“Murder Under the Oaks” (by Art Taylor)

Art Taylor debuted in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in 1995. He has gone on to win a Macavity and multiple Agatha and Derringer awards for his short fiction. The last time the Virginia author posted on this site, in March of this year, his EQMM story “The Odds Are Against Us” was up for the Agatha. It won that award and currently the story is nominated for the Anthony and Macavity awards, the winners to be determined at the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention, to be held in Raleigh, North Carolina October 8–11. This month, Art’s first book, On the Road With Del and Louise (Henery Press), a “novel in stories,” was released. A review of the novel (which incorporates two stories previously published in EQMM) will appear in our January issue. For this post, the author takes off his mystery-writing hat and dons that of anthology editor. It’s an interesting turnabout!—Janet Hutchings

For a second year in a row, Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, has produced an anthology of mystery stories, and for the second year in a row, a regular EQMM contributor has served as guest editor of the collection.

In 2014, for the Bouchercon in Long Beach, California, Dana Cameron selected and edited the stories in Murder at the Beach. This year, Bouchercon is in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the anthology shares the conference’s own title, Murder Under the Oaks, in honor of Raleigh being called the City of Oaks.

As a native North Carolinian myself, I was grateful to be invited to edit this year’s anthology—and what a learning experience it’s been, finding myself there on the other side of the process.

The anthology features several well-known writers, including many of this year’s Bouchercon guests of honor: Margaret Maron, Tom Franklin, Zoë Sharp, Sarah Shaber, Lori Armstrong, and Sean Doolittle. The blind submission process brought in stories from several well-known masters of the short story—Robert Lopresti and B.K. Stevens, for example, whose works are surely familiar to readers of EQMM and AHMM—and also delivered stories by up-and-coming writers already making their marks in a big way.

For those folks going to Bouchercon next week, I’d urge you to check out the official launch of the anthology on Saturday morning, October 10, with very short presentations by contributors in attendance and then a group signing. And let me stress that neither I nor any of the contributors are earning any money from the anthology; instead, proceeds from the anthology will benefit the Wake County Public Library system, a fine cause.

I’m hoping that folks will enjoy the collection that we’ve put together here—I’m very much looking forward to what readers think!—but in the meantime, I also wanted to share a couple of those learning experiences I mentioned above, reflections that stuck with me and that might be of small use or enjoyment to other writers and to readers as well. (And apologies here to my host, Janet Hutchings, who will likely find all of this underwhelmingly obvious—having experienced it all from an editor’s perspective for so long now herself!)

Trends Exist (And not simply the expected ones)

Serial Killers! The Paranormal! Zombies everywhere! . . . Um, actually, I didn’t get any of those myself. Perhaps there were indeed vast outbreaks of paranormal activity in the 150-plus submissions that the first readers encountered, but I didn’t see them in the batch of semifinalists I received—and I might well have welcomed them, since I’ve enjoyed stories in that direction by a number of fine crime writers. Instead, two other trends stood out to me. The first trend related to revenge tales—usually revenge against men who had done women wrong (sometimes awfully awfully wrong). The second were tales involving older characters—with a surprisingly large portion of the submissions I saw focused on the challenges of aging. This might prompt questions for you (as it did me): Were such trends in my semifinalist pile representative of the larger submissions (a proportional slice) or merely representative of some of the leanings of those first readers toward revenge tales and stories about aging protagonists, victims, and killers? Given that I saw these trends across both the invited contributors (those Bouchercon guests of honor) and the blind submissions, I’d expect the former to be true. What’s surprising is that this wouldn’t necessarily seem to be market-driven. (Zombies sell, so I should write zombie fiction, right?) Maybe it’s simply that mystery writers collectively circle around certain ideas of victims and injustice and justice, and these archetypal situations and stories seem promising—which leads to . . .

Innovation Counts

Related to the above, as I was reading a half-dozen tales about women exacting frequently painful revenge against men, it was easy for similar treatments of that same theme to blur together into one another. What rose to the top were the authors who did something different with a common idea—offering a fresh perspective, a clever approach, an unexpected twist. Similarly, those writers who generally took risks stood out. Fans of Zoë Sharp’s work will certainly appreciate “Kill Me Again Slowly,” a thrilling new story in her Charlie Fox series, but what excited me most was the opening scene—which brought together real-life figures such as Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Parker, and Groucho Marx and restricted their dialogue to actual quotes attributed to each of them. Zowie! Refreshing and delightful. Writers, always push to stand out.

Your Style Is Like Your Signature

Much as I’m encouraging innovation and creativity to help writers make their work spark, I have to add an asterisk of sorts at this point. Except in special circumstances, it’s very possible that your personal style or trademark themes will shine through your work no matter what. I wouldn’t have recognized Margaret Maron’s story “Spring Break” as hers; she pointedly was trying something experimental here—a story told completely in dialogue. But the first of the blind submissions that I decided to accept, “#grenadegranny,” struck me with a familiar brand of humor, a sharp-witted conversational style, and a concern with economic issues that I felt like I recognized; so it wasn’t a surprise to me weeks later when the writer was revealed as Karen Pullen, another North Carolina writer whose works I’ve followed and admired. Who we are, how we write—maybe they’re inevitably intertwined.

First-time Writers Can Hold Their Own

Conventional wisdom might have it that the veteran writers are the more polished ones—they’re pros for a reason, right? But just as I’m often most impressed by authors in EQMM’s Department of First Stories, so too was I wowed here by some of the relatively lesser-known writers, including one author making her mystery debut in this anthology: J.D. Allen, whose six-part story “Grasshoppers” revealed an uncommon confidence right from the start. Many readers may well gravitate toward the bigger-name authors in an anthology like this, toward those authors they already know, but those readers would surely be doing themselves a disservice in that case. The rookies can indeed rule.

Technical Issues Can Be Trumped (And Fixed)

Finally, I guess it’s common sense that a writer’s submission should be the strongest it can be: polished to perfection in terms of character, plot, and prose—and free of typos too! (As with resumes, a single misplaced comma might undermine an editor’s confidence in a writer.) But what intrigued me about being in the editor’s seat here were those stories which had even serious missteps—a plot twist that wasn’t prepared for, say, or some unnecessarily muddied passages of prose—but whose storytelling overall kept me riveted and stuck with me long after I’d moved on to other submissions. Those tales lingered in my memory, something about them that transcended specific struggles. The most distinctive aspects of them kept tugging at me, wouldn’t quite let me go. And in turn, I ultimately didn’t let them go—but instead worked with several authors to address some of my concerns, find ways to build profitably on what was outstanding while at the same time smoothing away some of the rough spots—profitable for all of us, I hope, the readers especially.

More than anything, editing Murder Under the Oaks gave me a great opportunity—two, in fact. First, I got to celebrate a terrific group of authors who truly deserve all the credit here, and second, I earned a renewed understanding of the diversity of the mystery genre—and a renewed sense of how to serve readers. Crime fiction, as we know, covers a lot of territory—from cozy to noir, from domestic suspense to international intrigue, and from the whodunit to the caper tale to the police procedural and beyond. Different writers, different readers, different interests—and maybe the editor’s toughest job (mine, at least!) lay not just in delivering a fine batch of stories but also in trying to serve all tastes. Fingers crossed that our efforts worked.

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5 Responses to “Murder Under the Oaks” (by Art Taylor)

  1. Thanks so much for hosting me here again!

  2. Art, I am honored to be included in the book. It just occurred to me: since I am an academic librarian and have to explain every few years what I have done to earn my keep I will list this story under Service To The Profession. After all, the money goes to libraries, right?

    Your discussion of recurring trends makes me think I will abandon my story of a woman seeking revenge against an aging zombie. Oh well.

    Looking forward to the signing next week at Bouchercon! I hope some EQMM readers will be there to say hello.

    • Thank you for your Service to the Profession, Rob—and for all the fine work you do generally!
      (For others: Rob’s brilliant story offers the final words in the anthology—a distinguished spot and much deserved in so many ways.)
      And I’d look forward to your revenge/zombie story, Rob! I’m sure you could make it shine. 🙂

  3. Karen Pullen says:

    Late in commenting but wanted to say I appreciate so much the hard work you put in on this anthology. It will be so good!

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