One of our genre’s best humorists, but an author who is also capable of writing quite dark stories, Steve Hockensmith has been appearing in EQMM since 2001. His first series of novels, the Amlingmeyer Brothers Mysteries, had its genesis in a 2003 story for EQMM entitled “Dear Mr. Holmes,” and there have been subsequent short stories in that series as well as novels. More recent titles have included his Tarot Mystery series, written with Lisa Falco, and the New York Times bestseller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls. Steve is a writer who enjoys the challenge of breaking new ground, and in this post he talks about the inspiration for his very original new story for EQMM, “Where the Strange Ones Go,” in our May/June issue, on sale next week.—Janet Hutchings
Hi, I’m Steve. I’m a writer by day and a wild man by night.
Actually, that’s not quite true. I am a writer by day, but I tend to be a sleeper by night. I think I’ve behaved in a way that qualified me as “a wild man by night” exactly once. I woke up on the floor the next morning with my head in a trash can and a hangover that lasted a week, so I never felt the need to get “wild” like that again.
But as personal mottos go, “I’m a [fill in the blank] by day and a wild man by night” ain’t bad. As long as you can live up to it and you don’t mind the hangovers and trash cans, I mean. I’m not sure if the guy who came up with the phrase was a true wild man or not, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Why? Well, just check out his shirt. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t start buttoning it until somewhere south of his navel.
You can see him here, 19 seconds into a compilation of highlights from 1980s dating service tapes: Watch, if you dare.
Even if you don’t dare, plenty of other people have. That video’s been viewed on YouTube 4.8 million times. It’s inspired a lot of laughter—and one piece of short fiction (that I know of).
My story “Where the Strange Ones Go” appears in EQMM’s May/June issue. I wrote it to challenge myself. I’d just written another short story in which the plot was advanced almost entirely through emails. (That story, “i,” appeared in AHMM last fall.) I wanted to try again to see if I could tell a story through excerpts from some other medium. But what?
I don’t remember how I hit upon the idea of dating videos as the backbone for a crime story. (Hey, cut me some slack—this was, like, a year and a half ago!) But I knew the compilation reel on YouTube well, having chuckled at it several times over the years. So I watched it again. I found a lot of fodder for humor, of course, as well as an idea for a plot. But I found something else, too. Something I wasn’t expecting.
I found a heart for the story.
It’s easy to laugh at Maurice, the video’s “executive by day, wild man by night.” Ditto the other wild men who recorded video profiles as part of their quest for Miss Right. A couple of them seem like real jerks. (I’m looking at you, “No fatties” dudes.) But watching the video again as a happily married man creeping up on fifty, I found less to laugh about and more to feel.
I’m lucky. I’m not lonely and I don’t need to go looking for love. Maurice and the other men in the video didn’t have it so good (at least circa 1988 or so). So they did something brave. They sat in front of a camera and talked about what they thought they needed to be happy. One of them even did it dressed as a Viking, which takes “brave” to a whole other level. (Yes, that other level of “brave” might be “crazy,” but still—I admire the guy.)
I realized that I didn’t want to write something that just ridicules people looking for a human connection. Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t have some fun with them. When you’ve got Maurice & Company as your inspiration, there’s going to be some humor. (The YouTube highlight reel wasn’t the only inspiration for the dating tape excerpts in my story, by the way. The guy who’s obsessed with Norman Bates-ish bodysnatcher Ed Gein is based on an ex-girlfriend of mine. And the woman who wishes she could date Jesus is a toned-down version of someone I sat next to on a long, long, long cross-country flight.)
I gave myself permission to be amusing, but not mean. “Mean” I would leave to the bad guys in the story. Which isn’t a bad way of looking at characterization in genre fiction in general, I think.
Have fun. Entertain. Give your characters foibles and flaws. But don’t forget that they have souls, too.