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“Writing with an Eye on the Supernatural” by Cheryl Skupa

Kansas-based author and English instructor Cheryl Skupa writes book reviews (Among Worlds) and poetry (Phoenix, Oklahoma Council of Teachers of English). Here she talks about writing with the supernatural in mind and about crafting her debut short story publication, “Ghost in the Nemaha County Courthouse” (from our current March/April 2019 issue).

I always perk up when I hear local folklore and superstitions, especially when told with relish by someone connected, however distantly (perhaps nebulously) to the people and places in the story. These little snippets of local history and tragedy have the deliciousness of gossip. Ghostly tales have the power to transform even the drabbest places on earth into something magical—and creepy!

“Ghost in the Nemaha County Courthouse” was born out of local stories and my penchant for driving out of my way, sometimes down gravel roads to visit small-town courthouses, little cemeteries, and old churches. The courthouse in my rural county and those in surrounding areas provided plenty of atmosphere—old clanking radiators, broom closets which were once jail rooms, fainting couches, shadows, dust, and the knowledge that many anguished people had passed through these halls over the years. Intensely personal tragedies and triumphs have been absorbed into the old ornate woodwork with the smell of the furniture polish.

The cleaning lady, Evelyn Eichman, was, of course, based on me. Who knew that all those hours working my way through college, pushing my cleaning cart down halls, sweeping, mopping, and dusting would somehow find its way into my writing? My least-favorite college job became the best writing fodder—but then, writers use everything; they are composters of experience! Thank you, fiction and AHMM, for sanctifying those lonely, boring experiences!

The only drawback of writing about ghosts was that humankind has been telling these stories since the beginning. For me as a writer to veer off into fresh territory, I needed to understand what was happening to my cleaning lady, Evelyn Eichman, as she experienced the visions of the white woman and her stained dress. That took some thought and time. I scoured the local small-town newspapers, especially the sections which recalled local events in history. I reread the account of my small town’s informal historian (a local school teacher.) I tried to recall old stories my grandma had told me, and cursed the gaps in my memory.

In the end, I did what writers do—told the story that I most loved to read. Ghost stories always remind us, not only of past sins, but also that death may not be the end, that insignificant people, places, and actions matter, and that tragedy, however devastating, may become immortal in the retelling!

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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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A Weekend at Crime Bake (by AHMM’s Editor Linda Landrigan)

I’ve just returned from a lovely weekend spent among mystery writers in Woburn, MA, at the New England Crime Bake convention. Sponsored by the New England chapters of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, the regional convention takes place every Veterans Day weekend.

Among the convention’s highlights were the friendly presences of Walter Mosley, the keynote speaker, and Kate Flora, recipient of the Lifetime Achievement award. Gayle Lynds, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and Hallie Ephron are a few of the luminaries of the genre on hand to teach master classes and share insights on writing, research, and publicity. But it’s the congenial atmosphere that made the mystery convention special. Here, unpublished writers and established authors are equal peers, supporting one another and always striving to hone their craft.

In fact, I got to be a panelist with Kate to discus short stories. There I met up with prolific Stephen Rogers and met Lorraine Nelson, both of whom have published in multiple genres. The panel was rounded out with Kate Flora, who in addition to her fiction and non-fiction writing, co-founded and edited Level Best Books, acclaimed publisher of short story anthologies. AH author Ruth McCarty moderated.

I was also asked to help facilitate a few of the roundtables where authors could read their pitches and query letters and receive constructive feedback before approaching the agents attending the convention. What impressed me were the new ideas and projects in the works and the quality of the writing I heard at my First Page roundtable and the Flashwords finalists readings.

While there, Susan Oleksiw recorded a reading of her story “Variable Winds” from our October 2016 issue for our podcast series.

Many thanks to co-chairs Edith Maxwell and Michele Dorsey and to agent & editor coordinator Ray Daniel for inviting me to the 2018 conference, and kudos to all the volunteers who made this convention a success.

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“Stagecoach Mary” by Leslie Budewitz

Leslie Budewitz is the author of the Spice Shop and Food Lovers’ Village mysteries. She was the first author to win Agatha Awards for both fiction and nonfiction (for Death al Dente and Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure). The fifth book in her Food Lovers’ Village mysteries, As the Christmas Cookie Crumbles, is out this week from Midnight Ink. Here she talks about the inspiration for her story “All God’s Sparrows” from the current issue of AHMM.

In “All God’s Sparrow’s” (AHMM May/Jume 2018), we meet Mary Fields, a historical figure also known as Stagecoach Mary and Black Mary. Born in slavery in Tennessee in 1832, Mary worked after the Civil War as a domestic servant in Ohio, where she met Ursuline Sister Amadeus Dunne.

In 1884, Amadeus—by then the Mother Superior—took a small group of nuns to St. Labre, in Montana Territory, to start a school. The next year, the Jesuits asked her to start a school serving Blackfeet Indian girls and white settlers’ daughters at St. Peter’s Mission near Cascade.

In 1885, Amadeus became ill with pneumonia, and Mary traveled west to nurse her. Amadeus recovered, and Mary remained to work at the Mission. Legend says she created more than a bit of trouble, and eventually, the bishop forced Amadeus to fire her. Amadeus helped her get the postal delivery route in Cascade, leading to the nickname “Stagecoach Mary.” Later, she became postmistress, the second woman and first black woman in the country to do so. She was known for her love of baseball, children, and flowers. Mary Fields died in Great Falls, Montana in 1914.

I’d long heard of Mary and wanted to write about her, but had no idea what kind of story I could tell. Though literate, she left no written record, although extensive archives at the state historical society and Ursuline Center document the mission and her life.

Writing in Montana 1889: Indians, Cowboys, and Miners in the Year of Statehood, historian Ken Egan, Jr., notes that racial and ethnic minorities played a greater role in territorial Montana than one might think from the monolithic appearance of the present-day state. The war displaced many people, white and black; the vast lands of the West beckoned.

But as statehood approached, pressures increased. Native peoples were forcibly moved onto reservations. National events, such as the Exclusion Act of 1882, devastated the Chinese community, which had grown up around railroad construction. The lands were harsh, and many early settlers moved on.

Mary stayed. Why? Clearly her bond with Amadeus was strong. But difficult as life here was, I think the West gave her a freedom she lacked in Ohio. In the last few years, I’ve fallen in love with historical mysteries. Finally, I realized, I’d found a format that would allow me to explore the life and times of this astonishing woman. I hope you enjoy taking the trip back in time with me.

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“A Twisty Path to Publication” by Dara Carr

Maryland writer Dara Carr is the author of the novel Angela Cray Gets Real, a Freddie Award finalist. Her short fiction can be found in Shotgun Honey and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Here she talks about the road to writing and publication of her clever and compelling story “Off-Off-Off Broadway,” from the current March/April issue.

The story, “Off-Off-Off Broadway,” was born in the wrong time and place. It began life as part of a disastrous first novel. Among this novel’s three hundred some pages of dreck, I retained a fondness for two characters, an ancient bulldog named Winston and a former beauty queen from Oklahoma. Not being prone to waste, I wondered if I might resurrect these two in a short story. And, just like that, an awful idea came to light, which I persisted with through many twists and turns.

The early junk novel had a photographer in it, as does the story, “Off-Off-Off Broadway.” But the novel’s photographer, a wiseacre with a bad attitude, wouldn’t join the story’s cast. I needed a different type of photographer, one who took up less oxygen, one who could bring a wry perspective to the unlikely drama the combustible former Miss Oklahoma would inevitably provoke.

This was how I started with two women and an elderly bulldog in a photography studio. The next obvious question: What could possibly go wrong? Determined to find out, I poked and prodded, exploring the possibilities for disaster. As I did so, the story became an odd but welcome mental escape from the terrible events unfolding in my personal life, where my mother was losing a battle against time and multiple illnesses.

Eventually, through a fog of grief, the story took shape. Hurrah! With the story finished, my focus returned to my job, another novel, and the bureaucracy of death.

Some while later, I realized the story still felt unresolved. At the same time, the sight lines through it were too clear. This was more koan than critique but nevertheless I set to work tinkering again. Once more, the story crystallized. Done.

Flash forward several months when, around bedtime, further changes to the story came to me. Bam! This was it, the fullest realization of the characters and plot. I couldn’t push the material any further. The end. Finally.

Unfortunately, the story was already in the submission queue at AHMM. After a quick investigation, I realized I couldn’t tiptoe into the system and quietly retract my story. I would have to issue a manufacturer’s recall. And I would have to do so knowing that writers, especially newer ones, were constantly being advised to never submit a piece until it was ready.

How do you know when a piece is ready? If the reader experiences twists and turns with a story, it’s quite possible the author experienced them as well, just earlier and in slower motion. In the case of my story, much slower motion.

After putting the final touches on the final version of the story, I reread it again with the distance of time. It struck me that every character in this story, my escape hatch from grief, was dealing with some form of loss. And thus, this piece had one last twist to offer up.

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“The Vegas Way” by Shauna Washington

Author and fashion consultant Shauna Washington’s first short-story case for Las Vegas stylist-sleuth Stacey Deshay appeared in the May 2012 issue of AHMM. Here she talks about the series’ Las Vegas setting and her story “Knockoffs,” from the current issue.

Well, I’d like to start on how I fell in the love with Las Vegas. It’s my hometown and over the decades it has changed both architecturally and culture-wise. It has many different monikers like Sin City, The Wedding Capital of the World, Adult Disneyland, City of Lights, but the name I recently heard on a returning flight home might be best: “Lost Wages.”

I like to think of Vegas as a glittery playground. There’s something for everyone, although everything isn’t for everybody. As a kid I loved the bright neon signs and lights. I didn’t frequent the casinos back then, and later found my way in the hospitality industry doing internships in everything from room reservations to cocktail service. I really loved the guest services. However, my first love is retail shopping.

I’m a fashionista. I’ve since become a personal shopper and styling consultant, working with all sorts of people: some famous and some not so famous locals, visitors, and Vegas socialites. Hence my amateur sleuth, Stacey Deshay, is too. Naturally, my stories are set in Las Vegas, but I try not to put them on the famous Las Vegas Strip. Like I said, Vegas is more than just that. There are some very cool places in the valley that I wanted write about. For instance, my first short story, “Fashioned for Murder,” was set in a gated bedroom community. Bad things can happen anywhere. Some of my other settings have been places I’ve visited such as McCarran Airport, the Neon Museum, and the skeletons of the Moulin Rouge nightclub, where Blacks performed in the segregated 1960s. Not all the places in my stories exist, though.

For “Knockoffs,” my short story in the March/April issue of AHMM, I created a fictional hotel on the Strip. I like to think of my stories as fashion mysteries, but there’s a mystery/detective element to them, too. You see, my grandfather was one of the first Black police officers in Las Vegas, and he rose to the rank of detective, so solving crimes in Vegas is sort of a family tradition.

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“One Last Job” by Michael Bracken

Fiction and nonfiction author Michael Bracken is the recipient of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s 2016 Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for lifetime achievement in crime fiction. He has also twice won the Derringer Award for short fiction. Here he talks about writing his story “The Mourning Man” from the current issue of AHMM.

Stories about a seasoned criminal’s “One Last Job”—a familiar trope in mystery fiction—often involve protagonists who desire retirement from their criminous careers. On occasion, “One Last Job” stories involve retired criminals roped back in through no desire of their own, and that is the structural framework for “The Mourning Man” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2018).

But that isn’t the story I planned to write. I planned to write a love story.

I have known several men of a certain age who find themselves lost after the death of their spouse. They haven’t shopped, cooked, cleaned, or done laundry in so many years that basic self-care eludes them. When I wrote the opening scene of “The Mourning Man,” I had all those men in mind, but I also remembered how I felt twenty-four years ago when my wife passed away after a protracted battle with cervical cancer and I found myself without sufficient savings to pay for her funeral.

I was lucky. Family stepped in. But what if Johnny Devlin—a cab driver who just lost the love of his life, the woman who convinced him to abandon crime when he was young and who kept him on the straight and narrow during the decades since—borrowed funeral money from a loan shark?

The question remained unanswered and the rough draft of my opening scene remained untouched until I read “Chronic Insecurity,” an article by William Wheeler in the July/August 2014 Playboy about the legal marijuana shops in Denver and the problems marijuana dispensers everywhere have banking their money. Wheeler quoted the owner of one dispensary who referred to a two-block stretch of Broadway in Denver that houses a dozen marijuana dispensaries as “Retard Row.” I thought those shops were ripe for robbery, and so does the loan shark who provides the money to bury Devlin’s wife.

Devlin finds himself torn between his debt, the promises he made to his dead wife, and the needs of his living friends and relatives. In the end, even though I used the tropes of the “One Last Job” story, I think I did write a love story because the decisions Devlin makes demonstrate his love for his wife, his friends, and his family.

 

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