“I Am a Genre Writer” (by Margaret Maron)

Margaret Maron’s achievements as a mystery and crime writer have been recognized by all of our field’s major organizations. She is a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, a recipient of the Malice Domestic Convention’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and the most recently named Lifetime Achievement Award winner for the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention. The many other honors her fiction has earned include the Edgar, Anthony, Agatha, and Macavity awards. Margaret began her writing career with short stories, and she has always continued to find time for the short form despite producing nearly three dozen critically acclaimed novels. Her most recent story for EQMM is May 2015’s “We on the Train!”; her most recent novel, Long Upon the Land, in the Judge Deborah Knott series, will be released by Grand Central Publishing this August. In the 1940s, when EQMM was launched, founding editor Frederic Dannay explained that one of his goals for the magazine was to show that the mystery was a genuine literary form. He’d have been pleased, I think, to feature Margaret Maron’s work, for it exemplifies the high literary standards that can be attained in the genre.—Janet Hutchings

I am a genre writer. I write murder mysteries. This means that I am often asked why I write mysteries instead of “literature”—as if one were slightly disreputable and the other stamped with the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

Why should that be? After all, doesn’t all fictional writing fall into one genre or another?

If you find a horse, dusty trails, and handguns, then it’s a “Western.” If there are bug-eyed aliens, space ships, or alternate universes, then it’s “Science Fiction.” If it’s witty, funny, and everyone goes shopping, then it’s “Chick Lit.” Ghosts and vampires and spooky woo-woo? “Supernatural” or “Paranormal.” Ghosts and spooky woo-woo and heroines running around in wispy nightgowns? “Gothic.”

Other genres are Romance, Fantasy, Historical . . . the breakdown into subsets goes on and on. Only if it doesn’t fall squarely in one of those easy categories is it called “Literature,” which is neither more nor less important than any other genre and usually co-opts aspects of the others. There is excellent writing in this category; there is also pretentious navel-gazing.

It’s the same for all fiction. Every subset has its classics that have stood the test of time as well as the duds that were remaindered two weeks after their pub date.

I myself have always loved mysteries. Things happen in them. Conflicts are presented and then resolved. There is a crime (usually a murder), there is someone to solve that crime, and, in the end, justice must seem to have been done. The guilty are not always punished, the innocent do not always triumph, but one usually closes a mystery novel feeling satisfied with the outcome.

“But isn’t that formulaic?” I am asked.

“No more formulaic than a sonnet,” I reply. The sonnet form, fourteen lines divided into an octave and a sestet, dates from the thirteenth century. Dante and Shakespeare wrote sonnets, so did Seamus Heaney, so does Billy Collins.

It’s what a writer does with a form that keeps it fresh.

Edna St. Vincent Millay said it perfectly in a sonnet that begins “I will put Chaos into fourteen lines.”

Chaos, then order.

I grew up reading Nancy Drew, but I also read all the classics of the Golden Age: Christie, Sayers, Rinehart, as well as Rex Stout, Erle Stanley Gardner, Charlotte Armstrong, and any other mysteries my mother borrowed from the bookmobile that came out to the farm every month. The first mystery I ever owned though was Home Sweet Homicide by Craig Rice, which Mother bought at a used-book sale when I was ten or eleven.

Dinah, April, and Archie Carstairs, aged 14, 12, and 10 respectively, are the children of Marian Carstairs, a pulp writer who churns out a new murder mystery every two or three months, much like Craig Rice herself. When the next-door neighbor is murdered and a handsome bachelor police lieutenant comes to question them, the smart-alecky kids immediately think he would make a great husband for their mother. So of course, they decide to solve the murder themselves and give her the credit.

I loved that book and reread it at least twice a year for the next four or five years. It took me that long to realize that I wasn’t rereading it for the scenes with the kids, but for the scenes with the mother, who spent most of the book up in her room, pounding away on her manual typewriter. The whole idea of being a writer seized my imagination.

When I first began to write, I read lots of how-to books and tried several different forms before I found my voice. The usual advice is to write what you know, but I had a horror of taking off my clothes in public, which immediately precluded the coming-of-age novel that is often a novelist’s first book. I did not want to cannibalize my childhood nor smear my parents and relatives nor exaggerate any hardships I might have experienced.

It is a terrible burden to want to write and realize you have nothing to say . . . at least nothing you want to say in public. Yet, nowhere in all those how-to books did I ever see “Write what you like to read.”

Eventually it dawned on me that the mystery form would best fit all my needs. Even if I had nothing profound to say, I could write a story and perhaps earn a living if enough people found it entertaining. Over the years, I have gone from thinking I had nothing to say to realizing that there is nothing I can not say in this form. And because mystery novels are perceived by and large as entertainment only, this means mystery writers can fly beneath the radar and slip in social commentary, political ideas, and maybe even a little educational propaganda.

My books are set here in my native North Carolina, which used to be rural and agrarian, where landowners could do what they liked with their land because of the sparse population. As our population soars, it’s been hard for some of my fellow citizens to realize that new rules and regulations aren’t all bad.

In Shooting at Loons, I let my Judge Deborah Knott ask her friend Chet why his coastal community doesn’t have zoning laws to protect homes from having a fish factory built next door:

Chet shook his head. “People here are so adamantly opposed to any kind of government interference that they won’t allow zoning of any kind.”

“That’s crazy,” Deborah said. “Zoning’s the only way a community can control growth and have a say in what’s built.”

“Well, why don’t you just run on over and tell them that if you get a few minutes off from court?” Chet said with asperity. “You think people haven’t tried? Every time the county planners try to hold a hearing on the subject and explain how zoning would protect us, they’re lucky to get away with their lives.”

Here in NC, where tobacco is slowly being phased out, some farmers would love to grow industrial hemp, so in Hard Row, I had Deborah ponder why they aren’t allowed to:

“Hemp is a wonderful source material of paper and cloth and our soil and climate would make it a perfect alternative to tobacco. If it had first been called the paper weed or something equally innocuous, North Carolina would be a huge producer. With a name like hemp, though, our legislators are scared to death to promote it even though you’d have to smoke a ton of the stuff to get a decent buzz.”

Only three sentences tucked in between arguments for raising ostriches or shiitake mushrooms, but if enough readers get used to the idea that not all hemp is created equal, farmers may eventually be allowed to raise the industrial variety.

This is why I don’t mind being dismissed as a “genre writer.” As long as my books are published and read, I’m going to keep writing them, no matter what they’re called.

I will put Chaos in fourteen lines . . .

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“Hold That Thought” (by Dandi Daley Mackall)

Dandi Daley Mackall is the author of more than 450 books, many of them for children and young adults. In 2012, she won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Young Adult Mystery for her novel The Silence of Murder (Random House/Knopf). Her most recent novel is The Secrets of Tree Taylor. Many will also know Dandi’s work through the TV dramatization of her novel My Boyfriends’ Dogs, the most-watched original Hallmark movie of 2014. The multitalented author will make her EQMM debut in our September/October double issue. In this post she talks about a vital source of inspiration for fiction writers. —Janet Hutchings

I steal. And I’m not alone here. Every author I know steals—from faces glimpsed on a city bus, to names heard at dusk when suburban moms call kids in to supper, to the smell of a dusty barn, sunlight slanting through cracks in just the right way to make the dust dance.

But my most fruitful thefts come when I steal from myself. I’m a firm believer in capturing our own powerful and emotionally-charged moments and holding onto them, only to pull them out and let them morph in our fiction. My best scenes, and I suspect this is true for most writers, contain appropriately disguised moments I’ve lived through, intense memories that are frozen in my mind.

Sometimes nations, and even the world, have things happen that people will remember for the rest of their lives. Anyone who was alive when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated can tell you exactly where they were, what they were wearing, and who else was in the room with them when they heard the news. For another generation, it’s the space shuttle explosion that’s frozen in memory, with all the emotions of that day. And for most of us, the vision of the World Trade Center disaster comes back to us with strong emotions and details that won’t fade.

We all have our own personal frozen moments too—the trepidation of the first day of school; that first kiss; first heartbreak, first child, first family death. And when we call up those moments, we get details that don’t go away like other memories. They’re frozen, which can be a good thing, or a bad thing. For a writer, those moments are gems, gold to be mined at just the right time, in exactly the right scene.

There are a lot of ways to create suspense, but for me, the most effective way is to re-create suspense stolen from my past. I’ve purloined my own panic, experienced on a back street in Krakow, Poland, during the communist era, when the Curtain was Iron and I was hopelessly lost, driving well past the city’s curfew, an illegal printing press on the floor of my unreliable Renault. I’ve also stolen the less grounded, but just as intense, feeling of panic when I was lost a few years ago driving through Cleveland with a sick child in the passenger seat.

For years when I did school visits and Young Author programs, I stressed the importance of being a good observer, both for personal safety and for sharpening descriptive skills necessary for good writing. Dramatically, I told the (true) story of the dreadful month when I was the victim of a stalker. I’d spotted a white pickup at several points on my daily jog and hadn’t thought much of it, though I could see a man sitting behind the wheel, watching. Then came the phone calls, the omnipresence of that infernal pickup, and the final confrontation, involving a police rescue and capture. Awful stuff—but wonderful frozen moments.

During a Q and A session with seventh graders, one student asked, “Have you ever used that story about the white pickup truck?” I hadn’t. But the following week, I brought the moment out of the freezer and wrote a scene into my novel The Silence of Murder. Since then, I’ve used that angst in a scene where the narrator believes something terrible has happened to her best friend. And I’ve thawed the moment again for another novel, when my main character says yes to a marriage proposal, then seriously reconsiders. Tapping into suspenseful frozen moments can take us most places we want to go in our fiction.

Sometimes, we don’t even realize we’ve tapped into a frozen moment and stolen from ourselves until it’s too late to take it back. In the first chapter of The Silence of Murder, a mother delivers a slap to her son, and the son never speaks again. I had no idea where that slap came from until the first time I did a pubic reading from the book. I was so overcome with the memory of an event I hadn’t consciously thought of in decades that I had to take a break before finishing the reading. When I was a freshman in college, one night I ventured to a little market for munchies. The place was deserted, except for a young mother and her perhaps two-year-old son, who sat in her shopping cart and made faces and noises. As I recall, I made faces at him too, when Mom wasn’t looking. Mostly, Mom was yelling, screaming at him to shut up. As I stared at the shelves, debating crackers or cookies, crackers or cookies, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the woman’s hand sweeping backward, then hauling off to slap her son. The sound of hard hand on soft cheek echoed in the aisle. Then that silence, the air sucked from the building before the cry. And what did I do?

Nothing. I took crackers and cookies, and I left. Even then, I knew I should have done something. Said something. Given her a dirty look. Something so she’d know she didn’t get away with it.

I don’t know if I even gave that moment a thought the next day, the next month, the following years. But it was there, frozen like a brand to my cerebral cortex. Waiting.

I have one last frozen moment that came to fruition when I received the cheerful message that my story would be included in an issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. I can picture a Thursday when my parents returned from shopping in Kansas City, about an hour from my small country town. I can see my dad’s grin when I, in fuzzy PJs, met him at the front door. It was the grin that told me he’d bought the latest issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and that it would be okay, even on a school night, for us to stay up and read.

And now, one more imagined frozen moment. A girl in a small town waits for the September/October issue of EQMM, sees my little story, and . . .

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“And Then There Was Why: The Mystery in Mystery Fiction” (by Tim L. Williams)

Tim L. Williams’s short stories began appearing in EQMM in 2005. A number of them have gone on to be nominated for, or to win, major awards in the field. In 2011 he received the International Thriller Award for his EQMM story “Half-Lives,” and he is currently nominated by that organization again for his 2014 EQMM story “The Last Wrestling Bear in West Kentucky.” His 2013 story “When That Morning Sun Goes Down” (EQMM, August 2013) was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best short story, and two of his earlier EQMM tales were nominated for the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus Award. It isn’t only in the mystery field that the Kentucky author’s work appears regularly, however. He is a contributor to many literary magazines and is a college professor as well as a writer. Last month, New Pulp Press brought out a collection of his stories called Skull Fragments (paperback and digital editions are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other stores). Booklist, in reviewing the collection, described the author’s style as “deceptively foursquare with a poetic power for all that. There’s literary achievement here.” In his second post for this site, Tim discusses an aspect of fiction that literary critics often fail to acknowledge the presence of in works from our genre.—Janet Hutchings

A couple of years ago, at a professional conference, I ran across a friend from my undergraduate days, a fellow English major with whom I’d shared a number of Lit and Creative Writing classes. Feeling nostalgic for those long-gone days when nothing seemed more important than Cormac McCarthy’s refusal to use quotation marks and whether or not Minimalism was a dead end or a much needed corrective for the extremes of the 1960s Experimentalists, we decided to ditch the evening session and hit a local bar. For a little while, it was fun. Then, when we were both nearing our limit, this old friend mentioned that he’d “seen” a couple of my detective stories.

“Don’t you feel silly writing that stuff?” he asked. “I’d feel foolish if I spent my days explaining that Colonel Mustard killed Professor Plum in the library with a lead pipe.”

I’d like to say that I made a rousing defense of the genre, one so eloquent it sent him running to stock up on Chandler and Thompson, Hammett and Highsmith, Reed Farrell Coleman and Daniel Woodrell. The truth is I was so shocked, I don’t remember exactly what I said. Whatever it was, we parted ways a few minutes later, and wherever he is now I wish him well. Overall, he seemed like a decent guy. He just didn’t realize that the mystery genre isn’t as simplistic, orderly, and buttoned-down as its most dismissive critics have always liked to pretend. He didn’t understand that the real mystery in a mystery or suspense tale is never truly solved.

Depending on the manner of telling—what Stephen King refers to in Danse Macabre as the method of attack—we may learn who committed a murder, how it was done, the circumstances that lead to it, the trials and tribulations of the victim, the perpetrator, or the investigator. We had certainly better know the “motive”—greed, revenge, hatred, resentment, perversity, etc. But in the best of mystery and suspense fiction, no matter whether it’s cozy, hardboiled, or noir, the fundamental question of why can’t be answered.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that violence in life or fiction lacks motive, but motive itself exists at the nexus of internal desire and external circumstance. The unanswerable “why” I’m speaking of is buried deep in our consciousness. One husband discovers his wife in bed with another man, checks into a hotel, and phones a lawyer. Another survives the shock, forgives his wife, and works to rebuild his marriage. A third reaches for a knife or a gun or a chopping ax and guarantees himself a spot on the evening news. All three had the same motive for killing a spouse, but only one did. This is the why that I’m speaking of, and it seems to have its roots in the mystery of personality.

Back in the mid nineties, my cousin woke on a July morning, made his wife and sons a rare weekday breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and biscuits and lingered at the table before pouring a Styrofoam cup of coffee, kissing his wife, and heading out the door. Ten or fifteen minutes later, he stopped at a convenience store, filled a five-gallon container with gasoline, and bought a package of Dolly Madison chocolate-covered doughnuts. On the outskirts of town, he turned onto a gravel road that dead-ended at a repossessed farm, polished off the doughnuts, lugged the five-gallon can fifty yards into an overgrown field, emptied the gasoline over his head, and struck a light.

It didn’t make sense. He was happily married, had two sons he loved, and was nearing the end of his nineteenth year in the Air Force. He had never seen combat and had never been diagnosed with depression. Neither he nor his wife was having an affair. He’d recently passed his yearly physical.

But of course there were problems. He had debt, but nothing that hinted at financial disaster. He’d been frustrated at his lack of promotion. As he neared the end of his service, he seemed uncertain about the future and what he might do. Only a couple of years earlier, his mother had died. His childhood hadn’t been easy. We could say that the “motive” for his suicide was a mixture of grief, professional frustration, and worry for a combination of personal and financial reasons. A particular set of external circumstances reacted with his internal landscape and resulted in a horrific suicide.

But that doesn’t really explain it all, does it? He was one of four boys, all close in age, who experienced the same childhood and had similar genetic dispositions. Financially, he was better off than his older and younger brother, if not quite as prosperous as the oldest of the boys. The circumstances of his life were not more traumatic than those of his siblings. One had served in Vietnam and another had lost his two-year-old son. None of the other three attempted suicide. In the end, my cousin’s actions remain a mystery. We know what happened; we know how it happened, and we have the sketchy details of the circumstances that contributed to his death—the “motive” if you will. But the why remains unanswered. For me it is this unanswerable question that is the engine that drives the mystery genre. No matter how tightly plotted or how lifelike the characters, that question cannot be answered. In fact the more well-rounded and well-developed the characters, the more we readers feel that paradox and understand that the real mystery at the heart of mystery must remain unsolved.

I was a late-life baby, and my father and my uncle grew up during the Great Depression in a coal-mining town that was depressed long before the market crashed. To make matters worse, their father died when my dad, the youngest of the boys, was eleven. It fell to my dad and his brother, Ed, only two years older, to scrounge for themselves, their widowed mother, and baby sister. They were rough kids. One day, walking home along the railroad track, they spotted a friend of theirs, a boy my dad’s age, coming towards them. My uncle pulled a slingshot from his back pocket, nudged my dad’s elbow, and said, “I’m going to shoot Hubert’s eye out.”

And then he did. In one nearly fluid motion, he picked up a cinder, fitted it, pulled, and let fly. He never forgave himself. When I was a teenager and he was in his mid sixties, he would say, “It troubles me. Hubert was a good boy. I didn’t have no reason to do that.”

Violence certainly doesn’t hold the patent on irrational or inexplicable behavior. What is more mysterious than romantic love, religious sentiment, the desire to create art? Violence, love, religion, art. We are talking, of course, about aspects of life that help define what it is to be human, and of course, human consciousness itself is a mystery. If not, philosophy, religion, materialism, and a few dozen other “isms” wouldn’t compete to offer the solution to that particular puzzle.

No matter how skillful the writer and no matter which “category” he or she works in, there always remains the mystery of the individual at the core of the mystery novel or tale—something Poe made clear in “The Tell-Tell Heart,” and “The Imp of the Perverse.” If Colonel Mustard killed Professor Plum in the library with a lead pipe because he discovered the good professor was sleeping his wife—there you go, “motive”—why didn’t Captain Mayonnaise stab Professor Pedantic for seducing his? What about Justice Wargrave, that forerunner of both Dexter and Jigsaw, and Lou Ford, the cliche-obsessed lawman who is the grandfather of so many of the colorful psychopaths in modern noir? We are given details, explanations, and believable “motivations” for their action. But there are millions of boys who, like Justice Wargrave, are born with a cruel streak and a perverse sense of justice who don’t gather criminals on an island and murder them off one by one. Sadly there are thousands of children who suffer the same abuse as Lou Ford yet rarely speak in cliches and never beat to death hookers, church ladies, and bums. And it isn’t always about the villains. Why exactly is it that Marlowe feels the need to be a knight errant? Why is he so willing to accept every beating that comes his way in pursuit of justice in an unjust world? Those questions are never truly answered, yet any reader knows immediately that Marlowe is alive and breathing and unforgettable when he or she opens a Raymond Chandler novel.

An important thing to keep in mind is that mystery fiction is fiction for a reason that goes beyond make-believe characters and circumstances. At its core, all good fiction recognizes and probes the mysteries of identity and human consciousness. Simply identifying the traits and circumstances that lead to violent or creative individuals is the province of journalism, psychology, and sociology. Most of the traditional, hardboiled, and noir writers I know want more than that. In fact, a number of them are former journalists. Former is the important word. If these friends were satisfied with writing about how Colonel Mustard killed Professor Plum in the library with a lead pipe, they would have never changed careers, because at its core, that is what journalism does. It reports the facts and the circumstances of external events. Fiction has another concern. Henry James called it capturing the quality of felt life, and felt life is always complex, always mysterious.

For me, fiction is fundamentally about the unknowable yet powerful mysteries of life, and crime fiction, with its emphasis on the violent and the extreme, provides a shortcut to those mysteries. Perhaps no other contemporary writer has probed those mysteries as deeply, as well, and as often as Joyce Carol Oates. In her most powerful stories and novels, Oates binds her perpetrators, her victims, and her readers in a web in which each strand of action, motivation, circumstance, and connection disappears into mystery and yet remains as true, if not “truer,” than the life we experience every day.

To answer my old friend’s question, I often feel foolish, but never when I’m reading or writing in the crime genre. Like I said earlier, I was shocked and probably inarticulate in my response. I wish that I had nodded wisely, scratched the beard I didn’t have at the time, and said,

“Sure Colonel Mustard killed Professor Plum. But why do you think he did it?”

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“RULE #1: PLEASE IGNORE ANY RULES FOUND BELOW” (by John Morgan Wilson)

John Morgan Wilson’s first novel, Simple Justice, which launched his Benjamin Justice series, won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel for its year of publication, 1996. Three other novels in the eight-book Justice series received Lambda Literary Awards. John also coauthored two whodunit novels with bandleader Peter Duchin. His first short story for EQMM appeared in 2003, and he has contributed half a dozen stories to our magazine since then. The latest, “Dial M for Marsha,” will appear towards the end of this year. Other stories by the West Hollywood author have appeared in AHMM and various anthologies. John’s versatility as a writer adds weight to the view he expresses in this post about rules and fiction-writing.—Janet Hutchings

In a world with no shortage of writers to tell you how it should be done, Ross Thomas was more inclined to let you find your own way.

I met him briefly in 1995, when he was making a rare public appearance through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, where I taught an occasional nonfiction class. At the time, I was working furiously on my first novel and figured some advice from Mr. Thomas wouldn’t hurt.

Why Ross Thomas? Among other honors, he’d been awarded two Edgars—for Best Novel (Briarpatch, 1984) and Best First Novel (The Cold War Swap, 1966)—and had about two dozen mysteries, thrillers, and spy novels in print. His assured voice, graceful style, and wicked wit distinguished his work from the more conventional. He was also a pro, through and through.

“He was always at the top of his game,” his friend Lawrence Block recalled a few years ago in Mystery Scene, “and never wrote a bad sentence or a lifeless page, never created an unengaging character.”

That evening at UCLA, he made two comments that especially resonated with me as someone who’d always tottered on a tightrope between insecurity and confidence.

Asked about the importance of talent in achieving success, he replied that all an aspiring writer needed was “the ability to write a simple declarative sentence,” implying that it was more about what one did with his or her talent that mattered—finding the imagination, discipline, perseverance and chutzpah to make a go of it.

Number two?

“Write what you want to write,” Ross Thomas said. “There are no rules, absolutely none.”

*

My mother, a high school English teacher, often stayed up late marking up her students’ papers with her fearsome red lead pencil, from which no spelling, punctuation, or grammatical error was safe.

She slashed away at my assignments as well, highlighting problem areas without specifying the actual mistakes, demanding that I correct and retype the papers before I went to bed, no matter how late the hour or how exhausted I was. She also made me take a typing class during summer school—summer school!—then repeat it in the second session until I could type forty words a minute, with minimal errors. (Commas always bedeviled me and still do, something a psychiatrist might explain.) I was never the brightest student, but I managed to turn in essays and reports that were orderly, grammatically correct, and dutifully dull.

I didn’t fully appreciate her dictates until I was nineteen, a college dropout at loose ends in the cultural tumult of the 1960s. Almost by chance, I got the opportunity to cover sports for my local newspaper, where the gruff but good-hearted sports editor seemed stunned that a wayward teenager could type, let alone produce clean copy.

With the appearance of my first byline, I knew I wanted to write for a living. But I also realized how much I had to learn—and unlearn. That started with breaking some of the rules my mother and other well-meaning English teachers had drilled into me.

My new lessons came quickly:

“Kid, this is what we call an inverted pyramid—most important facts at the top, descending in order, because we trim for space from the bottom.”

“Cut the fancy wordplay, get into your story fast.”

“I don’t mind a sentence fragment now and then, if it works.”

“Tighten it up, punch it up, give it some life.”

*

A few months later, I returned to college as a journalism major, paying my way by writing for small newspapers and magazines, which had their own mandates about form, style, and content.

I eventually added an English minor, enrolling in two short-fiction classes. One was unabashedly commercial in approach, taught by a prolific pulp writer who set down inviolable rules about what qualified as acceptable storytelling in a checklist of sixty-seven dos and don’ts. The other instructor, warmer and more supportive, encouraged us to read widely, explore creatively, and not restrict ourselves to any one type or category of writing.

I finished several stories in each class—all unpublished—and gleaned useful ideas from both. But it was in the second course that I felt like someone had opened the cage and let me fly.

*

My first novel, completed in ’95, took the form of a traditional mystery, but went against the grain in other ways. The protagonist, unapologetically gay, was angry and abrasive, and given to discursive rants and disturbing bouts of violence. The specter of AIDS and grief hung heavily over the story. The final chapter, rather than being shorter and propulsive, was the longest in the novel, with three characters sitting at a table, talking.

A close friend, an aspiring mystery writer herself, warned me that my novel would never appeal to mainstream tastes.

“You’ll never make any money from a book like that,” she said.

What surprised me was not her frankness, but that she assumed I’d written my first novel concerned with how much money it would make. Surely many writers do, which is fine, but that was barely on my radar. My novel was dark, impolite, and certainly flawed, but it was good enough to get me a multi-book deal with Doubleday, and a start as a published fiction writer.

More importantly, it was the novel I wanted to write—the novel I needed to write—not one designed to meet someone else’s expectations.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott put it this way: “Write as if your parents are dead.”

*

A decade or so ago, I found myself on a crime-writing panel with two determinably best-selling authors to my right and, on my left, two newbies who’d written critically praised first novels more in a literary vein.

The author on my immediate right, a promotional dynamo, was ticking off the requirements for a bestseller—likeable hero or heroine, arch villain, shocking twists and turns, breathless pace, justice always served in the end, etc. The words “should” and “must” issued forth like bullets from a Tommy gun in a Mickey Spillane hard-boiler.

When it came my turn to speak, I suggested that not all writers are wired to follow formulas, or consider bestseller lists to be the Holy Grail. We each write for different reasons, I said, finding our rewards in different ways. Nor does everyone measure success by sales figures, I added, though it’s always nice when one’s book finds readers and makes some money.

I also pointed out that it’s possible to succeed commercially without fitting neatly into a genre mold. As an example, I cited Patricia Highsmith and The Talented Mr. Ripley, an “inverted” mystery featuring a fascinating psychopath who gets away with murder in the end.

I could just as well have mentioned other authors who’d written crime fiction with an individualistic stamp, and done quite well: Josephine Tey, Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, Harper Lee, G.K. Chesterton, Ross Macdonald, Ruth Rendell, James Ellroy, Walter Mosley, Joyce Carol Oates, Joseph Wambaugh, Robert Bolaño, Jane Smiley, Jack Finney, Alice Sebold, Keigo Higashino, and countless more.

Oh, yes, and Ross Thomas.

*

By 2002, I was producing nearly a book a year, plus the occasional article and many hours of fact-based TV writing. I was making a living, but slipping badly into a creative rut.

So, thirty-five years after I wrote my first short story in college, I took a break and wrote another one.

Published in EQMM, it leaned heavily on L.A. noir tropes, and broke no new ground. But it was fun to write, and challenging, the compressed form demanding keen attention to every line, every word.

It was also liberating. When most of us sit down to write short fiction, there’s no contract, no deadline, no fiats about form, content, tone, type. Even in genre publications like EQMM or AHMM, which set certain boundaries regarding subject matter, the range of expression is remarkably broad. Since that breakthrough in EQMM, my short pieces there and elsewhere have ranged from light to dark, and some so personal and wrenching that I wept while writing them. Others were so offbeat for me they felt like an unexpected adventure in a strange land. That includes my latest for EQMM, a double murder mystery—or is it?—so deviously plotted that it took me weeks of revision to get it right.

That’s a lot of time to spend on a story of only a few thousand words.

Ah, but what a good time I had!

“Write what you want to write,” Ross Thomas said that night at UCLA, months before lung cancer ended his life when he was sixty-nine. “There are no rules, absolutely none.”

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“Roads and Wilderness: Two Novels by James M. Cain” (by Zoë Z. Dean)

Zoë Z. Dean (a pseudonym for Kentucky writer Lauren James) debuted in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in November 2014 with the story “Getaway Girl”—for which she has just won the Mystery Writers of America’s Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for best first short story by an American author. The award will be presented at the Edgar Allan Poe Awards banquet in New York City, on April 29th. A lifelong mystery fan, the author once tried to find work in a private investigator’s office. Her Fish Award-winning story has distinct noir aspects. In this post, she talks about one of the writers from that tradition who had an early influence on her. A spoiler alert is hardly necessary in discussion of such classic works of fiction, but we’ll give it anyway: Endings are discussed in the following piece.—Janet Hutchings

I first read The Postman Always Rings Twice when I was in high school, and it looked as unprepossessing as a book possibly could: It was a library copy, dog-eared and with a broken spine, and barely a hundred pages long. It didn’t take me long to realize that it was slim the way an icepick is slim: it’s all in what you do with it. The specifics of the plot barely registered with me on that first reading, simply because I was so distracted by the fug of sex, murder, and fate.

It has that same unchecked, down-and-dirty intensity for me as an adult. Part of this stems from Cain’s strange outsider status in literature: Chandler and Hammett have been integrated into the fold of the familiar, but Cain, with his criminal heroes and hardboiled housewives, stands outside of it. “Rip me like you did that night,” in Postman, is one of those lines that eludes familiarity, no matter how many times you’ve read it. There are terrific Cain films, but the stories themselves still contain those hard little glints of the unexpected, and, more importantly, they still bite. They won’t be herded, although for the purposes of this post I’ll gamely don some thick gloves and try.

Part of what makes Cain compelling to me is his almost operatic sense of fatalism. It’s embedded in the title of The Postman Always Rings Twice and it runs throughout the book. “Runs” is the right word, because what Cain returns to again and again is the idea of the road that leads its travelers inexorably—and hopelessly—onwards to their one sure destination. Cora thinks that by killing her husband, she and Frank are getting off a road that “don’t lead anywhere but to the hash house” of unskilled labor and no money; instead, they find themselves on the road to death, helpfully marked by the blatantly unlucky signpost of a cat fooling around near a ladder. When their first attempt goes wrong, they console themselves with a different road, one they could travel endlessly, “just a couple of tramps,” but it’s inevitable—that title again—that of course they’ll come back to the crime and, in fact, the road.

Frank and Cora, despite everything, have their virtues, and you can sense throughout that Cain knows it, that he appreciates their ability to know the worst in each other and to forgive it. On the one hand, The Postman Always Rings Twice is a sordid little tale of adultery and murder where the very cleverness of the plotting ultimately does itself in; on the other hand, it’s a tragedy of doomed lovers, awful but recognizable in their passion and selfishness. If the ending of the story was going to happen the moment they lay in bed together and plotted murder, the brief seaside lull before it, in which they dream of a new life, is a gift Cain gives them: the temporary avoidance of the end of the road.

Fate is less kind to Walter Huff and Phyllis Nirdlinger in the meaner-but-more-refined Double Indemnity, but there’s less to be kind about: They’re not in love and they don’t need the money. Their love scenes aren’t visceral connections but encroaches—“I was trembling like a leaf. She gave it a cold stare”—and mundane talk about whether or not he’s made the pleats in her blouse uneven. Walter isn’t as honest as Frank—he’s confessing to his boss, after all, not to a priest—but even he has to admit that he commits murder largely for the thrill of testing his wits against the system: “And then one night I think up a trick, and get to thinking I could crook the wheel myself if I could only put a plant out there to put down my bet.”

“Straight down the line,” he and Phyllis repeatedly promise each other. Back-to-back with Postman, you already know what this means.

But Cain stretches his muscles in Double Indemnity. He makes the characters colder and less sympathetic, and he makes their fate in some sense more deserved—all of this arguably a simplification of the panting complexities of Postman—but it’s what he does with that fate that is strangest, and another reason why his work is, despite acclaim and the decades past its publication, not “normal.”

In the (excellent) film version of Double Indemnity, Chandler’s screenplay sensibly enough simplifies a particular detail of Cain’s text: Lola, Phyllis’s stepdaughter, sees Phyllis trying out mourning clothes before her husband’s murder, a fact that would surely be suggestive to the insurance company eager to prove her culpability. It makes sense and has the ring of the kind of real-world slip-up that would lead to an arrest. In the book, though, Phyllis isn’t just trying on mourning and playing at grief, she’s also playing at death, “with some kind of foolish red silk thing on her, that looked like a shroud or something, with her face all smeared up with white powder and red lipstick, with a dagger in her hand.” She’s not a normal femme fatale, hiding evil inside silk, she’s hiding a very deep and poisonous insanity inside a calm, icy veneer. Her motives are suddenly questionable, even further divorced from the comprehensible: It’s not about freedom or even greed. It’s about her transformation into a supernatural embodiment of death.

I can’t stress this enough: This is strange. It isn’t typical of crime fiction, now or ever, to subsume its concerns of death and fate into this level of literalized weirdness, and it’s especially unusual for noir. Femme fatales are “supposed” to banter, dress well, and kill out of selfishness; they’re not supposed to choose dread, costumes, and cultic mystery.

In a way, Cain was almost writing revisionist noir even as he was helping to invent the genre and establish its canon. Double Indemnity seems to argue that all the traditional noir motives of greed and lust don’t matter. It deliberately evokes Postman throughout, both in its ostensible framework and in its language of roads, but as a companion work, it’s curiously inverted. These aren’t characters on a road they can never get off, however much they want to; they’re characters who, in some crucial sense, willfully choose the dead end, and even celebrate it.

This is what I mean about how difficult Cain is to contain or to count on: He writes one novel and then, with almost exactly the same plot, he writes its opposite. I’ve been quoting from the Everyman’s Library edition of his works, and next after Double Indemnity is Mildred Pierce, a crime novel with no real crime, about the construction of a chicken-and-waffle restaurant, a passionately unbalanced mother-daughter relationship, and the Depression. At the very least, you can’t accuse the man of having been in a rut.

Fame tends to reward consistency, and Cain was never consistent, but it’s in his skewed, close-in, constantly-shifting take on the darkness of the human heart that we perhaps come closest to understanding the bewildering—and sometimes beguiling—variety of that darkness. That quality his work has of having no safe ground to stand on strikes me as essential to noir, and these two books, taken together, go some way of showing why.

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“The Curious Case of the Novel in Stories” (by Art Taylor)

Art Taylor made his fiction debut nearly twenty years ago, in EQMM’s Department of First Stories, with the December 1995 story “Murder on the Orient Express,” but there was a long hiatus before he appeared again, and most of his work has appeared over the past decade. He has won an Agatha, a Macavity, and three Derringer Awards for his short fiction. Currently, two of his stories are finalists for this year’s Agatha Award. They are: “The Odds Are Against Us” (which can be read here), from EQMM‘s November 2014 issue, and “Premonition,” from the anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays. In September of this year, Art’s first book, On the Road With Del and Louise: A Novel in Stories, will be released by Henery Press. It belongs under the novel’s wide umbrella, but contains two short stories previously published in EQMM. In this post, the author, who teaches at George Mason University and reviews for the Washington Post, examines the literary structure and expressive possibilities of the “novel in stories.” —Janet Hutchings

Red Harvest remains my favorite of Dashiell Hammett’s books—both to read for pleasure and to teach in my courses on crime fiction at George Mason University. A corrupt community; secrets and lies; power struggles and power plays; moral quandaries and compromises—there’s a lot of stuff for students to dive into, a lot to discuss and explore.

It’s also a great book to analyze for style and structure, and at some point in our lessons, I always ask my students to consider the book’s shape against the classic ways we think about narrative: that old triangle of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution most of us learned at some point studying Shakespeare in high school. But the trouble with charting Red Harvest in that way is that you end up not with a triangle’s peak but with a mountain range. The case that draws the Op into the story—newspaper editor Donald Willsson’s summons and then his murder—is solved by the end of Chapter 7: the murderer revealed (our climax) and then a brief falling action and resolution with the murderer arrested, other suspects cleared, and the Op going out for “breakfast-and-lunch” and “a shave and hair-cut.” Case closed.

Trouble is, the book has twenty more chapters to go.

You can play the same exercise with the next section of Red Harvest—chapters 8-14—by the end of which the Op ferrets out the truth about the intertwined tales of a fixed fight, a dead boxer, and the suicide of the police chief’s brother two years before. Another case (or two) closed, more justice served, and the next day the Op sleeps till noon.

Only thirteen chapters left now.

The secret behind this odd structure can be found in the novel’s genesis. Before Knopf released Red Harvest in 1929, Black Mask magazine published a slightly different version of the saga in four installments between November 1927 and February 1928: “The Cleansing of Poisonville,” “Crime Wanted—Male or Female,” “Dynamite,” and “The 19th Murder.” In his fine biography Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett, Richard Layman describes Hammett’s early work on the book: “He organized his novel into discreet sections—fifteen thousand to eighteen thousand words each, and he considered it as four long, interconnected stories.” In his correspondence with Blanche (Mrs. Alfred A) Knopf, who bought the book, Hammett didn’t emphasize that they’d been published as stories; instead he said that the novel had already been “serialized”—a fine line maybe, but an interesting distinction, marking Hammett’s move from short-story master to landmark novelist.

Charting those narrative moves and peaks—overlaying the shape of the novel over the shapes of several short stories—always proves a fascinating exercise, and I don’t mean that solely in an academic way. As a short story writer myself, this kind of analysis of the shape and movement of plot provides an understanding of my own craft: the tactics and strategies and approaches that guide and inspire me.

To me, one of the most exciting trends in fiction today—hardly new but certainly still evolving—is the novel in stories and its not-too-distant kin, the flash novella or novella in flash. (You’ll sometimes see these phrases hyphenated: novel-in-stories, novella-in-flash. It’s personal preference here to skip the hyphens.) In each case, a longer work is built by the careful construction and arrangement of smaller components: a series of short stories or flash-fiction pieces coalescing to form something greater than the simple sum of its parts.

But defining what happens in that “coalescing” and what’s meant by “something greater” is the tricky part, of course. What differentiates a collection of short stories from a novel in stories? Is it just that all the stories need to feature the same characters? Is it that the stories have to be in chronological order, contributing to a larger plotline? Or maybe it’s something about a theme as the special connective glue?

A consistent cast of characters in a series of stories simply isn’t enough. We know that the twelve stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes don’t constitute a novel in the same way that The Hound of the Baskervilles does. Likewise, I just recently finished Rex Stout’s Three Witnesses, and while we get Wolfe and Archie in each of those three novellas—and while readers can find some resonance between the roles of the witnesses in each story—it doesn’t seem that the novellas interlink in any more organic or alchemical way.

While neither Hammett nor anyone else would call Red Harvest a novel in stories (for one thing, the phrase simply didn’t exist back then), the book’s origins serve as a rudimentary example for one of the most basic approaches to such a project: four short stories told by a single narrator, each with its own narrative arc, linked by chronology and characters, and serving as part of a larger, fuller narrative. But it would be limiting to say that a novel in stories requires tales to be so tightly connected chronologically or so relentlessly in the service of a single plotline. In fact, the beauty of the novel in stories or the flash novella lies in an author’s freedom not to be bound by chronology or perspective or relentless plotting and yet still to fashion something that proves cohesive to a reader in some complex way.

Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge—a baker’s dozen of stories loosely connected by the presence of the title character—offers a prime example. One of the stories, “A Different Road,” originally published in Tin House, was featured in the 2008 edition of Best American Mystery Stories, but the collection overall isn’t crime fiction, and the stories aren’t connected by any single plotline. Even more to the point, they’re not exclusively focused on the title character; though she steps to the forefront in some cases, she also takes a background role in others. And yet the intersection and juxtaposition of the stories offers both greater perspectives on and a more comprehensive understanding of the character and her world. A review in O: The Oprah Magazine called Olive “the axis around which these thirteen complex, relentlessly human narratives spin,” and the Washington Post’s review explained that “what you begin to realize, as these carefully crafted, individual pieces accumulate, is that together they shape the arc of a narrative, and that the narrative is nothing less than the whole of Olive Kitteridge’s life. A novel, yes, in stories.” (Tellingly, when I searched for the book in our own home, I found that my wife had shelved it in novels, not story collections—the place I first looked.)

Steve Weddle’s 2013 Country Hardball offers another fine example of a novel in stories, and its bold structure made it one of the most striking and successful debuts in my own memory. The storytelling is fragmented—individual stories jump to different times, different characters, different perspectives—so much so that it would be easy to call it simply a collection of stories loosely unified by place and a few recurring characters. But something more seems to be happening as the stories unfold.

In a recent email exchange, Steve talked more explicitly about the novel in stories as a form with rich possibilities: “To me, a novel in stories can be a great way to layer together narrative and character. A good novel in stories is one in which each story stands alone, but the stories create a larger narrative and inform each other when taken together.” Stories from Country Hardball can indeed be read in isolation from one another. The opening one, “Champion,” is a heartbreaker about a father and son and a confrontation that seems a triumph even when it’s not. “The Ravine” offers a two-person showdown taut with suspense, with only one person coming out the winner. “Purple Hulls” charts a tale of revenge and revelation amidst economic hardship and injustice. That’s just the first three stories, and I could go down the line, summarizing conflict and resolution for each, I imagine, right through until the final story, “Harvest.” The brilliance isn’t that this last story gathers together the loose plotlines and thematic threads for some final statement, but instead that the overall organization of these fragments offer a beautiful and unforgettable mosaic of both people and place (to borrow a metaphor from Madison Smartt Bell’s fine book Narrative Design).

Of course, not everyone is enamored of this form. In a 2011 essay in The Rumpus, “The Mysterious Case of the Novel-in-Stories,” novelist William Giraldi took to task the validity of this approach, particularly in terms of what he called “destination via narrative thread. Every story should rightly achieve its own destination, so a novel-in-stories ends up having several, whereas a novel can have only one.” Country Hardball offers a different perspective—and to me, a sharper one. Each of the stories standing alone can take you to its own destination, but together, this novel in stories also delivers you to a whole nother place.

I find myself excited and emboldened by these and other approaches. The May issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine includes my story “Commission,” the second outing for characters who first appeared in EQMM with 2010’s “Rearview Mirror,” and together, these and other stories will be published in September by Henery Press as my first book: On the Road with Del and Louise. I decided to return to Del and Louise simply because I liked them and was curious what happened to them next, but as I was writing “Commission,” I started imagining a series of other adventures they might stumble into and how those stories might unfold. I liked the idea of shifting tones from one to another (screwball comedy, tense domestic drama), varying the structures (some more straightforwardly dramatic, others folding in flashbacks to one of the character’s childhoods), or even playing with genre: a heist tale, a romance, a more traditional whodunit. But in a curious twist, I also realized that Del and Louise didn’t just have more stories in them—more crimes to commit, more conflicts to overcome—but that those individual stories could be part of a bigger story about a couple struggling (and sometimes failing) to make a fresh start, to make better choices and become better people, and to move toward building a family. When On the Road with Del and Louise comes out this fall, it’s going to have the phrase A Novel in Stories as its subtitle—really the only way I could tell their story as I envisioned it.

Mountain range, axis, mosaic—whatever the structure, maybe what sets a novel in stories apart from a collection of stories is some combination of intention and attention. You have to organize your stories not just in a workable order but with an eye toward a more significant overall design (character, plot, place, theme). You have to orchestrate carefully both the junctions and—perhaps more importantly—the disjunctions between your stories (shift in tone, perspective, internal structure). And even while you might have the aspirations of a novelist in mind, you also have to embrace fully the short story as a form of its own—its limitations, its challenges, its flexibility, and, yes, its many rewards.

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“A Break in the Order of Things: Coincidence in Fiction and in Life” by Steven Gore

Steven Gore is a former private detective who told EQMM he spent decades  “investigating murder, fraud, organized crime, corruption, and drug, sex and arms trafficking.”  He has been featured, for his investigative work, on 60 Minutes. The San Francisco Bay resident is equally distinguished as a fiction writer; he’s the author of six well-received novels, the most recent of which, Night Is the Hunter, was released by William Morrow last month. Publisher’s Weekly said of the book: “Gore not only puts a face on the difficulties of serving justice but also illustrates their immensity.” Steven is a newcomer to EQMM—his first story for us will appear in our August issue—but has already established himself in the realm of short fiction too, with a number of stories in our sister publication, AHMM. It’s hard to imagine that any writer could be in a better position than he is to compare real-life investigations to fictional ones.—Janet Hutchings

Readers of crime fiction are dismissive of coincidences: the chance meeting, the overheard scrap of conversation, the two plot lines that intersect halfway through a mistaken left turn. They are also disturbed and angered by them, because such devices seem to violate their experience of life, of the natural sequences of causes and effects, of actions and events, or at least the hope or faith in them and in their power to order the world.

Coincidence is, for readers, like chance is for the innocent victim caught in a crossfire between warring gangsters: The solid ground beneath their feet gives way. Life itself seems to have dissolved into a chaos of mere happenings and there are no answers to be found to the questions of why-then, why-there, and why-me.

For readers, coincidence and chance destroy their suspension of disbelief; for victims, their belief in a rational world. For readers, they are violations of the writer’s contract with them; for victims, they are quakes in the moral landscape.

To both, it feels unfair.

For investigators, on the other hand, coincidence itself can be the solid ground, but if and only if–like a high-wire walker ignoring the hundred foot drop–they don’t think about it too much.

How many crimes have been solved because a detective happened to have been assigned a similar case at the same time and noticed a pattern, or remembered the nickname of a victim from a case he handled years earlier that later provided a lead to a witness, or happened to have run through a building or down a side street while chasing a robber, scenes that would later suggest where evidence of a burglary might be hidden?

If it were not for these kinds of coincidences, many suspects, witnesses, and pieces of evidence would not be found and crimes would remain unsolved, perhaps even be unsolvable. Except investigators call it experience or street knowledge, not chance and coincidence.

And even though there might not be a why to it, coincidence is sometimes that upon which fairness, even justice, depends.

Rather than explanations, here are two examples from my career as a private investigator:

Shortly after I opened my private practice, I was contacted by a criminal defense attorney whose client had been arrested for aggravated mayhem. The victim had been badly beaten and lost part of his ear and underwent hundreds of stitches to repair his torn and slashed skin. The client, like the other three men arrested, denied that he was involved or even present. If convicted, under California law the client faced a mandatory sentence of life in prison.

The police report said the victim and two women had walked out of a bar and gotten into an argument with four men. The men then assaulted the victim and fled. Police located four men in a parking lot a mile away and detained them. The women were brought to the scene and identified all of them.

The client, held in the county jail without bail, told me he happened to be in the parking lot when four men drove up. He knew two of them and they began talking. One of the four walked off the lot and into the neighborhood. The police drove up, detained the four remaining men and brought the women to the scene. The client assumed he’d be released right then. He wasn’t.

Since the three others were claiming innocence, they refused to tell the client who the fourth man was, both because they were afraid he might cut a deal and inform on them and because they were afraid he might take revenge on them for informing on him. However, one afternoon in the jail exercise yard the client overheard the three talking and learned that the fourth man was nicknamed Boo, that he was a drug dealer, that he was about five years out of high school, and that his mother, name unknown, used to live in a pink apartment building on a wide street in Richmond, California.

I was faced with a number of problems: I didn’t know whether the client was telling me the truth about the event. I didn’t know whether he was telling me the truth about what he claimed to have overheard. I didn’t know whether Boo actually existed and, if so, had really been involved in the crime. And assuming everything the client told me was true, not only were there Boos by the dozen in Richmond, there were dozens of pinkish apartment buildings on the many wide streets in the city’s fifty-two square miles–larger than San Francisco. Moreover, there are many of shades of pink and too often what is described as pink turns out to be a shade of red or brown. Beyond that, even if I found the right building, I needed to find someone who knew Boo’s mother, which meant they’d also have to know her son’s nickname was Boo.

What were the chances of that?

Even as I sat in the interviewing room at the jail with the client I recalled that two months earlier, when I was still working for the county, I had been to a pink apartment on a wide street in Richmond looking for a witness. I drove straight out there and spotted a woman sitting on the steps and drinking a beer. I walked up to her, identified myself, and said, “I’m trying to get ahold of Boo’s mother.”

And she said: “Mary moved away about two weeks ago.”

No reader of fiction is going to believe it.

And something almost as coincidental: I later found she had gotten a traffic ticket in Oakland a few days earlier and the citation showed her new address.

Over the next few days I drove by that address until I spotted someone out front who matched Boo’s description. He was standing with some men about his own age and selling drugs over the low front fence.

I showed up the next morning, hoping to catch him still a little groggy and before his crime partners showed up. A woman who identified herself as his mother opened the door. The fear in her eyes suggested that Boo might be the one. I say “might” because it was likely she knew that Boo had been involved in other crimes and that someone, sometime would be coming for Boo. She stepped back and let me in and said, “I’ll go wake him up.”

I sat him down at the dining-room table, set out my recorder, and the story came out. (The various and contradictory reasons people talk to investigators and confess to crimes is a topic for another time.) He not only admitted to his part and cleared the client, but implicated the other three in a hit by hit, punch by punch, slash by slash account of who did what.

As I was leaving, his mother asked me what would happen next. I told her the truth: that the client would be released and her son would be arrested. I didn’t tell her he would be held without bail and she would not see him outside of a prison visiting room for the rest of her life.

Another example:

I was working on a case in Thailand. I had about a dozen people to locate and interview. The final one was evading me. Thanom was a real-estate developer educated in business administration in the U.S. and, of interest to me, a money launderer. I’d go to his office and be told he was at home. I’d go to his home and be told that he was at his office. I then started having people watch both those places. I tried the country club to which he belonged and the restaurants he frequented. I even tried to use intermediaries to set up a meeting under any conditions he wanted: public, private, even outside of Thailand.

But he knew he could wait me out. I couldn’t stay in Thailand forever.

As I was nearing the end of the two weeks I was in the country, I met an associate of my client for lunch at my hotel. We were sitting at a table in the coffee shop next to a bank of windows facing the swimming pool and trying to figure out how to snag him. After a few minutes, the associate looked over my shoulder and said:

“Thanom is right behind you.”

What were the chances of that?

A city of six and a half million people and he’s sitting two feet away.

Again, no fiction reader is going to believe it.

I got up and slid onto the chair next to him and blocked him in against the window.

Though a coincidence, it is actually, but only slightly, more probable than one might think. One of the reasons I chose that hotel was because it had an international business clientele and I would be less obvious in a crowd than otherwise, and the coffee shop was a favorite lunch stop for members of the Thai commercial and political class. That people like Thanom would show up there was inevitable, that Thanom himself would show was still unlikely, too unlikely to keep the faith of a reader.

It was a very short interview and I found out what I needed to know.

Six hours later I was high in the air, halfway to Hong Kong, and not looking down.

Posted in Characters, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Police Procedurals, Private Eye, Readers, Story, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A FEW REFLECTIONS ABOUT SUSPENSE

A few days ago I received an e-mail from one of EQMM’s Passport to Crime translators, Josh Pachter. It contained a detailed synopsis of a story he proposed translating for us, but in the few lines of the e-mail preceding the synopsis, he commented that the story had “a twist ending I did not see coming.” As soon as I saw those words, I wrote back to Josh saying to go ahead, but that I would not be reading his synopsis. I didn’t want my pleasure spoiled. I wanted to be surprised too. In such cases, it is not, I think, the surprise itself that gives a reader pleasure so much as the suspense leading up to the surprise—like a present that has yet to be opened. And the more one comes to expect the unexpected from a writer, the more pleasure one will find, it seems to me, in all the ground-laying that leads up to those spectacular twists. (Conversely, of course, a writer with a reputation for such skillful sleight of hand can lose a following quickly if after holding readers on the edges of their seats for many pages, he or she fails to deliver an arresting turn of events.)

Suspense does not necessarily go hand in hand with the expectation of being surprised, however; it doesn’t even always depend upon not knowing what is likely to happen. Sometimes it is precisely the fact that the reader knows what may be about to happen while the characters do not that creates a story’s tension. Think of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous example of a bomb set under a table at which people are playing cards. The way to create suspense, he said, is to show the bomb and show the oblivious people, draw out that moment. “There is no terror in the bang,” he said, “only in the anticipation of it.”

I’m the sort of reader who really doesn’t like to know how a story turns out before I begin it; I even mute the previews of movies and TV shows, thinking they give away too much. But there are a lot of readers—I’m sure everyone knows someone like this—who skip to the end of a story or book before going back to read it through. I used to think of foreknowledge of the ending as fatal to enjoyment of stories billed as Suspense, but the more I’ve reflected on this, the more I see it isn’t necessarily so, even in my own case. How many times can someone watch the movie Psycho and still be on edge when Marion (Janet Leigh) walks into the bathroom to take her shower? Judging by the number of times that movie—and that scene in particular—get re-watched, I think you’d have to say a lot.

Why is it that even once we know what happens in that shower, or know whether Hitchcock’s bomb goes off, we can go back and re-experience the suspense of the previously unknown outcome? I think part of the answer may be that even though the mind jumps ahead to what’s already known, when we’re in the hands of a skilled writer or director, our emotions don’t. To respond emotionally when we see (or are made to envision) something devastating likely to happen to a sympathetic character is surely natural—it’s just instinctive. And it’s the suspense writer’s (or director’s) job to create a moment so real that we respond despite ourselves. In the shower scene in Psycho, Hitchcock achieves that partly with sensory detail. When Janet Leigh goes into the bathroom we hear as well as see the toilet flush, the water draining, the sound of the paper wrapper being torn off the soap, the spray of the shower water. By the time she turns her face up to the water, you can almost feel it.

In suspense fiction there’s an implicit contract most readers depend on the writer upholding: that at least some of the sympathetic characters will come out of their ordeal all right. (And is that so different from the reassurance some readers seek by turning to the final pages of a story first?) The fact that readers care about the fate of at least some of a story’s characters makes the building of suspense possible in the first place. Writers of suspense would have a hard job if readers approached their work with such trepidation that they were predisposed to maintain a self-protective emotional distance from all characters. It seems to me, therefore, that maintaining a high level of suspense often involves striking a delicate balance between what the reader can depend upon and what the reader cannot.

My refusal to read the synopsis Josh Pachter sent me last week may appear a dereliction of duty—after all, there is a chance I won’t like the story. And in fact, I generally require synopses of stories that are to be translated—and read them. But once in a while it’s necessary, I think, for those of us at the editorial end of this business to experience, simply as readers, the pleasure we’re trying to provide for our audience.—Janet Hutchings

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“Preparing for the Audience” (by Michael Haskins)

A former journalist, Michael Haskins began his fiction-writing career in the pages of EQMM’s 2007 March/April double issue, with the Department of First Stories tale “Murder in Key West.” The central character of that story, Key West journalist Mick Murphy, was soon to star in the author’s first novel. He has since reappeared in eight more books, including one to be released March first, entitled Mick Murphy’s Law. He was also featured in the Shamus-nominated story “Vampire Slayer Murdered in Key West” (EQMM September/October 2011) and in the story “Hemingway’s Typewriter,” in this year’s January issue. The author has created in Mick a character with many parallels to himself. Both know the Florida Keys well; it has been Michael’s home for over a decade, and in addition to having served as information officer for the city of Key West, Michael recently became one of the organizers of the Mystery Writers Key West Fest. In such roles, he’s had to learn how to meet the public, and he shares some of his insights on public speaking here.  —Janet Hutchings

I’ve been asked to speak to the Friends of the Library in Marathon, one of the islands that make up the Florida Keys this month. It’s a great opportunity for a writer. Most of us are homebound, as we write alone, and some even shy when it comes to speaking in public.

Today, as the publishing world changes and the writer’s role expands, we must be willing and able to meet the public and entertain them with stories and backgrounds of our characters and ourselves.

Most of the audiences I’ve encountered consider my books, the characters in them, and me to be one. If they walk away bored, they won’t buy your book. If you’re able to entertain the audience with anecdotes that make them feel they’ve gotten an insight into you, your book, and your characters, they are more likely to buy and enjoy your book.

A little humor goes a long way in relaxing those listening, and it doesn’t hurt the writer to see people laughing with him or her instead of at. The humor should be personal. I like to work in an ex-wife story about using some of the ex’s uniqueness in one or more of my characters. Mentioning how upset she’d be knowing that she helped me create a character that’s loved/hated usually gets a laugh from the guys in the audience and snickers from the women.

The audience is there to listen and ask questions, so ask them questions too. Ask for a raise of hands of those who read fiction and then nonfiction, and you can always ask who’s there because they tagged along with someone. Get those people listening and you’ve captured the whole audience. Thank those who got dragged along for not falling asleep when you’re done. If you get a laugh, you’ve done well.

Set the scene with humor and the audience likes you. They not only like you, but many of the faces staring back at you will want to be you. Of course, by you I mean a writer. I often tell my son when he complains about the “trolley” full of tourists slowing traffic in Key West, that those people envy you, want to be you because they think that you live in paradise.

It’s not much different from how the public sees writers. One book or ten books, a writer is a writer and the public has its expectations. If they only knew the reality of a writer’s life!

How do you make it easy to stand in front of people at a book signing or a library gathering? If you have a simple answer, please let me know. It’s work, and today a necessary part of being a writer.

I have learned from standing in front of an audience wishing I’d checked to see if I spilt something on my shirt at lunch some things I’d call universal.

First, eat lunch afterward!

Second, there are stock questions you can expect and plan for. Have that humor set aside and waiting as soon as the question is asked.

This happens to every writer, I don’t care who you are. You’re at a party, a book signing, or library talk, someone is going to tell you they have a great idea for a story, but not the time to write it, so how about teaming up. Be gentle, be kind, but remind them that if they write one page a day for a year, they’ll have a 365 page book. One page!

But there are fun questions too! Here are some I seem to be asked at talks and book signings, and my answers.

Q: What made you want to be a writer? A: Murdering my ex-wife (women writers, feel free to change this to ex-husband) would get me jail time, as a writer I can kill her/him repeatedly and get paid for it. Smile as you say this.

Q: Where do you get your ideas? (It’s always good to tell the public occasionally “That’s a good questions.”) A: I get ideas from the short sidebar newspaper articles I read. They’re usually about the unusual and often go along with the “what if” theory of writing. Most people miss these stories, so when your book or short story is published, people wonder how you got that idea.

Q: What’s your writing schedule like? A: My answer today is different from what it was when I also worked at a steady job. I mention how I used to be up at 5 A.M. and write for an hour or two and then go to work. Today, I tell them, it’s up at 6 A.M. and I’m at work; I write longer because I am working at home.

Q: What’s your writing day like? A: I always begin with something about how what works for one may not work for another, so try to find the time/place/system that works for you. Me, I tell them, I write daily—Monday through Friday—and those days writing are more than sitting at the laptop. Writers write themselves into dead-end corridors all the time. Our characters take on a life of their own and don’t care what we had planned for them. How do I handle it? I wander around the house, talking (arguing) with my imaginary friends. I live in a stilt house (eight feet above the flood level is the law in the Florida Keys) so I often go downstairs, under the house that we’ve set up as another room for entertaining, maybe smoke a cigar and think. My wife calls it goofing off, but to my imaginary friends and me it’s as much a part of my writing process as the keyboard and editing. Giving a little personal information can endear you to your audience and they walk away thinking of you as a friend.

You have to find your comfort zone when meeting the public. You are serious about writing but you see the humor in your life. I found that the audience wants to find a similarity between us. They want to relate, and you should help them with your anecdotes.

Prepare. List items you want to talk about on an index card. Rehearse your talk, your humor in front of a mirror, with your significant other (I avoid my children, they are much too scary as an audience). Know what you want to say, in general. Choose a short chapter from your book to read and then go to the Q&A and have fun. If there’s a back story to the chapter you’ve read, give it to them before the Q&A. It’s another personal touch the audience takes home with them. If you are enjoying your time with them, they will enjoy their time with you.

What’s that get you? A good afternoon or evening, a growing fan base of readers, and you’ll be a little more relaxed the next time you get to stand up and introduce yourself. Lunch or dinner can follow as a celebration ritual.

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“Murder Most Entertaining” (by Lucy Ribchester)

Although she has had a number of stories in other periodicals, Edinburgh native Lucy Ribchester makes her EQMM debut in our March/April 2015 issue (currently on sale). Earlier this year, her first novel, The Hourglass Factory (Simon & Schuster, U.K.) was released to critical praise. The book is set in London in 1912, at the time of the suffragette movement, and it’s in the classical tradition she discusses here. —Janet Hutchings 

When I first heard the phrase “cosy crime” I thought it sounded like an oxymoron. No matter how twee the community in which the crime is committed, from St. Mary Mead to Midsomer, surely murder is murder. There is nothing innocuous or cockle-warming about being stabbed, strangled, or poisoned to a painful death.

Nevertheless it’s a subgenre that continues to enchant us the world over—upstanding, tea-drinking, God-fearing communities with all sorts of sinister secrets at their hearts, leading to violent demises of vicars and grand dames. Whatever it is about it there is no doubt we want to read about murder in a light, safe and entertaining way. When I sat down to write my first novel, The Hourglass Factory, although I didn’t necessarily want to write something too cosy, I was suddenly faced with the dilemma that must confront every crime writer from hardboiled P.I. creators to psychological chroniclers: How (and why) do you transform something as abhorrent as murder into entertainment?

Ignoring the argument that crime fiction puts an important squeeze on its fictional societies, forcing them to reveal their fault lines and true colours (because while I do believe that is true of many writers, that isn’t my goal when I sit down to write), there is the plain and simple problem of describing death in a way that keeps the reader hooked, while showing enough respect for the victim. How do you judge how much empathy we should have for them? How to judge the correct amount of horror to sit between thrilling writing and salaciousness?

I found that precedent helped. When trying to emulate your heroes you don’t stop to think too much about why they made their decisions—just paying attention to the tone of their descriptions and how they use murder in their plots is enough at first, like a sketcher trying to trace the shape of an existing drawing. Agatha Christie described her books as “puzzles,” Dan Brown has called his “treasure hunts.” Seeing the murders for their functionality in fiction rather than for the devastation of their real-life counterparts helps to create distance from the horror of what you are setting out to do.

Christie also was a master at choosing an odious victim—someone the reader is invited to hate (along with everyone else in the book). Brown’s and Jed Rubenfeld’s murders tend to happen to peripheral characters we don’t get to know very well. If the murder of someone we dislike or have not invested much in serves to take us on a symbolic journey that brings the world’s forces back into alignment by the end, then they have served as a sort of stand-in sacrificial lamb in the land of the book.

But when it comes to description, having a horror for what you are writing probably helps. Assuming your reader is a reasonable human being, there shouldn’t be the need to spoon-feed to them that what they are reading is repugnant. Christie favoured blood-lite deaths; poisoned darts, lethal injections, single gunshot wounds from small pistols. John Dickson Carr and Conan Doyle focussed on the intricacy and ingenuity of the deaths to draw attention away from their violence. But in novels where gore takes the fore, such as Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter books, the author depends on our repugnance—plays to it in fact—to take us to the edge of our terror thresholds, the very limits of our tolerance.

But although that sorts out some of the how, there is still the why. Why is crime fiction entertaining? I’m still not quite sure, but I know that as a reader, film-lover, and writer I’m glad it exists. I’ve always hated rollercoasters. The idea of being plunged upside down or thrown around, disorientated, discombobulated, hurt and dizzied has never held much appeal for me. Yet still theme parks continue to be a staple family pastime: a symbol of wholesome fun. Despite the discomfort of the ride it takes us out of everyday sensations, allows us for a few minutes to feel something extraordinary. Similarly crime fiction allows us to peep behind the curtain of things not usually seen or discussed, aspects of life that hopefully most of us will never confront in the real world—but which still exist.

Hitchcock once said that he was a very easily frightened person, and this he described as his “good luck in life. I’m fortunate to be a coward, to have a low threshold of fear, because a hero couldn’t make a good suspense film.” He advocated turning this fear outward, perhaps recognising how much he enjoyed being frightened: “You should make the audience suffer as much as possible.”

Perhaps at the end of the day entertainment isn’t always meant to be pleasant or pleasurable. We want to stretch the peripheries of the body and mind in all directions, not just the happy ones.

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