Most of the many stories author David Dean has contributed to EQMM over several decades have been contemporary. Many are cases for his series policeman Julian Hall, and readers can now find several of them in the collection Tomorrow’s Dead, just released by Genius Books. Prior to publication, the book won second place in the Public Safety Writers Association’s Writing Competition, in the unpublished-story-collection category. Several more collections of the New Jersey author’s stories are forthcoming, but readers will not find in them many examples of his historical fiction. That genre is one he’s turned to frequently only recently. In this post, we get a glimpse of what spurred his interest in the historical crime field. Readers will find the first in the new series he discusses here in the March/April 2023 issue of EQMM. —Janet Hutchings
In a previous post on this site entitled “A Day in the Life of the Creative Writer”—which reads like the biography of a squirrel—I wrote of the perils of distraction. Writing can be hard work (at least for me) and I am always looking for a way out of it. Just this morning, I took off twenty minutes to meet and greet the crew of a septic system company who’d arrived for reasons you don’t want to know. But this is a blog about creative ideas, not so much the actual donkey work of writing. This is about the fun part.
I’ve been writing since 1989 so I’ve managed to have a few ideas for stories along the way, some have even referred to me as “prolific.” I’m hardly that, I think. That mantle is better worn by such stalwarts of the short crime fiction world as John Floyd, Michael Bracken, and Brendan DuBois—astoundingly creative and fertile minds. I’m more of a plodder. Yet, when you’ve been writing for over thirty years, that plodding can add up to some considerable mileage, and mileage requires ideas.
Most writers would agree, I think, that almost any story you can dream up has already been written in one form or another, so the challenge lies in somehow making this plot your own. It’s not that writers are endlessly plagiarizing, but more that they’re reimagining through their own unique lenses the material that has filtered down to them through the ages.
Additionally, if you write within a particular genre of fiction, you’re somewhat bound by the conventions that govern them. Luckily for me, I write crime fiction—some horror—but mostly crime—and it’s a very forgiving genre. It’s a house that contains many mansions, to paraphrase a passage in the Bible—cozies, historicals, impossible crime puzzlers, classical whodunits, noir, police procedurals, literary (Crime and Punishment anyone?); even science fiction (Crime Travel), the aforementioned horror (“The Tell-Tale Heart”), and Westerns (nearly every one of them) frequently feature a crime or crimes. You might even say that it’s a transcending genre. The very suggestion of a crime may qualify a story for inclusion. So crime fiction writers are given a lot of latitude.
Still, it ain’t easy.
Whenever an idea leaps forth, I snag it as quickly as I can by jotting down a sentence or two about it in my Big Book of Ideas. This book—an actual notebook—has become hoary with age, as have I. Whenever the well runs dry, I dig it out, flip through its crumbling yellow pages, focus on one jotting and ask, “What the hell did I mean by that?”
Fortunately for me, there’s usually some other scribbling that reveals its genius and I’m saved to write another day.
However, about two years ago I hit a patch that stretched before me like a hike through the Mojave in midsummer. I’d gone dry. So I did what I normally do and consulted the BB of I, but its words remained indecipherable and no comfort was to be found there. I ask She Who Walks In Beauty—my wife of many years, Robin—and She suggested household chores and other unfinished, or never taken up, tasks in order that my mind might relax and thereby be fruitful. I recoiled from this idea as unnatural to my particular creative processes. Time went by.
I considered the wisdom offered me once by the gifted Doug Allyn, who had suggested during a discussion on this very topic that I revisit some of my older stories with an eye to reworking one from a different angle. At the time of our meeting I found this quite useful. But in this instance, when I trolled through my bibliography I came away with zilch . . . nada . . . nothing. So I took to reading. If I had nothing to write I might as well read some things that I had never had a chance to read before, as well as some that I had, this time bringing to them a more mature perspective. Such was my state of affairs.
Then came the epiphany that I had been awaiting. Not just from the classic novels and short stories that I’d been reading, but also from a book that was much more modern, and if not a classic yet, certainly one with a cult following. But more on that in a moment.
Deep in the night, as SWWIB serenely slumbered at my side, even as I tossed and turned in my anguish, the answer was provided. Like the Sphinx’s riddle, it posed a question—If so many great stories were lying about in the form of dusty classics such as I was reading and were, more importantly, in the public domain, what need I of new ideas? The heavy lifting had already been done! All that was needed was to—as Doug had suggested of my own work—come at them from a different angle!
Having just completed reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, my mind began to percolate. That story contained a crime; in fact, several of them. What if I revisited it using not only the characters original to the tale, but introducing characters of my own creation as well as historical ones of the period? What if there was a mysterious Mrs. Hyde who feared for her husband’s health and sanity at the hands of Dr. Jekyll? What if she reached out for help to another doctor, one who specialized in the vicissitudes of the human psyche? Enter Dr. Beckett Aquinas Marchland, alienist.
I’m not the first to use this particular method of constructing a story, of course. If only I were that original a thinker! Nicholas Meyer had done so with his homage to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in The Seven Percent Solution. But the writer who sparked my particular creative resurgence was Kim Newman who wrote the imaginative and entertaining Anno Dracula, published in 1992. This is the modern novel I referred to earlier. Newman blazed the trail that I subconsciously followed with what has become the Marchland series, and the premier story, “Mrs. Hyde,” will debut in EQMM next year.
Something similar was also done by writer Alan Moore and illustrator Kevin O’Neill who created the graphic 1999 novella, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in which they peopled the pages of their adventure/sci-fi/steampunk tale with the likes of Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll, Allan Quartermain, and other characters from Victorian classics. Dozens of films have utilized this same devise in recent years as well. Retellings of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” done up as modern stories also spring to mind. In my case, I stuck to the period the original was set in.
It was fun, but exacting, to write in this manner, since millions of people are familiar with the book or some film version thereof, requiring a careful adherence to the flavor and detail of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But this only upped the challenge. Like most writing, it was a bit like putting a puzzle together, only in this case, using two puzzles to make one whole as I introduced characters and events of my own into the fray. I kept expecting a ghostly Stevenson to show up and cry, “Damn the cheek, man!” while quirting me with his riding crop. Or perhaps he would’ve gotten a chuckle out of it. “Mrs. Hyde” does have some funny bits.
Not content to stop at mining one classic, I went next for Guy De Maupassant’s short story, “The Diary of a Madman,” followed by Bram Stoker’s Dracula (in which I discovered several non-supernatural crimes when viewed through a different lens), and finally H. H. Munro’s brilliant tale, “The Open Window.” All of these have characters that required the scrutiny and somewhat questionable acumen of Dr. Marchland’s intervention. I should say that you need not have read any of the aforementioned stories in order to understand and, hopefully, enjoy the Marchland series. Though you might get even more out of them if you have. In the end it’s all a bit of a mash-up of classic story, crime fiction, and historical mystery, dosed with splashes of humor.
I’m now eyeing The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde which also features several crimes and is ripe soil indeed for a nascent criminal psychologist. Even my current story in EQMM, “The Wedding Funeral,” trades on a bit of Victorian folklore (not literature in this case) concerning premature burial. The characters and setting are, however, modern and far from Britain.
So, for now at least, my cup runneth over and I am once more content at my trade. I’ve even come up with a few plot ideas without the aid of the old masters, though I’m much indebted to them for their benevolent assistance during my troubles. As is often said, you can’t be a writer without reading, and this has certainly proven true in my case.