysteries and co-author with E.J. Copperman of the Asperger’s Mystery series. As Copperman, he writes the Haunted Guesthouse, Mysterious Detective and Agent to the Paws series. That sounds like a lot of work. He may have to lie down now.

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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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