Susan Dunlap got her start in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in 1978. Her body of work in the mystery field since that auspicious debut includes twenty-five novels in four popular series, featuring, respectively, Berkeley Police Officer Jill Smith, PG&E meter reader Vejay Haskell, former forensic pathologist/detective Kiernan O’Shaughnessy, and, most recently, stuntwoman Darcy Lott, who is assistant to the abbot of a San Francisco Zen center. The California author has won the Anthony and Macavity Awards, and been president of Sisters in Crime. Through the years she has continued to write many short stories, including “A Day at the Beach,” which will appear in EQMM May/June (on sale in April). A writer with so many fine works in print must have a plentiful well of ideas; in this post Susan gives us a look at how some of those ideas get transformed into stories.—Janet Hutchings
Try this: Stare at a doorknob a few feet away. Now, stand on one foot. Notice how long you can hold that position. Now, do the same thing with your eyes closed. Notice how not-at-all-long you can hold it. You can barely get your eyes shut before you’re wobbling all over, right? No big surprise! But what will surprise you is to combine the two steps: Stare at the doorknob, close your eyes while continuing to focus on the doorknob in your mind, and balance on one foot. See how much longer you can do that when your “vision” is anchored to that image.
Which brings me to mystery short stories.
What we like is the comfort of a beginning, a path, and an end. Better to have a direction, even if it’s the wrong one. Better to think we know where we’re going than to stumble around blindly. Better to envision an end . . . to have something on which to anchor our vision when attempting to transform an idea into a story.
Warning: This is not going to have a happy ending, though not in the way you think.
Here’s the facts as they came to me: In one of those places where experts evaluate art objects you’ve inherited or maybe bought at a garage sale, a woman brought in a brooch. It was a stylized pin with a plethora of small diamonds, a couple of other gemstones, and some gold bands. An expensive piece of jewelry. Her grandmother had found it in a purse, not an evening bag, beside a rural road somewhere north of Texas, she said. Her grandfather had taken it to the sheriff and in three months, when no one claimed it, it was given back to him. Now, about fifty years later, it had come down to this granddaughter, whom we’ll call Jean.
And there, for Jean and the evaluator, the story ended. They were focused on auction or insurance value. They did not leap to the conclusions, assumptions, and suspicions that you and I might.
But now the story belongs to us and for our purposes all characters are fictitious. (Fictitious, because when you’re plotting, if you allow any of your characters to come from real people, what you know about those people will claw into your characters, shackle their feet and tape their mouths.)
Thus, freed I speculated: A purse beside the road? How did it get there? Why would the woman who owned the purse put a diamond brooch in it? (A woman, not a man. A man might steal the pin but then he’d conceal it in something a whole lot less attention-getting than a woman’s purse.)
The woman, whom we’ll call Eloise, might have unpinned the brooch as she was undoing the rest of her clothes. Doubtless she unlatched it carefully every time she removed an evening gown or a cocktail dress—it was that kind of pin—and placed it gently back in its jeweler’s box.
But she would not have plunked it in a purse.
So, I’m discounting this undressing-herself option.
Which brings up to the more appealing foul play.
But which play: Was Eloise kidnapped? Did she fling the brooch out the window of the kidnappers’ car and hope it would be found and thus so would she, sooner or later? Did she fling it into a ravine, declination, or constant shadow where it was overlooked?
But then, wouldn’t Eloise have searched for it later? Contacted sheriffs in the area? Hired a detective? Offered a reward for a memorable and expensive pin? She could have had a story planted in a local paper? Assuming she survived.
Or, had the room in which Eloise was staying been burgled? And while the burglar was dumping the loot in the traditional pillowcase used in his craft, did he realize that the brooch was delicate, valuable, and couldn’t be fenced as-was so he looked around for somewhere separate to put it? Thus the purse.
Was he the one who flung it from a getaway car racing through the backwoods because it would connect him to the crime?
Wouldn’t the burglar have made some effort? If he’d tossed it out their car window because the sheriff was on his tail, he’d wouldn’t have been likely to forget it. He’d have made some, even discreet, inquiries, even if he’d had to wait seven to ten with time off for good behavior. But he did not.
A lot of ifs. A lot of yeah, buts. Writers hate that. It’s like you’re balancing on one foot with your eyes closed and someone tickles your nose with a feather. It’s like the straight path of plot veers to the right and right off the cliff. So I did what writer’s manuals tell you never to do.
I told the story to two writer friends, just as I’m telling you now. Writers manuals correctly point out that a writer has a finite amount of enthusiasm for an idea. Like a flask of Urge to Tell. If he passes it around for his friends to sip, he will find that the first friend takes a sip, the second friend sips, ponders, sips again. Then Friend #1 snatches it back and takes a goodly swallow, which encourages #2 to gulp up a whole new path that the story could take. Or announce that the whole idea was reminiscent of a story in the New Yorker in 1988. And when the frustrated writer tips up the flask only drops will flow into his parched mouth.
So, we asked: How come Eloise was driving through this rural southern area with her classy and expensive pin? We could not know.
So, we ended up focusing on the fact we did know: that no one had contacted the sheriff to ask about the pin. Of course, it wasn’t as if the sheriff was advertising the brooch. At best, he stuck it in a safe and waited. When no one claimed it he returned it to the finders.
But suppose, my friend Renee said, Eloise wasn’t being kidnapped or driving off with a lover, but was driving herself through the night and got lost. Suppose she saw a light in a window and pulled over to ask for directions or help. Suppose it was these very grandparents she asked. And the grandparents killed her, buried her body, disposed of the car, and then in a fit of not remorse but fear, they decided to cover themselves by telling the sheriff they found the brooch by the side of the road, in a purse, not a satin bag like Eloise would have carried that night but an ordinary purse the grandmother had in her closet.
So we raised our glasses to Renee.
And that is how potential short stories get discussed into supposes.