Tag Archives: writing

“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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“Welcome To My Tribe” by Robert Lopresti

Novelist, short-story author, and nonfiction writer Robert Lopresti is a government information librarian at Western Washington University. He blogs at SleuthSayers, Little Big Crimes, and Today in Mystery History. Here he talks about the mystery-fiction community and writing his story “Nobody Gets Killed” from the current issue of AHMM.

Everybody needs a little help sometime.

My story, “Nobody Gets Killed,” which appears in the March/April issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, consists of just one scene: a confrontation between a cop and a driver on a country road.

It didn’t take long to write it, but after the first draft I got worried. I didn’t want my cop to do anything wrong—at least, except if I intended him to wrong, of course. And what do I know about police procedure?

Not much. So naturally I called the cops. Specifically, I called my friend David Dean, who is both a crime writer and the retired chief of a police department in New Jersey. He quickly read over the story and made one correction, which I was happy to accept.

Now the moral of this story is not that you should all send your short stories to David for free editing (I promised him I would say that). My point is that mystery writers help each other out.

You might not know that if your knowledge of us comes primarily from, well, mysteries. In those tales you frequently find writers plotting fiendishly against each other, with gossip and backstabbing—figurative or literal—galore. What fiends we all seem to be! (And, full disclosure, my “Shanks On Misdirection,” from Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine’s July/August 2009 issue, is about two crime writers being distinctly mean to each other.)

But I confess: It’s all make-believe. The truth is, we’re a pretty nice crowd. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard Newbie X tell how Best-selling Y went out of their way to help X up the ladder when there was no chance for reward. Not long ago a crime novelist connected me to her Hollywood agent because she thought my Greenfellas would make a good movie. A lot of paying forward, as they say.

When I hear about a new market for short stories I always pass the news on to my short fiction friends. I know they will do the same for me. And the best part of events like Bouchercon is swapping stories over a coffee or beer with your sibling scribblers, the only ones who really understand how it feels when a reviewer condemns you for not writing the book they wanted, instead of reviewing the one you did write.

Maybe we get all of our nasties out on the page and don’t feel the need to do it in real life. As I recall the late great Sue Grafton claimed she wrote her first mystery for the chance to kill off an ex-husband in it.

At the 1993 Edgars Banquet, when Donald E. Westlake was recognized as a Grand Master he got choked up and told the crowd “You’re my tribe!” I can’t put it better than that, and I’m proud to be a member.

I wish I could end on that note, but in the spirit of honesty I have to report that while this piece was gestating I heard from a female mystery writer that when she announced a piece of good news to a crowd of her peers one man said “Who did you have to have sex with to get that?” Except he didn’t say it nearly so politely.

I’m sure he would say he was joking, but come on. Does anyone not understand what underlies that kind of joke? And in the autumn of #MeToo could anyone claim it was an innocent mistake?

Which just proves, I suppose, that there are jerks in every tribe. And maybe they tend to be more visible to the women in the crowd than the men.

And that, oddly enough, brings me back to my story “Nobody Gets Killed,” which is about two strangers trying to negotiate a difficult situation, both hoping there are no jerks involved. If/when that happens to you, I wish you the best.

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“Something Old, Something New . . .” by John H. Dirckx

 

John H. Dirckx is the author of Dr. Thorndyke’s Dilemma (Aspen Press) and short fiction in AHMM, EQMM, and Woman’s World as well as nonfiction in the medical field. Today he talks about handling clues in mystery fiction, and in particular his short story “Go for the Juggler,” the latest in the series featuring Detective Sergeant Dollinger and Lieutenant Auburn, from the current issue of AHMM.

A detective story needs a crook, a crime, a sleuth, and one or more clues that enable the sleuth to pin the crime on the crook. Not all clues in mystery fiction, however, point to the identity of the criminal. Some merely help to establish a chronology of events, provide background details, or exonerate suspects. Others are blatant red herrings, designed to bewilder or mislead the detective for a while and, perhaps for a while longer, the reader.

But somewhere in every story there must be at least one piece of evidence that unerringly incriminates the guilty person by a rigorous and intellectually satisfying application of Aristotelian logic, thus ensuring a fitting sentence in a court of law. (Often overlooked or ignored in classic mysteries of the Golden Age was the difference between a damning clue, such as the ineluctable bloody thumbprint, and a mere hint or suggestion, such as the depth to which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day.)

Whence does the mystery writer garner clues that meet the requirements of both plausibility and evidential value? Often they turn up in the ongoing series of occurrences, mostly banal, that weave the fabric of daily life: the broken shoestring, the misread headline, the book put back on the wrong shelf in a moment of distraction.

In “Go for the Juggler,” Detective Auburn tumbles to the killer’s trick of insulating a car battery terminal with a plastic cap because he had once made the mistake of wiring up a new battery without removing the protective cap placed on the negative terminal by the manufacturer. That idea occurred to me because I once made the same mistake myself.

Auburn finds a cache of gold and jewelry by observing that the discoloration on the underside of a kitchen cabinet caused by rising heat doesn’t match the present location of the electric toaster. Over the years I’ve noticed several such discolorations while sprawled on various kitchen floors installing or repairing appliances.

Clues mustn’t be too conspicuous or too transparent—otherwise there is little or no mystery. The word kieselguhr has had an intriguing and exotic ring to my ears from the first time I heard it in a chemistry lecture decades ago. Kieselguhr may not be in your working vocabulary, but you can find out more about it than you could possibly want to know with a simple Internet search.

“Be not the first by whom the new are tried . . .” Sherlock Holmes and Sam Spade never heard of surveillance cameras, but they’re ubiquitous today, and they pop up often enough in crime fiction. In this story, taped video footage enables the detectives to identify the “juggler.”

“Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.” In the construction of the modern detective story, convention permits an occasional nod to the venerable past of the genre. For the piece of evidence that clinches the guilt of the killer in “Go for the Juggler,” I fell back on that hoary cliché, fingerprints found on articles used in the commission of the crime. Who says tradition isn’t what it used to be?

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On “The Chinese Dog Mystery” by James Lincoln Warren

James Lincoln Warren is a Black Orchid Novella Award winner and prolific author of series as well as standalone short stories. Here, he talks about his story “The Chinese Dog Mystery” from the current issue of AHMM.

In the cover comments I submitted with “The Chinese Dog Mystery” to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, I described the story as a love letter to P.G. Wodehouse, the inimitable creator of that dimwitted but kind-hearted scion of the British gentry, Bertie Wooster, and his towering genius of a valet, the formidable Jeeves, for both of whom time all but stopped in the 1920s, even if it was the 30s or the 40s or the 50s.

Wodehouse is one of those rare authors who makes me laugh out loud when I read silently along. He’s one of my literary heroes.

I have always wanted to follow in his footsteps, as we all want to do with our heroes, and so to do my own take on the Wooster/Jeeves paradigm. But there was, I thought, an insurmountable barrier to doing so: If a writer is truly inimitable, then by definition he is utterly impossible to imitate, let alone duplicate. Especially regarding style, that most defining characteristic of a great writer, and as almost all of the Jeeves catalogue is written in the first person from Bertie’s point of view, that style is inextricably Bertie’s, which is to say Wodehouse’s, very own.

But faint heart never won fair whatever.

The challenge was to find a suitable replacement voice to put in the mouth of my Bertie analog, E. Cowes Crambury, a.k.a. “Bennie”—to find a voice that would convey Bennie’s amusing idiocy without merely parroting Bertie’s, with his signature What-ho!s and I-mean-to-say-what?s and the like, which add so much to Wodehouse’s gentle humor.

How to proceed? And then, as through a glass darkly, I recognized that I had a slight, albeit very slight, advantage.

You see, Bertie, like Wodehouse, was an Englishman—but Bennie, like me, is thoroughly American.

Q: What do American twits sound like?

A: A lot like English twits, I suppose, twittishness being no respecter of national origins—but not in English English, as in, “Hail, Good Fellow; Well Met!” Rather, it ought to be in American English, as in, “Howdy, Pardner; Happy to Meetcha!”

A character’s voice comes from two sources: the character’s personality and his formative environment. In Bertie’s case, he’s a young English gentleman of independent means who’s at one with a Roaring 20s background. Where might I find something analogous on this side of the pond? I suppose it was an inspiration, because it came to me immediately without me even thinking about it.

I decided to make Bennie a young American trust fund baby of not-entirely savory antecedents, and with a Golden Age of Hollywood background—movie stars being the closest thing the U.S. has to an aristocracy.

Instead of using Bertie’s most whimsical jazz age expressions and English slang, I had Bennie talk mostly in an American vernacular, and threw in a bunch of 1940s American pop culture references that would be wholly out of place in London, but perfect for L.A.

And remaining true to my quest, I made sure that Bertie and Bennie are enough alike so that the Wodehouse touch is clearly detectible, especially as I included the required Wodehousean ingredients, including a Jeeves-type servant savant (a chauffeur, though, not a valet—this is Hollywood, remember) and a sensible, talented, pretty girl to keep Bennie completely confused.

And when it all came together, I knew I had it. It ain’t as fine as Wodehouse, of course it isn’t, it never could be. But my love for him is there, and that’s why I wrote it.

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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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