Running With Marathon Man, or How I Stopped Worrying About Genre and Learned to Write Mystery (by Sylvia Maultash Warsh)

Sylvia Maultash Warsh is the author of the Dr. Rebecca Temple novels, one of which, Find Me Again, won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best paperback original in 2004. The other two books in the series were nominated for an Arthur Ellis Award (To Die in Spring) and a ReLit Award (Season of Iron). Her many short stories have been short-listed for both Arthur Ellis and Derringer awards.  Despite all this success in our genre, the gifted Canadian author wasn’t always sure she wanted to write mystery—as you’ll see in this post.  —Janet Hutchings

My serendipitous discovery of William Goldman’s novel, Marathon Man is a marker in my writing life. Before and after. In the Before stage, I spent too long shopping around a literary novel no publisher wanted to touch. I finally gave up and was licking my wounds, trying to distract myself by reading mystery novels. They were charming amusement and I loved them. Then I stumbled upon Marathon Man and realized that an entertaining book could have gravitas. It made me rethink what I wanted to write. Though many years have passed, I still remember thinking while I read it: if I could write a novel half as good as this one, I’d be happy.

I am a finicky reader. I don’t say this with pride but embarrassment. Some books considered essential reading for mystery writers gather dust in my library. I want to read them but have trouble getting past page three. It’s humbling to admit but I have precious little control over my mind. It thinks what it thinks. And if it thinks Nancy Drew is a bore, well, my eyes glaze over on page three. When I find a book I like, it’s a revelation. I was never a fan of thrillers, but Marathon Man pulled me into its life and wouldn’t let go. The story throws the reader around as much as any in the genre, but it also takes the time to develop character, devoting more pages than you’d expect to delineate the leading roles—Babe, Scylla, and Doc—though it’s painless because Goldman knows how to keep our attention. Sometimes you wonder if you’re actually in a thriller, then all hell breaks loose. Goldman doesn’t follow rules. He aims to entertain, but also takes great pains to make us understand.

The villain in the book, Szell, is a Nazi dentist who worked on concentration camp prisoners, but the emotional depth of the story arises out of family relationships. Babe and his older brother, Doc, are tied together by their tragic past: their father, a brilliant historian committed suicide after being accused of spying during the McCarthy era. (I only recently learned that Goldman’s own father had committed suicide.) Though the brothers live in different cities, they are close; Babe was ten when he discovered his father’s body. Afterwards Doc, ten years older, becomes a surrogate parent.

One of Goldman’s many talents lies in manipulating the reader, holding back crucial information until he deigns to reveal it. Deliberate obfuscation. But isn’t that why we read mysteries—to have the writer pull the wool over our eyes and then be thrilled when the blind is lifted bit by bit until the secret is revealed? Halfway through Marathon Man Goldman hits the reader with a gut punch. The construction of the book with its different points of view hides a key piece of information in plain sight. We have Babe, a brilliant grad student in history, who is training in New York’s Central Park to run a marathon; Scylla, a tough secret agent whose main job seems to be killing people; and Doc, traveling the world in the oil business. And there’s a short chapter about a mysterious unnamed man traveling in disguise from the Paraguayan jungle to Manhattan.

Doc comes to New York at Babe’s invitation to meet the woman he’s fallen in love with. In a swanky restaurant, Doc throws hostile questions at Elsa and implies that she has ulterior motives for her affair with Babe. Soon after the unnamed man arrives in New York, Scylla meets him in Central Park. From their conversation we know they have a working relationship. So we are astounded when the man pulls out a long switchblade knife attached to his arm and stabs Scylla in the stomach, leaving him for dead. It’s a brutal scene that was edited down in the film version because the preview audience found it too violent. Scylla manages to pull himself up and stumble away, holding his stomach together with his arms.

(Spoiler) The shock comes when Doc shows up at Babe’s door, mortally wounded. Only then, in an emotional moment of clarity, do we connect Scylla with Doc. Not wanting to die alone, he drags himself to Babe’s apartment to die in his brother’s arms. I’ve never forgotten that instant of realization, like scales dropping from the eyes. Goldman was a magician.

I envied him, playing mind games with the reader. I wanted some of that fun for myself. In the spirit of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, I lifted a few items from Marathon Man for my first mystery novel, To Die in Spring.

Though it is not original to Goldman, he uses chapters from different points of view to advantage. In the end, the sum of the parts creates a rich mine of character and setting. He performs sleight of hand by presenting three points of view which are, in fact, only two people. But I’m not Goldman (who is?) and the plot points in my book are less of a twist (by a wily writer) and more a result of events held back from the reader (by a writer trying to be wily). I admired his skill with structure and decided to include three points of view in my novel: Dr. Rebecca Temple, a young widow who practices medicine in Toronto in 1979; her patient, Goldie, who is paranoid after being tortured in Argentina in the 1970s by the junta; and Nesha, who survived the Holocaust as a child while most of his family were murdered.

Marathon Man is a chase, while To Die in Spring is a puzzle. The Scylla chapters move frenetically and once he’s killed, the pace ramps up for Babe. The Nazi can’t understand that Scylla, the double agent, struggled so hard to reach Babe in his final moments not to tell him the secret about the diamonds stored in the safe deposit box, but to die in his brother’s arms. The dentist tortures Babe by drilling into a nerve (tapping into our worst nightmares about dentists) but he’s a marathoner and manages to escape. I don’t enjoy reading or writing torture scenes, but Goldie’s past in Argentina required it. It was a similarity between our books that I hadn’t planned.

Putting together a puzzle is much harder than it looks. The pieces must all appear at odds but then must fall into place. It took me years of writing and rewriting to build the puzzle of the novel into a satisfying whole. It was an evolution from my “literary” past. What sets the genre story apart from the literary one is plot and structure. A literary book is forgiven for meandering if the writing is stellar. A mystery novel, not so much. Some people feel that genre stories are formulaic, but there is so much room to maneuver that they can be taken almost anywhere. The lines are often blurred and stories by literary authors like Margaret Atwood get awards for crime writing.

In homage to Goldman’s running theme, I had Rebecca take up speed walking. She is in mourning after the death of her young husband from complications of diabetes. As a doctor, she should have recognized the signs earlier and carries around guilt. To feel better, she buys new running shoes and speed walks through Kensington Market, a landmark as iconic to Toronto as Central Park is to New York. The settings in both books are focus points for much of the action. While both novels have Nazi villains, the dentist in Marathon Man is clearly defined as evil, while the officer in To Die in Spring, once identified, is more nuanced, almost bureaucratic, thereby more frightening.

In a weird coincidence, I wrote the Nesha character, with his soulful eyes and dark curly hair, with Dustin Hoffman in mind. The same actor who played Babe in the Marathon Man movie. After it was published, To Die in Spring was nominated for a Crime Writers of Canada award for best first novel. If not for Marathon Man, the book might never have been written.

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Revenge is a Dish Best Served with Brick and Mortar (by Andrew Bourelle)

Author of the acclaimed thriller novels 48 Hours to Kill and Heavy Metal, Andrew Bourelle has also coauthored with James Patterson the New York Times best sellers Texas Ranger and Texas Outlaw. His short stories have appeared in a number of literary magazines and in various anthologies. Two have been included in volumes of The Best American Mystery Stories. A professor at the University of New Mexico, Andrew makes his EQMM debut with the story “Blue Sky,” in our current issue (May/June 2022). In this post he discusses revenge as a motive for behavior pivotal to crime fiction. It’s a topic rarely addressed on this blog, and I think you’ll find his observations interesting!  —Janet Hutchings

I love revenge stories.

Revenge can be a powerful motivator for either the protagonist or antagonist. Whether you’ve read the thousand-page epic or not, you’re likely aware of Alexandre Dumas’s famous The Count of Monte Cristo, where the wrongly imprisoned Edmond Dantés exacts long-awaited revenge on the men who betrayed him. Dumas also uses revenge to drive the plot in Twenty Years After, the sequel to The Three Musketeers, only this time it’s the antagonist who seeks it.

How do you create a single villain that’s a worthy adversary for not one, not two, not three, but four of the greatest soldiers/swordsmen/adventurers in all of literature? You make the adversary motivated by revenge. The cold-blooded Mordaunt seems almost superhuman as he seeks to avenge his mother, Milady de Winter, executed in the first book as a result of her quarrels with the musketeers (in which, come to think of it, she too was motivated by revenge).

Recall that as much as Frankenstein is a science fiction novel about the dangers of scientific hubris, the plot itself is driven by revenge. First, the creature seeks revenge against Victor and is so motivated by it that he’s willing to kill innocent people to make his creator suffer. Then it’s Victor who seeks revenge, chasing the creature across the frozen ice fields of the arctic. At the end of the novel, neither character wants to go on living except to punish the other. As readers, I think we can empathize—at least at times—with both of them. Which brings me to what I love most about revenge stories: the moral ambiguity revenge stories must confront.

As readers, I think we can relate to the desire for revenge. However, the question looms: can or should characters go through with it? Even though someone else has committed evil, is the answer for the protagonist to commit evil in response? If revenge was easy, Hamlet would be a much shorter play. Instead, the prince of Denmark vacillates for pages and pages (or hours and hours on stage), debating how and why and if he should avenge his father, only for his journey to end with a long trail of bodies in his wake, including his own. Often, it seems, no one wins in a revenge tale.

We want the bad guys punished, yet we don’t want our heroes to lose their souls in doing so. But a good revenge story recognizes that it’s pretty much impossible to do the first without the second.

Plenty of mystery novels, new and old, grapple with elements of revenge in a variety of interesting and thought-provoking ways, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl to Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay to S.A. Cosby’s Razorblade Tears. The list goes on. However, my favorite revenge tale isn’t a novel but a short story: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” Pretty much everyone I know read this in a high school English class, but if you haven’t read it since, it’s worth revisiting.

You probably know the plot: In an unnamed Italian city, during Carnival, a nobleman named Montresor invites his enemy, Fortunato, into the catacombs beneath his home to sample the wine he’s recently purchased. Once there, however, we discover there is no cask of amontillado. It’s a trap. Montresor chains a drunk and confused Fortunato to a wall and proceeds to use brick and mortar to cover him up, essentially burying him alive.

The story evokes a claustrophobic dread, but what I love most about it are the indeterminacies that leave the reader wondering throughout. We don’t know what Fortunato has done to Montresor. The narrator claims he’s suffered a thousand injuries, but he doesn’t specify what they are. And Fortunato doesn’t seem to know. Or does he? After screaming for help, and then trying to laugh off what is happening as a good joke, he goes quiet. Is the silence indicative of his realization of what is actually happening—and why? We readers are left wondering just how crazy Montresor is. Or is he even remotely justified?

I love also what the point of view does for the story. This isn’t a third-person story where we’re getting the narrative through the lens of an objective, omniscient narrator. Montresor himself tells the story in first-person, narrating it with a double-I perspective a full fifty years after the events of the story. In short: This story is told by a man who got away with murder. And as much as he seems to come across as feeling no guilt for what he’s done, there are hints that the man telling the story did experience—or still does—at least some moral dilemma for his actions. At the end of the story, troubled by Fortunato’s silence, Montresor says his “heart grew sick”—then he quickly qualifies that this was because of the dampness of the catacombs. What a strange, eerie confession he is making. He readily admits to mocking Fortunato’s screams—of screaming back at him with even more zeal—yet his only hint of regret is excused as something else. The narration is made even more frightening by the fact that this is someone who’s had plenty of time to wrestle with the moral implications of what he’s done and this is the way he’s decided to tell his story? If the story was told in third-person, or in first but without the fifty-year remove, I don’t think it would be nearly as creepy.

I find in my writing that I’m often grappling with questions associated with revenge. In my latest book, 48 Hours to Kill, a prison inmate has a forty-eight-hour furlough to find who is responsible for his sister’s murder. What he’s going to do with the person or persons if he finds them (bring them to justice or exact his own personal revenge) looms in the protagonist’s mind during the hunt. Similarly, my short story “Cowboy Justice,” found in The Best American Mystery Stories 2015, is about two brothers who take the law into their own hands to avenge their other brother against drug dealers. They find that revenge comes with a high, horrifying cost. In my latest story, “Blue Sky,” out in the new May/June issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, revenge isn’t a major part of the narrative, but there’s definitely an “I’ll get you for this” moment instrumental to the plot.

I love revenge stories not because—or not just because—of what the revenge can do for the plot, but because of what the revenge says about characters. The lengths a character will go for revenge—and how they feel about what they’ve done or are doing—says a lot about them. For good or bad. Case in point: Montresor. It’s one thing to bury someone alive for insults, real or imagined. It’s another altogether to live with the crime for fifty years and still tell yourself you’re okay with it.

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How to Flip Eggs and Influence People (by Tyler Fiecke)

Minnesotan Tyler Fiecke makes his fiction debut in EQMM’s current issue (May/June 2022) with the story “Runner.” A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, he makes his living as a chef and has been part of the culinary scene around the Twin Cities for over ten years. Although his debut story is not centered around that scene, the characters in his stories often derive from people he’s met in his career, for he enjoys exploring character through people’s eating preferences—as he explains in this post. —Janet Hutchings

When I read Anthony Bourdain’s first crime-fiction novel, Bone in the Throat, my mind was opened to the fantastic world of “normal” people.

The story was about an unremarkable, heroin-junkie chef from New York City who got himself caught up in the last dying vestiges of la cosa nostra, an FBI investigation, and a murder. It was the first fictional account I’d come across where the characters were regular working-class restaurant people. That was the first time I had married in my mind the characters of fiction and the real world.

Before then, aside from mass market paperbacks inherited from friends and uncles, my reading was composed of the classics, the ones we all read in high school. I’d met Gatsby, Holden, Piggy, Lizzie Bennett, and Captain Ahab. I had visited the dystopian world of Orwell and the seaside lilt of Hemingway. Bourdain dropped me into a broken-down kitchen with bad lighting and no ventilation, tucked beneath a New York city street. There, nothing ever happened . . . until it did.

When I opened Bourdain’s slim paperback I met “The Chef.” He wasn’t handsome, rich, or on television. He had a crumbling lower-left molar, a bad back, and no health insurance. His living situation was squalid and tenuous at best, just barely avoiding homelessness by the skin of his next payroll check. He had a not-so-secret heroin habit and I followed him to the Lower East Side to score dope in an open drug market with an ingenious system of “customer” screening. He lived with the conscious awareness that he was not especially talented or TV worthy. He was not, and would never be, Paul Bocuse. He was a workaday line cook who had just enough capacity for leadership to be put in charge of a half-dozen burnouts and a pile of broken equipment. The chef was trusted by an owner to bang out just-decent-enough food for a less than discerning public, and to not poison anybody with bad shellfish while at it.

What I loved about Bourdain’s book was that he saw everybody. So many small characters received fair consideration to enter the stage. I met a frustrated server who wanted to be an actress. She wasn’t sultry or sexualized. She was a person, working a job, living her life. There was an immigrant bus boy with no motivation other than to work three jobs and send money South. Neither of them got involved in the main plot. They all made the story lovable. Any one of those persons could have been overlooked. Bourdain saw them.

Bourdain also gave me, a marginally-talented chef myself, the permission to pursue my dream of writing fiction. Growing up in a small Minnesota town, I never believed writers were people like me. Writers were intellectuals with large glasses, tweed blazers, and fluffy hair. They were from big cities and had big lives. I didn’t see people like me represented in stories or by storytellers. It took Bourdain and his little crime novel to give me the belief that I could write and that I had interesting stories to tell. I began to see a novel or short story everywhere I looked.  

I saw the quasi-legal immigrant standing next to me, day by day, dunking fries in hot grease for wages most would never consider. I saw a story, a heroic one at that. What had this person gone through to get to America to do a job that nobody else wanted? Why was he so impossibly cheerful and hardworking? How does he never get sick? 

Often, as crime and mystery writers, we tend to think in terms of really good guys and really bad guys. We line up teams of gumshoe cops against well organized, professional robbers. But most criminals and many of life’s mysteries occur more casually. They can’t all be brilliant villains with a panache for showmanship and rhyming in their magazine-clip-out ransom letters. Look in the police reports of your local newspaper. Follow a local Sheriff’s Department on Facebook. You will see that most criminals are far from evil geniuses. They are drunks, addicts, and perpetual screwups with more bad luck than good. The average real-life hero is just a person who goes to work, pays some bills on time, eats meatloaf in front of the TV, and forgoes a life of crime.

As a chef, Bourdain had a very specific style of handling what and how his characters ate and drank. It was realistic and humanizing and unforgettable. In one memorable scene, pecan pancakes were smothered in butter and syrup, cut up into even bite-sized pieces so that Tommy could pop them into his mouth left handed while he handled his newspaper with the right. It was pleasantly quaint and quiet, a breakfast anyone has had a dozen times. Then, an FBI investigator walks in to harass Tommy about what his wannabe-gangster uncle may have done in the restaurant after hours. The agent then exits the diner, leaving Tommy, and his breakfast, completely ruined. It was deliciously unforgettable.

Just like shoes and haircuts, you can tell a lot about a person by what they eat and drink. Better yet, you can tell a lot about a person by how they like their eggs.

Imagine a soft-scrambled with goat cheese type of guy who watches Gordon Ramsay videos on Youtube? That guy might be the type to iron his underwear and obsess over germs on door handles. Maybe he always wanted to be a chef and became enraged with a local restaurant owner after they refused to hire him due to lack of professional experience.

How about a grown woman who makes herself an egg-in-the-hole? I would imagine that someone who goes through the hassle of making egg-in-the-hole as a grownup must have deep emotional connections to the dish. Maybe she was close to her grandmother, who died early, lacking proper medical care, due to prescription drug costs. The granddaughter now stands over her non-stick pan, buttering a slice of brioche as she contemplates bludgeoning the local prescription-drug sales rep.

Consider the thirtysome-year-old single male who makes an omelet stuffed with American cheese then smothers it in hot sauce. I’d be willing to bet that that guy knows at least one local weed dealer. What if the two of them hatch a hair-brained scheme to knock over a card game and buy some herb in bulk? What if the two of them get away with it and nobody ever finds out? I bet that American-cheese-omelet guy clocks in at a convenience store the next day and takes his brush with criminality with him to the grave. But, before going home, he buys himself a dozen eggs, so he can have an omelet for breakfast.

It’s the little details that make us love the characters who populate our stories. Those are the things that I want to know. Those are the details we never forget. Little details are what made Bone in the Throat a special book.

So, how do you like your eggs?

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In Praise of the Long Story (or Novella/Novelette) (by Daniel C. Bartlett)

Daniel C. Bartlett’s short fiction has appeared in a number of literary and crime-fiction publications, including Iron Horse Literary Review, Chiron Review, and Mystery Magazine. He’s also a novelist whose first book has been signed with a literary agent while a second nears completion. He’s comfortable writing both short and long fiction, but in this post he discusses the ground in between: the long story or “novella.” If you want a good example of the form, you need look no further than his story “A Complicated History,” in EQMM’s current issue (May/June 2022). It’s his EQMM debut! —Janet Hutchings

Flash fiction, short story, long story, novelette, novella, novel. Personally, I love all lengths and types of mystery fiction. What intrigues me is that each distinct form has its unique allure. So I wanted to reflect a bit on what I find appealing about those works that are longer than a typical short story but shorter than a typical novel.

I’m thinking of those stories that might be called long stories, novellas, or novelettes. Depending on who you ask, there might be some specifications that distinguish these. But those distinctions aren’t always clear and aren’t even consistent. What’s the minimum word count for a long story? What’s the maximum? Is a novella the same as a novelette? Is a novelette just a short novel? The answers to these questions vary. And honestly, that’s fine. I’m not one for strict rules.

So for my purposes here, I’ll refer to the long story, the novella, and novelette interchangeably. What interests me is the novella or long story’s unique position as not exactly a short story but not quite a novel. Existing obscurely in the range between the short story and the novel, the novella utilizes techniques of both long and short fiction. What I love about the novella or long story, is that it’s a hybrid form that can offer readers and writers the appealing attributes of two distinct forms of fiction.

The novella is at once extended like a novel and compact like a short story.

Fans of mystery stories are probably familiar with Edgar Allan Poe’s writing as well as his critical ideas. Poe was a proponent of the short story form, and he established what he considered some rules of the form. Poe cites unity of effect, brevity, and writing toward a denouement as the principle guiding factors in the short story form. Of course, Poe also described conventions he identified as essential to detective fiction as well, but my focus here is on unique aspects of short, intermediate, and long fiction.

Although Poe’s “rules” for writing might seem a little narrow to contemporary writers and readers, his guidelines do point to some generally helpful insights. Poe argues that the power of the short story lies in its focus upon a single character, event, emotion, or the series of emotions brought about by a single event. The short story’s narrative method, according to Poe’s requirement for unity, brevity, and singularity of effect, is intensively focused selection of details. I tend to think there’s some accuracy to Poe’s idea, although again, I’m not advocating for particular rules. There are always wonderful exceptions, but generally speaking a short story likely doesn’t hold together all that well if it ventures too far beyond its primary focus.

For Poe, and probably also for devotees of the short story form, the short story’s concision and singular focus give the form an artistic advantage over longer forms, such as the novel. Readers can read a complete short story in one sitting, but readers more likely must come and go from the novel, breaking the unified impression. For Poe, that meant that novels could not benefit from what he referred to as totality. Novels generally extend beyond the focused selection of short stories. Whereas the short story generally operates by limiting, selecting, and focusing, we can generalize that the novel functions by developing and expanding the narrative elements—more developed characters, sub-plots, scenes, backstory, and so on.

The long story/novella, however, has a unique ability to maintain focused, singular intensity while more fully developing and expanding the story. So the long story/novella’s length enables writers to focus primarily upon a single narrative component (much like the short story) but to also expand the development of the narrative so that it achieves the wider implications and overall wholeness of the novel.

In general, the novella can elaborate beyond the scope of the short story. And, in general, the novella can attain a more unified effect than the novel. One of the primary flexibilities of the novella, as opposed to the short story, is that there is space to develop multiple points of view, multiple characters, and multiple plot-lines, and to develop them in the extended manner often found in the novel. However, the novella remains limited as to the number of points of view, characters, and plot-lines, and the depth of complexity of each perspective established. Whereas the novel can develop multiple points of view in depth, the novella risks losing its unity if it takes too many points of view too far.

Certainly, a well-crafted novel requires its own degree of selectivity and focus. The novella, however, demands a higher degree of selectivity, unity, and focus. In fact, the form generally relies upon such techniques for its narrative method. Likewise, it would be an overgeneralization to suggest that a short story cannot expand to reveal a full experience, a full life, or a full social setting. Yet the novella is capable of doing so to a greater extent.

The typical novella must expand and develop beyond the typical short story and must compress and select more than the typical novel. At once too short (to be a novel) and too long (to be a short story), novellas give readers something amazing: the intensity of the short story AND the expansion of the novel. The novella provides the ideal form for readers and writers who want an intense, concentrated emotional effect but also want a more fully developed story that creates a larger sense of experience.

In order to avoid playing favorites here, and because I love such a range of mystery types, I’ll leave it to readers to think of examples that have grabbed their attention. I just wanted to take a moment to appreciate the unique power and effect of those intermediate-length stories. If you’ll forgive the use of a cliché, novellas/long stories are able to give readers the best of both worlds.

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The Scariest Part of Writing Mysteries: The Beginning, the Middle, and the End (by Sharyn Kolberg)

The author of many popular nonfiction books, Sharyn Kolberg is a relative newcomer to fiction writing. She makes her EQMM debut in the issue that goes on sale next week (May/June 2022), with the story “The Thesaurus of Love and Death”; her previous stories appeared in Mystery Weekly Magazine, Literal Latte, Mensa Bulletin Fiction Issue, and Akashic Books’ Mondays Are Murder. She tells EQMM that she’s just completed her first novel, One Bam, Two Crak, and is at work on a second entitled Shoots and Ladders. She’s off to a great start, but as you’ll read in this post, like many fiction writers, newcomers or veterans, she often has to deal with the daunting fear of the blank page.   —Janet Hutchings

I am not a particularly anxious person. There are, of course, some first-world situations that I find super scary. Killing spiders. Driving on major highways. Writing mysteries.

These are things I can almost always avoid. If I see a spider, I can run away. I’m usually able to find a backroads route to travel instead of a high-speed four-lane roadway. And nobody puts a gun to my head to write mysteries. I do it of my own free will, even though just the thought of it sends shivers up and down my spine.

That’s just me. I’m sure there are people who don’t feel that way at all, who revel in the creative process, who view the whole activity in a positive light. Don’t get me wrong—I love the challenge, the freedom, the self-expression of writing. It just scares me to death. Every part of it. Especially . . .

The Beginning:
I have an idea. It’s just a little one, nibbling at a corner of my mind. Maybe it’s a name or a setting or even a half-baked plot. The idea turns into a thought: This could be story. This could be torture is more like it. Because no matter how many stories I’ve previously written, my second thought is always: I don’t know where to start. I’m not sure if everyone has this thought, but I am pretty confident I’m not the only one who experiences, at least to some degree, this kind of insecurity when starting a story.

It’s nerve-racking, staring at a blank page, trying everything I can think of as a way to begin. That’s how procrastination is born and grows into the frightening monster that lives inside me. It’s funny that when I am about to start a new story, I suddenly have a plethora of urgent errands I have to run. Or I forget to put my earrings in and I can’t possibly write with naked ears. I’m hungry; I’ll start after lunch. But wait, I write better in the a.m., so maybe I’ll just begin tomorrow morning. Or maybe I won’t start at all.

I’ve learned that I work best under pressure. There’s nothing like a deadline to get your creative juices flowing, whether it’s to comply with a submissions window or to meet a self-imposed goal. It’s one of the reasons I belong to a writer’s group—at some point I have to put on my big girl panties and submit whatever I’ve got. Which means I have to work backwards, calendar-wise, and figure out exactly when I’ll have to start in order to complete the aforementioned “assignment.”

So exactly how do I begin? Decisions have to be made. I could start with an action (Suzie Q picked up the gun. It went off.)? I could start with an image that helps the reader slip into the appropriate mood, time, or space (Suzie Q’s room made me think that a train loaded with yesterday’s pizza had exploded in it.)? Or I could start with a question that pulls the reader in immediately because they have to know the answer (How could Susie Q’s murderer gain entrance when the door was locked?).

The best part of beginning is that it’s never written in stone. Most writers I know frequently change the beginning—especially the opening sequence—of a story several times before they deem it publisher-worthy. And that’s a good thing, because those changes often lead me in a different—and usually better—direction than I initially imagined. You can research all you want, you can outline to your heart’s content, but eventually it all comes back to a variation of the old quote from Lao Tzu: A journey of a dozen pages begins with a single word. Even though the scariest part is actually . . .

The Middle:
You’ve gotten the basics out of the way. You’ve set the stage (Gritty city streets? Old country estate? Suburban sprawl?). You’ve introduced your main character (Aging Private Eye? Middle-aged amateur sleuth? Millennial innocent bystander suddenly drawn into dangerous situation?). Your first dead body has been discovered (Hidden amongst the mayor’s forsythias? Thrown into the highrise’s garbage chute? Face down in the back alley behind the protagonist’s small-town pickle shop?).  

It is time for the plot to be thickened.

Ah, the plot. In order for you to build one of those, you have to know what’s going to happen in your narrative. Right? Maybe, maybe not. Most of the time, I have no idea where my story is going. I belong to the tribe of no-outliners. I know there are people who lay out the plot step by step and then follow along as they write. I wish I could do that. If I had a roadmap of my story all laid out before I got bogged down in the “what’s next” swamp of ideas, it would probably reduce the fear factor by a lot. And outlining does work for many writers. Just not for me.

I follow my instincts from one word to another, from one plot point to the next. This sometimes propels me to go north when I thought I was heading south, east when I swore I needed to go west. Often, this “seat of pants” kind of writing leads me to a totally unexpected situation; a character I’ve never met before jumps onto my page; or someone I thought was a charming hero turns into a crafty villain.

While I have learned that for me, writing means being as flexible as an Olympic gymnast, I’ve also learned to keep this old saw in mind: everything happens for a reason. In a mystery—especially a short one—reckless zigging and zagging is for first drafts, and must be followed by careful editing to make sure there are clear signposts readers can follow to a satisfying conclusion.

Most importantly, I have learned that I have to have faith in myself and my gut to keep going even when I’m lost in the weeds. I have to trust that eventually I’ll get to . . .

The End:
To me, the ending is really the scariest part of writing a mystery. There’s so much anxiety involved. How can I satisfy myself as well as each and every reader? I probably can’t; all I can do is write. And edit. And rewrite. And finally realize that I have indeed finished this book or this story and it’s time to give it wings and send it out into the cosmos.

There’s nothing worse than enjoying a short story or novel and coming to a weak and disappointing ending. All those crooked pathways have to merge; red herrings, false clues, and distractions must be revealed. Lingering questions can linger no more. Even a surprise twist at the end has to come from somewhere, lest you leave your readers feeling frustrated or cheated (unless, of course, you want to leave some things to be resolved in the next installment).

Getting to the end can also be the most fun. You’ve been traveling through a universe only you could have created, and although there have been detours, a couple of traffic jams, and maybe even a train wreck or two along the way, the journey has been well worth it. There are many avenues to solving a mystery, even if some of them have sent you hiding in the closet.

I was channel surfing the other day and came upon a Hallmark movie where somebody’s grandmother was dying. Okay, so I was actually watching the movie. On her deathbed, Grandma turned to the used-to-be child star of the film, who was facing the usual anxious-to-fall-in-love-but-scared-of-heartbreak dilemma and said, and I paraphrase, “All you have to do is face up to the scary and the rest is easy.” Sometimes the truth comes from the strangest places. Hallmark or not, I think Grandma had the right idea.

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Is it Real or is it Fictionex? (by Rebecca K. Jones)

Rebecca K. Jones made her fiction debut in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in September/October 2009 with a story cowritten with her father, frequent EQMM contributor and translator Josh Pachter.  This month, her first novel, Steadying the Ark, was published. In the intervening years, she sold several more short stories and worked as a sex-crimes prosecutor in Arizona. In this post she answers a question most fiction writers get asked at some point—How much of your work is based on real incidents and real people? The question, as she illustrates, often has special significance for those employed by the government or in possession of confidential information.  —Janet Hutchings

The most common question I get about my writing is “How much of it is real?”  I imagine this is true for most writers who write fiction set within the world of their day job—from veterinarians to cops—and since I almost always write about a youngish female prosecutor in Arizona and I am a youngish female prosecutor in Arizona, I understand the impulse to ask.  My answer, much to people’s surprise, is “None of it . . . almost.”

I was raised by parents who were voracious readers in homes that were filled with books, and both of them inspired in me an early love of good stories. My dad is also a writer whose name will be familiar to readers of EQMM: Josh Pachter. His stories and translations have been appearing in EQMM, AHMM, and many other magazines and anthologies since the 1960s, and I was aware even as a child that my father and many of his friends were published authors. As a result, becoming a published author myself never seemed that out of reach. My first short story, “History on the Bedroom Wall,” was co-written with my dad and appeared in EQMM in 2009.  That story was set at Middlebury College, where I did my undergraduate work, but the people populating my version of Middlebury, and the story itself, were entirely fictional.

Since that first story, I’ve written several more and done two French to English translations of stories by Thomas Narcejac, all of which have appeared in various magazines and anthologies.  The short stories, and my debut novel, have all featured Mackenzie Wilson, a gay prosecutor in Arizona who rises through the ranks at the Tucson District Attorney’s Office and has adventures in all of her assignments. 

Many people enroll in law school not knowing what kind of law they want to practice, but I knew before my first day of classes that my goal was to be a sex-crimes prosecutor. In fact, I knew at sixteen that that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up. When I joined the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in 2012, my dream was to make it to the sex-crimes unit, an elite group of senior prosecutors, in five years. But at that time the office was still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis, and I wound up in sex crimes only fourteen months after beginning my career as a prosecutor.

In 2015, I’d already written the first short story featuring Mack Wilson (although it didn’t find a home for several years), and I had really enjoyed writing about her.  Mack’s life as a prosecutor is almost entirely dissimilar to my own, but who wants to read a book about someone who sits behind a desk all day and goes home at five?  So it was with Mack in mind that I set out to participate in National Novel Writing Month, and I decided to write about what I knew, just a more interesting version.

I wanted to write a courtroom drama, a thriller in the style of the authors I most often read: Marcia Clark, Linda Fairstein, John Lescroart, and Michael Connelly. I was focused on two things: writing a compelling story in which my protagonist would face realistic challenges—both professional and personal—and writing fiction

It was the fiction part that was the challenge. My workload at the time averaged around seventy-five cases on any given day, and I was handling somewhere around two hundred separate cases a year. By the time I began my NaNoWriMo project, I had accumulated approximately six hundred real-life fact patterns just from my own cases—not to mention the hundreds of my colleagues’ cases we’d discussed and the many cases I’d heard about during my training—and to avoid any potential ethical issues I had to avoid borrowing from any of them.  Although it is theoretically possible to fictionalize real cases without crossing ethical lines, I’ve never wanted to even come close to a gray area.  Although there is an advantage to fictionalizing real cases, that I don’t have to use time inventing a plot, there is also the possibility of a serious disadvantage—I could get in trouble with my employer or the bar association. The worst-case scenario is that a defendant I prosecuted could conceivably have grounds for an appeal or a post-conviction relief action.  Weighing all those factors, it has never seemed worth it to me to take the risk.  I would think that this is a concern for any author who has a day job where they’re dealing with confidential (or even just personal) information, and it should be especially true for government employees who work as arbiters of justice.

When an attorney handles a large number of cases with similar subject matter, patterns emerge. This was true for me during my years in sex crimes (and, later, in four years of handling drug-trafficking cases), and I know from colleagues that it’s true in a wide variety of other kinds of cases, too.  My familiarity with these patterns allowed me to paint, in very broad strokes, the outlines of two main cases for Mack Wilson to face: a complex child-molest case involving multiple victims and a straightforward voyeurism trial. There were also some additional elements I wanted to explore in the book—arcane LDS theology, common defense strategies in cases that seem heavily weighted in the state’s favor, and what happens when politics get in the way of a dedicated line prosecutor in her pursuit of justice. 

In my first drafts, regardless of the length of the piece, I always try just to tell the story, and I don’t worry too much about elements of real cases sneaking in. Mack has never retried any of the actual cases I’ve handled, and I always let my invented plots dictate the specifics of the situations she faces. My knowledge of the system informs my first drafts much more than the facts of any of my real-world cases. I write stories that are accurate in terms of the way a case proceeds through the system and in how prosecutors cope with the darkness they face every day. 

As I revise those first drafts, though, I constantly test elements of Mack’s cases. Where did this idea come from? Did I have a case that included this fact? Did I hear about a case where something similar to this really happened? 

Part of my revision process for the book involved having friends I’d made in the sex-crimes unit read drafts. Their input made the book stronger in many ways, but my primary question was always Do you recognize any of this? Revision was a lengthy process, but by the end I was satisfied that no elements of Mack’s cases were taken from my own or my colleagues’ cases. 

Similarly, I always need to be sure that none of the people in Mack’s world are based on real people. Mack works with cops, defense attorneys, judges, and a wide variety of child-abuse professionals. I worked with all of those categories of people when I had Mack’s job, and I still work with cops, defense attorneys, and judges today. It is important to me—both in theory and because I write fiction, not memoir—that none of the people in Mack’s world should be based on real people. I wanted to avoid any chance that people I know might read my work and find themselves speculating about the “real” identities of my fictional characters. Instead, I again think about the patterns I’ve noticed and let the plot dictate the specifics. As a result, there are no real people in my fiction . . . well, with one exception. 

There is in fact one real person in Mack’s fictional world—an attorney I met when we were both new sex-crimes prosecutors and who has become one of my very best friends. I didn’t set out to include her in Steadying the Ark, but Mack needed a mentor and a friend, and I couldn’t invent one that was better than the one I knew in real life. In my first draft, I let what I knew about my friend Elizabeth shape the character of Jess Lafayette, with the intention of ultimately editing Jess into fiction. When I began to revise, though, I couldn’t bring myself to divorce Jess from my friend.  I eventually asked Elizabeth if it would be okay to include a character closely based on her in my otherwise fictional world. “As long as I don’t turn out to be the killer,” she said, and that seemed like a reasonable request. 

Regardless of whether Mack is appearing in a short story or a novel, my process for ensuring the separation between her world and mine is the same.  Bella Books, which published Steadying the Ark this March, has asked me to turn Mack Wilson into a series character, which means I will continue to repeat this process.

As I very slowly start working on the sequel, I find myself stepping outside my comfort zone. In this second book, Mack will be handling homicides—which are a kind of case I’ve never dealt with myself. For my outline and first draft, I’ve been following the same method I always use: just telling the story. When it comes time to revise, I will have to rely heavily on homicide trainings I’ve attended and the experiences of my friends and colleagues. I’ll ask the same kinds of questions, and change details accordingly if anything from reality has snuck into my fiction. 

My hope is that people who read my books will walk away not merely entertained but with a sense of how the justice system works—at least in Arizona, at least from a prosecutor’s perspective. Although the stories are invented, and so are (almost) all of the people, the emotions, the high-stakes atmosphere, and the passion are very real. Those qualities, I think, are what make for a compelling story. I hope I’ve done them all justice!

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A Comeback for the Cozy Mystery? (by Janet Hutchings)

The traditional or “cozy” mystery seems to be enjoying something of a resurgence. At EQMM, we are currently seeing a slight uptick in that type of mystery in our short-story submissions, after years of it being a rarity. Novels in the cozy genre also seem to be garnering more attention, if recent articles in the Atlantic and at CrimeReads are anything to go by. It’s also notable that for the first time in a long time this year’s best-short-story Edgar nominations include a story that not only falls into the cozy genre but into the more specialized “impossible crime” subgenre of the cozy. I’m referring, of course, to Gigi Pandian’s “The Locked Room Library” (EQMM July/August 2021).

What constitutes a traditional or cozy mystery is open to discussion, and I think everyone would acknowledge that the understanding of the boundaries of the category have changed over time. Malice Domestic, the convention held each April in the Washington D.C. area, began as an event pretty sharply focused on the work of writers in the so-called “Golden Age” tradition, with its awards called “Agathas” and its “ghosts of honor” writers whose very names were enough to tell a prospective attendee what the gathering was all about. The Malice website still says, “The genre is loosely defined as mysteries that contain no explicit sex, excessive gore, or gratuitous violence, and would not be classified as ‘hard-boiled.’” Ellery Queen was incontestably an author of traditional mysteries, and I think if Frederic Dannay (one of the two cousins who wrote as Ellery Queen) were still alive, his definition of a traditional or cozy mystery might still include “fairness to the reader.” Maybe he’d also want to include a few of the  rules for the form famously laid down by Golden Age writer Ronald Knox in his Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction, one of which was: “No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.”

Even at the time Malice was launched, in 1989, there were young writers in attendance and emerging on the mystery stage who would stretch the existing understanding of the genre’s borders. There was a ferment of creativity taking place, and rules such as Knox’s would soon be seen as too restrictive and artificial. Writers such as Nancy Pickard, Margaret Maron, and Sharyn McCrumb were marrying stories about contemporary life, with fully fleshed characters, to whodunit plotting. And in real life, of course, things such as intuition and accident play a role.

If we want to get a quick insight into how far the cozy genre has evolved in the thirty-plus years since Malice Domestic began, we can take a look at this year’s guest-of-honor list, which includes the celebrated author Walter Mosley, who would be argued by many to be one of the great literary descendants of Raymond Chandler—an ideal representative, therefore, of the school of crime fiction with which the cozy genre is usually contrasted.

What is really happening, I think, is not only that category definitions are expanding but that many writers, of both once-opposing schools, are now embodying elements of all different sorts of crime fiction in their work. One thing that I think must be maintained as part of our understanding of a “cozy,” however, is that the story take place in an ambiance in which order is pretty much the norm and violence at least a relative aberration. It’s hard to imagine a true “mean streets” crime story, where completely random violence can be expected, satisfying either the community of cozy readers or the demands of a complex whodunit plot. In the genre’s early years cozies were often set in a closed environment such as an isolated country house in order to limit suspects and narrow possible solutions to the crime sufficiently to allow deduction. Partly because of the artificiality of such settings, the books were considered escapist fiction, meant entirely to entertain, and often romantic subplots and humor were included. We don’t consistently find all of those elements in modern cozies, but we do, I think, still expect the crime in question to stand out—to be anomalous.

In June of 2020, in my post “Reading in a Time of Crisis,” I noted that fiction of an escapist nature had proved popular during previous crises, such as World War II. Readers had wanted, and writers provided, stories that did not directly confront the hardships or violence being endured. I will not be entirely surprised, therefore, if it turns out that the cozy genre has in fact gained ground during the years of COVID. But I have a concern about how the period in our history that we now seem to be entering may affect the genre. The world of cozy fiction may, even today, be somewhat more artificial than what one finds in hard-boiled or noir fiction, but no fiction can remove itself too far from the reality of the society it depicts without becoming unconvincing. In order to entertain readers and afford some escape from reality, it’s necessary, first, to get readers to believe in the fictional world being created.  And the post-COVID world is becoming so astonishingly—and randomly—violent that I’m beginning to wonder how it will be dealt with by upcoming writers of the traditional mystery.

It’s not just the amount of violence we’re currently experiencing that has got me thinking along these lines: Murder rates in the U.S. are still way lower than they were forty years ago. It’s that we’re starting to see more violence reported in places such as private homes and on means of transportation and so forth (settings often employed by cozy writers) and that there seems to be more brazenness and less discernible motivation for many of the crimes. These are trends that I suspect it will be hard to reflect in the context of a cozy, but we’ll see. The genre is constantly being reinvented!

—Janet Hutchings

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James Crumley’s Unfilmable Masterpiece (by Jameson Trahearne)

Jameson Trahearne is a pseudonymous new writer whose pen name, first and last, is taken from characters in the novels of James Crumley. In this post, one of Crumley’s great novels, The Last Good Kiss, is examined in detail. We must warn readers in the strongest way, however, that the post is not intended for those who have yet to read the book. Key elements of the plot are revealed! We can’t tell you much about Jameson Trahearne himself, other than that he is a Cincinnati native who is fascinated by his city; he is scrupulous in maintaining his pseudonym. His fiction debut, “Rising Sun,” appears in the Department of First Stories in our current issue (March/April 2022). —Janet Hutchings 

In 1978, James Crumley published his second private eye novel, The Last Good Kiss. Like his other works, it was a modest seller. Or, as some like to say, it had a cult following. But its standing in the pantheon of hardboiled private detective novels is manifest. Many of the greats, including Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, Craig McDonald, and others, cite Kiss as both a huge influence on their own career, and revere it as one of the very best examples of the genre. Consider Pelacanos’s words on the subject: “If you asked us to name one book that got us jacked up to write crime novels, it would be The Last Good Kiss. It showed us a crime novel could be about something bigger than the mystery itself.” Unlike other influential entries in the genre, however, Kiss has never been adapted for television or film. Why? The answer is as simple and straightforward as could be, and if you haven’t read it, you’ll hate me for telling you why.

First, some context. Born in Three Rivers, Texas to an oil-rig worker, Crumley spent his early adulthood in R.O.T.C. programs and playing football for various colleges before a three-year stint in the U.S. Army. A few years later he bartended his way through the Iowa Writers Workshop, the result of which is his sole non-private detective novel, the often-overlooked war story One to Count Cadence. Set in 1962 in both the Philippines and Vietnam, Crumley’s protagonist steadily loses faith in America and its romantic myths, a theme the author would continue to mine for the rest of his career.

Then, as the story goes, the poet Richard Hugo gave Crumley some advice: read Raymond Chandler, if not for the private detective stories, then for the quality of his sentences. Partake of just one chapter of any Crumley novel and you can see he took that advice to heart. Throughout his works, Crumley’s sentences are as poetic and beautiful as any a reader will find in the genre. Consider the opening of The Last Good Kiss, what some regard as the finest first sentence of any private detective novel:

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

In Kiss, via a series of events we find out later were carefully orchestrated by Trahearne—a famous novelist—Crumley’s protagonist C.W. Sugrue agrees to search for the long-disappeared daughter of the owner of the “ramshackle joint.” Sugrue is given only a few pieces of information to work with to find Betty Sue Flowers: the time and place of her disappearance, the names of her then boyfriend and drama teacher, and a copy of her high-school yearbook photo. The quest initially plays out like a road-trip buddy comedy, where Sugrue and Trahearne traipse around the American West, pulling on years-old threads of Betty Sue’s tragic tapestry as they booze and brawl from one faded memory to another.

At the same time Sugrue’s employer, Trahearne’s ex-wife, is expecting her ex-husband back at their homestead in Montana, where a troubled marriage to his current wife, Melinda, awaits him. Each clue to Betty Sue’s whereabouts not only reveals that the men she encountered became intensely infatuated with her, but now—many years later—the resulting obsession has fairly well ruined their lives. She has that effect on every man she meets—a group that now includes Sugrue.

I won’t give away the rest of the story (or at least, not too much of it), but if you haven’t read Kiss, please stop reading this blog now and go buy the novel, because (Unforgivable Spoiler Alert!), I am about to give away the climax of the second act, which also reveals why The Last Good Kiss is unfilmable.

I will pause for a few sentences to give you a chance to think about it. Otherwise, what awaits is that particularly terrible experience where someone gives away the secret to films like The Sixth Sense or The Crying Game—both happened to me, by the way—where a reveal so monumental awaits that to hear it beforehand will truly spoil your experience of the story.

(No doubt I will burn in some kind of Jim Thompson-esque hell for writing this blog entry, but I do have one justification: Kiss has nigh on disappeared from the crime/mystery marketplace. I think it’s worth risking the secret to bring the novel to the attention of the readers of this blog.)

Last chance . . .

Eventually Sugrue catches up with Betty Sue only to discover he had been played all along. Betty Sue turns out to be Melinda, Trahearne’s second wife. Trahearne is so insanely jealous—so absolutely convinced Melinda has been cheating on him, that he not only has become impotent and unable to write any more, but he concocted this entire plot so he could ride along with a P.I. to discover everything about Melinda’s past. The reunion at the homestead doesn’t go well, and…well, I won’t spoil the rest of the novel. I’ve done enough damage as it is.

Through the lens of his post Vietnam war jaded romanticism, Crumley repeatedly explored what he called “human foolishness,” especially the foolishness of men. Nowhere does he do it as well as in the pages of this story. All the men are not only infatuated with Betty Sue, but the resulting impulse to control her invariably led to tragedy befalling her or the people she is close to. Betty Sue just wanted to live her life as she saw fit, but these men simply could not allow it.

Only Sugrue narrowly avoids this misogyny trap—Crumley’s way of intimating there might be some small hope for foolish men, including, one might infer, the men reading the novel.

At this point you might wonder: if Kiss is so great, why haven’t we seen it on screen? By now the answer should be obvious: Anyone reading the descriptions of Betty Sue wouldn’t make the connection to the descriptions of Melinda. The fact that they are one and the same person is a terrific reveal. The clues are there, to be sure, and I haven’t encountered anyone who feels cheated by this aspect of the story. It works. It really works.

Any contemporary television or film audience, however, wouldn’t be fooled so easily. Even if the director took great pains to make the actress playing Betty Sue appear remarkably different than Melinda, it’s easy to understand how the risk would be considered too great to take. If the viewing audience were to figure out beforehand that Betty Sue and Melinda are the same person, the film or television show would no doubt come off as either condescending or dumb. No one wants that.

So, where does that leave Kiss, now and in the future? As a writer who has taken his pen name (first and last) from characters in Crumley’s novels, I experience no small amount of melancholy thinking this story will likely never see the screen. I am sad not so much that I won’t be able to see it, but that this seminal private eye story is unlikely to reach a much broader audience, and thus won’t bring what many believe to be some of the best crime fiction in existence to the hearts and minds of new generations.

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Christie by Candlelight (by Ashley-Ruth Bernier)

A writer from the island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Ashley-Ruth Bernier has had stories published in the distinguished literary journal The Caribbean Writer. She’s a teacher at a local elementary school who manages to write in her spare time while also raising a family. Her EQMM debut story, “Rise,” appears in our current issue (March/April 2022). In this post she talks about a very early inspiration for her interest in the mystery genre. —Janet Hutchings

It was a school night, and a Monday night, at that—a school night at the beginning of an entire week full of them. It was right at the heels of a long day of learning and teaching, of play practices and band and homework. I broke the rules anyway. I picked up dinner. Left my 2nd grader at home with his dad (and Minecraft), and loaded my older three kids into the car. Our destination? The movies. This lifelong Agatha Christie fanatic was headed for a full-circle kind of moment: I was taking my kids to see the newly released movie version of Death on the Nile.

While we stood in line for popcorn and candy, I told my kids about the winter I’d discovered Ms. Christie’s magic—”winter” being a purely technical term, as Decembers 23 degrees north of the equator are more short sleeves and sunshine than sweaters and snow. I told them about pulling the novels off the shelves of the only bookstore on island and eagerly bringing them back up the hill to my grandmother’s house, where I’d read them at night by candlelight. This is when my 5th grader raised an eyebrow at me. “So . . . candlelight?” He’d asked. The look on his face was somehow skeptical and smug at the same time, like he’d realized a truth he’d always known but never thought I would admit. “No electric lights, Mom? Is that what things were really like way back in the 90s?”

Oh, I contemplated not buying that kid any popcorn. Instead, I reminded all of them that during the fall and winter that I was 13, everyone on St. Thomas was reading by candlelight. Cooking, doing homework, paying bills; all of it. Our island had been slammed by Hurricane Marilyn that September, which had destroyed homes and power lines along with everyone’s sense of security and routine. By December, everyone was in rebuilding mode. My mother fretted about hiring a contractor to reconstruct our home, which the hurricane had completely totaled, while I worried about the reconstruction of something far more pressing: my book collection. Sure, there were some books I wanted to replace outright, but it seemed like a perfect time to discover something new . . . something with more nuance and depth than Goosebumps and Fear Street, but with themes that weren’t too explicit for a kid who was barely old enough to watch PG-13 movies. One afternoon at Dockside Bookshop, my mom suggested a book by an author she’d enjoyed decades before. The book was And Then There Were None, and the author, of course, was Agatha Christie. That was all it took. Within those first few chapters, I was hooked. 

Everyone wanted a break from the heat and darkness of post-hurricane life, and over the next few months, those books gave me exactly that—they took me away to sinister manors in the English countryside, mysterious train rides, and deadly cruises on the Nile. I read book after book, as fast as Dockside could stock them. I learned the beats of a “cozy” and studied the quirky characters essential to stories like these: lazy heirs and heiresses, dusty colonels, nosy spinsters; and the sharp-witted detectives (I liked Ms. Marple better than Tommy and Tuppence, but loved Poirot best of all) who unpacked their crimes and desires so neatly for everyone at the end. I wanted nothing more than to create that kind of magic myself. My first attempt at writing a cozy of my own the summer I was 15—creepy old guest house, a crotchety old woman with a ton of money, and a teenage detective—was spectacularly awful. But oh, I thought it was something. I’d followed Ms. Christie’s formula perfectly. How could “Peril in Livingstown” be anything but a success?

I believe I know the answer to that question now. Why that story, and so many of my early attempts at writing cozies; were . . . um, less than stellar. Ms. Christie’s stories worked so well because she wrote about who, what, and where she knew. Her novels were filled with the settings and character types she encountered in her circles and travels abroad. There weren’t major appearances by people like me (young, Black; a little bit absentminded and dreamy), and I’m fine with that now—the novels were written for a different society, a different zeitgeist. But maybe, back then, I’d wanted to see myself on those pages. I tried for so long to write what she knew, when, as it turns out, what I needed to do was follow her example in a different way. I needed to fill my pages with the personalities and settings I knew best: dark-skinned men and women with thick curls and neat braids, clownish politicians, womanizers in huge gold chains, and strong, gifted young people with a reserve of quiet confidence. Beaches. Carnival. An old parochial school in the heart of historic Charlotte Amalie. Maybe a post-hurricane landscape, in one of my future drafts. Ms. Christie’s magic lay in the way she made us believe in the truth of the stories she wrote. By putting myself on the page, as she always did, I hope I’m approaching even a fraction of that gift.

As for our night at the movies? Well, it was everything my heart had hoped for, watching my kids fall right into the trance of that story . . . marveling at the setting, shrieking at every murder, pouncing on every clue; sharing their theories about who the murderer was. Watching the shock on their faces as Poirot laid it all out for them. Hearing their excitement as we left the theater, not just about how much fun the movie was, but about the diverse cast; about seeing Black and Brown and LGBTQ characters with quirks and agency and power. Listening to my sons devise the plot of their own mystery story on the ride home was perhaps the very best moment of that night, however—a moment that truly did complete the circle that had started so long ago in the tiny mystery section of an island bookstore. We got out of the car, still full of popcorn and under the spell of a master storyteller. Those stories still do it, even this many years after their debut. They sweep us away from the present, back to the outsized personalities and majestic settings of the world Ms. Christie created. They still contain the best kind of magic.

They still inspire so many of us to create magic of our own.

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14 Rules For Pretty Good Writing (by Ralph Hornbeck)

Ralph Hornbeck is a new writer for EQMM whose short story “Strangler Fig” is in this month’s Department of First Stories. Though he’s new to us—in fact, “Stranger Fig” is the first piece he’s ever published—he isn’t new to mystery fiction, as he graces the board of the Florida chapter Mystery Writers of America. In today’s blog post, Ralph distills 14 rules of writing from the advice of many great authors. — Janet Hutchings

Ever wanted to write a mystery but found your prose lacked pop? Was the best thing anyone could say about your first novel was it had occasional flashes of mediocrity? Don’t you get tired of articles that try to create suspense by asking a series of questions instead of using simple declarative statements? Don’t we all?
Although I have never written a best-seller or even read many “books,” I have done the next best thing—I have read lists of writing advice by authors whose names I have heard other people say out loud: Edgar Allan Poe, Elmore Leonard, and Stephen King, among others. Like me, you may have even seen some of these author’s books on the shelves while on your way to the water fountain in the public library.
I like their lists because they are much shorter than their novels, so I am less likely to be distracted by a squirrel before I am finished. The titles also helpfully tell you just exactly how many rules you need to know: “10 Rules for Good Writing,” “6 Questions/6 Rules,” “8 Rules of Writing.” Sadly, these self-described experts disagree on which rules you need to know. They can’t even agree of the number of rules, though apparently it’s even.
Lucky for you I am here to help. I have read all the rules and picked out the 14 best ones for your consumption. I have taken the liberty of improving them where I thought it was needed. You’re welcome.

  1. Ration your exclamation marks. You are only allowed to use 20 exclamation marks your entire life. Save them for extremely important occasions! Be judicious!
  2. Be clear when using pronouns. Pronouns are confusing and confusion is the devil’s workshop. Stay out! Bad: “Bob knew he should stop using pronouns.” Is “he” referring to Bob or someone else? Unclear! Better, but repetitive: “Bob knew Bob should stop using pronouns.” Best: “Bob knew the face in the bathroom mirror should stop using pronouns.”
  3. Don’t confuse similes and metaphors. Similes are comparisons that use “like” or “as” to allow you to show a familiar object in a new light, or quickly describe a place or person. Feel free to sprinkle them throughout your writing. Metaphors, however, are similes’ evil twins. Shun them like a nerd at a frat party punch bowl.
  4. Be subtle. Subtlety in fiction writing is good, but it can be hard to maintain. When you first start driving the vehicle of Subtlety down the two-lane highway of Fiction, sometimes you will drift into the breakdown lane of Obscurity, before jerking the steering wheel back and plowing into the oncoming tractor trailer of Obviousness. Stay between the lines!
  5. Avoid adverbs. You can usually find a better verb that means the same thing as your verb/adverb combination. For example, don’t write “he ran fast,” write “he sprinted.” Likewise, you should stay away from adjectives, as you can usually find a strong noun that is better than your weak adjective/noun combination. For example, instead of writing “dried meat”, say “jerky.” Prepositions are also kind of lame, and interjections are stupid. “Oof?” “Phew?” Who says these words? And don’t get me started on conjunctions. To play it safe, only use nouns and verbs in your stories.
  6. No weather. Don’t write about the weather. Unless it’s raining in your story, then you can write about the weather. But it has to be raining really hard—the Statue of Liberty should be holding an umbrella instead of a torch.
  7. Show, don’t tell your character’s emotions. It’s tempting to tell the reader what emotions your characters are experiencing. For example, “When Jane said she was pregnant, Bob was surprised.” The word “surprised” does all the work for the reader and leaves them no room to use their imagination. Instead, paint a vivid word picture of how the character’s body is reacting so readers can feel the emotion themselves. Better: “When Jane said she was pregnant, Bob’s eyebrows flew up his forehead, but like the swallows returning to Capistrano, they eventually resettled in their customary home above his eye sockets.”
  8. Don’t use the word “suddenly”. If a story was dragging and needed some excitement, writers could use the word “suddenly” to start a sentence. It was like sprinkling salt on a bland piece of pork shoulder. Instant drama! Sadly, editors have caught on to this trick and will rip it right out of your paragraph. Instead, use the word’s more upscale cousin, “all of a sudden.” The editors don’t seem to be wise to that yet. You’re welcome.
  9. Vocabulary isn’t everything. Parents sometimes tell their babies to “use your words.” But it’s not enough to find the right words. It’s also important to get them in the right order. Wise Yoda may have been, a good writer was he not.
  10. Murder your darlings. Darlings are the sentences that writers fall in love with but don’t belong in their manuscript. By all means, remove them if they don’t fit. But don’t delete those precious gems. Instead, collect all your darlings and put them together in their own story. A story that is made up only of darlings. That story, my friends, will absolutely rule.
  11. Avoid controversial words. You never know who you might offend when you use loaded words, like “trigger,” “cancel,” and “moist.” I had the following sentence in a story—he canceled his order for Glock triggers because they were moist—and an editor’s head literally exploded.
  12. Don’t misuse “literally.
  13. Avoid the passive voice. Passive voice is weak. “A good time was had.” The subject of the sentence is unclear—who had a good time? However, aggressive voice is also bad. “Have a good time or else.” But the worst is passive-aggressive voice. “If you really loved me, you would know what I think a good time is.”
  14. Don’t underestimate the intelligence of your readers. After all, if they can afford to spend money on your book, they probably have disposable income from a real job with good dental benefits. Unlike writers, who spend months creating a book for which we will be lucky to clear a few hundred bucks after we pay for the ads.

I hope that these maxims help shorten your journey from solitary scribbler to esteemed author. Remember, use your words! You’re welcome!

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