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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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.
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 . . .
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.
Novelist and short-story writer S. J. Rozan is the award-winning author of Ghost Hero and co-author of of Blood of the Lamb. She 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.
Bruce Arthurs is a writer in the mystery, science-fiction, and fantasy genres across several different mediums, including television and, occasionally, poetry. Here he talks about his story “Beks and the Second Note” from the December issue—his first to appear in a mystery-specific publication.
In “Beks and the Second Note” the takeaway quote is this:
“I thought about why I was a detective, about wanting to understand the why of people’s stories, not just the what.”
I’m not a detective, but that question—Why do people do the things they do?—has been a puzzle my entire life. It’s a common question, one almost everyone asks at some point, or at lots of points, in their lives. Why do good people make bad choices? Why do bad people sometimes make good choices?
In the universe inside my head, I’m writing this wonderful script where everyone in the world behaves rationally and understandably; everyone makes sense. In the real world outside my head, everyone keeps ad-libbing. It’s terribly frustrating.
Writing fiction is one way I deal with that frustration. In a story, the writer is in control of characters and events and motivations. It can help to make sense of, and deal with, real life.
“Beks and the Second Note” arose from a stew of news items from recent years: police shootings of black men; economic hardship and homelessness; the increasing presence of surveillance technology; the legalization of concealed carry in many states and the myth of the Good Guy With A Gun. All this simmered in the back of my mind for months until that “Ah-ha!” moment when the potential for a story fell into place.
And the oddly-named Bok Beks seemed the right character to tell that story. It’s not his first appearance; Bok first appeared over a decade ago in a very-small-press chapbook-sized anthology of stories about radioactive monkeys. (Yes, really. Small press can get very weird.) He has a pretty extensive backstory in my head, and I’m hoping future work will occasionally return to reveal more of Bok’s own story and the choices he’s made. But that probably involves a lot more simmering on my brain’s back burner.
My scattershot bibliography has mostly been in the science fiction and fantasy genres, a reflection of my primary reading over the years. The first book I remember reading, at age six, was Todd Ruthven’s Space Cat. But mystery and detective fiction has always been a close second (the Encyclopedia Brown stories are another memory of early reading), and almost every story I’ve written has fallen into one genre or the other. And occasionally, as with “Clues,” the episode I wrote for Star Trek: The Next Generation, something falls solidly into both genres.
But I’m pleased as Punch to break into Alfred Hitchcock’s with “Beks and the Second Note.” It’s my first sale to a specifically-mystery market, and it’s especially satisfying to make it to one of the most important markets for short mystery fiction.
Eve Fisher is a novelist, playwright, and short-story writer living in South Dakota. She volunteers with The Alternatives to Violence Project and blogs at SleuthSayers. Her stories in AHMM include many set in Laskin, SD, and here she talks about her story “Iron Chef” from the current November 2016 issue.
“Iron Chef” began as a rant. I’ve worked in the judicial system in Tennessee and South Dakota; been a college history professor; and for the last few years I’ve been doing volunteer work in the prison with the Alternatives to Violence Project. Along the line I’ve gotten to know many, many, many teenage addicts, who come and go through the judicial system because of course they know they have no problems whatsoever.
Finally, one day, I started ranting:
There’s nothing more gullible than a teenage addict. He thinks he’s smart because he can read. He thinks he’s street-smart because someone showed him how to make a Band-Aid from toilet paper and masking tape. He thinks bragging proves whatever he’s bragging about, from being tough to being a player. He thinks he’s a lady’s man because he wants to get laid.
When he’s trying to get some stuff, he believes everything the dealer says. When he’s high, he believes anything that will get him more stuff. If someone tells him he can make two, three, four, five thousand a week, he believes it. If someone tells him he won’t get caught, he believes that, too.
He believes that his dealer will help keep him out of trouble and get him out of jail. He believes that his dealer, his girlfriend, his baby mamma, and the woman currently giving him a lap dance all think he’s wonderful. He believes that the judge, the sheriff, and the state’s attorney all have it in for him personally. He believes that he is unjustly accused, tried, and convicted. He believes that with the right attorney he could have gotten off.
He believes that he doesn’t have to play the game in prison, whatever the game is. He usually gets beaten out of that. After that, he believes every rumor he hears, every tale he is told. He believes that when he gets out, he will never come back. He believes, often against all evidence, that he has a home to go to. He believes that he deserves a wonderful first day home, complete with alcohol, sex, drugs, and long drives. He believes that his old friends will still be his old friends whether he does drugs or not. He believes that there is a thing as social meth.
And at that point, I stopped ranting, because I was crying. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than a teenage addict, because you know how much he’s going to have to go through before (if!) he gets a clue, grows up, gets a life. And so many don’t . . .
And that’s when I started writing “Iron Chef.”