As part of a full day of programming, editor Linda Landrigan will be participating in a discussion about final tips for writers before hitting “Submit.” For more information please visit MWA-NY or register here.
Nancy Pauline Simpson is the author of B.O.Q. and Tunnel Vision (an updated edition of which is now available electronically from all e-book retailers). Here she talks about the inspiration for her story “Rough-Hewn Retribution” (from the March/April issue), and the development of the story’s characters, Miss Halzetine Polk and Deputy Sheriff Stickley.
All families come equipped with stories and a lot of those stories include a mystery. Whether those stories get passed on depends more on the number of raconteurs a family produces than the number of babies. In the case of my family, a particular spot in central Alabama and the time popularly known as “The Downton Abbey” era produced a glut of raconteurs. In England, that era represented the lull before the storm of World War I. In the Southern United States, it was the lull between storms, one of which was still rumbling in a lot of people’s living memory. Under seemingly still waters ran a class system based on race. The peculiar interdependency of Blacks and Whites generated family stories that can lead a writer in fictional directions that just wouldn’t be credible in another setting.
One of my family’s stories was the jumping-off point for “Rough-Hewn Retribution.” (Other stories served the same purpose for two earlier AHMM stories with the same setting.) I’d heard the basics—a hotel porter reporting his suspicions about a traveling salesman to his employer, leading to extreme consequences—multiple times. Three generations from the original version, I have no way of knowing what, if any, of it was true. But, since anybody who could verify any part of the story is long dead by now, I felt free to let my imagination fill in the plot details.
The characters of Deputy Sheriff Stickley and county nurse Hazeltine Polk evolved from family members, but their occupations did not. I chose those occupations in order to bring Stickley and Polk into contact with people and situations my real-life kin—especially the respectable female ones—might have been shielded from. Stickley may be uncomfortable allowing Miss Polk to examine a male corpse’s genitalia, but—because she has been trained as a nurse—he defers to her superior knowledge of human anatomy and stifles his squeamishness. He admires the county nurse’s level-headedness almost as much as he admires her auburn hair. And he has his own professional ambitions. Those ambitions naturally mesh with his personal goal of winning Miss Polk’s affection. He hopes she’ll appreciate that the doggedness, integrity and powers-of-observation that make for a good investigator also make for a good husband.
I wanted to make their compatibility—and chemistry—clear. I also wanted to show contrasts. Both are intelligent, but Stickley has had little formal education. His appreciation for art and literature is instinctive, not taught. Stickley’s fractured grammar is distinct from Polk’s more refined English. Miss Polk would never correct his grammar, of course, and not just because it would be ill-bred to do so. Women are assumed to be more particular about such niceties as grammar. In an attractive, sober man, character and good sense can compensate for a few rough edges. In any case, cleverness disguised as folksy simplicity has a long history of its own. When Stickley refers to “the Oracle of Delphinium,” is it a verbal blunder or is he just pulling his own leg? The reader understands from his context that he knows perfectly well what an oracle is.
For me, the most interesting element of a mystery plot is the motive. When the crime involves violence, that motive should be a doozy. The “why?” of crime is more compelling to me than the “how?” In the case of the criminal psychopath, there is no rational “why.” I am relieved when forensic science stops a serial killer in his bloody tracks, of course. But the criminal who responds to emotions everyone has experienced is more intriguing. When Stickley asks the retiring sheriff how he could have committed such a grisly act years earlier, the reader knows that the answer comes from a sane man.
The crime may be poorly-thought-out. It may cost the criminal as much as it costs the victim. But I like the reader to share the feelings that motivated the crime, if not the decision to follow-through. We may argue about which motive pushes Hamlet over the edge (and Hamlet is, after all, a mystery), but the audience empathizes with all of them. “Rough-Hewn Retribution” is no
Hamlet, but there are plenty of motives to pick from. And, maybe, a few of them will rouse a little empathy.
Terence Faherty is the author of The Quiet Woman as well as the Owen Keane and Scott Elliott mystery series. His recent short-story collection Tales of the Star Republic is available from Gisbourne Press. Here he talks about the inspiration behind and the writing of his story “The Hawaii Murder Case” from the January/February 2017 issue of AHMM.
My wife and I enjoy traveling, and I thought it would be fun to write a new short story for each place we visited. Instead of forcing a whodunit format on each locale, I decided to let the setting suggest the proper story to tell. For example, St. Simons Island, where we stayed in a creaking old carriage house, seemed like a good place for a ghost story. When we visited Scotland, we encountered the life and legend of Mary Queen of Scots everywhere we went, so I came up with a suspense story that used the famous queen.
But I was hoping for more inspiration than just what type of story to write. Years ago, I came across a writer’s block remedy. It consisted of a deck of cards that would randomly generate certain basics of a story, like setting, protagonist, and problem. Trying to weave together those random elements was supposed to stimulate creativity. I never used the card system, but it occurred to me that I could let our trips serve the same role. I began traveling with my notebook at the ready, so I could jot down random elements that I would later weave together in a story. I’m happy to report that the system worked. And it not only served as a creativity stimulus, it made each story a scrapbook of that particular vacation.
“The Hawaii Murder Case,” as the title reveals, was inspired by our vacation on Kawai. I came back with the following story elements. 1) During the trip, I was reading a Philo Vance mystery, The Kidnap Murder Case. 2) While we were standing at the edge of a remote waterfall, a branch the size of a suburban tree fell from the forest canopy and narrowly missed us. 3) To access the beach nearest our condo, we had to go up and down a long, steep stairway that was out of sight of anyone not on the stairway itself. 4) On the beach, we observed a May/December couple who barely spoke to one another. 5) Our condo building contained three units, all of which were owned by the same person and decorated identically.
From those major elements, and a dozen minor ones, I came up the story of a vacationer who is conked on the head by a falling tree branch and begins to take on the characteristics of the fictional detective he’s been reading about. There follows a sudden death, of course. I made it a comic mystery—told by the “famous” detective’s harried wife—because the crazy premise pointed that way and because I enjoy writing funny stories. They’re a nice break from the grim stuff. You can check out the results in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine’s January/February double issue. And if you’re ever facing writer’s block, try the random detail remedy. I recommend trying it in Hawaii.
P.I.’s and fixers, burglars and soldiers all join together in our HOLIDAY DOUBLE ISSUE to send you the best wishes of the season! We visit winter locales past and present, chilly and tropical. Michael Nethercott takes readers back to the Fifties with a new tale featuring his Connecticut sleuths Lee Plunket and Mr. O’Nelligan, while S. J. Rozan sets her new series in Manhattan’s Chinatown with matriarch Yong-Yun. Brendan DuBois revisits a facet of rural New England life—kvetching at the town dump. Jay Carey’s Police Chief Eureka Kilburn deals with crime in a time of post global warming Sarasota, and Terence Faherty has an amusing take on Philo Vance that is set in Hawaii. In addition with we have a Mystery Classic treat: a suspenseful puzzler by Hugh Pentecost featuring hotel manager Pierre Chambrun—and you won’t want to miss Marvin Lachman’s insightful introduction for modern-day readers. Happy holidays from AHMM!
Doug Allyn is the author of novels including The Burning of Rachel Hayes and the forthcoming The Jukebox King, and a multiple winner of the Edgar Award for Best Short Story as well as the EQMM Readers Award. His last tale to appear in AHMM was “Message from the Morgue” (January/February 2015). Here, on the reflective occasion of our 60th anniversary, he talks about publishing his first short story “Final Rites” in the December 1985 issue—and winning the Robert L. Fish Award for it.
Some memories never fade. Your first kiss. First car. First serious love affair. (Not necessarily in that order, but often as not, I suspect.)
But for writers, the First that ranks right up there with the aforementioned big 3, is the First Story that doesn’t come limping home with a business card stapled to page one: Sorry, but your pathetic offering doesn’t measure up to our lofty standards, mwa-ha-ha-ha. (Or words to that effect.)
Instead, you get a brief letter of acceptance and a contract. And after the initial confusion, (what? No rejection card?) you realize you’ve actually made your First Sale.
Wow. What a freaking rush! A high equal to the best buzz sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll can offer, and I’m speaking from experience. (Well, okay, maybe not quite as good as sex. And Shanghai speed can be—but I digress.)
The rush of elation is, for most writers, geometrically intensified by the number of rejections we received prior to that First Acceptance.
And that truly is the feeling. Acceptance. Some far off, godlike editor in the Big Apple (in my case, Cathleen Jordan, of AHMM) was offering to publish my puny little story.
Remember the night Sally Field won her Oscar? “You like me,” she babbled. “You really like me.” And the world chuckled indulgently. And maybe her speech was inane, but it was from the heart, and a lot more moving than some vapid diva thanking everybody from Krishna to her pool boy.
That’s the feeling of a First Sale. Sally Field on Oscar night. A once-in-a-lifetime rush that has nothing to do with the numbers at the bottom of the contract.
My First Sale was a story called “Final Rites.” Often, I have no idea where stories come from, but “Final Rites”? That one’s easy. One of my son’s high school buddies had a summer job as a gravedigger. A tough kid, a football player, hardcore jock.
“What’s it like, digging graves?” I asked.
“It gets weird sometimes,” he said. “If I’m down in the hole, squaring it up, and the mist rolls in off the river . . . ? Whoah!” And the burly football player shivered.
And gave me a story. About a gravedigger, who shivered, when he was down in a hole.
I still remember that rush. Even now, a hundred-plus stories later, I get that same lift when I find a story that needs telling.
But for “Final Rites”? The amazing First Buzz was about to get even better.
A few months after the story appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Cathleen Jordan called to inform me that “Final Rites” had won the Robert L. Fish Award, for best first story.
I was stunned, overwhelmed, reduced to tears, right? Wrong. I had no idea what she was talking about. Literary awards? I grew up in northern Michigan where wealth is measured in wives, dogs, and rifles. (Just kidding. About the wives part.)
“If you’re serious about a writing career,” Cathleen said, “I strongly suggest that you come to New York to accept your award.”
“Do I have to wear a tie?” (I didn’t own one.)
“It’s black tie,” she said.
“I have to wear a black tie?”
“No, you putz, it is black tie. It’s the Edgars, the Oscars of the mystery world. It’s . . . New York! Formal dress, tuxes and evening gowns.” (Cathleen didn’t actually say ‘you putz’, she was far too refined. Bet she was thinking it, though.)
Without further ado, my wife and I were off to NYC, to party for a week, collect the award, (plus a check). And Cathleen was exactly right.
That first story, and the award it won, got my career up and running. In addition to meeting the staff at Dell Magazines (Cathleen, Eleanor Sullivan, et al, I acquired an agent, had lunch with Ruth Cavin, the legendary editor of St. Martin’s Press, who published my first five novels. (My eleventh, The Jukebox King, will be released by Stark House in February.)
All this, from a gravedigger’s shiver, and a first story Cathleen rescued from Dell’s towering slush pile.
Some memories never fade. Some debts can never be repaid. I will be forever grateful to the folks at Dell, for inviting me into this game, and letting me play.
And I’ll never forget Sally Field’s Oscar speech, either.
Because I know exactly how she felt.