“How Local Can You Go?” (by Andrew Welsh-Huggins)

EQMM’s current issue (January/February 2020) contains the story “Home for the Holidays,” the EQMM debut of Andrew Welsh-Huggins, an editor and reporter for the Associated Press in Columbus, Ohio. Andrew is the author of six novels featuring Andy Hayes (the central character of his first EQMM story), a former Ohio State and Cleveland Browns quarterback turned private eye. The most recent book in the series is Fatal Judgment, which Publishers Weekly called “intriguing,” commenting that “fans of Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone books will be pleased.” Andrew is also the editor of Columbus Noir, upcoming in March from Akashic Books and recently named one of CrimeReads’ most anticipated 2020 crime books. Location plays an especially vivid role in this author’s novels and stories, and in this post he discusses some ways in which it can be effectively used.—Janet Hutchings

A few years back I was driving one Sunday through the Columbus suburb of Upper Arlington, a tony town of big houses and leafy streets that Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas once called home and where golfing great Jack Nicklaus grew up. Passing the Chef-o-Nette, a longtime local eatery, I glanced over and did a double take. The restaurant was closed for the day. My stomach fell. The previous year, I set a scene there in my first novel, Fourth Down And Out, in which my character, private eye Andy Hayes, stops in between assignments for their signature Hangover Plate. Researching the book, I’d dropped by a couple times to be sure I got everything right. And I did, except for that pesky detail that got away: the Chef-o-Nette is never open on Sundays. It’s an error I won’t forget anytime soon, thanks to the readers who have pointed it out along the way.

At least I was in good company, since populating crime fiction with recognizable locations is a time-honored tradition. In The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade buys “two sacks of Bull Durham” at a cigar store at the corner of Kearny and Sutter streets, recognized as the real-life Otto’s Corner Store. Later he makes a phone call from the Hotel Sutter across the street, still standing today as the Galleria Park Hotel. Fast forward a few decades and Robert B. Parker paid homage to Massachusetts eateries such as the Agawam Diner in Rowley, Mass., which his Boston-based private eye, Spenser, described as “the world’s greatest restaurant” in Back Story.

More recently, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has eaten his way across Los Angeles via some of L.A.’s most iconic restaurants and diners, including Hollywood’s century-old Musso & Frank Grill where Bosch orders sand dabs and sourdough bread with detective Renee Ballard in The Night Fire. (The same restaurant makes an appearance in L.A. writer Paul Marks’s novella Vortex.) Laura Lippman references so many favorite Baltimore locales in her Tess Monaghan series—begging for a slice of Matthew’s Pizza in The Girl In The Green Raincoat, for examplethat when the annual Bouchercon mystery convention was held in Baltimore in 2008 it included a self-guided tour of Lippman’s Baltimore. In Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh crime novels, Detective Inspector John Rebus is a regular at Edinburgh’s Oxford Bar “with an IPA in his hand and his feet resting on the rail.” (In a case of art imitating life imitating art, Rankin had misremembered the setting, as the bar didn’t have such a rail. No problem: landlord Harry Cullen installed one to keep the bar consistent with its appearance in the novels.)

Such references lend authenticity to a writer’s work and turn towns and cities into characters themselves. But incorporating them successfully is a literary balancing act. Too heavy-handed a reference can come across as travelogue-like shilling. The appearance of businesses can date a book if they close after publication. And authors run the risk of angering owners if the book includes a negative comment, or especially if something bad happening on the premises. “If you’re showing the location or its proprietors in a bad light, then I would make up something,” Marks recommends. Generally speaking, the exception to that rule is public places, since no one’s going to stand for a political thriller in which the body shows up in the Oval Office in the cleverly renamed Beige House. But even that choice carries its risks, as New York writer Con Lehane discovered when he published Murder at the 42nd Street Library after a winter doing research at the branch to get a feel for the place. On learning the nature of the book, the library pulled his research credentials and canceled a planned book event. “The PR department at the library took umbrage that I would be blaring out the idea the folks got murdered at the library,” Lehane said.

For some writers, the inclusion of real places is a natural way to lend credibility to their fiction. In Three Can Keep a Secret, the second book in Judy Clemens’s Stella Crown series, she included a scene set in Zoto’s Diner in Line Lexington, Pennsylvania. They loved the reference and framed the page for display. “They were used in a positive sense, and I guess they felt it gave them a little free advertising!” Clemens said.

Other writers focus more on capturing the feel of a place rather than specific details, an objective familiar to anyone trying to craft realistic dialogue rather than regurgitate realconversation with all its “ums” and “ers” and “you knows.” Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series, tells the story of doing his best to get the streetscape of New York down correctly in Tripwire, until he realized his description “was like reading a MapQuest page on acid.” Instead, as he recalled in a 2015 Harvard Book Store interview with Stephen King, he stuck with the real streets but had his characters do things that made sense to the plot if not the realities of New York traffic, like turning left off the West Side Highway onto Houston Street. “So that to me became an absolute example of how actually you’ve got to get things wrong to get them right,” Child said.

Similarly, Bruce DeSilva, in his series about Providence, Rhode Island investigative reporter—and later private investigator—Liam Mulligan, chose to change the name the of the city’s longtime paper, The Providence Journal, to The Providence Dispatch, so he could “be free to talk about the paper’s failing business without having access to accurate proprietary financial information.” DeSilva is upfront with readers about his approach, explaining in editor’s notes why he chooses to mix facts with fiction. Nevertheless, DeSilva learned the hard way how closely residents pay attention to details when he did include a real locale. He received an e-mail from a reader “so angry that I could almost feel the sender’s spittle flying out of my computer screen.” The author’s sin? He had used an authentic Providence restaurant, Caserta Pizzeria, but had his character eat an item, a three cheese and meatball pizza, not actually on the menu.

For the most part, three rules seem to apply when deciding whether to use real-world locations in your fiction.

  • Despite Lehane’s experience, putting bodies in public places—parks, government buildings, stadiums—is kosher. Putting them in private institutions such as restaurants is another matter. “I always use fictional locations for the actual crime scenes,” says Kristen Lepionka, author of the Columbus-based Roxane Weary private eye series.
  • If you’re going to use someplace real, get the details right and consider working with the proprietors ahead of time. “It takes time and effort to get to know the nuances of a place. Readers who are familiar with the setting will expect you to capture it well,” said Kathleen Ernst, author of the Chloe Ellefson series, which features many actual museums and historic sites.
  • Fudging some details about a town or city is fine, especially if it helps better capture the spirit, if not the letter, of your location. “I wind up changing real places to a fictionalized amalgamation based on that part of town,” said Tennessee teacher and writer Robert Mangeot.

In the end, truth—the essence of a place—is what’s most important in geographic descriptions. After all, our allegiance should be to our readers and their entertainment, not the eagle-eyed residents of whatever place we’re writing about.

Although if my private eye ever gets hungry on a Sunday again, I assure you he won’t be going to the Chef-o-Nette.

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“Ten Rules from a Reader” (by Kevin Mims)

Previously, most of the posts we’ve had on this site pertaining to writing have been from a writer’s point of view. Kevin Mims—an essayist, short-story writer, and prolific reader whose posts have appeared here a number of times before—has decided to turn that around and give us a post about writing from a reader’s perspective. Here is his list of ten tips from a dedicated reader! —Janet Hutchings

Elmore Leonard famously laid down ten helpful rules of writing. They are as follows:

  1. Never open a book with weather
  2. Avoid prologues
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialog
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip

Elmore Leonard was a great crime writer, and so you have every reason to heed his advice on writing. I am not a great writer of any variety, but I am pretty darn good reader. I’ve been hooked on fiction—high-, low-, and middlebrow—since I first learned how to read it, and I have written about it prolifically (some might say promiscuously) for a wide variety of venues, from this very blog you are reading to the New York Times Book Review. For ten years I wrote a monthly column for a now-defunct online magazine called The Vocabula Review, the brainchild of Robert Hartwell Fiske, the late great author of such excellent style guides as The Dictionary of Concise Writing and The Dictionary of Unendurable English. Most of the columns I wrote for Robert were deep dives into various aspects of reading fiction. If our culture celebrated individual readers as lavishly as it does individual writers, I might not be able to walk down a public street without being besieged by adoring fans pleading for my autograph. Alas, we don’t live in such a fantasyland, and so I remain unmolested whenever I walk down a public street. C’est la vie. Undaunted by my complete lack of cultural prominence, I have come up with my own list of ten rules for writing. I offer these not as a celebrated practitioner of the writer’s trade, but as lifelong consumer of fiction, primarily good, solid works of popular fiction such as the kind produced by the late Mr. Leonard. You have no doubt seen most, if not all, of these rules before in various handbooks of the writer’s craft and other how-to tomes. I don’t claim that my list is highly original. Rather, it is a distillation of hundreds of other lists, culled down to what I think are the ten most important things a writer of popular fiction ought to consider when writing for avid consumers of said fiction.

  1. No dreams, please. Supposedly it was Henry James who first said: “Tell a dream, lose a reader.” Billy Collins once wrote a poem called “On Reading In The Morning Paper That Dreams May Be Only Nonsense.” “You hit the pillow and moments later,” he wrote, “your mother appears to you as a llama, shouting at you in another language.” That’s pretty typical of the kind of nonsense I dream. There may actually be people whose dreams provide brilliant insights into their character or provide clever solutions to problems that eluded them during their waking hours. But I’ve never met anyone like that. Any time a friend of mine begins recalling a dream for me, I begin mentally scrolling through my Netflix queue trying to decide what I’ll watch on TV after dinner that evening. My wife and I have been married for thirty-nine years, and during that time we’ve each shaken the other person to waken him/her from a dream that was causing shouting or wailing or thrashing of the bedsheets a fair number of times. Invariably, once awakened, the dreamer will either not recall the dream that had caused such turbulence or, more often, report that the dream was about something completely absurd. One night, about twenty-five years ago, my wife began howling so terrifyingly in her sleep that I feared she must be reliving some horrible childhood tragedy in a nightmare. She thrashed and screamed like someone in a movie about exorcism. When I shook her awake and asked what was wrong, she told me, “I dreamt that a squirrel ran up the leg of my pants.” I have never encountered a dream sequence in a novel that struck me as anything other than a literary contrivance. Fiction-writing is a specific kind of imaginative act and dreaming is an entirely different kind of imaginative act. No dreamer ever dreams a great novel and no writer ever writes a great dream. Writing about dreams is like dancing about architecture. The two artistic forms are too distinct to be successfully blended. Leave your characters’ dreams in their heads and off your pages. Describe their characteristics and actions thoroughly enough, and we’ll probably be able to intuit their dreams. And mostly those dreams will be nonsense, just like all dreams are.
  2. Throw out most of your research. Please. I appreciate the fact that it takes a great deal of research to write believably from the point of view of an archeologist or a trader on the Tokyo stock exchange. But I have known both archeologists and traders on the Tokyo stock exchange for years and I’ve never learned much about either of those professions from them. People are not their professions. I have a friend who owns a company that sells high-end automobile wheels to businesses and individuals all over the world. I’ve known this friend for fifteen years. We are members of the same pub-trivia team and we sit together convivially once a week in a pub and talk for hours on end. Yesterday, I met this friend at a Sacramento pub called Old Ironsides and had lunch with him. Five hours later we met at another pub, The Fox & Goose, for the weekly trivia quiz. I probably exchange thousands of words with him every week, both in person and via text messages. I know that he loves The Great British Baking Show. I know that he is a Taiwanese American who loathes the Chinese government. I even know that when he was a little boy his mother caught him eating Hostess Sno Balls when he wasn’t supposed to and forced him to consume an entire package of them, after which he vomited and, as a result, to this day, he loathes both marshmallows and coconut flakes. I know a million facts about this friend but I have learned almost nothing about high-end automobile wheels from him. Recently he mentioned that President Trump’s trade war with China has been pinching his company’s bottom line. But that’s about all he’s ever said to me about the wheel business. In novels, archeologists seem to talk about nothing but archeology. They can’t sit down to a cup of coffee and a croissant in a French bistro without musing on the history of human food consumption. This type of monomania allows an author to shoehorn every last bit of archeology research he has uncovered into his novel. But when I encounter that kind of character in a novel, my mind generally starts to wander. I know that what I am reading is not the musings of a flesh-and-blood archeologist but rather some clever novelist’s contrived notion of what an archeologist must be like. Some authors can get away with this. Michael Crichton’s bestsellers are full of regurgitated research. I, like millions of other pop-fiction junkies, am a big fan of Crichton’s oeuvre. But in Crichton’s novels the research is the star. He goes out and accumulates fascinating facts about, say, cloning or nanotechnology or airplane crashes and then he puts these facts into the mouths of characters who are little more than cardboard cutouts. Nobody turns to Crichton for the depth of his characters or the deftness of his prose. We want to read about dinosaurs running amok at a contemporary island amusement park. Another fact about Crichton’s novels that fans like me hate to admit is that, because of all this research, they don’t age well. I recently reread his 1992 thriller Rising Sun, an alarmist screed about how the Japanese economy is on the verge of overtaking America’s economy as the biggest and most powerful in all the world (in reality, in 1992 Japan was on the verge of a decades-long financial lull and currently accounts for 5.7 percent of global economic activity, well behind the U.S., which accounts for about a quarter of the global economy). Not only is Crichton’s economic research now largely worthless (and thus boring to read), he also spends a lot of pages describing once-cutting-edge technologies that are now dead or dying (a loooong description of how an image on a VHS tape can be digitally manipulated is excruciating to read in this day and age, when anyone with access to Photoshop can do things a thousand times more interesting with video imagery than the stuff Crichton’s cardboard characters were doing with VHS tape). By all means, dear fiction writer, do all the research that you must in order to write believably about neurosurgery or hydraulic dam construction. But throw most of it out and use only that which is absolutely essential to your novel’s plot.
  3. Be wary of using addiction as a plot device. Sadly, dangerous addictions—to drugs, to gambling, to alcohol, to sex, etc.—are a fact of human life. It would be nearly impossible to write about contemporary life in America without writing about someone who has an opioid addiction or a hoarding problem or who spends hours a day staring at a smartphone screen. Sometimes it seems as if everyone in America is addicted to something. Writers shouldn’t try to avoid this fact. But they need to be aware of a fact about addiction that often goes unacknowledged in the media: it’s excruciatingly dull to the outsider. If you know someone who is addicted to his smartphone, you’re probably aware of just how boring it is to be around him. If you go to Las Vegas with a gambling addict, you are not likely to have a good time. If you want to take in a show or dine at a fancy restaurant, you’ll probably have to do it alone. Your “companion” is likely to spend all his time at the craps tables giving his money away to strangers. Drug addiction and alcohol addiction are terrible problems, but they also tend to make the addict’s life an excruciatingly dull quest for the next injection or the next shot of vodka. In movies and popular fiction this fact about addiction is generally ignored or glossed over. Instead we are shown the alcoholic having a great time at a nightclub as he imbibes shot after shot of whiskey, engages in witty banter with the bartender, flirts with beautiful women, and buys several rounds for everyone in his orbit. Next we see him waking up in a cheap hotel room at noon. He is hungover and there is a naked person in bed with him whose name he can’t remember. This type of storytelling tends to depict addiction as a series of highs and lows. And that may be how it feels to the alcoholic. But to those living with the alcoholic, it’s mainly just a long tedious slog as he repeatedly surrenders to his addiction and then suffers the consequences. Rarely does it involve witty banter and wild sex. The old Thin Man movies are difficult for me to watch because they romanticize reckless alcohol consumption and gloss over the wages of such activity. The films, of course, are redeemed by the sparkling performances by William Powell and Myrna Loy, but no one would consider them realistic portraits of recognizable human beings. The man whose literary works inspired the films was a serious alcoholic whose career and personal life suffered greatly because of it. To write about addiction honestly requires acknowledging just how tedious it is, something only extremely gifted writers are able to do in a way that is interesting or compelling. To write about addiction dishonestly is to exacerbate the problem by romanticizing something that isn’t in the least bit romantic. How often have we seen movies in which the alcoholic or drug addict or gambling addict kicks his habit and turns his life around simply because his thirteen-year-old daughter or his wife or his teammates have come to him and said some version of, “Please, we need you sober tonight. You’ve got to come through for us. We know you can do it if you try.” At the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey’s drunken Uncle Billy, whose alcoholism precipitated George’s downfall as a building-and-loan operator, is welcomed back into the fold and is singing “Auld Lang Syne” with the rest of the family, leaving the viewer to intuit that all is now well with old Uncle Billy. In reality, Uncle Billy would go on being a huge burden to his family until he received serious medical attention for what is in fact not a quirk of character but an actual illness. Addiction is an extremely difficult thing to write about honestly and accurately. Unless you are truly up to the challenge, you shouldn’t attempt it.
  4. Writing about psychopaths can be as tricky as writing about addicts. Crime fiction is awash in psychopaths whose crimes are aggressively thematic—i.e., they kill every year on the anniversary of the high-school prom at which they were humiliated, or they kill only recently divorced women with one child who remind them of their own mothers, or they leave behind some unusual calling card at the crime scene (an ancient Roman coin, say, or a leopard’s tooth). This stuff can be interesting and entertaining, of course, but it has also been done to death. When Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon was published in late 1981, the Kirkus Review’s assessment of the novel began with these words: “It seems as if two out of every three suspense novels in recent years have featured psychopathic mass murderers . . .” That was nearly forty years ago, and the trend has yet to abate. In fact, it was ignited by Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel Psycho and its 1960 film adaptation from director Alfred Hitchcock. In 1959, plenty of science-fiction writers were still producing novels that featured little green men on the planet Mars. Nowadays no serious sci-fi novelist would produce a novel about little green Martians. Science has shown us that they don’t exist. While psychopaths do, alas, exist, real-life psychopaths almost never take the form that they assume in most novels. How many times have you picked up a newspaper and seen a headline that read “Arbor Day Killer Strikes Again! Tree Fetishist Claims 16th Victim in 16 years, all of them Killed on the Last Friday of April. Police Still Stumped!” How many times have you read about a serial killer who leaves small jade elephants at the site of all of his murders? How many times have you read about a killer who is mowing down, one by one, all the surviving cast members of a cult 1970s TV series? Yes, there is the odd Zodiac Killer or Son of Sam, who captures the public’s attention because of the cinematic nature of his crime spree. But the vast majority of murders are still committed for old-fashioned reasons. One spouse kills another in a flash of anger. A convenience-store clerk is shot in a botched holdup. A lone female hitchhiker is raped and murdered by an opportunistic motorist with an evil heart. Even our psychopaths are generally lazy misanthropes who don’t kill 16 people over the course of 16 Arbor Days but rather walk into a crowded theatre with an assault weapon and kill 20 people in ten seconds. I’m not arguing that crime fiction always needs to be brutally realistic. I’m just pointing out that the rigidly thematic and disciplined serial killer who targets only a certain type of victim (female volleyball players, say) on only a certain type of day (full moon, Arbor Day, the victim’s 18th birthday, etc) employing an unusual weapon (an ancient Etruscan broadsword) and actually signs his handiwork with a signature (“The Etruscan Volleyball Killer!”) that he affixes to the numerous notes he taunts the police with is very nearly as nonexistent as the little green Martian. Science-fiction writers have moved on since 1959, but too many crime writers seem to be stuck in the 1960s and 1970s when it seemed as if attention-seeking nutjobs such as Charles Manson, the Zodiac Killer, and David Berkowitz might be the wave of the future. But that kind of killer remains largely the stuff of preposterous fictions. During my many years as a bookstore clerk, I met a lot of crime-fiction fans who devoured serial-killer novels of the Arbor-Day variety and who congratulated themselves on their love of gritty realistic crime dramas while looking down their noses at the kind of mystery fans who read “cozy mysteries” about little old ladies who solve murders with the help of their knitting-circle buddies and their preternaturally sensitive cats. I was too polite (and too concerned about keeping my job) to point out that Arbor-Day-style serial killers are about as rare as crime-busting knitting circles. But it’s the truth. (My wife has been a member of a Sacramento knitting group for years and they have yet to solve their first murder; I don’t know what’s wrong with those ladies.) If you were watching a crime drama on TV back in the 1970s and a character was introduced as a Vietnam War veteran, you could bet your life savings that he would turn out to be the killer. Service in Vietnam was the lazy TV scriptwriter’s explanation for all kinds of antisocial behavior. While it’s true that plenty of Vietnam veterans suffered physical, mental, and emotional damage as a result of their service, few of them came back to the states and went on a killing spree. If you have a background in mental health and you know the difference between pscychopathy, sociopathy, and all the other pathies, feel free to create a complex killer whose mental-health issues are at the root of his crimes. But if you’re just a lazy writer who uses mental-health issues as a convenient pretext for explaining your murderer’s behavior, much as many lazy TV writers of the 1970s used service in Vietnam to explain their murderers’ behavior, please cease and desist immediately.
  5. A word of advice about stream-of-consciousness writing—just don’t do it. Stream-of-consciousness writing never sounds like any consciousness that I’m familiar with. It isn’t daring and edgy and experimental, and it hasn’t been since about 1927. It is a tired and hackneyed literary device. I can tolerate a few italicized sentence fragments connected by ellipses: Gotta reach the campsite before dark . . . gotta warn Mary and the kids . . . legs growing tired . . . cold . . . cold . . . why is it so cold . . . I can barely feel my feet any more. . . . But that’s about it. If you give me paragraph upon paragraph of stream-of-consciousness writing (or, even worse, page upon page of the stuff) I’m going to fling your book aside and look for someone who knows how to write in full sentences. Just . . . don’t . . . do . . . it. . . .
  6. I’m not a prude. I want my fictional characters to have healthy sex lives. Hell, I want them to commit adultery, meet in sleazy hotels, and plot to kill each other’s spouses. I’m okay with all of that—and more. But, please, just don’t give me all the anatomical details. That kind of stuff hasn’t titillated me since I was about thirteen (and thought the word “titillate” was hilariously racy). Even the masters of the genre fall down on this score. Back in the Swinging Sixties serious literary writers like John Updike (see Couples) began trying to infuse their fictions with accurate depictions of, well, coupling. Most of these, including Updike’s, were embarrassing to read. Inspired by the likes of Updike and Mailer, genre writers like John D. MacDonald began including graphic depictions of very athletic sexual shenanigans in their books. I don’t blame them for this. It makes sense that a man like Travis McGee—a tall, good-looking ex-NFL player-turned-beach-bum/private-detective—would have a very active sex life. He lived on a boat in South Florida, for godsakes. A man like that was bound to be awash with hot babes. I get it. I like it. I want it to happen. But when Travis takes one of these sultry stewardesses or pouty paralegals or naughty nurses into the bedroom, I’d prefer that he slam the door shut on old John D. and his typewriter. John D. was a master at describing booze, broads, boats, beaches, and beatings, but bedsheet Twister really wasn’t his specialty. You’re lucky that I can’t find my copy of The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper just now or else I would expose you to some of MacDonald’s cringe-worthy sex writing. Mind you, I am not singling out MacDonald. Almost no writer does this stuff well. The smart ones don’t even try. In an introduction to his novel Kahawa, Donald E. Westlake wrote, “If a word, one single word, distracts the reader from the story I’m trying to tell, out with it. Since both sex and violence can be distracting, I usually depict them sparingly, trying mostly to get my effects by allusion and implication.” To which I say, “Amen, brother!” There are certain human bodily functions (defecation, urination, menstruation, farting, nose-picking) that don’t require a great deal of detail in a work of fiction. We know that our fictional characters have to defecate about once a day or so, but we don’t need our noses rubbed in the fact (sorry). I enjoy erotic thrillers. I like to watch the mating dance, the call-and-response of two lusty people trying to make a physical connection with one another. I like the sexy banter, the foreplay, the innuendo. When they finally do it, I want to know if it happened on her yacht or in his law office. I want to know who was the aggressor and who played coy. I want to know if they were mutually satisfied or if one of them felt used afterwards. All of this, and much more, can be very interesting and helpful in filling out our understanding of the characters and their relationship. But, unless it’s going to serve as a clue later on, I don’t need to know exactly where the bodily fluids ended up, what odd parts of his anatomy she left her lipstick on, every last word she cried out as she experienced her climax, the condition of his phallus as he walked to the shower afterwards, and so forth. If you are a writer and you find yourself about to describe a sexual encounter in detail, ask yourself, “When was the last time I read a really great graphic sex scene?” It probably happened back around the time you saw that newspaper headline that screamed: “Arbor Day Killer Strikes Again!” That should tell you something about how difficult it is to write a sex scene that isn’t laughably awful.
  7. Illogical wealth. If your protagonist is an unmarried preschool teacher who lives in a Pasadena mansion, you’ve got some ’splaining to do. This might sound obvious to you, but apparently it wasn’t obvious to writer/director Gary David Goldberg when he made the film Must Love Dogs, in which Diane Lane portrays an unmarried preschool teacher who lives by herself in a massive Pasadena home. We know she didn’t inherit wealth from her family, because we meet her family and they are not rich. She didn’t win a big divorce settlement from her ex-husband because he is a fireman not a hedge-fund manager. This same problem crops up in the 1998 crime drama A Perfect Murder (a remake of Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder), in which Viggo Mortensen plays a struggling artist living in a massive Manhattan loft reachable by its own private service elevator. Digs like that would probably have rented for about $50,000 a month even back in 1998. Anyone who’s ever watched an episode of Friends has probably asked herself, “How do an unemployed actor [Joey] and a midlevel office worker [Chandler] afford such a commodious New York apartment? And for that matter, how does Phoebe, a masseuse and coffeehouse chanteuse, afford her lovely apartment? In the early seasons, Monica was a restaurant chef and Rachel was a waitress. How the hell did they afford a massive apartment with a romantic balcony?” In real life, the house that Michael Connelly’s fictional LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch lives in is probably worth somewhere around $10 million. Connelly, to his credit, has provided a (not entirely satisfactory) explanation of this fact: A Hollywood studio paid Bosch a massive amount of money for the film rights to one of his investigative exploits (yeah, right, whatever). And how does Adrian Monk, who works as a seldom-paid consultant to the San Francisco Police Department, afford a beautiful home and beautiful full-time assistant in one of the nation’s most expensive cities? If you are producing pleasant lightweight fluff like Must Love Dogs, Monk, or Friends, I suppose you should feel as free to ignore the laws of economics as the makers of The Flying Nun felt to ignore the laws of gravity (or, for that matter, as the makers of the film Gravity did). If you are aspiring to produce the kind of grittily realistic crime dramas that Michael Connelly writes, I think you should resist the urge to give your LAPD detective a ten-million-dollar pad. At the very least it suggests that he might be on the take. Having been a freelance writer for my entire adult life, I am always bemused whenever I see a freelance writer portrayed on television or film or in a novel. “How can he afford that Cape Cod beach house?” I’ll scream at my long-suffering wife. I know a ton of freelance writers and almost none of them survive on their freelance work. They work in bookstores. They teach at community colleges. They drive for Uber or Lyft. They have working spouses. And none of them live in expensive lofts in Brooklyn or Manhattan the way that so many freelancers on TV do. This may seem like sour grapes or petty nitpicking, but I advise serious writers to take it seriously. If you don’t want to destroy your credibility as a chronicler of real American life, don’t give your coffeehouse waitress a nice little bungalow in Palo Alto or a beach house in Malibu. I’ve read crime novels in which the forensic details seemed fairly well researched and believable, and yet I had to wonder if they were trustworthy because the private detective who is combing over these details charges $400 a day for his services and lives in a detached house in the Marina District of San Francisco. I may not be an expert in forensics or anthropology, but, like most pop-fiction fans (I would imagine), I know what working-class life in America is like. If your small-town cop goes off to his cabin on the Marin County coast for his vacations, you need to explain to me how he happens to own such an extravagance. Otherwise, I’m not going to believe a word you write.
  8. Dumb luck. Intuitive leaps. Yeah, I know that these things happen in real life, but they come across as either laziness or a failure of the imagination (or perhaps both) in a work of mystery fiction. Few things are more annoying in a mystery novel (or film, TV series, etc.) than wading through scene after scene of detection and investigation only to have the big break come as the result of someone’s preternaturally insightful dream (see Rule No. 1 above), or the result of a conversation one accidentally overhears in a bus or a restaurant, or a scrap of evidence that just sort of falls into the detective’s lap rather than something he earns with hard work and lots of shoe leather. If the detective was destined to get a huge lucky break at the end of the investigation that cracks the case wide open, why bother showing us all the procedural steps that precede the lucky break? All of that procedural work wasn’t what led to the capture of the perpetrator, so why bother with it? I don’t know why Aaron Sorkin had Tom Cruise and Demi Moore do so much detective work over the course of A Few Good Men if he was just planning on having the culprit take to the witness stand at the end of the film and shout out “You’re goddamn right I did it!” It’s like reading a story about a couple that work hard and make numerous sacrifices in order to try to buy a home of their own only to win a big lottery jackpot at the end rendering their hard work unnecessary. Even if this is a happy outcome it’s a frustrating ending for the reader. In a realistic story, we want things to proceed logically from scene to scene. We don’t want a deus ex machina to show up in the final act and render everything that preceded that final act largely a waste of time.
  9. Unbelievably convenient skills. Last night at the abovementioned meeting of my pub-trivia team, several of us were talking about pocketknives (I brought up the subject because when reporting for jury duty recently I forgot to remove the tiny pocketknife from my keychain and the security guards at the entrance to the courthouse relieved me of it). One of my teammates, a thirty-something woman named Alison reached into her pocket and said, “I don’t carry a pocketknife, but I carry this,” whereupon she withdrew a set of lock-picking tools from her jeans (I swear I’m not making this up). The other five members of the team, myself included, were amused by this. Alison is not a professional locksmith. By day she works as a waitress in the very pub where we compete at trivia. She is also a semiprofessional roller-derby competitor (again, not making this up). She explained to us that she had a neighbor who was forever locking herself out of her apartment, so Alison went online and ordered a perfectly legal set of lock-picking tools, after which she watched YouTube videos and read websites about lock picking until she had taught herself how to pick fairly simple door locks. If this scene had taken place in a novel or a film, you could be fairly certain that Alison’s lock-picking skills would come in handy before the end of the story. But I have lost track of how many times I have encountered a fictional scene wherein our main characters are locked in or out of some room and, voila, one of them pulls a paperclip or hairpin out of her pocket and picks the lock. This simply beggars belief. I doubt if one in 100,000 people have the skills necessary to pick a door lock even with actual lock-picking tools like Alison’s. Even a professional locksmith would probably have trouble opening most locks with a hairpin. So why are so many fictional characters able to lock-pick their way out of trouble? The answer, of course, is that they shouldn’t be able to. But if you are planning to have a character in your novel demonstrate the ability to pick a lock in chapter twenty-five, you had better establish the fact that she possesses this skill somewhere around chapter five. I can’t stand it when, during some critical scene of a novel, the protagonist finds himself in need of someone who can (take your pick) read lips or perform an emergency tracheotomy or understand a clue written in ancient Sanskrit or hotwire a snowplow and, sure enough, as if by magic, someone in the scene will announce that he possesses just that particular skill. This is lazy writing. If you insist on having a character possess an improbably convenient skill just when said skill is needed, you should at least give us this information from the outset. Otherwise it’s just another deus ex machina.
  10. Don’t have your protagonist constantly searching the internet for answers. Yes, the internet is a marvelous invention. But it has also become a crutch for lazy writers. Recently I was reading a delightfully cheesy romantic thriller from the 1970s called Always, by Trevor Meldal-Johnsen. The book’s protagonist becomes infatuated with a beautiful Hollywood starlet who died in a mysterious house fire back in 1949 just as her acting career was taking flight. Our protagonist, a young screenwriter named Gregory Thomas, longs to know more about Brooke Ashley, the starlet. The story takes place in 1979, so Gregory can’t just Google Brooke Ashley. To find out more about her he actually has to get off his ass and do some detective work. Here’s how Meldal-Johnsen begins the scene in which Gregory goes out searching for information about Brooke:

     The Larry Edmonds Cinema and Theatre Book Shop on Hollywood Boulevard has a well-deserved reputation as a reliable source for anything written on the film industry. From the outside, the bookshop looks slightly decrepit, but inside is collected the written history of America’s most glamorous business. The shelves are stuffed to the ceilings with books, some long out of print; books running the gamut from glossy photographic paeans to dry sociological studies. Something for everyone.

A page later, he writes:

     Gregory climbed up an ancient foot ladder that creaked below him, and thumbed the titles. Harlow, Cukor, Leslie Howard, Carole Lombard, Swanson . . . the glory that once was Hollywood in a musty corner . . . there! Brooke Ashley.

If you share my love of musty old bookshops and out-of-print manuscripts, a scene like that probably draws you in like a barker at a carnival, just as it drew me in. If Meldal-Johnsen were writing that book today, he might be tempted to have Gregory simply do a Google search for information about Brooke. But that would be a shame. The internet can be a fascinating place, but computers are rather cold and sterile devices and incapable of summoning up the same kind of heart-thrilling excitement a book lover finds in an old bookstore. If you are writing a mystery novel (or screenplay) I advise you to do your level best not to have your characters rely too heavily on the internet for information. These days, if Ted wants information about Sarah, the cute girl who sits next to him in his college English class, he can probably find her Facebook page, her Instagram account, her Twitter account, and learn nearly everything he wants to know about her: her political opinions, the size of her family, the names of her pets, what she looks like in a bikini. It’s an inescapable fact of modern life than many people are willing to give away every ounce of their privacy on internet social-networking sites. This may make things easy for real-life detectives, but, at the very least, it complicates things for crime and mystery writers. Nobody wants to sit and read about a detective who spends all day at his desk, Googling suspects on his computer. The internet is the ultimate deus ex machina. Can’t remember the name of that old movie in which Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh spend Christmas together? Do what I just did and Google “Robert Mitchum Janet Leigh Christmas movie” and you’ll instantly have your answer (Holiday Affair, 1949). This is great for old men like me with bad memories. But it presents real challenges for the crime writer. And you need to rise to that challenge. Do what you have to do to prevent your detective character from learning all he needs to know on the internet. Have him discover that the clue he needs is buried in an old trunk in the basement of an abandoned train station outside of a small town in southern England. Sure, in Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey’s detective Alan Grant is able to solve a centuries-old mystery without leaving his hospital bed, and the novel still manages to be gripping. But Daughter of Time is the exception to the rule. For the most part we want our characters to get up and out of bed, to step away from their computers and go out into the world and delve into the messy world of nonvirtual crime-solving. If our detective gets his nose punched in along the way, so much the better. Every time a character in a mystery novel sits down at his computer, I’m reminded of the smartphone in my pocket, and I’m tempted to take it out and look up the latest news headlines or play a game of solitaire. It’s never a good thing for a writer to remind the reader of a device that might be able to compete with a book for the reader’s attention. Get your detective off the internet and out into the world. Otherwise I might just choose to play solitaire.

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Very best wishes and a spark of mystery to our readers and contributors for 2020.

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A large decorated Christmas tree with a menorah in front of it in early evening outside the New York Stock Exchange.

Warm wishes from all of us at 44 Wall Street.

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“Great Beginnings” (by Sheila Kohler)

Sheila Kohler’s work has been appearing in EQMM for a number of years. The distinguished novelist’s books include Dreaming for FreudBecoming Jane Eyre, Cracks, which was nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and made into a movie starring Eva Green, and the upcoming Open Secrets (Penguin, July 2020). Her short fiction has been included in the Best American Short Stories, and she has twice won an O’Henry Prize, as well as an Open Fiction Award, a Willa Cather Prize, and a Smart Family Foundation Prize. We can think of no one better to address the topic of beginnings in fiction. . . . —Janet Hutchings

What are the essential elements of the opening lines of a great crime novel? What is it that gets us hooked and keeps us reading ? What is it that makes the words at the start of Crime and Punishment or The Stranger or Chronicle of a Death Foretold to name a few, linger on through the years becoming part of our literary tradition? Can we find universal qualities in these great beginnings and thus ascertain what constitute the elements of a great beginning and perhaps use them in our own or at least recognize them in our reading.

One of the essential elements, it seems to me, is simply that the reader believes what you have to say, believes the narrator knows the story he/she is about to tell, often plunging us into the middle of things or even into the end. Here’s the start of Chronicle of a Death Foretold by García Marquéz:

On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on. He’d dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream, but when he awoke he felt completely spattered with bird shit.

We are drawn into this world by a matter-of-fact voice, a cool statement that contrasts with the high drama of a killing, and the kind of precise detail that only the protagonist could seemingly know (the dream, the moment of happiness, the bird shit), so that we believe or are anyway willing to suspend disbelief. All is in the assurance of the tone.

Or on the contrary the voice gains credibility by confessing they do not know all.

Thus Camus’s The Stranger begins with the lines:

Maman died today. Or, yesterday maybe; I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: 
MOTHER deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours. That doesn’t mean anything; Maybe it was yesterday.

In other words this is a voice that we allow to take us in hand and lead us, our Virgil into the underworld.

The voice is often linked to the material. The telegraphic style in The Stranger, the white spaces between the short truncated sentences, the staccato rhythm evokes the character’s alienation.

We find this too in The Talented Mr. Ripley:

Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way. Tom walked faster. There was no doubt that the man was after him. Tom had noticed him five minutes ago, eyeing him carefully from a table, as if he weren’t quite sure, but almost. He had looked sure enough for Tom to down his drink in a hurry, pay and get out.

The narrator in these beginnings finds the right distance from the material with a voice that is sufficiently intimate, drawing the reader close, giving an illusion of intimacy, and yet revealing only what it is strictly necessary: a few evocative, original details; where and when we are, for example, in the beginning of Crime and Punishment:

At the beginning of July, during an extremely hot spell, towards evening, a young man left the closet he rented from tenants in S. Lane, walked out to the street, and slowly, as if indecisively, headed for the K. Bridge.

He had safely avoided meeting his landlady on the stairs. His closet was located just under the roof of a tall, five-storied house and was more like a cupboard than a room. As for the landlady from whom he rented this closet with dinner and maid- service included she lived one flight below, and every time he went out he could not fail to pass by the landlady’s kitchen , the door of which almost always stood open. And each time he passed by, the young man felt some painful and cowardly sensation, which made him wince with shame. He was over his head in debt to his landlady and was afraid of meeting her.

Here we have the details important to the plot and the character; the exact number of floors to the house, the size of the room and its location, money.

Above all we have the author’s choice of point of view. How is this chosen? In Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury, unable to decide on whose POV to use, he tried out four different ones: the three Compson brothers (like the Brothers Karamazov)— Benjy’s, the intellectually disabled man of thirty who sees without understanding, Quentin’s, the Harvard student who sets out to end his life, and Jason’s—and finally the family servant, Dilsey. These beginnings became the book where the main character Caddy never gets a point of view.

We can start from a certain distance with an unnamed third person: “a young man” as in Crime and Punishment, a closer third person where we have the first name (“Tom glanced behind him”), a first-person narrator as in The Stranger or slipped in after a few lines in Chronicle of a Death Foretold (“Placido Linero, his mother told me twenty years later”), or the very close first person of The Collector by John Fowles:

When she was home from her boarding-school I used to see her almost every day sometimes, because their house was right opposite the Town Hall Annexe. She and her younger sister used to go in and out a lot, often with young men, which of course I didn’t like. When I had a free moment from the files and ledgers I stood by the window and used to look down over the road over the frosting and sometimes I’d see her. In the evening I marked it in my observations diary, at first with X, and then when I knew her name with M. I saw her several times outside too. I stood right behind her once in a queue at the public library down Crossfield Street. She didn’t look once at me, but I watched the back of her head and her hair in a long pigtail. It was very pale, silky, like Burnet cocoons. All in one pigtail coming down almost to her waist, sometimes in front, sometimes at the back. Sometimes she wore it up. Only once, before she came to be my guest here, did I have the privilege to see her with it loose, and it took my breath away it was so beautiful, like a mermaid.

In all these examples a moment of change sets off a chain of events. Sometimes this has happened in the past, so that we ask not so much what has happened as why it did. Why is Santiago Nasar killed that day? It takes the whole book to find out. What will happen to Tom who is being followed? How does Miranda come to be Clegg’s “guest”?

The chain of events may, in a sense, go backwards or forwards. What will the mother’s death bring about in The Stranger, and why does the son not even know on what day it happened? Why is the story told in these fragmented sentences with their gaping white spaces between them? Questions are formed in the reader’s mind, events are hinted at , foreshadowed, the stone is set to roll down the hill. Where will it go?

Mystery is created. Much is unknown at the start. We have only the elements of the story. This mystery often comes from conflict.

A series of conflictual desires, opposing forces, are set up at the start. Someone wants something they have difficulty obtaining: there are elements of danger at the start of several of these novels.

From the start of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov, we know, is heavily in debt. He wants here to avoid his landlady, to escape without having to talk to her. We have the problem of money and also Raskolnikov’s isolation, his inability to communicate or be with others (here, the landlady). We have his indecision—“and slowly, as if indecisively, headed for the K. Bridge.”—an indecision which we will soon find out turns around his decision to murder or not, to confess or not, so that the suspense lies in will he or won’t he murder; will he or won’t he be caught.

At the start of The Talented Mr Ripley, Tom wants simply to escape the man who is following him, whom we wrongly deduce is menacing Tom in some way. Instead it is Tom who is menacing Dicky’s father, we discover in a reversal.

In the first lines of The Stranger we have a series of conflicts or juxtaposition of opposites in the language itself: the death of Mersault’s mother is juxtaposed with the dry, emotionless tone, for example, like the polite, rather prissy voice of Clegg in The Collector is juxtaposed with the inherent violence of the act of stalking someone—She and her younger sister used to go in and out a lot, often with young men, which of course I didn’t like—which immediately makes us wonder about him.

Language is what happens in these great beginnings, a language which is both specific to the writer (Camus, García Marquéz), to their theme, and to the rhythm of the sentences, which gives one that telltale shiver of poetry.

The theme of the book is announced at the start. The title of the book, of course, comes even before the beginning, and sets up the first sentences and often carries the weight of what the book is about. These great crime novels are also about ideas written at a time of flux when the culture, the place, the ideas are changing, and literature expresses these new ideas.

Camus’s beginning is perhaps one of the clearest to do this for us, as it is a novel of ideas, his truncated sentences with the white spaces in between sum up the alienation of Mersault .

Thus we are drawn in by a believable voice, the mystery of the situation (a coming killing, a coming abduction), the conflict with its juxtaposition of opposites, its hopes of success, and its hints of danger that the protagonist and thus the fascinated reader faces.

Posted in Books, Characters, Genre, Guest, Setting, Suspense, Thrillers, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“On Attending the International Murder Games Expo” (by Martin Edwards)

Author of two highly regarded series of mystery novels and several standalone crime novels (including 2018’s critically acclaimed Gallows Court), Martin Edwards is also a short-story writer with dozens of stories in print, many of which appeared for the first time in the U.S. in the pages of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Additionally, he is a leading critic and expert in the field of mystery and crime fiction and the current president of Britain’s prestigious Detection Club. His book The Golden Age of Murder won Edgar, Agatha, H. R. F. Keating, and Macavity awards for best nonfiction in 2015. It’s no mystery why such a writer would be sought as a guest of honor at an expo whose aim was to introduce crime fiction to a generation of Chinese readers with a burgeoning interest in related mystery games. I wish I could have been there to hear Martin’s speech, but at least we all have the pleasure, here, of reading about his experiences and seeing some photos of the event!—Janet Hutchings

Photo courtesy of Martin Edwards.

One thing I never expected to do was to be asked to sign a stack of copies of an issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine containing one of my stories (“The Girl on the Bandwagon”) during a mystery-game exhibition in, of all places, Shanghai. Yet that’s exactly what happened last month.

The opportunity to visit China came out of the blue. I was told that an expo celebrating “offline mystery games” was to be held in Shanghai, and I was invited to be a guest of honour. I was told that in recent years these games have developed as a new form of entertainment in China. Their roots can be traced back to murder mystery games played in the West between the world wars, but in recent years a TV show called Star Detective has become very popular in China, sparking great enthusiasm for offline mystery games. There are now over four thousand offline mystery game clubs across the country and I’m told that millions of young people are passionately enthusiastic about playing these mystery games.

Through the games, young players who previously knew little or nothing about Golden Age detective fiction have become intrigued by it. Famous writers of classic mysteries from the distant past, such as Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr, have become well-known. So offline mystery games have caused young Chinese people to become interested in detective fiction more generally.

This boom in the murder-mystery game industry was the catalyst for the convention. The expo was the first of its kind and the major exhibitors, I was told, would be game producers and resellers from all over China. They would bring their games to the venue and demonstrate the story to potential buyers and players. During the expo, visitors would be able play the game at each booth for free.

The aim of the expo was not only to publicise the games but also to raise awareness and knowledge of mystery literature and cultivate the culture of the detective story. I was asked to give a lecture on Golden Age mysteries, and also, because I’ve written a number of scripts for interactive murder mystery events in Britain, to give a short talk about them. My fellow guests of honour included Japan’s Shimada Soji, and France’s Paul Halter—and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, I’m glad to say, had a highly visible presence. The magazines flew off the shelves and Janet Hutchings addressed delegates via a prerecorded video. There was also an exhibition of rare signed books by the likes of Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, and Rex Stout.

Photo courtesy of Martin Edwards.

The consultant to the exhibition, Fei Wu, a young detective writer (he has contributed to EQMM, while CITIC Press has just published his first novel, The Lost Winner), proved an admirable host, and Soji Shimada, Paul Halter, and I each took part in a separate mystery game. These games can run on for seven hours, although ours was limited to a couple of hours; playing it in the company of five young Chinese mystery fans and the game’s designer was like no other game I’ve ever encountered. There is a lot of role play and interaction between the players, and this social side to the game is evidently part of its appeal.

Paul Halter and I were particularly struck by the youth of the mystery-game fans, and we lost count of the number of selfies they took with us. Of the thousands of people who attended the expo (I gather that up to 5,000 were present on the Saturday alone) hardly any of them were over the age of thirty-five, and that included the Chinese crime writers, editors, and publishers I met.

I enjoyed myself enormously in Shanghai. And I do believe that the more we all do, as writers and readers, to get to know and understand each other, the more we’ll enjoy and appreciate each other. And the more likely it is that, even in an age where divisions sometimes seem appallingly deep, we’ll come to realise that—as the organisers cogently expressed on the mementos given to the guests of honour—we’re all part of one world.

Commemorative statue sent to EQMM by Fei Wu.

Posted in Conventions, Fiction, Genre, Guest, International, Magazine, Passport | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Writer Unplugged” (by Paul D. Marks)

Paul D. Marks is the author of the Shamus Award–winning novel White Heat, and his Macavity Award–winning short story “Windward” was also nominated for a Shamus Award and appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2018. He is an EQMM Readers Award Winner for his story “The Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” part of a series that vividly evokes the particular atmosphere of Los Angeles. In this post, the author discusses an aspect of modern L.A. living that affects daily life and specifically the life of a writer.—Janet Hutchings

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Ana’s that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”

Raymond Chandler called it in the opening of his story Red Wind above. He mentions the Santa Ana Winds, which are something we have to contend with here in California for several months of the year. Also known as the Devil Winds, they’re usually accompanied by low humidity and create extremely dangerous fire conditions. So, in an effort to prevent fires both SoCal Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric have been doing preventative safety power shut-offs to large swaths of both southern and northern California respectively.

Because my wife Amy and I live in a fire-prone area we’ve had to deal with these power cut-offs twice recently and possibly more by the time this is published. And let me tell you, it’s not fun. I think we’ve come to take electricity and all it provides for granted, both in general and in how it relates to our writing.

It’s a little mind blowing to realize how dependent we are on electricity for the creature comforts, but in particular how much our writing has become dependent on electricity. Sure, we could write with pen and paper, but how long could we continue and how much would it impact what we write and how we edit?

During the recent nearby fire, we lost power for several days off and on over a week because of the preventative shut-offs, which caused us to lose internet, cell-phone service, and even our landline phone.

Some of the other things we had to do without: refrigeration—and once the power came back on we ended up having to throw out tons of food. No TV or computers. With flashlights we could read a little at night but I’m no Abe Lincoln wanting to read by candle or flashlight. Gas stations weren’t pumping gas. If the power had been off longer we might not have been able to get natural gas either. As it was, we couldn’t heat the house, but the water heater stayed warm. No cooking. And, of course, no writing.

The whole area was dark, which leads one to be concerned about the possibility of looting as well. It was also difficult not knowing what the fire situation was as we couldn’t check the internet. We’re so connected for so many things these days but without internet and, since the cell and landline phone service was out too, we really felt “blind” and disconnected. You’re really on your own. That wasn’t a good feeling.

Under normal circumstances, my wife and I can communicate at almost any time, especially in an emergency . . . or so we thought until this recent outage when everything went dead. She takes the train to work and not too long ago got stuck in a flash flood. If it weren’t for e-mail, texting, and voice calls on the cell phone we would never have been able to communicate and I wouldn’t have been able to pick her up as the train had stopped running. If this had happened during these current outages, when cell and landline service went off, she would have been stuck.

So, while we can still do things the way our parents and grandparents did, and even we did in the olden days, we’ve become accustomed to the plugged-in conveniences of modern life. We might still like to read a paper book or eat a slow cooked meal when we get tired of microwaved food. And we still need to “unplug” sometimes, turn off the cell phone, log out of Facebook, and even take a break from writing and let our minds drift. But we want to do it at our convenience.

In the ye olden days, we did things differently and in a pinch we can go back to those ways, but it isn’t the same once you’ve tasted the “good life” of the modern world. When I began as a writer I was on a typewriter. And when PCs first came out I thought who needs this? I was happy working on the latest incarnation of a typewriter, the Selectric, that had a ball that you could actually change fonts with. Wow! And moving a paragraph from page 3 to page 93 was simple. All you had to do was get out a scissors, snip snip snip, move the paragraph, Scotch tape it to the new page, white out the lines, Xerox it and hope the lines where it was taped didn’t show too badly. So who needed a computer to write? One day, my then-writing partner got one of the very early PCs and I went over to his house and saw him magically move that paragraph from page 3 to 93: I was hooked. I was the second person I knew to get a personal computer, one of those fancy-schmancy things with two floppy drives, no hard drive, and a thimble full of memory. But it was, indeed, Magic. No literal cutting and pasting. No Liquid Paper (“Wite-Out”). It was liberating.

Not only have we become uber dependent on computers, we’re also dependent on “mini computers,” like cell phones with Skype and Uber and Waze. We can’t go anywhere or do anything now without our cell phones. Can’t find out what our friends and relatives are doing or where our kids are hanging out. Can’t find a restaurant or a movie or a parking space—or check on fire and evacuation info. Can’t write.

These electric and electronic conveniences have made our lives easier and have also made writing easier. You no longer have to go to the library and spend hours looking through books and microfiche to dig for information and sometimes come up empty. Now you can do most of your research online. You can do it at 3 a.m. when the library is closed. You can interview someone in France while sitting in the comfort of your own living room.

The internet also helps writers be more connected, to network and share ideas and tips (like on this blog). Writing used to be (and still is) a lonely profession. But social-media websites have made it possible for writers to gather around the virtual watercooler and shoot the breeze or commiserate. I missed that when the power was off.

Computers have changed the ways we work. In some ways they’ve freed us to be more creative. We’re able to be more flexible, change things and rewrite at a whim (like my example above about moving a paragraph). We also have spell checkers and grammar checkers and programs that will keep track of your characters and word count.

The creative process is still difficult. No matter how many bells and whistles we have, there is still the daunting process of the actual writing. And whether you’re writing on an iPad or a stone tablet, it’s still difficult to express those ideas and get them out into the world. Facing a blank computer screen isn’t any easier than facing a blank piece of paper. A writer still needs skill and inspiration to work. But all these modern conveniences really do make the process easier.

I didn’t get any writing done while the power was out. I suppose I could have tried to write with pen and paper but when you’re worried about running out of battery power and trying to get a radio signal so you can find out where the fire is and what areas are evacuating, you don’t have a lot of concentration to write. Besides, I like writing on those modern conveniences—and my handwriting is so bad these days I can’t read what I’ve written. Maybe I should have been a doctor. . . .

So, while all of these devices have made life easier in general and the life of a writer easier in specific, we’ve also become so dependent on them that it becomes very difficult when we don’t have access to them. Of course, our pioneer forbearers would laugh at what we find inconvenient and a hundred years from now our great grandchildren will think about how primitive we were.

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“What True Crime Podcasts Can Teach Us About Writing Mysteries” (by Matt Coleman)

Matt Coleman is a writer of mystery and comedy who makes his Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine debut in our current issue (November/December 2019) with the story “Stray Dogs.” He is not a newcomer to the mystery scene, however.  His debut novel, Juggling Kittens, was recently optioned for a feature film, and he has followed that book up with two more well-received crime novels. In this post he addresses a subject that has not been touched upon much on this blog site: the relationship between true crime and crime-fiction writing. It’s a timely topic for EQMM. Due to all the great feedback we’ve had to our web-only true crime column “Stranger Than Fiction,” we’ve decided to bring the feature into the magazine. Starting next spring you’ll be able to find original true crime articles from Dean Jobb in our pages, and we’ll continue to bring you all of the columns on our website, including six true crime, web-only book review columns per year. Don’t miss it! And if you’re a podcast listener, stay tuned for the true crime podcast that EQMM will soon be launching in tandem with Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.—Janet Hutchings  

The secret to a good magic trick is never how the magician pulls the proverbial rabbit out of their hat. The real trick is getting the audience to look at anything other than the hat. The distractions. You know, I assume. Truth is, I have no earthly idea. I have never successfully completed a magic trick. Nor do I make a habit out of messing around with rabbits. I do, however, know a thing or two about teaching and a little bit about writing mysteries.

Teaching isn’t much different from magic. We spend most of our time attempting to trick kids into learning. And most of our tricks come from the world outside of school. The best teachers divine their inspiration from the “real world.” And, I would argue, mystery writers are no different. Tricks of the craft—tropes like the red herring or the MacGuffin or the mystery box—are utilized in mysteries not simply because they are convenient to a plot. They have become tropes of mystery fiction because they exist in real mysteries.

While many of us may not see these elements in real-life mysteries, that is not because they are not there. Much more likely, we don’t see them because they get weeded out in the telling. Newspapers and other media outlets are often charged with relaying the facts, filtering out the more confusing elements that, at one point, turned a tale of crime into a mystery. But one outlet preserves the narrative form of true crime. And that outlet is the true crime podcast. Like many of the best true crime books, the true crime podcast is all about the telling of the story. Which means, they are filled with all the elements of a good mystery.

Take, for instance, the MacGuffin. The MacGuffin, just to review, is a term made famous by Alfred Hitchcock. In simplest terms, it an object, person, or event in a story that exists (within the story) merely to ignite the plot. The best example in fiction is The Maltese Falcon. The “stuff dreams are made of.” The bird from the book/movie to which it provides the title is really irrelevant. But a story erupts around it and because of it.

One of the best podcast examples of a MacGuffin occurs in Bear Brook. From New Hampshire Public Radio, the podcast begins with four bodies discovered in two barrels in the woods of Bear Brook State Park. Most mystery readers/writers would never suspect the actual bodies in a murder mystery to, themselves, turn out to be a MacGuffin. But, in the case of Bear Brook, that is exactly what happens.

Between amateur sleuths and geologists and genetic genealogy and even a hot-air balloon, the story of searching for a killer becomes far more fascinating than the decades-old killing itself. And while it may sound dismissive to call human beings MacGuffins, their case led to the science used to capture the Golden State Killer. So as heartbreaking as it is to hear [SPOILER] that some of the bodies are never identified, the investigation is riveting and very, very important.

Another clear-cut MacGuffin used in a podcast shows up in the opening minutes of S-Town. Created by the producers of Serial and This American Life, S-Town follows Brian Reed’s investigation of a murder in Woodstock, Alabama. What Reed almost immediately learns, however, is that this murder is nothing more than a MacGuffin. And S-Town is no murder mystery. But what it becomes is an exploration of a true life mystery box.

As J.J. Abrams famously discussed in his TED Talk, the mystery box is that element of the unknown which, never fully opened, offers limitless potential suspense and wonder. So, in a case like the TV show Lost, the mystery box of the island only reveals a handful of its heavily guarded secrets. The real story becomes the people on the island, and their juxtaposition to the infinite suspense of that unopened mystery box allows the viewers to delve deeper and deeper into their characterization.

S-Town shows us what this looks like in real life. The town of Woodstock, and more importantly, the central character of John B. McLemore become mystery boxes. And [NO REAL SPOILER HERE] we never find out all of their secrets. But something about the endless possibilities make the journey feel like a mystery, even after we have left the murder MacGuffin way back in our rearview.

Which brings us to the hallmark of any good mystery: the red herring. The red herring is the clue meant to distract us. Best personified by the character, Red Herring, in A Pup Named Scooby-Doo, the red herring leads us down the wrong path. Just as Fred Jones always suspects Red of the crime, what the reader/viewer discovers, along with the Scooby Gang, is that Red was nothing more than a distraction. The sleight of hand meant to take our focus off the hat.

One of the classic examples of red herrings galore in a podcast is during the first season of Up and Vanished. Famous for the fact that host Payne Lindsey actually helped solve the case in question, Up and Vanished investigates the case of Tara Grinstead. While the attention Lindsey brought to the case finally helped solicit a confession, the early episodes of the podcast are rife with red herrings. A business card was left in Tara’s door, a medical glove was dropped in her front yard, and cadaver dogs hit on remains down a local trail called Snapdragon Road. These are all salacious leads, taking Payne Lindsey and his listeners down rabbit hole after rabbit hole. None of which lead to the real culprit.

An even better example may come from the second season of Catherine Townsend’s podcast Hell and Gone. Both seasons are wonderful, but the second season’s focus on the mysterious death of Janie Ward at a party gives us a textbook example of how to utilize red herrings. [MAJOR SPOILERS] Very early in the podcast, Townsend drops hints and mentions at what appears to be the actual cause of death: rubbing-alcohol poisoning. At the party, a punch was made with fruit soaked in rubbing alcohol. Janie Ward was said to have been eating some fruit. And rubbing alcohol poisoning turns out to be a highly likely and interesting explanation. But what Townsend does in her telling is cloud our vision of one interesting explanation with multiple red herrings. And, take note, each is a little more extravagant than the last, all serving to distract us from the truth. We get tales of high-school drama, a possible town cover-up conspiracy, and even conflicting autopsy reports. The red herrings are used masterfully to keep our attention, before the curtain gets ripped back and there was our culprit all along.

So while the best place to look for a clinic on writing mysteries will always be the best mystery fiction, the lessons I find myself using over and over again in my own writing often come from true crime podcasts. My recent story in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, “Stray Dogs,” pulls heavily from a local unsolved mystery and multiple bits and pieces from podcasts. I am obviously going to make you read it to look for evidence of that fact. You know, if it’s even a fact, at all. Look at anything other than the hat, and all.

Posted in Books, crime, Fiction, Genre, Guest, History, Real Crime, Stranger Than Fiction, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“A Conversation With Indie Anthology and Magazine Publishers” (by Angelique Fawns)

EQMM‘s Department of First Stories in the current issue (November/December 2019) contains a story by Angelique Fawns, a producer and writer for Global TV in Toronto. Although she only started writing fiction last summer, Angelique’s stories have appeared online and in several small-press magazines. In past decades, whether someone qualified for EQMM’s Department of First Stories was usually easily determined. It is more complicated today, with so many small, nonpaying markets for stories available. Often, these days, a judgment call is required. Some of the things we consider are how frequently an author has been published in small journals or online and how wide the circulation of those publications is. What is most crucial is whether the previous appearances were what the industry considers “paid professional publications.” Small journals often pay nominal amounts or nothing at all. EQMM will usually accept an author for the Department of First Stories if his or her previous publications fall into that payment category. But another factor is whether the Mystery Writers of America has approved the publisher for award consideration; any previous publication in a magazine or journal approved by MWA disqualifies the author from appearing in EQMM’s Department of First Stories. As complicated as the appearance of so many new, small markets for mystery and crime fiction has made our job, I think this proliferation of markets is a good thing. As Angelique explains in this post about her own experience with small presses, they give many talented authors a start while also providing personal attention and encouragement. Perhaps what she has to say will point some new writers in a promising direction.—Janet Hutchings

It is an exciting time to be a writer in this brave new world of self-publishing and expanding markets. With the advent of several online platforms, including Amazon, Kindle Direct Publishing, Kobo, iBooks, and Smashwords, authors no longer need to rely on traditional publishers to get their work out into the world.

A good place for new (and even established) authors to get their work printed and do some networking is through small independent publishers and their anthology or magazine projects. Who are the individuals taking the time to create these books? What motivates them, and is there any profit margin? Where do they see the future taking them? In order to get a sense of the people behind the anthology and indie-magazine covers, I asked a few publishers these very questions.

Azzurra Nox is the force behind Twisted Wings Productions, and she has a short story horror anthology coming out in February 2020 called Strange Girls in Horror. She launched her company in 2015, with her first Women in Horror anthology My American Nightmare printed in 2017.

Nox says, “I work as a graphic designer for my day job. Which I guess helps with being able to have an eye to choose the most appealing book covers for the anthologies I put out.”

As with most of the publishers I interviewed, her ventures are more of a labor of love.

Nox explains, “By far, My American Nightmare: Women in Horror Anthology has been the most successful I’ve printed, but all profits made were used to invest in the second anthology that I’ll be printing. All money made gets invested back into new projects that will showcase a whole new slew of women writers.”

When asked why she does what she does, she says, “I look forward to putting together more Women in Horror anthologies in the future! By far, those have been the most fun to do, because writing is a solitary task—but when you work with other authors then you’re able to forge new friendships, and I think it’s important for writers to have friends that are writers too, because they will be able to understand many of your struggles that your nonwriter friends may not comprehend.”

Alec Cizak is the brainchild behind Pulp Modern, a fiction journal that publishes crime, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and even delves into topics that are typically taboo. Though he wishes he was born in the era where pulp fiction was a profitable venture, he teaches literature and composition to pay the bills. The current issue of Pulp Modern features futuristic crime stories. To date, he’s published fifteen issues of the magazine.

Cizak says, “I started publishing Pulp Modern because I didn’t see any journals at the time that brought the major genres together. I also didn’t see any big-time publications publishing riskier stories, so I felt there was a need for a market that could take chances since no advertising dollars were on the line. As time went on, I decided to continue publishing Pulp Modern because it provided a place for new writers to get their work in print. I suppose it’s like a farm team in baseball. Writers get their work in Pulp Modern and then move on to get agents and contracts with the Big Five and all that good stuff.”

When asked about profitability, he says, “This is, financially, a losing venture. The recent Tech Noir issue cost about six hundred dollars to produce. It’s generated about fifty dollars in sales, and I doubt that number will even double. This is a labor of love. The independent pulp-fiction community has had lags over the last ten years or so, moments where there were almost no markets for new writers, and I’ve gone through periods where I thought I would quit, but enough people would write to me and insist I keep Pulp Modern going that I gave in every time and got back to it. There are many, many writers out there. Some of them are really good, and they don’t have connections in the publishing world. A journal like Pulp Modern is there to make sure those unheard voices are heard.”

Lewis Williams works full time in the industry, saying “books, editing, and writing are my day job.” He is the founder of Corona Books UK, and claims he can’t take all the credit because he has friends, family, and business partners who help quite a bit. Corona Books UK was started in 2015, and have published The Corona Book of Ghost StoriesThe Corona Book of Science Fiction, and three volumes of The Corona Book of Horror Stories.

He started his small press as, “a desire to seek out, celebrate, and give a voice to some of the writing talent out there that mainstream publishers are apt to ignore. Genuinely, there’s so much writing talent out there in fields like horror and science fiction. For our last horror anthology we received over 800 short-story submissions, and whilst it’s true not all of them were of the standard we’d want to publish, there were still far more stories we’d have been very pleased to publish than there were room for in one book.”

As for profitability?

Williams says, “It’s true to say we’re doing this more for art’s sake than for profit, at least at this stage, and if you genuinely counted all the hours that went into producing something like The Third Corona Book of Horror Stories from 800 submissions, profit would just be a distant spot on the horizon!”

Future plans include “The Fourth Corona Book of Horror Stories for 2020 and, as long as my heart’s still beating, a horror anthology every year after that! We also plan to do more with science fiction and other genres—and will be announcing plans soon.”

Jonathan Lambert is the founder and editor of Jolly Horror Press, with a new anthology Accursed available December 10, 2019, and Betwixt the Dark & Light and Don’t Cry to Mama now available on Amazon. He works as a senior executive at a U.S. Federal Government Agency, and spends his weekends working on his writing and anthologies.  His press specializes in comedy/horror.

Lambert says, “after a few years of experience selling short stories to anthologies, I just decided I could do a better job. Provide better customer service, and be more author friendly. I could also create a press dedicated to horror/comedy. Finally, these stories could have a home. I just needed the name, and one day Jolly Horror Press just popped in my head. The rest is history.”

Lambert explains, “I use the words ‘labor of love,’ and that’s true. I don’t care if our books are profitable. I’d love it, of course, but it’s not going to stop us from producing quality anthologies. I do have that day job, you know?”

Natalie Brown just recently released the Scary Snippets Halloween Anthology, and is a stay-at-home mom with three small boys. She opened Suicide House Publishing on July 28, 2019. Scary Snippets Halloween was its second debut publication; with the first being Calls From The Brighter Futures Suicide Hotline (hence the company name) released on September 19th.

Brown says, “I became a member of the online horror-writing community in February of this year. During that time, I have had so many ideas for future collaborations and anthology topics. Since then, I have been offered so many amazing opportunities as an author; I really wanted to pay it forward. It means a lot to help other people’s dreams come true like others did for me.”

Suicide House currently has a call out for Christmas microfiction, and Brown says, “one plan we have is to create a market for people to take their microfiction holiday pieces. We plan to have collections for every holiday, with Christmas well underway currently. Also our insect-horror anthology Death and Butterflies will have two installments released in early 2020, with the first being set to release January 1st.”

Valerie Willis works as the lead typesetter for Salem Author Services serving under the main imprints of Xulon Press and Mill City Press and also runs Battle Goddess Productions.  She has been hosting the Demonic Anthology since 2017, and currently has three Demonic books in print.

Willis says, “I wanted to traditionally publish in the beginning. It was through conversation with several literary agents that I discovered some very important things about myself and my writing. First off, I blend and mix so many genres that my work can be difficult to market and target the right audience. Secondly, they gave me resources and advice and set the expectation that my story was good, but if I wanted to self-publish, I would have to become a small press or entity that wasn’t afraid to push out the same quality look and feel of the big publishers. With all of the good advice, I moved forward with the reassurance that this had been my fate. Learning so much, and after much practice, I eventually opened up Battle Goddess Productions so that I may publish, push, and help other authors like so many had done for me.”

Willis says her anthologies are different because, “we are an unexpected blend, with paperback books that are a little more decorated inside than the average book. Authors are encouraged to blend and mix genres and we do our best to let the readers know what to expect.”

As for profit, “right now, it’s a tight fit. Most of the profit earned is rolled right back into the business to maintain sites, pay for subcontractors, and mostly into the advertisement and marketing. We are not pushing out to our full potential, considering I am technically still a one-man-army raising a family with a day job. Still, we sell books constantly and steadily even when we are not pushing for all our titles at once.”

Willis has no plans to slow down, saying, “it would be wonderful if in the future I could even provide several imprints to include genres outside the speculative-fiction focus that we currently have built. If you need something dark, fantasy, or even off the beaten path, know that you will definitely find it here at Battle Goddess Productions.”

As an author with stories in all of these anthologies, I personally appreciate the efforts of the individuals behind the pages and the time and attention they pay to their passion. It truly is an exciting time to be a short-story writer!

Posted in Anthologies, Books, Magazine, Noir, Supernatural, Writers, Writing | 4 Comments