“How Characters I Know Affect What I Write” by (Terrie Farley Moran)

Terrie Farley Moran began her fiction-writing career with short stories, and her 2015 Agatha-nominated story for EQMM, “A Killing at the Beausoleil” is a prequel to her Read ’Em and Eat novels. The first book in that series, Well Read, Then Dead, won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel in 2014, and it has been followed by two more books, Caught Read-Handed and Read to Death. In this new post she talks about some of the differences between writing short stories and novels.—Janet Hutchings

I always brag that I received my first subscription to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine from a generous aunt when I was fourteen years old. And so I have enjoyed every issue over the many (MANY!) years since.

It was the absolute perfect gift for a young girl who loved to read mysteries and eventually my love of reading mystery stories led to my desire to write them. So with many starts and stops I began writing. First, a novel that was never published and then a short story followed by another and another and eventually, the stories were published here and there. Finally I bit the bullet and submitted a story to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The story was “Fontaine House” and it was published in the August 2012 issue.

I love the variety of the stories I read in every issue of EQMM, so it is not surprising that the short stories I write wander all over the mystery genre: a paranormal mystery here, a noir tale there, a revenge tale or two.

Well I kept writing. More short stories, another novel, and one fine day my agent sold the cozy Read ’Em and Eat series to Berkley Prime Crime. When the first novel in the series, Well Read, Then Dead hit book shelves everywhere, I started to hear from readers. Variations of the same question came up more than a time or two. “What happened when Sassy and Bridgy moved from Brooklyn to Fort Myers Beach?” “How did their beach life begin before they opened the Read ’Em and Eat Café and Bookstore?”

And there were a number of folks who were insistent that the Read ’Em and Eat series deserved a prequel short story. Now on the face of it, that sounded like a genius idea. I love writing short stories. BUT, in all my short stories I have never used the same characters in more than one story. I have found characters I loved, gave them the best story I could think of and then I left them in that story forever.

With a prequel I was trying to write a short story with characters I actually knew; characters who were familiar. I am still fascinated that it was such a struggle for me to write the story that ultimately became “A Killing at the Beausoleil.” I do realize that in my short fiction I love discovering how a character is going to respond to a situation because I never met her before. But I had already written two novels with the same protagonist and sidekick; I knew their personalities and probable responses and that changed the dynamic of writing the story.

Still, I admit, I have always envied the short-story writers among us who can write a series of stories using the same main characters. Our beloved Ed Hoch charmed us with story after story about his series characters: Nick Velvet, Captain Leopold, Ben Snow, Michael Vlado and many others including my very favorite Dr. Sam Hawthorne. Perhaps now that I have used repeat characters in one short story, I can do it again. Hmm, I wonder who I’d like to revisit next.

Posted in Books, Characters, Fiction, Guest, Story, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

“The Magical Mystery Book Tour” (by Jenny Milchman)

Jenny Milchman’s first professional publication was in EQMMs Department of First Stories in November 2012, just months before her first novel, Cover of Snow, was released by Ballantine Books; the book received its year’s Mary Higgins Clark Award. Two more books, Ruin Falls and As Night Falls, soon followed, with As Night Falls winning Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion Award in 2016.  Jenny had been active in the literary community long before her own work saw print. She is the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, which is now celebrated by more than 700 bookstores. As you’ll see from the following post, she has also made many personal connections with bookstores through the book tours that followed the publication of her novels.—Janet Hutchings

By now more than a few people know that I have a habit of going on very long book tours. But in case you do not, I’ll fill in a little background. It took me eleven years and seven unpublished novels to land my first publishing contract. After that amount of time (and rejection), you want to do everything you can to make your book a success once it does finally come out. In my case that meant renting out our house, trading in two cars for an SUV that could handle Denver in February, pulling the kids out of first and third grades, and hitting the road for seven months and 35,000 miles.

We car-schooled the kids.

My husband worked from the front seat.

He’s a surgeon.

No, I’m kidding, he’s actually in IT, but still—you can tell we were all in.

It probably won’t come as a surprise to readers that the publishing world is in something of a whirlwind these days, and that applies to mysteries as well. Old and lauded imprints dying dinosaur deaths, new presses cropping up like mushrooms, authors deciding to publish themselves. It’s hard for a writer to know what to do, what might help bring about a lasting career, if indeed anything will. Some say that luck and timing play more of a role than any marketing maneuver—and even, arguably, the quality of the book itself.

But I tend to be a take-the-reins kind of person, and anyway—I was certain I would enjoy the kind of work that goes into a tour, even though every person I spoke to swore I would be sick of the road after two weeks, walk into a lot of empty rooms, and suffer food poisoning from all the burgers-on-the-run we’d have to eat.

Even my publisher begged me to stay home. And I was paying for the trip!

Imagine my surprise when nearly 200 people filled the seats at one of my early events in Oxford, MS. My independent publicity firm set up this appearance at a combination live radio broadcast/book signing hosted by Square Books. A fair portion of the town waits avidly for this monthly night out—and I got to be the headliner.

And that wasn’t the only time I was made to feel like a star as a virtually unknown newbie author. I stood in front of the Atlantic Ocean for Litchfield Books’ Moveable Feast on Pawley’s Island in South Carolina and spoke to a roomful of 150 guests who munched a three course lunch as the sea swelled behind us. They weren’t even distracted from my talk by the magnificent view. Or the chocolate fudge pie!

It turns out that something in our increasingly virtual, always connected lives has made room for a tour of this kind. For a sense of true connectedness beneath the glossy Facebook likeness of it. Shaking the real life, flesh and blood hand of your reader, then hearing a story of theirs after they have listened to yours, is something a lot of people seem to hunger for. Sure, I walked into a sparsely attended event (or twenty), but when you do 150 such nights, you can afford a disappointing turnout now and again. I also found that what was disappointing numerically often translated into particularly memorable along other dimensions.

There was the time when the sole attendee shared with me that her son had killed himself—she said it just like that—the year before. My first suspense novel opens with a heroine’s jarring loss and the cloudy assumption of suicide, and at first I wondered why this person had chosen to venture out on such a forbidding, snowy night to come see me. But she told me that my novel had gotten her through the harrowing year she’d been forced to endure. That the grief in my book felt so real, it helped to ease her own, or at least let her share it.

Would this woman have opened up to me like that online? I don’t think so. Not in the same way anyway. Even if she had, the exchange that followed between us would never have happened, one so personal and intimate, I could never write about it.

There’s a robust in-person event and bookstore scene that the ubiquity of Amazon boxes with their smiley Prime logos doesn’t hint at, and which I never would’ve discovered if I hadn’t hit the road. Mystery bookstores as well as more general-focus ones attract crowds. The mystery/suspense/thriller community has always been a welcoming one—just go to ThrillerFest or Killer Nashville, Malice Domestic or Bouchercon—but what I didn’t realize is that this sense of camaraderie extends to every quiet corner of the country, everywhere you can find a reader or a book.

When I came back from the first Magical Mystery Book Tour, my debut had gone into six printings in hardcover. My publisher said that if I felt like going out again with my second release, they wouldn’t beg me to stay home this time. And when my third book came out last year, they helped set up a portion of the tour.

All told, my family and I spent fifteen months on the road, discovering the sites and sounds of this country, meeting readers one by one by one.

Why did we do it?

It’s not such a mystery, really.

Posted in Books, Bookshops, Business, Guest, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Carve it in Jade: PWA Turns 35” (by Ted Fitzgerald)

EQMM is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2016, and the year holds another important milestone for the mystery, the 35th anniversary of the founding of the Private Eye Writers of America.  In honor of that organization, which has contributed so much to our genre, we asked Ted Fitzgerald, who recently served a term as vice president of the organization, to do a post for this site about the PWA. For over thirty years, Ted has been a fan, a critic, and a writer of crime fiction. He’s reviewed crime fiction for the Drood Review of Mystery, Deadly Pleasures, Mystery Scene, and the Boston Phoenix, and his short stories have been selected for inclusion in anthologies edited by many well-known people in the field, including Ed Gorman, Max Allan Collins, Mickey Spillane, Bob Randisi, and Martin Greenberg. Ted is the recipient of the 2004 Don Sandstrom Award for Lifetime Achievement in Mystery Fandom, and for several years he served as chair for the PWA’s Shamus Awards.—Janet Hutchings

“A Private Eye is defined as a private citizen (not a member of the military, federal agency, or civic or state police force) who is paid to investigate crimes. A Private Investigator can be a traditional private eye, a TV or newspaper reporter, an insurance investigator, an employee of an investigative service or agency, or similar character.”
PWA’s definition of a private eye.

The Private Eye Writers of America started in 1981 because Bob Randisi was fed up.

He was fed up with New York publishers telling him that novels featuring private investigators as protagonists didn’t sell. It appeared a specious claim: The 1970s saw the debut of such popular and long-running private eyes as Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective, Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone, Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters, Joseph Hansen’s Dave Brandstetter and, oh yeah, a Boston bruiser named Spenser from some guy named Parker.

So Bob bought a bunch of post cards and mailed them to numerous fellow writers with whom he corresponded. He asked them what they thought of an organization dedicated to recognizing, encouraging and rewarding private-eye fiction. About 40 of them thought it was a pretty good idea. The result was PWA.

In the first Reflections in a Private Eye newsletter, Bob said of the “P.I.s don’t sell” mindset: “A hell of a lot of us don’t believe that, and never have. That’s why we’re writing what we are writing. But how many of us really knew how many other writers thought the same way? . . . So, I’ve started PWA so that we can all keep in touch . . . I’ve also started PWA because I’ve long believed that the best P.I. novel of the year should be acknowledged . . .”

And, so it was. From it came the Shamus Awards which has grown to become, along with the Edgars, perhaps the best-known and respected peer-judged award in the crime-fiction field. In 1982, the first Best P.I. Novel award went to Bill Pronzini for Hoodwink; The Eye, an award for lifetime achievement in private-eye fiction was given to Ross MacDonald. In subsequent years, awards were added for Best Short Story, Best First P.I. Novel, and Best Paperback Original. And the Shamus Award banquet has become a Friday-night Bouchercon tradition.

Almost from PWA’s start, the P.I. field mushroomed and diversified by, among other things, gender, race, setting, sexuality, nationality, and subgenre. While the PWA logo is Terry Beatty’s “P.I. Guy,” a white male in a trench coat and fedora, holding a cigarette in one hand and a gat in the other, the constantly evolving field of fictional P.I.s and their creators and PWA’s membership reflect the people and situations of the multifaceted world in which we live and work.

One sign of the change is The Eye. In the early years, it recognized pioneers like Mickey Spillane, William Campbell Gault, Howard Browne and Maxine O’Callaghan. Now, it’s noteworthy how many honorees began publishing private-eye fiction on the cusp of or after PWA’s formation: Max Allan Collins, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Loren D. Estleman, and this year’s recipient, S.J. Rozan, among them.

PWA has always encouraged newcomers. The Best First P.I. Novel Competition was sponsored by PWA and St. Martin’s Press in 1986 to encourage new P.I. writers. Unpublished writers submitted manuscripts that were read by PWA members. The winner received editing and publication by St. Martins. Many of the 23 winners, including Les Roberts, Steve Hamilton, Karen Kijewski, Janet Dawson, Gar Anthony Haywood, Ken Kuhlken and Michael Koryta, have gone on to long and successful careers.

The organization has also provided publication opportunities for its members with about 11 short-story anthologies published since 1984. These included two joint anthologies with Sisters in Crime, Deadly Allies (1992) and Deadly Allies II (1994), which paired stories from members of each organization, a number of whom belonged to both groups.

PWA has always been a simple organization, admittedly low tech—the newsletter is still produced only on paper and the PWA website (courtesy of Kevin Burton Smith) is a relatively new endeavor—and a bit raffish (oh, those cutthroat midnight poker games). That’s because it doesn’t need to be complicated.

Its goals—camaraderie, encouragement, acknowledgement, and celebration of the fictional private eye and his and her creators—are simple and timeless, fueled by personal interaction which is something technology will never successfully replace. PWA’s open to anyone who writes, wants to write, and/or enjoys P.I. fiction (Remember, writers are fans, too).

As PWA celebrates its jade anniversary, I remember traveling to New York City in 1987 for my first Shamus luncheon. Even though I’d not yet published a word of fiction, I was warmly greeted by Bob, met an idol (Loren Estleman), and shared a table with a newcomer named Parnell Hall. I was welcomed without reservation and that has been my experience ever since. PWAers have provided advice, guidance and opportunity and several have become lifelong friends.

I’ve never regretted checking in on PWA and I’ll belong until I check out. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who can say that. The private eye is alive and well and has plenty of friends.

Posted in Awards, Characters, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Private Eye, Publishing, Readers, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Return of Poggioli: T.S. Stribling’s Sleuth Given a New Home in EQMM” (by Arthur Vidro)

Arthur Vidro is a freelance fiction editor who publishes a thrice-yearly print journal called (Give Me That) Old-Time Detection (please direct any inquiries to oldtimedetection@netzero.net). He is also the author of two stories for EQMM. The first of them, “The Ransom of EQMM #1,” was posted on our Web site in 2011 and can still be read there; his second fictional outing for EQMM, “The Mistake on the Cover of EQMM #1,” was posted on this site last week as the basis for our 75th-anniversary contest. That story’s solution, and its winners, will be posted here on October 11.
Arthur Vidro is a leading expert on all things related to EQMM, and in this post he expands on an article he wrote about Fred Dannay and EQMM for Old-Time Detection. He wanted it to be clarified that he “acknowledges that Manfred B. Lee was an equal half of the Ellery Queen authorial partnership; but it was Fred Dannay who focused on finding authors and material for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and who served as its main editor, so Manny is regrettably absent from the article below.”—Janet Hutchings

Other articles have been written about how EQMM gave soon-to-be-famous authors their first break. Authors Jack Finney, Harry Kemelman, James Yaffe, and others made their first fiction sales to EQMM. Perhaps the most stirring case is that of the great Stanley Ellin. Ellin had given himself a one-year sabbatical to devote to fiction writing, living off his wife’s small income and a small stipend of his own from Uncle Sam—Ellin had returned home in early 1946 after having served in World War II, and unemployed veterans were allotted $20 a week for up to a year. That year was nearly up, and Ellin had received nothing but rejection slips, when (on November 21, 1946) he sent to EQMM the story that would become known as “The Specialty of the House.” After Ellin reshaped the story to meet Fred Dannay’s requests, EQMM published it and a writer’s career was launched.

Lesser known, however, are those authors whose careers EQMM did not launch, but did reinvigorate. EQMM kept Cornell Woolrich’s name before the public during a time when his productivity had dropped, and the magazine’s existence may have been the reason that in his final decade of life Woolrich continued to write some short stories even though he had stopped producing novels.

Then there are writers who were already being forgotten, or in danger of same, when EQMM reprinted their works. Short story specialist Vincent Cornier was rescued from near-oblivion by Dannay and EQMM and went on to write new stories for the magazine. The Department of Dead End stories by Roy Vickers may have already been forgotten when Dannay and EQMM stepped forward again, reprinting some of the tales, which spurred the publication of a full book of the tales.

Then there is the case of T.S. Stribling (1881-1965). None of his novels were mysteries, but one of them (The Store) won the Pulitzer Prize for best work of fiction published in 1932.

The mystery world remembers Stribling for his short stories starring Henry Poggioli, a psychology professor. Five of the tales were collected in Clues of the Caribbees (Doubleday, 1929), and nine additional Poggioli tales appeared in magazines from 1929 through 1935. (Those nine tales were collected in 2004 by Crippen & Landru under the title Doctor Poggioli: Criminologist.)

Clues of the Caribbees today is on the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones list and the Queen’s Quorum list; both lists indicate its excellence. But despite the critical acclaim, there is nothing to indicate Stribling meant to write additional Poggioli stories after 1935.

By the time EQMM was launched (1941), Stribling was becoming forgotten in his own time. His final published novel came out in 1938, and though he continued to write fiction, his new fiction was no longer published. With one exception. Twenty-three additional Poggioli stories were published from 1945 through 1957 in various mystery magazines, fifteen of them in EQMM.

Without EQMM and Fred Dannay, those twenty-three additional stories almost certainly would not have been written.

The debut issue of EQMM comprised seven stories, all of them reprints. One of the seven (“The Cablegram”) was a Poggioli tale. Dannay would tell the EQMM readership, in the July 1945 issue, that their editor was “America’s Number One Poggioli fan.”

Dannay encouraged Stribling to write new stories featuring the quirky detective. Stribling obliged with a tale he called “The Sock.” But then Dannay found himself in the uncomfortable position of rejecting the very story for which he had lobbied.

Dannay’s rejection letter seems lost for the record, but apparently a contrite Dannay apologized in it for having failed Stribling in encouraging him so ardently for a story and then rejecting it. Soon after receiving the rejection, Stibling wrote the following, on April 24, 1944:

Dear Dannay,

The idea that you have “failed me” is perfectly absurd. Certainly you have not. If I didn’t write what you wanted, I don’t at all blame you for not taking it.

Also because you write me for the story I don’t feel you have to take it. You wanted a certain kind of story and thought I could do it. I wouldn’t consider it ethical to insist on your taking it when you found I could not do it.

My own opinion of the story is that it’s fair. I always found it personally amusing to let Poggioli get balled up on his solutions. . . .

Anyway, I assure you in a long life I have had so many stories returned that another one does not upset my equanimity in any degree.

However, I think it was very kindly of you to be so very courteous in your rejection. And assuring you of my appreciation of your rating of my former stories, I am,

With best wishes,
T.S. Stribling

What triggered the ongoing correspondence and the creation of the twenty-three Poggioli tales the world would eventually see was this postscript that Stribling added:

Dear Dannay,

I had sealed up my letter ready to send to you but I fooled around a bit before taking it to the post office to mail and I reflected on what you had written me and why you didn’t like my story.

Now your written objections seemed to hinge a good deal on a matter of form and technique . . . Poggioli didn’t come through.

All right, assuming that is correct which it certainly is. I am very dubious of judging stories on a matter of form. The only question it seems to me to be fairly asked of a story is, is it interesting and will it keep a reader reading from start to finish. An incidental question is, is it amusing, if it is, so much the better, but amusement is a by-product.

You see, after all, “form” is simply an arrangement which readers have found interesting, but one could hardly assume or believe that it was the only arrangement of interest. In fact too great a persistence of “form” in a magazine could easily have an iterant effect which would defeat its purpose.

I know I have had a long experience in off-form stories. Arthur Hoffman, you probably never heard of him, once editor of Adventure, never did publish a story of mine but what he labelled it an “Off-the-Trail” story just to give the conventional reader warning to by-pass it if he thought best.

My personal bent is so set against repetitiousness of anything that I would urge you to keep this idea in mind as you make up your magazine.

Now I am not particularly arguing that you take my story. I really don’t care whether you do or don’t. Moreover I don’t believe the story I sent you was particularly clever but it seemed interesting to me and I wondered if it did to you. If it really did, then for heaven’s sake (which means your own sake) don’t turn it down simply on a matter of form. There is only one criterion for a short story or long for that matter, is it interesting clear through. If so it’s a good story, if not, it’s a poor story, no matter how it’s arranged.

Now I hope you will pardon MY frankness and sermonizing.

More good wishes,
TSS

Rather than give up on the story, Fred Dannay chose to write back to Stribling. The following is excerpted from a Dannay letter dated April 29, 1944:

Dear Mr. Stribling,

One of the greatest compliments one man can give another is to say to him: “You’re a regular guy!” And this I say to you in all sincerity. I was enormously pleased to hear from you in the understanding way you wrote. I haven’t been an Editor for so long a time that I’ve become hardened to shock; by that I mean that as an Editor I’ve received some amazing letters from other writers, incredibly on the un-understanding side. But thank God you and I speak the same language.

I was also very glad that you decided in your postscript to discuss the story. That’s exactly what I wanted to do—but not knowing you as well as I feel I do now, I was hesitant to open up. I just threw in one general criticism in the hope that you would take up the cudgels on it. You see, I have some definite ideas to suggest, and it’s more than possible that you will like my suggestions.

Let’s dig into the story. . . . First, let me say that I have no objection per se to a detective failing. In fact, I like the idea: it’s refreshing, and the bigger the detective, the more refreshing his failure to solve a case. But I don’t think that mere failure for failure’s sake is enough. The failure should be an integral plot-idea of the story; there should be a reason for the failure, an interesting reason—more, a clever reason.

Next, I do not (and never have) put too much stock in form and technique. Yes, they are essential elements, as we both agree; but they should always remain flexible, susceptible to change, variation, and manipulation. . . .

Dannay continued with more than two additional pages of single-spaced typed comments and suggestions and idea explorations on “The Sock,” then wrapped up the letter with:

      Well, I’ve rattled off at a great pace—that’s the kind of editor I am. But I’ve tried to be creatively constructive—which is my job, as an editor.

Please let me know what you think. Write me, as before, directly to my home address (below). I do all my work at home—the New York magazine address is merely that of the business office.

One last point: Don’t ever again ask my pardon for YOUR frankness. When you want to throw brickbats at me or at my work or at my opinions (as in this letter), throw with all your might. I can take it.

My very best regards to you, and looking forward to hearing from you as soon as you can write.

On May 2, 1944, Stribling wrote back:

Dear Dannay,

You are an incorrigible editor and you probably will become a great one. I had laid aside that Poggioli story with great comfort and had returned to my unending reading of history, when here comes your letter and not only stops my reading but actually gives me a lift toward redoing the story, not for the sake of getting it published and paid for but just for the sake of the thing.

So I imagine I’ll take a shot at your idea. It’s “intriguing” to use a very damnable word indeed.

Stribling’s lengthy letter concluded with:

      As I say I’ll look at the Pog story again in the light of your comments and see what can be done.

Good luck,
T.S.S.

Then on May 18th, Stribling sent the following letter:

My dear Dannay,

I must say your suggestions seemed to have worked like a charm. I hope you like the story as well as I do. I am delighted with it.

If anything in the body of the story seems to give the denoument away, please soften or eliminate same.

I have the glimmer of another tale in my head, this time about Miami. However I would like to tell you how I came to write “The Sock,” it might be of some possible service to you.

In Mexico I met an American woman whose home had been entered by SEVERAL BURGLARS OR ROBBERS OR SOMETHING. And one of the men caught this woman, held her in his arms a moment looking at her, while she pleaded in bad Spanish that he would not harm her. Then he turned her loose and the whole band went out and away without harming or taking anything at all.

I have wondered and wondered why this housebreaking by a whole gang, to no purpose except to look at a woman, briefly, and go away. It still has got me guessing. My story is an evasive simplification of the original.

Best Luck,
T.S.S.

The “glimmer of another tale” would develop into “The Mystery of the Chief of Police.” The following excerpts from Dannay’s reply, dated May 24, 1944, show how much labor the editor put into the stories that appeared in the Queen magazine, from rewriting (and retyping) large sections of story to changing story titles.

Dear Mr. Stribling,

The new version of “The Sock” is very fine. Yes, the new approach seems to have, as you wrote, worked like a charm.

I made some corrections—punctuation, and so on, consistent with our own style, and some cuts here and there to shorten the story. All are minor matters that you can leave confidently in my hands—all but one, and that is why I am writing to you.

I think the story needs one important change—in the clock-and-time business. Rather than try to explain the change I suggest, I have retyped the last five or six pages of the story, incorporating the change. I am sure that after you’ve read the enclosed pages you’ll agree that the change both clarifies and strengthens the whole story.

If the last pages, as enclosed, are satisfactory, please let me know at your earliest convenience, and as soon as I hear from you, I’ll put through a purchase order so that you can receive your check without delay. Naturally, if you wish to correct any of my new phrasing, by all means do so; in this event, simply return the enclosed pages, with your corrections noted.

How do you like the title “The Sock and the Clock”? I’m attracted to it. The rhyme and swing, it seems to me, are both piquant and provocative. Besides, I find that for some strange reason longer titles are better for a magazine than very short ones. May I use “The Sock and the Clock”?

I almost forgot: I have also added a short paragraph at the very end of the story. You know, we can’t be too careful with a certain type of reader: you can’t be too subtle. This added paragraph points up the climactic idea for those magazine readers who need an explicit “tag.”

Of course, change or correct as you please, but I do think that this sort of “topper” is needed.

Stribling pretty much left Dannay’s rewrites alone. Much or possibly all of the final paragraph of “The Mystery of the Sock and the Clock” was written by Fred Dannay, not T.S. Stribling.

Stribling’s reply was dated “Saturday, end of May ‘44”:

Dear Dannay,

I thought you would like the story. Your corrections are O.K. with me. I have changed a word or two because I try never to say a character did a thing “shrewdly” or “cunningly” or any of those adverbs. If the reader doesn’t feel that much, he and I just let it go. I also changed “Perk up.” And I suggest another final sentence which you can use if you want to or use the end you now have. Either all right with me.

I am now at work on “The Case of the Chief of Police,” which is a whimsy generated by the present storm in Miami.

Your new title is better than “The Sock,” “The Sock and the Clock” makes a very catchy phrase.

Best luck,
T.S.S.

Dannay not infrequently would jot on his incoming letters reminders or ideas. On the last-quoted letter from Stribling, Dannay scribbled the following six words: unusual, exceptional, singular, extraordinary, outre, unconventional. It is as if he were trying to come up with le mot juste to describe Stribling’s story to the EQMM readers.

The next tale Stribling submitted to EQMM was “The Mystery of the Chief of Police,” a top-rate Poggioli story far superior to “The Sock and the Clock.” Dannay liked it so much that he wanted to publish it ahead of “The Sock and the Clock.” Eventually he did so, while letting the readership mistakenly believe “Chief of Police” had arrived first and “Sock and Clock” had arrived second.

Some of the correspondence between Dannay and Stribling concerned the advantage of publishing either story before the other, and what to tell the readership.

At one point Stribling wrote:

Of course I don’t care which you say was written first. God will probably mark you down as a liar and send you to hell, but I will remain calm and indifferent about the matter.

Note: Frederic Dannay Letters Copyright (c) 2016 by the Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee Literary Property Trusts.
T.S. Stribling Letters Copyright (c) 2016 by the estate of T.S. Stribling

Posted in Characters, Editing, Ellery Queen, Fiction, Genre, Guest, History, Magazine, Story, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“The Mistake on the Cover of EQMM #1” (by Arthur Vidro)

This week EQMM’s 75th-anniversary issue went on sale. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can read about it here, and of course we hope you’ll pick up a copy! There was one story written specially for the occasion that we were unable to incorporate in the issue. The visual nature of its content made it a better fit, we thought, for this site, and so we decided to turn it into a contest. The story’s author, Arthur Vidro, has written for EQMM before; that earlier tale, “The Ransom of EQMM #1,” is still available on our Web site, where its own important visual elements could be properly displayed.
As you read the following story, “The Mistake on the Cover of EQMM #1,” pay close attention. The first three readers to e-mail us with the correct answer to the challenge it poses will win a free year-long subscription to EQMM! For more details, please refer to the rules posted at the end of this story.
A warm thanks to longtime EQMM fan Arthur Vidro for providing us with this celebratory tale!—Janet Hutchings

The Mistake on the Cover of EQMM #1
by Arthur Vidro

“Have any of you heard of the Valley News?” Professor Harv Tudorri scanned the blank faces before him.

A girl chewing on a pencil slowly raised her hand.

“Yes, Emmeline?”

“Are they the ones who published DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN?”

“No. We covered that headline last week. Perhaps you weren’t here.” Tudorri sighed. Emmeline Dupre was the only student with perfect attendance in his Journalism 365 course, but she seldom paid attention. If he had known the attention span of the typical student at Wrightsville Community College, he wouldn’t have offered to create and teach “Published Mistakes: The Issues Newspapers and Periodicals Would Like to Redo.”

Professor Tudorri strode to the drawn-down projection screen, which was blocking a portion of the blackboard. “Not too long ago, the Valley News had an edition with a minor spelling mistake. However, it was in the largest type possible. And on page one.”

He raised the screen back into the ceiling to reveal what he had written on the blackboard before class had begun:

VALLEY NEWSS

A few giggles escaped from his audience. The confused look on burly Jeep Jorking’s face betrayed his failure even to spot the spelling error.

“Yes,” continued the professor. “On page one on an otherwise typical news day, the Valley News misspelled—its own name.”

Al Brown raised his hand, displaying a sleeve stained with ice cream. “How could that be? Why would they do that? Was it an April Fools edition?”

“Good question, Al. No, it wasn’t an April Fools gag. It happened on July 21, 2008. It wasn’t intentional. The newspaper acknowledged its mistake but did not explain how it happened.”

Ed Hotchkiss raised his hand and waited to be called on.

“But Professor, a daily newspaper has a lot on its plate. Shouldn’t we cut it some slack?”

“True,” announced the professor. “We should hold magazines to a higher standard than we do daily newspapers. But magazines, too, make mistakes. Not just weekly magazines. Not just monthly magazines. Even quarterly magazines. Take, for instance, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.”

For some reason, mention of this periodical caused a stir among the students. Most of them were roused from their typical stupor. This startled the instructor.

“I gather,” he began, “that some of you have heard of this publication and of Ellery Queen?”

A few students shrugged, and a couple were too catatonic even to do that, but the majority nodded.

“My neighbor,” said J.C. Pettigrew, stretching his long legs and extending his size-twelve shoes, “has every issue ever published. His collection was written up in the Shinn Corners Courier.”

The instructor allowed himself a rare smile. “Splendid. And have any of you ever seen the magazine?”

“I sell it at my father’s newsstand,” said Grover Doodle.

“I read the latest issue,” said Milo Wiloughby, a serious sophomore who wrote a medical column for the school newspaper. “I borrowed it from Danny here.”

“I subscribe, Professor,” explained Danny Nathan.

“Me too,” said Manford Lepofsky, adjusting his eyeglasses. “Ellery Queen was a fictional detective, but the two men who wrote the Queen stories used Ellery Queen as their joint byline.”

Professor Tudorri beamed. “I’m pleased you know so much about it. For extra credit, who were the two men who wrote the Queen tales?”

The bespectacled student didn’t hesitate. “One was Manny Lee, and the other was—”

“—his first cousin Fred Dannay.” Danny Nathan had completed Lepofsky’s sentence.

“That’s right,” said Professor Tudorri. “Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine is still going strong. It began before any of you were born—even before I was born. The year was nineteen forty-one. For most of its history it’s been a monthly, though nowadays there are ten issues a year. When it began, it was a mere quarterly. Now, you would think that a magazine published every three months would have the time and resources to get its cover perfect before going to press. However, the cover of the first issue contained a mistake.”

He turned to a gum-chewing girl in the front row whose hair was a combination of red and brown, with a blond streak. “Nikki, would you please hand these out?”

“Sure, Prof.” Nikki Porter distributed to each student a black-and-white photocopy of the issue Tudorri was discussing:

EQcover1

“Whoa!” said Tom Anderson, who sometimes showed up half-drunk. “Only twenty-five cents? Why so cheap?”

“Twenty-five cents was a lot of money then,” said Tudorri. “A cup of coffee cost five cents, a daily newspaper two cents, a comic book ten cents. The minimum wage was twenty-five cents an hour.”

“So buying this magazine in nineteen forty-one might have set you back a full week’s allowance,” said Gabby Warrum.

“That’s one way to look at it,” said the professor. “However, there is some dispute as to whether the first issue sold for twenty cents or twenty-five cents. I have seen samples of both. It is likely that a few issues were published with a twenty-cent price on the cover, but then the decision was made to change it to twenty-five cents before mass distribution began.”

“Is that the mistake?” asked Carter Bradford.

“Whatever price was on the cover, that’s the price the vendor would charge. So no,” said the professor. “I’m not considering the price to be a mistake. Yet there is a mistake. I want you to find it. Your assignment is to identify and correct the error on the cover. You have until the bell rings—about ten minutes—to turn in your answer.”

Nikki popped her bubblegum. “How about a hint, Prof?”

Tudorri sighed. “Very well. The mistake is a misspelling. But that’s all I’ll say. Now it’s up to you to find it.”

WHAT WAS THE MISTAKE?

The first 3 readers to e-mail us (elleryqueenmm@dellmagazines.com) with the correct answer by October 11 will win a free year-long subscription to EQMM! Visit us then for the remainder of the story.

Ellery Queen Characters Copyright (C) 2016 by the Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee Literary Property Trusts.

Posted in Books, Editing, History, Story | 5 Comments

“When Does the Past Become History?” (by Elizabeth Zelvin)

Elizabeth Zelvin is the author of the well-received Bruce Kohler mystery novels. She is also a short-story writer of note, having two nominations for the Derringer and three for the Agatha award. Her stories have appeared in both EQMM and AHMM, as well as in several anthologies, and readers will find a new Bruce Kohler story in EQMM in early 2017. Liz is also the author of several historical mysteries, at both novel and short story length. Her books Voyage of Strangers and Journey of Strangers, as well as her EQMM stories “The Green Cross” and “Navidad,” are set in the era of Columbus and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. In this post she considers how what we count as historical fiction is changing.—Janet Hutchings

I was born shortly before the end of World War II, just too early to be a true Baby Boomer. When I was growing up in the 1950s, it was very clear to me when “history” was: back before World War I, when people wore costumes rather than modern dress. As a young adult (in the chronological rather than the book-marketing sense), I knew perfectly well what a “historical novel” was. Whether it was set on Napoleonic battlefields or in ancient Rome, Victorian London or the American frontier, the characters still wore fancy dress, itself a marker for a distinct separation between “then” and “now.” It’s not that I thought that Nazi Germany was culturally contemporary with the Sixties. It’s just that to me, “historical” meant something else, something much further removed from our own times. Nowadays, novels set in the 1950s are considered historical novels by the publishing industry and, I suppose, by readers themselves.

I never expected to write historical fiction myself, and I never would have if a young Jewish sailor named Diego Mendoza had not come knocking on the inside of my head in the middle of the night, demanding that I tell the story of how he sailed with Admiral Columbus in 1492. That encounter became two stories that appeared in EQMM and, eventually, two novels that followed several threads of the Sephardic diaspora, following Diego and his family through Europe to the Ottoman Empire and beyond. Historical? Of course. I made the Mendozas up and meticulously researched the rest.

The concept of history became a problem with my contemporary series, the Bruce Kohler mysteries. Bruce is a recovering alcoholic with a New York attitude, a smart mouth, and an ill-concealed heart of gold. At the beginning of the first novel, Death Will Get You Sober, he wakes up in detox on the Bowery and realizes that he has to change his life. I finished the first draft in 2002, and the novel was published in 2008. It’s still in print as an e-book along with four other novels, and the seventh short story will appear in EQMM some time next year. In that fourteen-year span, it is staggering how much our culture has changed, how much New York has changed, and how much the author, yours truly, has changed through the sheer passage of time (okay, aged).

When I first visited the Bowery as a fledgling alcoholism counselor in 1983, how could I have known that by 2015, New York’s world-famous skid row, a haunt of “bums” (no, we didn’t call them that) who frequented its bars and flophouses and passed out in its gutters, would be history? How could I have known when I finally wrote my novel about my experiences there, that by 2008, homeless drunks smoking in their detox ward would be history? In 2015, a publisher who loved my work referred to Death Will Get You Sober as “a period piece.”

As the series continues, Bruce leaves alcohol behind and stumbles toward emotional maturity and into a variety of murders. His sidekicks are Barbara, a nice Jewish girl from Queens whose codependency issues make her a terrific sleuth: addicted to helping and minding everybody’s business; and Jimmy, whom I created as a “computer genius” to deal with any tech issues that emerged as I plotted my mysteries. In 2016, it takes a lot more than it did back then to be a computer genius. In Death Will Pay Your Debts, I had to rescue Jimmy from the collapse of his finances by giving him a day job and sending him to Debtors Anonymous. I also had to rescue him from the reputation I’d given him. He says, “The generation coming up now have had digital everything all their lives and been online since they were two years old. Nowadays any kid can do what I do. I’m not a computer genius any more. I’m just an aging geek who’s never tried to live within a budget.”

Because of the extended life e-publishing has given fiction, we authors now have a chance to update our work, both novels and short stories, for new editions. Besides correcting typos and undoing the damage done by past copy editors who didn’t get our jokes, we scramble to update the tech references. Jimmy brings an iPad, not a laptop, to the beach; Barbara no longer flips her cell phone open. But the changes go deeper than that, and new issues arise as our characters’ lives develop over time. I knew for years that I wanted Barbara to have a ticking biological clock. But I could never figure out when or how to work it in. She and Jimmy have been living together for twenty years, for most of which he’s been sober, in AA, and an exemplary partner. I knew he was wary of marriage and fatherhood, because his alcoholic father was a terrible dad. The moment came in Death Will Pay Your Debts, when Jimmy runs out of money just when Barbara is turning forty and thinking it’s now or never for marriage and a baby. The historical problem, with ramifications that affect hundreds of details in the development of my characters? The OMG moment when I realized that if Barbara is young enough to have a baby, she can’t possibly remember what I remember about the Sixties.

Posted in Adventure, Books, Characters, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Historicals, History, Private Eye, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

“A Tribute to Lois Duncan” (by Hilary Davidson)

Hilary Davidson is the author of the Anthony Award-winning Lily Moore mystery series, as well as the hardboiled standalone Blood Always Tells. Her short fiction has won several awards, including a Derringer from the Short Mystery Fiction Society.  Her story “The Siege,” from the December 2015 EQMM, is currently nominated for a 2016 Anthony Award, winners to be announced at the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in New Orleans in September. The full text of the story (copyrighted by the author) is available for reading on EQMM’s Web site until after the convention.—Janet Hutchings

In fifth grade, I read my first Lois Duncan novel, and it changed my life. The book was called I Know What You Did Last Summer, and it told the story of a group of teenagers who accidentally killed a boy on a winding country road and made a pact to keep it a secret; a year later, when the book begins, someone has uncovered the truth and is taunting them with it. The premise of the story hooked me, but what stayed with me long after I devoured the book (in a single night, partly with the aid of a flashlight) was the idea that no secret ever truly stays buried. Duncan’s work was instantly addictive, and I followed that book with many more, including Ransom, Daughters of Eve, Killing Mr. Griffin, and Stranger With My Face.

I never imagined that I would meet this childhood hero of mine in the flesh, but I did last year at the Edgar Awards ceremony. I had the honor of introducing Lois Duncan when she received her Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. That happened at the last minute: her longtime agent was supposed to introduce her to the crowd in the Grand Hyatt’s ballroom, but he passed away two weeks before the ceremony. I was asked to step in because I’d spoken so passionately about Lois Duncan’s books when MWA’s national board discussed making her a Grand Master.

Writing that speech was a labor of love for me. It had been many years since I’d picked up a book by Lois Duncan, and I’d never had to explain to anyone about why, exactly, her books resonated so deeply with me. I’d never actually analyzed her work, either; my reactions had been purely emotional. Her writing struck a chord in me, and I’d never stopped to think about why.

Several things surprised me when I started researching her work. For starters, Lois Duncan was all of thirteen herself when she sold her first story to a magazine, and a mere eighteen when she published her debut novel, Debutante Hill. Another was that Duncan was one of the trailblazers—along with Judy Blume and S.E. Hinton—who created a new category of young-adult literature in the 1960s and 70s. That’s not to say that there weren’t books targeted at teens before then, but they tended to be formulaic and filled with predictable lessons to be learned. With her flawed characters, realistic points of view, and dark consequences, Lois Duncan blazed a path few had the nerve to explore. By the time I was in school, there was no shortage of suspense novels targeted at young adults, but Duncan’s books stood out. There was something boldly subversive in them, whether it was Daughters of Eve’s view of sexism and violence, Killing Mr. Griffin’s obsession with revenge, or Stranger With My Face’s horror-infused vision of unbreakable family ties. Whatever the subject, she made it feel real by grounding it in the raw vulnerability of teenagers’ lives. She understood the keen competition, the fear of ostracism, and the pressures coming from all sides. Her books stand up so well today because those things haven’t changed.

Writing that speech also brought Duncan’s life into focus. She was a mother of five, but in July 1989, her youngest daughter, Kaitlyn, died in a drive-by shooting. The killers have never been brought to justice. Her two nonfiction books dealing with the crime and its aftermath—1992’s Who Killed My Daughter? and 2013’s One to the Wolves—are painful, powerful, deeply personal accounts about the loss, her own courageous investigation into the crime, the cover-ups and corruption, and the danger her family faced in pursuing the truth. For the first time, I understood why she had suddenly stopped writing fiction; there had been, at a certain point, too much real-life darkness to contend with.

I know that some people are disappointed when they meet their childhood heroes, but meeting Lois Duncan was a dream come true. At the Edgars that night, she hugged me when she walked up on stage, and after the ceremony we chatted for a while. She was gracious and charming and funny, and it was clear that she deeply appreciated the Grand Master Award. (While she authored some fifty books, most hadn’t won awards, perhaps because they were ahead of their time.) The next day, we became Facebook friends (something my fifth-grade self could never have imagined, but she would’ve turned cartwheels over).

In the last months of her life, Lois Duncan’s health failed, but her good nature, kindness, and wit never did. She passed away on June 15th this year. On behalf of the countless readers whose lives she changed, I can’t thank her enough. While I’m saddened that she’s no longer in the world, I’m grateful that her books live on.

Posted in Awards, Books, Guest, Memorial, Story, Thrillers, Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“The Passion of Lizzie B.” (by Edward D. Hoch)

It’s often been theorized that violent crime goes up in the summer due to higher temperatures. The murders of Andrew and Abby Borden are among the most notorious crimes committed on a hot summer day—on August 4, 1892.  Lizzie Borden, Andrew’s daughter and Abby’s stepdaughter, was arrested for the ax killings, tried, and acquitted. Despite her acquittal, many continued to believe her guilty of the brutal murders. Many writers have taken up the subject of the Borden murders, but few have turned a fictional eye to alternative courses Lizzie’s life might have taken after her release. Patricia Hoch, the widow of MWA Grand Master Edward D. Hoch, has kindly given us permission to post this story from Ed’s Ben Snow series, in which Lizzie’s story is imaginatively continued in a way other than it did in reality. The story first appeared in the September 1993 EQMM, and it is copyrighted by the estate of Edward D. Hoch.—Janet Hutchings

 

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SUSPENSE, SERIALIZATION, AND THE SHORT STORY

Five years ago I posted on the topic of serialization on EQMM’s webpage forum. I continue to be asked, often, whether EQMM serializes novels or novelettes. My position has always been that any piece we publish must be sufficiently self-contained to leave readers who will never see the next installment with the sense that they’ve read a complete work of fiction. When a magazine is published monthly, rather than weekly, it’s important, I think, not to leave even those readers you know will be with you by the time of the next issue in too much suspense. A month is a long time to wait if you’re on the edge of your seat, and elements of a continuing story can easily be forgotten in a month’s time.

In the years since I gave that explanation, however, a lot has changed in the wider entertainment industry. Increasingly, television series are being presented not in episodes that can each stand alone but with continuing story lines. In a genre such as the family saga, this makes perfect sense. It’s not terribly hard to remember the circumstances necessary to follow the continuing storylines of such shows, and the long-term conflicts and entanglements of the characters are what the fun is all about. With a mystery the situation is different, for a mystery, almost by definition, must have a complex plot. That’s why I was so surprised to discover that a hallmark of the TV series Longmire is that the solutions to murder mysteries are left unresolved not only from episode to episode but from season to season. Though a solution to the murder of Walt Longmire’s wife was finally arrived at after a couple of seasons or more (I’ve forgotten now exactly when), the last season available on Netflix (Season 4) ends with yet another murder, this one at a construction site, still not fully resolved. Although I like the characters and the setting of this series a lot, I find that aspect of it less than satisfying. I’m certain I will not recall the circumstances of that murder by the time the next season becomes available (and I probably won’t care by then), and I would not want EQMM’s readers to become apathetic over so extended a cliffhanger in something we published. That said, I realize that when it comes to television series, many people now consume them in marathon viewings of several seasons together—in which case it may actually add to the excitement to have lots of carry-over between episodes and seasons.

There are many in the entertainment business who don’t at all share my objections to making readers or viewers wait long periods for the resolution of a story. Maybe that’s partly because, even looking way back at the history of fiction serialization, there’s evidence of people’s willingness to wait. The English magazine Cornhill began monthly publication in 1860 with an issue that sold a reputed 110,000 copies—a phenomenal amount if you consider the population at the time. Like the weeklies that began to appear around the same time—Household Words and All the Year Round, for instance—Cornhill’s fiction consisted mostly of serialized novels. I’m no expert on the history of magazine fiction, but it doesn’t surprise me that novels were the meat of these early fiction periodicals, since the modern novel predates the modern short story, which was only beginning to come into its own in the mid 1800s.

Readers of those early fiction magazines seem to have hung on the next installment of the novels serialized in them, often lining up to get copies. The top writers of the day—Thackeray, Wilkie Collins, Dickens—all filled editorial positions with the publications for which they wrote, and were well aware of what their readership wanted. When you read a Dickens novel you can see the mark magazine publication left on the work in the way so many of the chapters begin by reminding the reader of where the characters were last seen.

So, long-continuing story lines, stretched out in publication over time—the serialization of whole novels, for instance—can work. But it’s also true that some of those early magazines that were so successful in serializing novels eventually shifted over to the emerging short story form. Ladies’ Companion, which published Poe’s short story “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (albeit in three installments), and Graham’s Magazine, with which Poe was even more closely associated, are examples of publications that serialized novels but also relied increasingly on the work of short-story writers.

I think the short story works a lot better in magazine format than the novel, and I suspect that most current editors would agree with me—since most contemporary fiction magazines rely almost exclusively on short stories rather than long fiction. The short story seems to me the ideal sort of reading for a publication that can be slipped into a pocket or handbag. Portability and the short story go together. It’s no accident that magazines such as the original Strand, which published so many of the first great short stories in our genre in the 1890s, flourished along with the newly booming commuter traffic by railroad.

But of course, the extraordinary revolution in publishing over the past couple of decades is changing the landscape yet again. Electronic reading devices have already somewhat softened my resistance to serialization in a monthly magazine such as ours, because now that readers have the ability to archive lots of back issues of a magazine on a tiny device, they can easily refer back to previous installments.

I have a final objection to serialization that can’t be eliminated so easily, however, and that is that there are few enough places for the short story to find a home as it is, without precious magazine space being given over to the novel—which already dominates the literary scene. I also believe that our readers come to us precisely because they love the short story, and the unique experience of reading something that can be comprehended in a single sitting. Poe thought one of the most important characteristics of a short story was the singular impression it can make on the mind—and that its ability to do so was tied to its being read without a break.

What do you think—as readers, writers, or editors—of novel serialization in magazines?—Janet Hutchings

Posted in Books, Editing, Fiction, Genre, History, Magazine, Publishing, Readers, Suspense, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

The Mysterious Secret Lost Reason For This Title (Buried Inside The Following Post!) (by Kristine Kathryn Rusch)

Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a winner not only of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazines Readers Award but of the comparable award given by our sister publication Asimov’s Science Fiction. Mystery and science fiction are not the only genres in which she excels, however. She also writes fantasy and romance and, as she says, whatever else catches her fancy. Her next science-fiction novel, The Falls, to be released in October, could also be classified as a mystery, and she has a new mystery novel, A Gym of Her Own, due out in March of 2017, just a couple of months after her next EQMM story is scheduled to appear. Kris’s versatility is evident in the editorial realm as well. She is a past editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and she recently coedited Kobo Presents the Best Mystery and Crime Fiction of 2016. In this post she shares her thoughts about the classification of fiction according to genres. We can’t think of anyone better placed to consider that topic than she.—Janet Hutchings

Let me tell you a secret:

I have never understood genre. In fact, I had no idea what a genre was until my friend, science-fiction writer Kevin J. Anderson, explained genre to me when we were in college.

Even after that, I didn’t entirely understand genre. As a human being, I’m rather anti-classification. When I go to a bookstore, I go to a book store, not a genre store. Sometimes I go to a genre store, such The Mysterious Bookshop in New York or Mysterious Galaxy in California. But mostly, I go to a store. If it happens to have books, I look at the books.

All of the books. Every last one of them.

I’m more interested in the story, not the trappings that make it easily identifiable to someone who wants to classify that story to, say, put it on a bookshelf so that customers can find it.

Which, I suppose, explains my entire writing career. My mind militantly refuses to stay in one genre. In February, I turned to my Diving Universe series—a science-fiction series that the fans like, and which has won numerous readers awards from EQMM’s sister magazine, Asimov’s. I needed some world-building questions answered, so I decided to write a novella to explain things to myself. (Yes, my process is that weird.) When I finished it, I figured, I would send it to Sheila Williams at Asimov’s and see what she thought.

So . . . I started the story with the image that came to mind. (I do that a lot.) I could see two pairs of shoes getting wet on a high overlook above a roaring waterfall, and a dead body in the pool of water below.

Mystery opening, not an sf opening.

In fact, for weeks, I fought that opening hard, looking for the robot or the spaceship or the computer that would make the story science fiction. My brain kept telling me I was writing science fiction, but my training—my genre training—told me I was writing a mystery.

Finally, a month in, I gave up and started a second novella, on an alien planet, with a character in a base deep underground. And my rebellious mind relaxed. There it is, Fool, my brain said to me. See? I told you that this project was science fiction.

I hadn’t known until that moment that Novella 1, at the waterfall, was related to Novella 2, taking place deep underground.

What my brain hadn’t told me was that it had decided to write an unrelated novel in the Diving universe—unrelated to all the series characters, and focused on a mystery, with a coroner and detectives and security officers and murder most foul.

I called that book The Falls, but the cover image for the October release has a waterfall and a spaceship.

Yes, I have an unruly mind. And worse, my mind loves puzzles. Which means that half my writing time is spent in quandaries like the one above. I plan something, my brain throws me a curveball, and I have learned over the years to go with the curveball, not the project I planned.

I write like I read—with no rhyme or reason to it. I look at libraries and bookstores like gigantic smorgasbords, and I become the glutton who must put everything on her plate in case I might want to taste it later on. Sure, I go to the familiar stuff first, the bread, pizza, and cakes of my reading experience, but I do try the other stuff, and sometimes I love it.

Sometimes I hate it, but I never blame the genre. I blame me. I figure the book wasn’t to my taste or I was too critical when I read it or I wasn’t in the mood . . .

You get the idea.

Writers write what they read, and if you look for a thread in all the diverse genres I write, you’ll find (more often than not) a mystery or a secret at the center of it. If you really pressed me, I’d have to say that mystery is my favorite genre.

But by that I mean mystery, not crime fiction (which I also love). Mystery as in something mysterious, unknown, strange and secretive. Put the word “secret” or “hidden” or “lost” in the title, and my hand is reaching for the book before I even realize I’ve seen the cover.

Hmmm. Come to think of it that explains why I ended up with the book I’m reading today—The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett by Nathan Ward. I read a lot about the early writers of mystery, but I’ve been wanting to read The Lost Detective ever since I bought it (mumble mumble) months ago. When I was searching for my next nonfiction read, I grabbed the one with the word “lost” on the cover.

Oh, so predictable.

And yet unpredictable.

When I was a young writer, someone told me or I read somewhere that mystery and science fiction were the hardest genres to write. Only Isaac Asimov was a good enough writer to successfully combine them. Egotist that I am (and that most writers are. Don’t let us tell you otherwise), I decided to prove that statement wrong. I could combine mystery and sf too.

Little did I know that writers from the dawn of time (the dawn of genre?) combined both mystery and science fiction with great success. My determination to prove an incorrect statement wrong showed the depth of my ignorance of the history of genre and both fields, but it ended up being serendipity for me. The first short story I ever sold, “Skin Deep,” started with what looked like a dead body . . . in a pool of water . . . and the story ended up as science fiction.

Hmmm. I see a pattern here.

For those of you new to my work, I don’t just write science-fiction mysteries, or you wouldn’t see my byline in EQMM (although I’ve managed to sneak an sf story or two past Janet—or rather, she decided the mystery element outweighed the sf element). I write historical mysteries and contemporary mysteries too.

I used to rebel at the idea that my Smokey Dalton series, written under the name Kris Nelscott, was a historical mystery series. I started the first book in 1995, and 1968 seemed not that far away. Think about it: The majority of us still used pay phones, not cell phones, and only weird geeky people like me binge-watched TV shows thanks to this weird device called a VCR. Most of us still watched TV live, and didn’t have internet accounts, and drove to the store to get things rather than having things delivered to our doorstep.

Now, 1968 does feel like the very distant past, so distant that when I write a Smokey Dalton novel or a short story about one of the side characters, I sometimes find myself wondering how we handled emergency situations when 9-1-1 didn’t exist. Heck, in 1968, as my research told me, there were no such things as paramedics, so when an ambulance arrived at the scene of a shooting, the drivers pretty much did what Hemingway and his ambulance company did in World War I—they would load the wounded onto makeshift beds and drive like bats out of hell.

I see historical mystery and science-fiction mystery as similar genres, if not the same genre. (See? Told you I have genre issues.) As the writer of both kinds of stories, I have to make you understand the world before you can understand what has gone wrong inside of it. Modern novels set in cultures other than America or Great Britain have the same mandate: We have to understand before we can see the problems. (Even if the problem is a homicide.)

I love that challenge. I also like world-building and getting the details right. I love figuring out how something as small as two wet pairs of shoes (The Falls) or as large as a teenage girl getting raped in a community afraid to call the police (the most recent Smokey Dalton novel, Street Justice) fit into the entire storytelling package.

The best part about writing stories like that isn’t the idea or the research or even those moments of revelation when I figure out who dun what. The best part is writing myself into a corner that wouldn’t exist without the world building in that book, figuring out what went wrong and how my merry little band of characters can believably fix it.

That’s one reason I love writing short stories as well. Short stories always surprise me. First, that I can squeeze an entire crime and its solution into just a few pages, and second, that something that small can be satisfying.

I find short mystery fiction to be more satisfying than many mystery novels. I recently coedited Kobo Presents The Year’s Best Mystery and Crime Stories 2016 alongside John Helfers. My biggest fear, editing a book like that, was that I would soon tire of the short-mystery form—especially considering we hadn’t finalized our contract until the summer, so we had to cram a year’s worth of reading into three months.

My fear was unnecessary. The breadth and strength of the short-mystery market was amazing. I went to my reading chair with anticipation, not dread. The stories were so varied that I didn’t even feel like I had been trapped in a narrowly defined genre—because mystery isn’t narrow.

That’s why I can write romance novels with mystery overtones or mystery novels with romance overtones. Why I can have a classic murder mystery in a far-future sf novel or why I can have hints of an sf solution to my classic murder mystery short story.

I love playing with genre.

And I suppose I lied just a little. (That’s what we writers do: We lie as we search for the truth.) I do understand genre. I understand it well enough to see the lines, and then color inside, outside, and around them.

Just like I see the signs in a bookstore that show me where the mystery section is or the science-fiction section or the romance section. I look at the signs, and then I ignore them.

Reading—and writing—are a lot more fun that way.

I guess it’s really not a secret, if you look at my work.

But I hooked you, didn’t I, when I promised to tell you a secret? I gave this piece just an air of mystery. And I lied.

All great starts to a mystery.

Which is why mysteries are so fun.

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