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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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Bruce Arthurs on “Beks and the Second Note”

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.

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“Writing Iron Chef” by Eve Fisher

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.”

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Out of History Comes a Story, “The Great Aul” by R. T. Lawton

R. T. Lawton is the author of several different series appearing regularly in AHMM. He is a former federal law-enforcement officer and he blogs for SleuthSayers.org. Here he writes about the background of his tale “The Great Aul” from the July/August 2016 issue.

The tomes of history are rich with strong characters whose actions influenced the future of nations, entire civilizations and even the course of world events. Much of known history is written by the winners, some accounts are retold by survivors of that same happening and some events are documented by independent observers who have no axe to grind concerning the facts or truth of those events. Often the perspective or alleged truth depends upon the teller of that history and many times there are gaps in what gets told. These gaps are fertile grounds for an author of fiction to create his own version of the story.

The Known History:

For centuries, the Tsars of Russia had pushed their country’s border southward into the Turkic lands. Their invasion vanguard usually consisted of freebooting Cossacks who lived in stockade villages along the frontier and raided their Muslim neighbors by horseback or by sea. Eventually, after many rebellions by the freedom loving Cossacks against their own Tsars, the Russian army quartered soldiers in each frontier village, made these Cossacks into subordinate military units and launched their own massive spring campaigns into Chechnya to subjugate the various hill tribes.

Imam Shamyl

Imam Shamyl

One of the opposition leaders was an Imam named Shamyl, who led a group of religious Chechens and Daghestans known as Murids in the northern Caucasus. At one point, the Russians offered to broker a peace treaty with the Murids. In order to guarantee the safety of the Russian negotiators, Shamyl was forced to give up one of his sons as a temporary hostage. The Russians, acting in bad faith, promptly whisked the young boy off to Moscow, Russianized him over the years and made him a cavalry officer in one of their units.

During the summer of 1854, Shamyl put a plan in motion to recover his now grown son. On the morning of July 4th, a detachment of Murid horsemen clattered into the Tsinandali palace courtyard of King George XII, the last king of Georgia and an ally of the Tsar. They seized the two princesses, their children and their governesses. The women were tied to the horsemen’s saddle frames and the small children were stuffed into large saddlebags. In short time, the entire group rode off into the mountains headed for the Great Aul, a mountain fortress in the heart of Daghestan. Imam Shamyl had plans to trade the hostages for his son Jamal al-Din (various spellings depending upon the source). As a matter of history, the trade did take place, but there is a gap in the details.

Members of Shamyl's band.

Members of Shamyl’s band.

Filling the Gap:

Constantly researching for more Russian history on their invasion into the Caucasus to use as story background, this event is a great find for me. I already have two story characters, the Armenian and his helper the Little Nogai Boy, trading goods with the Cossacks on the Terek River and with the Chechens south into the Wild Country. Since the Armenian is already trusted by people on both sides of the river (as shown in previous stories), who better to act as intermediary for the exchange of hostages? These two fictional characters can fill the existing gap and write their own story as to their part in what happened.

It’s now time to invoke the writer’s famous What If . . . clause. What if the Armenian and the Little Nogai Boy are crossing a shallow river deep in the Wild Country when the raiders fleeing with their prisoners happen upon them?

The Story is Born:

The young orphan boy, from the Nogai split out of the Great Mongol Horde after the death of Genghis Khan, tells “The Great Aul” story as he sees these hostage events through his own eyes. Using the young boy as the Point of View also allows for a more emotional impact upon the reader at the end. So, let’s get down to the bare bones.

Our two protagonists, all their trade goods, plus their string of pack animals are taken by the Murids and are forced to travel along with the hostages to The Great Aul high up on a mountain top. Here, the Armenian is offered freedom for himself and his helper if the Armenian takes a letter from the Imam to the Tsar, offering the Georgian hostages in exchange for his son Jamal. However, the Nogai boy must stay behind to ensure the Armenian’s return.

It’s a long trip to Moscow and back. Many things could happen to the Armenian along the route, and the boy doesn’t know if his master will even return to get him out of the aul. To pass time, the boy starts selling their trade goods in the local market place and making his own plans for escape just in case things don’t work out according to the plan of others. But, he has to be careful in his actions because he is closely watched by one of the Murids assigned to guard him, a Murid who has lost his entire family to earlier Russian incursions. Plus, it seems not all Murids are happy to have outsiders on the inside of their fortress.

Sorry, but that’s all you get here. To find out what becomes of our young orphan after the Imam’s son is returned, you’ll have to read the story for yourself. If you are female, you might want to have a tissue handy. If you’re a guy, well, you’re on your own.

In any case, be sure to leave a comment after you read the story.

 

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