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A Conversation With Booked & Printed Columnist Laurel Flores Fantauzzo

Laurel Flores Fantauzzo began penning AHMM’s Booked & Printed column in our March/April 2019 issue. Readers may recognize her name from our masthead; she previously served as the magazine’s assistant editor. Laurel is the author of The First Impulse (Anvil, 2017) and the upcoming The Heartbreak of Corazon Tigubio (HarperTeen, 2021). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, World Literature Today, and the Mekong Review, and she is an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. AHMM managing editor Jackie Sherbow had the opportunity to ask Laurel some questions about her work, reviewing, literary citizenship, and more.

Laurel Flores Fantauzzo. Photo courtesy of the author.

Jackie Sherbow: The First Impulse is a work of nonfiction about the lives and unsolved murders of film journalists Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc. Can you talk a little bit about your experience writing this book and what you learned during the process?

Laurel Fantauzzo: In 2010 I went to Metro Manila, my mother’s birth country, on a Fulbright scholarship. I started meeting young artists, filmmakers, writers, NGO workers and activists. They were haunted by the sudden murders of their friends, Alexis and Nika, and the case remained unsolved. I identified with Alexis; a mixed-race young man of the Philippines, who chose to stay there, and with Nika, who went to the country because she loved him. They were both young writers too—film journalists.

Because the case was unsolved—and three suspects remain at large to this day—I realized it would be a book humanizing both the victims, and the country in which they died. So much of true crime lionizes the perpetrators, the killers—the victims are often props left behind. My book spends more time on the reverberations of loss, and the presence of the victims that remains, while placing the crime in context with the social, postcolonial pain of the country.

Considering the epidemic of homicide in the Philippines now, I’ve been told the book was prescient. I do wish that were not so.

JS: How do mysteries and crime fiction fit into the general literary tradition and sociopolitical/cultural landscape?

LF: I had an advisor, the writer Patricia Foster, tell me this: a crime is like a Rorschach test for a society. A reader will witness it and perceive any number of elements. Humans are drawn to questions of wrongdoing, to questions of injustice, to the puzzles of incompleteness. That’s my theory, anyway, as to the role of mysteries and crime fiction.

In America in particular, violence and killers hold a lot of power in the larger imagination, often for entertainment. It’s a trend about which I have many reservations.

JS: Your reviews include nonfiction, children’s books, novelty books, and other works in addition to traditional crime novels. How do you source books for review?

LF: I follow my curiosity, and I also keep an eye out for any trends that seem to address some larger societal question or anxiety. I did a column on the anxieties of social media in novels, for example. I’m deliberately eclectic.

More practically, I look at social media and industry magazines to see what’s coming up. I also like to find anything that may have flown under the radar. I don’t look at any other reviews of a book before writing mine.

I’m less likely to review literary heavyweights that may approach household names; I like pointing out emerging writers, or writers who’ve worked for a long time without much recognition.

JS: What type of literary citizenship in a community do you believe book reviews serve?

LF: It’s healthy to think out loud about books; to join in conversation about them, to express our praise and reservations and questions about books. It’s also healthy to point out works that may have gone unnoticed, if not for some public discussion of it in a magazine like AHMM.

JS: What do you look for in a book to review?

LF: I have no prescriptive rubric! I do like writers who spend time developing every character; for whom no character is a device, but a fully realized person, even if just for a page. I also like to see a context illuminated, be that of a place, an era, or some other kind of larger background.

Because I’m also in academia with a full-time teaching load, and writing books of my own and completing a PhD, I typically read the first two pages of a review copy to decide if it’s for me. If I’m a little curious, I’ll read the whole first chapter. If I’m still compelled after that chapter, I’ll likely review the book. The method has worked for me so far.

JS: For you, what constitutes a complete review of a book?

LF: The reader should know what the book is about, have some context for what the author is attempting to portray, and the reviewer’s opinion as to whether that attempt succeeded or not.

JS: What should any publisher know when sending a book to your attention?

LF: True crime books that spend a majority of time attending to the perpetrators, not the victims, are likely not for me. I do like unique voices, and narrators we may never have met before.

JS: What type of books do you personally enjoy to read/what are you reading right now that won’t make it into the Booked and Printed column?

LF: I read a lot of longform nonfiction, either in book form or on literary or journalistic websites. I enjoy lightly speculative literary fiction, young adult fiction, and graphic novels. I also reread favorite novels from my childhood and adolescence. I necessarily read academic books about mixed race, trauma and recovery, the Philippines, and Asian-America.

JS: Tell us about what else you’re working on right now.

LF: I’m completing a young adult novel for HarperCollins, The Heartbreak of Corazon Tagubio. It’s set in Los Angeles and Manila, Philippines, and while it’s not a crime novel, I think it takes some taboo risks.

Thank you, Laurel! You can read Laurel’s book-review column in every issue of AHMM—and keep an eye out for her upcoming novel The Heartbreak of Corazon Tagubio from HarperTeen in winter 2021.

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“There Are Killers Inside Me” by Elizabeth Zelvin

Elizabeth Zelvin, LCSW, is a three-time Derringer and Agatha Award nominee and the author of the Bruce Kohler mysteries among other series. She is the editor of Where Crime Never Sleeps: Murder New York Style 4 as well as Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology, which releases today from Level Best Books. The theme of the anthology is crimes against women, tales of retribution and healing. Here she talks about the motivations of women killers in mystery fiction.

I don’t like violent men. I’ve never had a soft spot for Hannibal Lecter. I read Silence of the Lambs only because it was the only reading matter available in a hotel room one night. I slept very badly, and I’ve been wishing ever since that I could unread it. Chewing off a prison guard’s skin so he could hide beneath it to escape? Yuck. I don’t care how the movie managed that scene. I’ve never seen it, and I never will.

But I write murder mysteries, so I do write about murder. And of course I read about murder. I even talk about interesting ways to kill at the dinner table. Most mystery writers do. I wrote my first murder mysteries—never published, thank goodness—in the 1970s. My model was the traditional detective story. My protagonists were amateur sleuths. Mysteries were mysteries. There was a crime, an investigation, and a solution. The investigator was the star, the one who figured out whodunit.

When I started writing fiction again many years later, the genre had changed. Crime fiction now consisted of mystery and thrillers—different breeds— in a variety of subgenres, from cozies to hard-boiled. What I wanted to write didn’t quite fit in anywhere. I called it over easy and slightly crispy around the edges.

My first series was a New York murder mystery with a male amateur sleuth—the protagonist, recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler. I was less interested in the mechanics of the murder than in developing Bruce’s voice, his growth in recovery, and his relationships with his friends. In the first short story, I didn’t even give the murderer a motive. The story ended at the moment when Bruce figured out whodunit. In the first novel, the killer was basically nuts. In the second short story, the three suspects had all had one-night stands with the victim. The motive for the guilty one was plausible, but tenuous.

When I wrote the second novel, something happened. I meant the killer to be a literary agent. I made him deeply irritating. It was fun. But as I wrote, I realized I had a better candidate. And as I wrote her final confrontation with Bruce, she found her voice. This is the moment that writers live for, when the character starts to speak for herself, regardless of what the author planned.

I had several possible motivations worked out for what she had done. She mentioned none of them. She had killed in a state of rage, killed again to cover her tracks, and was ready to kill Bruce if he tried to stop her from getting away. But behind the rage was a profound sense of hurt and betrayal. Readers can empathize with the pain of a woman who’s been betrayed. Even though justice must be done, the killer who arouses compassion is more authentic, more fully developed. The story itself is more authentic, whether it’s a short story or a novel.

The next step in my own evolution was to make my protagonist the murderer, to put the killer, not the detective, in the center of the frame. I didn’t plan this. It welled up out of that mysterious source that has been called “inspiration,” “the unconscious,” “the muse,” “a higher power,” and “a still, small voice.” Short stories were the perfect format in which to explore this, once I realized it was happening, since they take two weeks rather than two years to write.

My first such protagonist was a femme fatale, a character I probably wouldn’t write now. She was predatory by nature. In her defense, I’ll add that the story had elements of urban fantasy. She wasn’t a human woman, and she was culling the human herd of contemptibly predatory men. That first time, I kept my distance from my killer protagonist, writing the story in third person from the victims’ points of view.

But if I wanted to keep writing stories other than detective stories, I needed to reach into the minds and hearts of killers and write from their point of view. I soon realized that “killer” or “murderer” was so broad a term as to be meaningless. I had no desire to create men who kill, and not only psychopaths who do it again and again. There are already too many murderous guys out there, in real life and in fiction. I’m not interested, no, not even if the murders are so justifiable that they’d cast Tom Hanks, Liam Neeson, or Morgan Freeman in the movie.

But women, ah, women have plenty of reasons to kill that I can get behind with no problem. They may be victims, survivors, avengers. They may kill to protect those they love, including their children. They may simply have had enough—of being belittled, ridiculed, abused, or merely giving and giving without appreciation or reward. Thinking of “A Work in Progress,” my most recent story in AHMM, and other standalones, I’d say that every time a woman chooses death—for herself or someone else—it’s because on some level she has had enough.

When I selected crime stories for my new anthology, Me Too Short Stories, abuse figured in the submissions along with murder. Many of the protagonists were children, some of whom had experienced abuse from a very early age. Imagine how powerless a little girl feels when she is abused by a trusted adult. Remember that for every action—no one’s repealed Newton’s third law of motion, have they?—there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Consider the intensity of the powerlessness such a child feels. If the reaction, once she grows up, is to kill—as the author who’s writing her into being, I say, Go for it!

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Franz Margitza on “Eulalia” and Writing in the Gothic Tradition

Franz Margitza is a Detroit native and director of research for a Cleveland TV station. Here he talks about his debut short story—”Eulalia,” from our current March/April 2019 issue—and about the appeal, attributes, and modern context of Gothic romance literature.

We were in a coffee shop when I mentioned that the issue would be released soon. She looked at me and warmly smiled, before raising her brow—baiting me to continue.

“What?” I asked.

“Go on—tell me what it’s about.”

“Ah, well, I supposed it’s a Gothic horror story.” I immediately saw the wheels in her head start turning. “Do you know what I mean by—Gothic?”

“Um, yeah—like The Cure,” she said.

“Not quite.”

I understood where she was coming from. To many, the word “gothic” can infer something very different. And soon, I began a very poor attempt at defining the tradition. Dark, decaying, brooding, ghosts, demons, passion, curses, and romance—these were some of the words I wanted to use, but nothing came out correctly. It was a jumbled mess.

And as I sat there, trying to explain the intense romanticism of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, or the sullen lament of the protagonist in “The Raven,” I found that I was not making much headway.

“These don’t sound like healthy relationships,” she said.

“They’re not.”

“So how are they romantic?”

It was the mystique that comes with the Gothic tradition that had inspired me to write my story featured in the March/April Issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, titled “Eulalia.” The inspiration began with the image of a chamber room, a bedroom in an antiquated abbey. In that room I imagined, was a large stained glass window, and directly below—the crypt of a lost love, entombed to be near the very bed she once shared with the narrator.

What kind of obsession would drive someone to bury their deceased love in the very room in which they slept? Is it a quality of love that would force someone to do so? Or maybe some sort of mental derangement? Then again, is there much of a difference? That can be debated. But I’ve always found the dark brooding Byronic hero to be a champion of romance.

“So what else is different about this kind of story?”

“The words,” I said. “The way it’s written. The style, more or less.”

There is a special quality in the diction used in Gothic literature that spoke to me. A musical quality, with an elaborate description of even the smallest details. The rhythm of the words, the lilting quality that remain with the reader, it’s all a part of the grand scheme. And to be quite honest, it almost felt as if I needed to overwrite—to over describe. To use words that, I must admit, I had to double-check in the dictionary just to be sure I had the correct definition in mind. And I thought back to my days in journalism school, when they took a red pen to every phrase, every word, and every letter that wasn’t essential to telling the most simplistic, concise story possible.

“Kill your babies,” my old professor would say. He was a tall, thin veteran newspaperman. And what he meant by kill your babies—or kill your darlings, as some refer to it—was to take out all the little things you love about your story, that don’t add to the overall message you’re trying to convey. Thereby, anything that is too descriptive, or flowery, must be omitted. As well as anything that sounds too cute, too creative, or too ornate. So, a sentence like “A fierce, turbulent squall brewed far off on the horizon, encroaching upon the barren landscape, like a violent tempest” essentially becomes: “It rained”—more or less, anyway.

Thus, my training was in vast opposition to the tradition of Gothic writing. And it was daunting to attempt to write in such a way. A way that I was taught not to write. However, the rhythm or the pulsing cadence is something I’ve always truly admired. And I tried my best to mimic that sound.

“So, is it really scary? Am I going to lose sleep at night?”

“No, I wouldn’t say so. It’s more creepy than scary. And mysterious.”

“Remind me again how it is romantic?”

“Well . . .”

But as I sat there sipping my coffee—I saw her point, and a question arose. Today, does Gothic romance still have its place? Can the Byronic hero still be viewed as heroic? Or is he simply an all-out villain? She followed up her question.

“What makes you think those characters you mentioned are in any way romantic?” she asked.

“The romance isn’t in the happy ending—no one goes off and lives happily ever after. For the most part, very few even actually live at the end of these stories, and some aren’t even alive when the story begins. But the heroes, well—they’ve found their soulmate, and they adhere to that as if it was their religion. The problem is—they’re addicted to love. And yes, as dangerous as that can be, there is also something vulnerable in that. They feel this insatiable need, and yet the universe decides not to comply with their wants. And so, they go on longing, for what could have been.” I let out a long breath, then added—“Y’know?”

There was silence. We both took a sip of our coffee. The sound of the rain was beating against the window of the coffee shop, and we both knew that soon we’d have to brave the nighttime storm that started on our way back to the car. A storm that might be describe as a fierce, turbulent squall . . . (and so on, and so on). Then, she spoke.

“It all sounds depressing.”

“A little.”

“So . . . in other words, it’s just like The Cure.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I guess so.”

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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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“‘Shiva’s Eye’ and Other Doctor Watson Adventures” by James Tipton

California writer James Tipton is the author of Annette Vallon: A Novel of the French Revolution (HarperCollins, 2008) and the upcoming collection Adventures Without Sherlock. You can find his short stories and poetry in Nostos and Blue Unicorn. His first tale in AHMM to feature Dr. Watson was “The Vampire of Edinburgh” (September/October 2017), and here he talks about that character, the series, and his story in the current issue, “Shiva’s Eye”—just in time for belated celebrations of Sherlock Holmes’s birthday. (Editor’s note: The phrase “twenty-five hundred strong” at the top of page 86 of the current issue of AHMM, the fifth page of “Shiva’s Eye,” was misprinted as “twenty-five thousand strong.” We regret the error.)

Doctor John H. Watson is one of the great overshadowed characters of literature (for others, see Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Nausikaa in The Odyssey; there are many). Sherlock Holmes is not being ironic when, in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” he says, “I’m lost without my Boswell.” He would not only have been lost to current recognition and to posterity, but in his own self-absorption and ego. In this blog, however, I’m not writing about Holmes, but about his companion, who, in the story “Shiva’s Eye,” encounters mysteries long before he ever encountered his famous friend. Moreover, we must admit it’s because of Doctor Watson’s writing that his friend became famous.

“Shiva’s Eye” can be read as a prequel to the Sherlock Holmes canon. Watson tells us in the beginning of his narration of the first Holmes novella, A Study in Scarlet, that the Afghan campaign in which he participated brought him “nothing but misfortune and disaster . . . I served at the fatal battle of Maiwand. There I was struck on the shoulder [in later stories we also find he was wounded in the leg] by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery.” After he had “rallied” at the base hospital at Peshawar, he “was struck down by enteric fever [typhoid], that curse of our Indian possessions.” The battle of Maiwand was a major and unexpected defeat for the British in the second Anglo-Afghan war. Watson tells us that his “nerves are shaken,” and when he meets Holmes, the detective’s first words to him are, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” “Shiva’s Eye” sees this campaign, its disastrous outcome, and its seeming supernatural mysteries unfold through Watson’s eyes.

I am grateful to the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine for giving a chance for these Doctor Watson adventures to come out to the world. AHMM published “The Vampire of Edinburgh” in September/October of 2017, and now is set to publish two more of them after “Shiva’s Eye.”

These stories come from a collection of fourteen that I’m working on to be called Adventures Without Sherlock. There have been countless spin-offs of Sherlock Holmes in print and in film, but none that I know of which only features Dr. Watson, without the help of his illustrious friend. I’ve endeavored to stay true to the narrative voice of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories, but mine develop the doctor’s character much further, covering the range of Watson’s adult life: from a failed romance in the Highlands that resurfaces in the gold country of California (the latter refers to an unpublished play by Doyle in which Watson ventures to the Wild West); to his participation in the Afghan campaign; to his years with Holmes when he was on his own—either on holiday or shortly after his first wife’s death, and then Holmes’s presumed death; to his later years when he visits Ireland on the verge of Civil War; or a trip to Berlin in 1933, when, in his eighties, while being honored by his German publisher, he encounters the beginning of the Nazi terror. We also see Doctor Watson giving a nod to his friend, or perhaps in silent competition with him; for instance, in an early story we find that Watson hunted a demon cat on the craggy fells of the Lake District long before Holmes stalked a hell-hound on the misty moors of Devonshire. A post-World War I story even features Conan Doyle, who, as Watson’s editor and friend, asks the doctor to join him on a search for fairies.

So in these stories Watson finally gets his due. Through his presentational immediacy and objective but deeply personal involvement, we feel the presence of a brave, compassionate, and highly moral man. Traditionally, these qualities have been applied to his protagonist, but we must remember that Sherlock Holmes is filtered through the perspective and the values of Doctor Watson. Once we are familiar with Watson as a narrator, we cannot help but think of him, unlike Holmes, as a very human and most likable human being—as that rare thing among writers: a genial personality.

Doctor Watson is well overdue to be the hero of his own series. As readers of the Holmes stories, we are aware of the doctor’s keen sense of observation, his fine ear for dialogue, and his pacing to give a sense of suspense and adventure (the last being a quality for which Holmes chided him). We are also aware of Watson’s self-effacing habit of always putting himself in the background; the stories are not about him. In my stories, although Watson is still loath to talk too much about his personal life, we can’t help but see his character more: his self-reflections, doubts, epiphanies, his dedicated persistence in arriving at truth—and we see him growing in his abilities as a detective. In “Shiva’s Eye” we also see him go where the cold reason of Holmes would never venture: into the possibility that there is more to life than the rational mind can understand.

With any and all readers keeping in mind that they are following the adventures of Doctor Watson, not of Sherlock Holmes, and therefore may be exposed not to singular analytical reasoning from effects to causes but to a dogged, quotidian effort to get at the truth (or in “Shiva’s Eye” assistance from an unexpected source), I offer these stories to whomever may have a few quiet minutes to spend with the good doctor.

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“Write What You Don’t Know” by Matthew Wilson

Matthew Wilson’s first short story appeared in EQMM in January 2018. Here he talks about his story “The Cook Off” from the current issue and his approach to writing in settings he both knows and doesn’t.

Right now I’m trying to write a mystery story set in Las Vegas. My only problem is I’ve only been to Las Vegas once. I stayed overnight in a Motel 6 on a cross-country move—me, my wife, two cats, and a U-Haul. Needless to say, we didn’t have a lot of time to do Vegas. I remember my wife emptying a jar full of quarters into a slot machine. That was about the extent of our Vegas adventure. But lately I’ve gotten this idea for a story set there, so I found myself facing the dilemma of “write what you know” when I don’t know much at all.

In his book How to Not Write Bad, Ben Yagoda takes on the old adage of “write what you know.” Yagoda says writers too often interpret “write what you know” to mean “write what you already know.” But what would that look like? A lot stories with writers as protagonists? A murder mystery involving paper cuts, query letters, and rejections? No, of course not. “Write what you know,” Yagoda argues, should mean that if we “read, research, investigate, and learn,” we can write beyond our immediate personal experience, and ultimately we will be writing what we know.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because as I try to write mystery stories, I find myself attracted to characters and situations that come from both what I know and what I don’t know. My story “The Cook Off” is just such an example. I started out with what I already knew. The tiny American village not far from the Iron Curtain border that split Germany for forty years—that was home to me as a young teenager when my father was stationed near the spa town of Bad Kissingen. The gymnasium full of soldiers where my story culminates—that was a kind of home for me too—I spent many hours there trying to become a basketball player and not succeeding. The late 70s GIs who inhabit this gym in the story—in their Pumas and tube socks—they are inspired by the real GIs I met in all my sweat and hopeless effort.

What I didn’t know much about was Grafenwöhr, the training area where accidents could kill men rehearsing for war. But I had heard about it, from the same young GIs I shared that gym with, and from my father, who would disappear from our family for weeks at a time to go to Graf, as everyone called it. What I already knew about Graf was that it was cold and miserable, that every GI griped about it, and that when it was a man’s turn to go, he dreaded it. Who could blame him—Bad Kissingen was a resort, and the beer was good. I think it was this not knowing much about Graf that made me want to write about it. I had also heard about a strange thing called a “cook off” from my father, and of a man killed by one. A dangerous place no one wanted to be and an unusual way to die—it sounded like a good mystery story to me.

Since Graf was mostly outside of what I already knew, I did what Ben Yagoda suggests—read, research, investigate, learn. There are a lot of ways to start such research. First person accounts are always the best place to start, and I had my father. I also wanted to know more about armored cavalry units, live fire exercises, training accidents, the history of Grafenwöhr, and that thing called a “cook off.”

Tom Clancy wrote a series of military reference books, and his Armored Cav edition taught me much. From this book, I learned what an armored cavalry unit actually does (the dangerous job of reconnaissance, often behind enemy lines), and what a live fire exercise is like (with all of its noise and destruction, there are also plenty of safety precautions and stationary plywood targets).

I learned much about Graf through a deep graze of the web. Back in 1910 the Kaiser requisitioned eighty-three square miles of Bavaria near the town of Grafenwöhr to train a military that would fight the next two world wars, only to see it all carpet bombed and then re-requisitioned by a new tenant, the U.S. Army. Graf became the home especially for what was called Reforger, an enormous annual exercise meant to simulate a NATO response to a Soviet invasion. I also learned that Graf, with all of its tanks and guns and bombs, had been the setting for more than a few fatal training accidents. The most tragic occurred in 1960, when a 200 pound artillery shell overshot its target and killed 15 men billeted in tents. All of this was good background for Graf, but part of me also wanted to sense the place, and although I could not feel the cold or smell the fumes, I could at least see the place. Absent a time machine, I would have to rely on other means, mostly photos and videos collected from books and web sources. Here is one of my favorites. Yes, that’s Elvis Presley in Grafenwöhr. It’s cold and you can tell—he’s got his field jacket on, and his Elvis hair is hiding under the standard issue cold weather MQ1 pile cap.

The “cook off” was another investigation. I had heard my father’s story of a man accidently killed when a belt-fed .50 caliber kept firing even after the gunner took his finger off the trigger. This is due to the intense heat in the firing chamber, which literally cooks any remaining rounds unless the gunner clears the belt from the chamber. A cook off is not uncommon, although a fatal one is.

In my search for background on Daley Barracks, the American garrison adjacent to Bad Kissingen, I often visited Eaglehorse, a site dedicated to the history of the armored cavalry unit stationed at Daley Barracks for many years. There is a lot to look at on the site, with a great collection of photos and first-person accounts going far back. And here is the story memorializing a man killed by a cook off, the same soldier my father had told me of. I can tell because the date is perfect for when we lived there in the late 1970s. I printed this memorial out and sent it to my father, who is close to eighty now. For years, I have often wondered how much of my father’s army stories were factual and how much were more akin to legend. When he received the printout, we had a good talk on the phone, and he said, “Yes, that was the man I told you about. It was a cook off, and it was a shame because it should have never happened.” After we hung up, I felt the sensation of traveling in a circle. I had come back to a story my father mentioned years before, a story I already knew.

This is one of the joys I get from writing—uncovering real mysteries of places and people and times both close to me, and also quite remote. It is a bit of detective work I like to do on the way to imagining a story of detection. What I already know and what I come to know—I hope it all adds up into a good piece of mystery fiction.

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“‘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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