“Jumping Off a Diving Board—It’s Easier than You’d Think” (by Paul Charles)

Called “Agatha Christie for people who inhale” by the Times of London, Paul Charles has had several stories in EQMM, including “The Eleventh Commandment,” an impossible-crime story that leads our current issue (March/April 2020). The tale features Detective Inspector Christy Kennedy, who also stars in eleven novels (see Departing Shadows). In this post the Northern Irish author discusses a source of dread for many writers: the blank page. We think some will find that empty space a little less daunting after reading what Paul has to say. —Janet Hutchings

I remember early in my writing career I had a few very enjoyable conversations with Colin Dexter. He was a major inspiration to me and when I’d bump into him at various events and, in one instance, during an interview I conducted with him for Shots—a U.K. crime magazine—he was always very gracious with his time, humour, encouragement, and advice.

He explained that he could never understand the blank-page or the blank-screen syndrome.

His point was: It is always better to make a start rather than holding out for the best opening line ever written.

So, as the above title claims, jumping off a diving board is much easier than you might first think. Of course, you need to know how to swim and how to hold your breath. Well, maybe you also might have to add a little bit of courage to that mix.

It’s the same with jumping into writing your story, long or short.

As Colin Dexter suggested, there’s no point sitting around waiting for inspiration, or even divine intervention for that matter.

Here is a good way to start. Put two people in a room together. You’ll never have met them before, but you can, by their dress sense and their air, imagine what they are like. Think what the two people might say to each other.

For instance, imagine you’re actually in a room with these two people. It can be anywhere, as long as you can overhear them, without them knowing you can hear them. It’s important to keep yourself out of the story.

One of them might say something like:

“The first man who drove nails into his horse’s hooves in order to shoe the horse was probably considered cruel.”

The other person might reply:

“So, you’re suggesting what was once considered to be cruel, can no longer be considered cruel?”

Now, the first person might be a murderer who is trying to justify his deed. The second person might be a detective, trying to coax the murderer to offer up a full confession.

Equally they could be two people who’ve just enjoyed too liquid a lunch and they are now on the sherry.

But the important thing is they will have started a conversation. As they start to engage each other, they will imply something. The reply might reveal something else again and gradually you’ll develop the texture of the conversation. Maybe only one of them will talk. What does that say about the talker and, equally, what do we learn about the silent one?

The first thing you write might not be great. The reality is the less great it is, the easier the next step will be. So yes, it might not be great, it might even be total rubbish, but at least you will have made your start. The start will be your jumping off the diving board moment. Once you’re prepared to “jump” into your story it will be like diving into the pool of your imagination. The instant you’ve left your diving board, four things are guaranteed: 1) you can’t turn around midair and return to the haven of the diving board; 2) you’re going to get your hair wet; 3) your life will never be the same again and 4) you will have made a start.

At the very least, with your start, you will have something.

You will have something, no matter how vague or sketchy, you can go back to. Look at adding a word here, taking out a sentence there. Sadly, it will always seem like you are taking out more than you are putting in. But day by day, week by week, maybe even month by month, your paragraph will become better and lead you on to the next paragraph and on and on.

Never set out to write a 350-page book. Never even set out to write a page; a paragraph to start with will do quite nicely, thank you very much.

Never set yourself a minimum number of words per-day task. I know some authors, some phenomenally successful authors, do. I find that you might just slip into being more preoccupied with your word count than your story. You have to find a way to totally immerse yourself in your story. Get to know your characters in the same way you know your friends. Remember the adage— keep your friends close and your enemies even closer. The same applies to your characters.

There will be several roadblocks along the way, particularly if you take a break from writing your story. The longer a break you take the longer it will take you to get back into it. If you go to your story each and every day, the plot and the characters will be forefront in your mind. You’ll be living with them, so each day you’ll naturally pick up from where you left off the day before. Running a spell check doesn’t count as working on you story.

I find six o’clock to nine-thirty in the morning works best for me. The day is fresh; your head is clear and there will be fewer distractions.

Distractions to be avoided include: the phone; the internet; answering emails; coffee; tea; Paris Buns (an Ulster delight, please Google them); remastered Beatles albums, Michael Connelly books; Robert A. Caro’s audible books, and “Breakfast With Beatles” on Radio KLOS 95.5FM. It has to be said all the above are much easier to avoid at 6 o’clock in the morning

The important thing to remember . . . getting started is the vital bit. Same with diving. It’s no use spending ages sitting up on the diving board with set squares and a compass working out your routine. Just jump. Make your marker. Then once you’ve made one, start to consider how you can make it better.

You will serve your story best by keeping yourself out of it.

Dally with your characters for a while; surrender to their rhythm. Don’t fret over plot issues. If you have the courage to leave it to your characters, they’ll resolve the various story concerns for you. This way you’ll make your stories as real as a dream you’re in the middle of. Be prepared that some of those dreams may turn out to be nightmares. You’ll find your characters screaming at your conscience to let them be themselves, to let them lead you.

When you are gifted a line, a saying, or you observe a character trait, catch it while you can. It doesn’t matter the time or the place, it’s best to write them down immediately, because the next day, believe me, they will be gone. When these gems go, they will rarely return. Just like all the great fish that escape the fisherman’s bait, all the ideas you fail to catch (or write down) will, with hindsight, turn out to have been the gifted material . . . if only you could remember them.

I’d like to close with another piece of advice I received from Colin Dexter. He felt there was nothing as uninviting as dense pages of print.  He suggested not to be afraid to break up your writing with paragraphs and reported speech and sticking to short snappy chapters. Exactly, in fact, as he managed to do in his own fourteen classic D.I. Morse books (including one collection of short mysteries). He said his brother thought he was one of the best writers ever. Colin assured me this had little to do with brotherly love and more to do with the fact he had really short chapters in his books which meant his brother could get through one chapter each night before falling asleep.

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“The Chicken Salad Factory” (by Jack Bunker)

Jack Bunker is a lawyer turned short-story writer and mystery novelist, although in this post you will see that he has had other occupations that feed into his fiction writing. Jack makes his EQMM debut in our current issue (March/April 2020) with the story “Active Shooter.” His 2015 novel True Grift received two starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, one for the print edition (“ . . . a fun, fast read, kind of like Elmore Leonard meets Donald Westlake”), the other for the audiobook.  —Janet Hutchings

Any writer will tell you, when the kaleidoscope twists just right, there’s no better job in the world. Think of a career in which every crummy job, crappy apartment, or caustic relationship actually works for you. Imagine converting spilled oil into fertilizer or discarded beer bottles into stained glass windows. The only catch: A willingness to embrace the awful.

A few months back, while riding around town at night to pick up my teenage daughter, my own frustrations mounted as her ironclad itinerary now jiggled like aspic; our unbending rule about fully charged phone batteries now somehow . . . bent. I fumed conspicuously as I collected her from the IHOP, my impatience goosed by waiting on a tow truck to hook some slob who won’t ignore a “Towed at Owner’s Expense” posting again.

Only the next morning did I appreciate the gift of my daughter’s carelessness. Something had been missing from the book on which I was spinning my wheels. The fresh memory of the tow truck in the IHOP lot, however, dragged my story into an entirely different direction, and one offering dozens of possibilities.

Crime fiction thrives, I submit, not (just) because we share fantasies of murdering our neighbors, but because we relate to the story’s actors. It’s the little details, though, that propel us forward as readers. The suspension of disbelief required of science fiction diverges radically from crime fiction. Only a few hundred people have ever been to space. Everyone’s smelled a dumpster behind a restaurant on a hot summer night, bluish fluorescent streetlights reflected in shimmering puddles on the alley’s cracked asphalt.

Last summer, joined by those of my children not canny enough to fly with their mother, I drove from Montana to California, one of the centipede legs on a 10,000-mile road trip. Nearing day’s end, the towns seemed to grow farther and farther apart under the setting Oregon sun. Road weary, we settled on Redmond as a place to stop, and grabbed the first motel with a vacancy.

Bikers and camp followers, their hibachi braziers smoldering on the breezeway, gave us a flavor of what to expect. An emphysmatic night manager rustled us up a few gauzy towels and a tumbler of ice. What the hell, it was only a night.

If we survived.

From inside the room, a crack in the door had been hurriedly patched with some gooey off-white polymer. Scars in the fecal brown paint of the bathroom door evidenced either a bad acid trip, or, more likely, an abduction gone very wrong indeed.

The next day, as he parted the curtains to let in the welcome sight of another morning, my twelve-year-old son said, “Well, at least we didn’t get murdered.”

Yet, as gross and potentially lethal as the room had been, I knew that it was something I could use. Back near the close of Ronald Reagan’s first term, my roommate and I each ponied up $77.50 (ridiculously cheap even for that time) to rent a two-room cinderblock apartment without heat, a fully functioning toilet, or even a shower curtain. During the coldest Tallahassee winter in a hundred years, we played Nerf basketball at night to keep warm before jumping into polar sleeping bags, dreading the morning torture of bare feet on freezing terrazzo. My professor friend called the place “third world,” but when I need to describe squalor, that charmless hovel offers up a cheery dungeon of seamy memories.

Comic possibilities gush in inverse proportion to real-time misery. A case in point, one not especially funny at the time, might begin with the oft-forgotten admonition, “Be careful eating ceviche in Guatemala.” Emergency-room anecdotes? You say subdural hematoma, I say gold mine. The guy clipping his toenails across the aisle in coach? See you in the next novel.

The best part is that verisimilitude is enough. When the DMV mope sends you home for some wholly unnecessary chit, you don’t have to cleave his head with an axe. Just being able to recall how badly you wanted to lets the story to write itself. Any regrets from junior high? Polish them well. Someone will actually pay you money to weave them into a story about a good kid pushed past his or her tipping point.

Lousy times make for great writing. In the tapestry of America’s legends of the genre, the common thread will likely be dark. Poe, Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Stephen King, Truman Capote . . . in addition to boundless talent, discomfiting experiences (at some point whetted with whiskey), galvanized them to work their magic. Everyone has bad days. The great ones make something out of them.

The moral of this story then, kids, is when you find yourself changing a tire on an interstate shoulder, hang onto the sensation of gravel flying at your face from passing semis. When your dining companion says, unbidden, there won’t be a second date, don’t be bummed. File it away. When some jackass clips your side mirror and drives off, I’m not telling you to give up on voodoo. Just remember to jot down a couple of notes before you get out those needle-nose pliers. . . .

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“What Pantsers and Language Learners Have in Common” (by Edith Maxwell)

Linguist, novelist, short-story writer, and current Agatha Award nominee Edith Maxwell describes herself as a better-than-average language learner.  “One Too Many,” her first story for EQMM, featured in our current issue (March/April 2020), centers around a hyperpolyglot—someone with extraordinary language-learning ability. In this post, the author makes an interesting connection between the challenges of language learning and seat-of-the-pants fiction writing—that is, writing without an outline or guide. Earlier this week, EQMM posted a podcast episode of “One Too Many,” in which Edith reads her own story. We think you won’t want to miss it, especially after reading this post.—Janet Hutchings

When it comes to learning a new language, I’m better than the average bear. I managed to gain a reasonable facility with middle-school Spanish and high-school French and German even with the ridiculously ineffective book and translation-based methods in use in the 1960s.

At a young seventeen, I graduated from high school a semester early, and off I went to spend a year in southern Brazil as an exchange student. I spoke no Portuguese when I went and learned it as a much younger child would—by immersion. When I returned to the States, my English was rusty.

A few years later I hied off to Japan to live with an American boyfriend and teach English conversation. After two years, I came back relatively fluent in spoken Japanese (reading and writing are a different game entirely, but I did my best).

So I know what it’s like to live in a fog of words. In Brazil, only the father in the family spoke some English, but he didn’t use it with me. Based on the Spanish and French I knew, I figured ‘‘tudu bẽ’’ and ‘‘tudu bõ’’ meant “very well” and “very good.” I pretty quickly learned that what sounded like “komehkivai” meant “how are you?” But it took a couple of months before more words began to emerge from the fog. I’d arrived in January during their summer vacation and starting school (in essence repeating my senior year but not needing the credits) helped a lot.

After a while, I learned that the functional unit of “komehkivai” was four words—como é que vai?—but I’d had the meaning correct all along. And I realized “tudu bõ” was spelled tudo bom. By the time I’d been in the country for six months, I could say and understand what I needed to. After a year I’d gained enough native-speaker fluency that when I met Brazilians back in the States, they didn’t think I was an American. Score!

Still, I’m not a hyperpolyglot like the character I wrote about in my EQMM short story, “One Too Many.” I don’t go around picking up a new language in a couple of weeks for fun. But I used to live with such a person. My ex-husband leaves my language-learning skills in the dust. Many years ago, while we were still married and living in France, we visited my friend Amalia in Lisbon. She’s half British, but her husband, Zé Julio, didn’t speak any English. I was interpreting back and forth for John for the first couple of days. Then he said, “I know what he’s saying,” and proceeded to speak passable Portuguese to Zé. It’s kind of disgusting, but it’s John’s superpower. He speaks nearly twenty tongues, many of them African languages not related to European languages—or each other.

Two years ago, I read a New Yorker article about hyperpolyglots and realized that was what John was. As often happens, I played the “Suppose . . .” and “What if . . .” game. My mystery-author brain mused, “Huh. Suppose two people who speak an obscure language attend a big festival in the US. What if someone with hyperpolyglottism overhears a secret spoken in that language? What could happen then?” And I had a story.

But what, you ask, does any of this have to do with pantsing your way through a novel? Let me explain. Because I don’t plot, the only thing I know at the start of writing a book are small bits. My protagonist’s name and where she lives (I write three series, so after the first book certain parts of the book’s skeleton are already in place). The time of year. Maybe the murder weapon I want to use.

Sometimes that’s all I have. It’s the ‘‘komehkivai’’ of the book. As I sit, as I type, more becomes clear. I conjure up a victim. I invent three or four plausible suspects. I follow around my amateur sleuth—whether she’s the bike shop owner, the chef, or the 1889 midwife—and write down what she does as she tries to investigate. The plot emerges from the fog. Occasionally I get to laugh out loud when she or another character surprises me. As I remember I did when I learned ‘‘komehkivai’’ was four words.

After a while, my fluency in the book lets me plan out the next few scenes. I’ve now completed twenty-four novels (my twentieth releases at the end of this month). I know if I keep typing, I’ll learn what the book is really about. I’ll pick one of the suspects to be the villain, or the suspect will reveal themself. I’ll carry my sleuth through her crisis of the soul and keep her going toward her goal. Finally, I’ll reach full-blown book fluency and be able to type The End, usually in under two months (deadline panic is a great motivator . . .). The subsequent revisions, the edits, the polishing are like a language refresher course I might take, or a lesson on advanced verb tenses I never quite mastered in French.

I wouldn’t presume to say I’m better than the average bear at writing books, and each author does things differently. For me, finding my way through the fog to The End keeps it interesting—and so far, it’s working.

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“Mary Higgins Clark and the Debut Authoresses of A Certain Age” (by Kevin Mims)

At the end of January, readers and fans received the news that Mary Higgins Clark had died at the age of ninety-two. Along with her status as best-selling author, Clark was counted as a teacher and inspirational figure to many in the mystery community and beyond. In this post, avid reader, essayist, and short-story writer Kevin Mims (who often writes for us here) discusses Clark’s career in the context of publishing trends and changing social dynamics for women writers in the 1970s.—Janet Hutchings

The recent death of legendary crime writer Mary Higgins Clark inspired long appraisals of the woman and her work in numerous journalistic forums such as the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, National Public Radio, Buzzfeed, and the Guardian. These pieces rightly praised her productivity and her work ethic. They noted the many obstacles she had to overcome in life. Her father died young, when Mary was eleven, having worked himself to death during the Great Depression. Her mother had to take in boarders in order to keep her children fed. A few years later, a beloved brother of Mary’s died. Mary Higgins married Warren Clark in 1949 and the couple proceeded to produce five children. But after fourteen years of marriage Warren died suddenly, leaving Mary a widow. Undaunted, Mary set out to become a writer in order to support her family. Her first novel, Aspire to the Heavens, about the love affair of George and Martha Washington, was not a financial success. It wasn’t until 1978, at the age of 51 that Mary Higgins Clark found her true calling—writing suspense novels. Her debut thriller was Where Are The Children?, a book that became a monster bestseller and has been through dozens and dozens of printings. Her next few books were so successful that, in 1988, according to the New York Times, her publisher signed her to “what was believed to be the first-ever eight-figure agreement involving a single author. The multi-book contract guaranteed her at least $10.1 million.” The investment paid off big time. In 1989, her novel While My Pretty One Sleeps was the tenth best-selling novel of the year. Loves Music, Loves to Dance was the tenth best-selling novel of 1991. All Around the Town was the tenth best-selling novel of 1992 (she seems to have had a fondness for the Number-Ten spot). She went on to hit the year-end bestseller list again and again.

All of the biographical info that appeared in the obituaries published by the New York Times and others was not only fascinating but also a testament to what a powerhouse Clark was, both as an author and as a woman. But none of the obits I read mentioned that, by essentially beginning her writing career in late middle-age during the 1970s, Mary Higgins Clark was not alone, but rather in the vanguard of an interesting trend. The 1970s and 1980s were, for some reason, an era rich in novels by women who got a late start in the writing game. The fifth best-selling novel of 1978 was Scruples, a first novel by Judith Krantz, who was born just sixteen days after Mary Higgins Clark. The sixth best-selling novel of 1978 was Evergreen, a debut novel written by Belva Plain, who turned sixty-three in October of that year. Two years later, in 1980, they would meet on the bestseller list again, when Krantz’s novel, Princess Daisy finished the year at number four and Plain’s novel Random Wind finished at number seven. In 1977, one year before Krantz and Plain got their start, sixty-year-old British writer Penelope Fitzgerald published her first novel, The Golden Child. The eighth best-selling novel of 1974 was I Heard the Owl Call My Name, a first novel by Margaret Craven, who would turn seventy-three that year (she was the only woman on the year-end list of the ten best-selling novels in 1974). In 1981, Canadian author Valerie Fitzgerald, born in the same year as Judith Krantz, published her first (and only) novel, Zemindar, a massive, award-winning historical romance that is often compared with M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions and has remained in print for nearly forty years now. In 1983, Mary Wesley, another Brit, published her first novel, Jumping the Queue, at the age of seventy-one. A year later, American Harriet Doer won a National Book Award for her first novel Stones for Ibarra, published when she was seventy-four. The fifteenth best-selling novel of 1979 was Ruth Beebe Hill’s massive (and controversial) book about American Indian life Hanta Yo. The author was sixty-six at the time and never published another novel, despite living to the age of 102. Romance novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford published the first of her many bestsellers, A Woman of Substance, in 1979, the year she turned forty-six. V.C. Andrews, whose trademark was gothic horror mixed with incest, published Flowers in the Attic, her first and most famous best-selling novel in 1979, when she was fifty-six. Cynthia Freeman first hit the year-end bestseller list in 1980, when her novel Come Pour the Wine was the eleventh best-selling book of the year. She made her literary debut in 1975, the year she turned sixty, with the novel A World Full of Strangers. One of the most interesting literary stories of the era was the publication of Helen Hooven Santmyer’s novel . . . And Ladies of the Club, which was the sixth best-selling novel of 1984, the year in which the author turned eighty-nine. It wasn’t her first book. The author wrote three novels between 1922 and 1930 but managed to get only two of them published at the time. Neither of them sold well or drew much attention. She then remained almost entirely off the literary radar until, very late in life, when she published the massive (approximately 1,400 pages) bestseller that made her famous. Another literary oddity of the era was The Life and Times of Heidi Abromowitz, a first novel by Joan Rivers, which was the ninth bestselling novel of 1984, the year that the author turned fifty-one.

On the younger side of this trend were Toni Morrison, who published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970 at the age of forty, and Colleen McCullough, who published her second (and best known) novel The Thorn Birds in 1977 when she was forty (it finished the year at number two on the New York Times bestseller list, behind only The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkein. Tolkein was dead by then, so McCullough outsold every other living novelist that year). The following year, 1978, Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey made her literary debut when her first novel A Woman of Independent Means was published. She was in her fortieth year. In 1980, at the age of forty-two, Jean Auel practically invented a new genre with the publication of her novel The Clan of the Cave Bear, an epic tale about prehistoric humans. Auel and Krantz would meet on the year-end bestsellers list in 1982, when Krantz’s Mistral’s Daughter captured the number-five spot and Auel’s The Valley of Horses captured the sixth spot. Auel’s novel The Mammoth Hunters was the best-selling novel of 1985, and her The Plains of Passage was the best-selling novel of 1990.

Plenty of women came late to the writing game prior to the 1970s and 1980s, and plenty of women have come late to the game since then. Laura Ingalls Wilder, for instance, published her first novel, Little House in the Big Woods, in 1932, the year she turned fifty-five. Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout published her first novel Amy and Isabelle, in 1998, when she was forty-two. But I don’t know of any other era in American literature when women in middle age or older published as many debut novels as they did in the 1970s and 1980s. I can’t really explain this trend, and I’ve never seen anyone else even comment on it before. My best guess is that the phenomenon arose as a result of several converging trends. The rise of Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 1970s probably helped make some publishers a bit more conscientious when it came to considering novels by and about women. And the publishing industry, though it was certainly never a bastion of gender equality, opened its doors to female executives a bit earlier than did many other professions, such as law, or medicine, or architecture, or engineering (the list is too long and depressing to complete). As documented in Rona Jaffe’s semiautobiographical 1958 debut novel, The Best of Everything, the New York publishing industry snapped up a lot of bright young women when they were fresh out of prestigious colleges such as Swarthmore, Vassar, and Radcliffe (Jaffe’s own alma mater), putting them to work as readers of slush-pile manuscripts, copyeditors, and executive secretaries. Of course, as Jaffe’s novel also illustrated, these women were overworked, underpaid, and often harassed, sexually and otherwise, by their male colleagues and supervisors. Nonetheless, by 1970 there were plenty of women ensconced in the world of commercial publishing. And whereas the male editors and publishers who dominated the industry during the earlier decades of the century might have been disinclined to even consider a novel from a fifty-year-old housewife with no previous books in print, female editors and publishers didn’t seem to share that prejudice.

Many of the abovementioned authors, such as Belva Plain, learned their craft while writing short stories for women’s magazines, which were generally edited by other women. Many of these authors found their work first championed by their female agents. That’s what happened with Mary Higgins Clark, whose career didn’t flourish until she was taken on by literary agent Patricia Schartle Myrer (wife of best-selling novelist Anton Myrer), who represented her for the first twenty years of her career. And some of these women were housewives who, after their children were old enough to go off to school all day, found themselves with a bit of time on their hands and an eagerness to fill it with something more than doing the laundry and fixing dinner. That was the case with best-selling author Jacqueline Briskin. In 1964, the Bel Air housewife enrolled in a night class at UCLA called “The Craft of Fiction.” She thought the class would simply explore the works of famous writers. It turned out to be a class about writing fiction, not reading it. She had three children and a husband to look after, but the course ended up inspiring her to take up the writing trade. “I don’t know how it happened,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1982, “but suddenly I found myself absolutely fascinated with writing. Maybe I was at the time of life when I needed to do something else.” She was thirty-six at the time. Six years later, in 1970, she published California Generation, the first of her twelve novels. According to the Los Angeles Times her novels sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and frequently found their way onto bestsellers lists.

We may never see another twenty-year period when so many older female writers are publishing debut novels, but that is actually a good thing. Writers like Krantz and Clark and Plain would probably have begun their careers as novelists much earlier had the publishing industry and the academic writing workshops been as welcoming to women writers as they are now (which isn’t to say that the publishing industry doesn’t still have a long way to go before women attain complete parity with male writers). Highly educated women like Judith Krantz (Wellesley, Class of ’48) and Belva Plain (Barnard College, Class of ’39) grew up in an era when even the graduates of prestigious universities and colleges had limited professional options. Most of them were still expected to focus their time and attention on raising children and running a household. Plain, Krantz, Clark, and their ilk didn’t really flourish professionally until their children were fully grown and out of the house. Obviously, child-rearing wasn’t a big obstacle for the likes of Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, and other male writers, who let their wives handle most of those chores. Sadly, there were probably plenty of older women producing pop fictions as entertaining as Belva Plain’s or Mary Higgins Clark’s in earlier decades, but many of them probably never managed to make it into print. The 1970s and 1980s were a watershed era for women authors of a certain age making their debuts as novelists.

Of all the late-starting female novelists mentioned in this essay, only Judith Krantz managed to rack up more impressive sales figures than Mary Higgins Clark. According to Wikipedia’s list of the all-time best-selling fiction authors, it appears that the two women sold roughly the same number of books (around 100 million), but Krantz did it while producing only twelve titles, whereas Clark did it while producing an impressive fifty-six novels (to date, that is; there may be a few books still to be released posthumously). (It also should be noted that novels by V.C. Andrews have also sold roughly 100 million copies, but many of them were ghostwritten by Andrew Neiderman after Andrews’s death). In many ways the books these two women wrote were polar opposites. Clark was proud of the fact that she never included sex scenes in her work. Krantz’s novels were the first to be dubbed “bonkbusters” because of all the sex, rape, and incest they included (“bonking” was 70s slang for what nowadays is sometimes called “hooking up.”). Krantz’s novels haven’t aged particularly well, and they belong to a literary tradition of softcore sleaze whose other practitioners include the likes of Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susann, and E.L. James. Clark didn’t write classic detective novels in the mode of Agatha Christie, but in many ways she is America’s answer to Christie. Her books are free of graphic sex and obscene language. Both writers were incredibly prolific (Christie produced sixty-six novels). Both lived long lives; Christie died at eighty-five, Clark at ninety-two. Few people still read the works of Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann. When works are popular only because they are salacious, they are bound to be eclipsed when even more salacious books come along. To the best of my knowledge no one has made a film from a Robbins or Susann novel in decades, and probably never will again, but new Christie adaptations for the big screen and the small screen come out all the time, and will probably never end. Clark didn’t produce any characters that have entered the popular imagination in the way that Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple have. I’ve read probably a dozen Clark thrillers and can’t recall the names of any of her characters (I haven’t read the series of books that focus on recurring characters Alvirah and Willy Meehan). But her puzzles were good and her cliffhanger chapter endings are unmatched by anything in Christie’s oeuvre. I have a feeling that her work will live as long or longer than almost any of her peers among that group of fascinating women who published their debut novels after the age of forty sometime in the 1970s or 1980s. May she rest in peace.

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“Ditch the Ballerinas (and Other Lessons)” (by Bonnie Hearn Hill)

Bonnie Hearn Hill is the author of sixteen suspense novels. The most recent of them, The River Below (Severn House, 2018), was praised by both Booklist and Publishers Weekly, with PW calling it “emotionally involving.”  The California author, who once worked in radio, is also a short-story writer. Her first story for EQMM, “Feliz Navidead,” appeared in our January/February 2020 issue. Like the novel she is just finishing up, it deals with the world of  rock radio of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In this post we learn a little about the books that helped shape Bonnie as a writer.—Janet Hutchings

Ditch the Ballerinas:
And other lessons these early writers taught me about suspense

“Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”—William Faulkner

A good book grabs you, and an early book never really lets go. Our first stories are guided by only our ideas and what we’ve learned from reading. Those of us who begin at a young age don’t yet know enough to doubt ourselves, to second-guess, or to discuss the finer points of dialogue tags or first versus third person with our writer friends. Our teachers are those early books, and they are magic. Here’s my list.

Carolyn Keene

I’m grateful to Carolyn Keene, even though she never existed. Long before I learned the term, ghostwriter, I took my dollar bills down to the local stationers and bought the latest Nancy Drew mystery. For many girls, Nancy, with her roadster, her doting wealthy father, and her freedom, epitomized the perfect life. To me, Carolyn Keene did.

Encouraged by her success, I wrote my first mystery in a notebook while I was still in elementary school. Then, I mailed those handwritten pages to Grosset & Dunlap, the publishers. Yes, I actually checked the book jacket for the company’s address. I never heard back. That disappointment led me to question my plot, which as I recall, dealt with ballerinas. Also, I realized, I’d failed to put a Nancy in my story. I didn’t have a main character. Next time, I’d do better, maybe even ditch the ballerinas. That first effort would not be my last.

So, thank you, Carolyn Keene. You might have been fictional, but your lesson was not. You taught me that girls could write mysteries.

Edgar Allan Poe

I outgrew The Secret Of The Old Clock and flew straight into the pages of Edgar Allan Poe. Thank you, Poe, for teaching me that a story can grab you and not let go. Although he is known for creating the detective genre, Poe’s stories, “The Black Cat,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” haunted me much longer than “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” or “The Purloined Letter.” For my tenth birthday, I requested a bicycle and Poe’s collected works. I don’t know which one I enjoyed more, but I still have that collection.

Although I would learn about the unreliable narrator years later, I learned it first from Poe. I also learned the power of narrative voice to keep the reader turning pages.

Saki

Hector Hugh Munro, who wrote as H.H. Munro and Saki, followed Poe in my reading life. Like many, I was introduced to his short story “The Interlopers” in a high school English class.

Thank you, Saki, for introducing me to the surprise ending. I still get chills thinking about “The Interlopers,” when the two former enemies, now united, hear what they think are their men coming for them. The blinded one asks his now-friend whose men these rescuers are, and the other answers with one word. “Wolves.”

“Sredni Vashtar,” which was later adapted for radio and television, is the story of Conradin, a sickly boy, who secretly keeps, worships, and prays to a polecat, the story’s title character. Conradin’s oppressive, nasty guardian (based on a maiden aunt who raised Munro after his mother’s death)  is determined to find out what the boy is keeping in the garden shed. She does just that in a bloody yet humorous finale.

Shirley Jackson

In her short life, Shirley Jackson wrote more than 200 short stories. I encountered “The Lottery” in a high school English text. Long after the story ends, the horror of it still lingers. So does the idea that people will commit terrible acts if they can justify those acts by calling them tradition.

Thank you, Shirley Jackson, for demonstrating the importance of foreshadowing. At the beginning of the story, the children are stacking stones in the town square and putting them in their pockets. Only later do we realize what the children are going to do with those stones.

Erle Stanley Gardner

Perry. Della. Paul Drake. Hamilton Burger. Lieutenant Tragg. Thank you, Erle Stanley Gardner, for showing the enduring quality of a series protagonist as well as a series cast of characters. Gardner created Perry Mason to last, which he did through something like 300 million books and a nine-year television series.

Another important lesson from Gardner is this: Take the least likely character in the story, and find a way to make that person the killer. Gardner excelled in the red herring. Just when you thought you knew who the killer was, Perry presented the evidence to expose the true killer.

Furthermore, Perry possessed two qualities that made him the perfect series protagonist.

One, he was single. Yes, Della was always by his side, but she never got more than taken out for a steak. She and Perry were more romantic in the books than on the television series, but even then, they did not marry. Perry Mason, married man, would have lacked the appeal of Perry Mason, head of the team that included Della and Paul Drake.

Two, Perry was proactive. He solved his own crimes. Later, I would learn the rule “The protagonist must protag.” All I knew then was that nothing could deter Perry from his goal.

Mary Higgins Clark

Before I found Mary Higgins Clark, I was on a noir-detective roll. These voice-driven, sometimes hardboiled books, were full of place, internal monologue, vivid prose, and (male) character angst. Some are memorable; others, not so much.

Then, I picked up Where Are the Children? and discovered the world of woman-in-jeopardy and woman-and-child-in jeopardy. Mary Higgins Clark could move from the point of view to the woman innocently preparing dinner to the head of the evil man across the street.

The protagonist of Where Are the Children? was found guilty and sentenced to the gas chamber over the murder of her two young children. After her attorney gets her conviction overturned, she changes her name and her appearance and moves away. Ultimately, she remarries, has two more children, and her life improves until one day seven years after the death of the first children, these two go missing.

A Stranger is Watching begins in a hotel room while a stranger watches a television interview with a man and woman arguing about capital punishment and the impending execution of the convicted killer of the man’s wife. As the stranger in the room continues to watch and plan, becoming more interested in the woman on the television, we already guess that the wrong person is being executed, and that the woman is in danger.

Mary Higgins Clark not only bonded with her readers, but she bonded with other writers. I remember taking heart as a hopeful beginning novelist when I read that how, as a widow with five children, she got up each morning before they did to write. She spoke at numerous events and inspired authors with her achievements and her kindness. Each time we met was in a group of people, and she treated each us as if we were the only one she was addressing.

Thank you, Mary Higgins Clark. Like Carolyn Keene, you taught me that women could write mysteries. Unlike her, you were real.

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“From the Short Story to the Big Screen” (by Mark SaFranko)

Mark SaFranko is the author of a number of novels, including Hating Olivia (Harper Perennial) and No Strings (Thomas & Mercer). His books have been published widely abroad, especially in French-speaking countries and in the U.K., with his latest novel,  Odiondo Olivia published this month in Italy. Yet short fiction has a powerful attraction for the author too. His stories have appeared previously in EQMM and in many other publications, winning the Frank O’Connor Award from Descant magazine in 2005. In this post he talks about the relative ease with which short stories (as opposed to novels) can be adapted for film.—Janet Hutchings

Not long ago while I was having my annual conversation with one of my former American publishers, she let drop the following statement: “Whenever a short story collection crosses a desk here at __________, there’s a collective groan.”

We both laughed. It was her way of telling me not to even think of trying to send one in her direction, but beneath our shared humor I was disappointed. Of course it’s well known that for book publishers story collections are viewed as something of an economic liability—it’s a miracle that a few are published in any given year—and I happen to be, and have been for long time, a serious practitioner of the form.

But I had to wonder at the shortsightedness of my former publisher, who, I thought, should know better. While the short story will never be able to compete with the doorstop novel in the perception of the reading public (in America, I believe, we actually think that in investing in the big fat novel we’re getting more bang for our bucks), we do so at the risk of losing sight of the story as an invaluable source of feature-film material. While conventional wisdom nudges the powers that be in the film world to best-selling novels as a source of material (whenever we see one of those ubiquitous lists heralding the new year’s books-to-film offerings, there’s never a story collection or standalone story on that list), I can’t help but think of the many great movies that were grown from the short form.

Some classic movie titles are well known to most of us who are on the lookout for such connections: It Happened One Night (adapted from the short story “Night Bus” by Samuel Hopkins Adams); the many screen iterations of The Killers, based on the Hemingway story; Hitchcock’s The Birds and Rear Window, based on the Daphne Du Maurier and Cornell Woolrich stories respectively; All About Eve, from the Mary Orr’s “The Wisdom Of Eve”; Blow Up, from the story of the same name by Julio Cortázar. But those are merely the tip of the iceberg.

I have my own set of favorites. For a variety of reasons space and time won’t allow me to go into, at the top of that list is probably Nicolas Roeg’s masterpiece, Don’t Look Now, based another story by Du Maurier, frame by frame a perfect piece of cinematic art, a movie whose influence has only grown since it was released in 1973. And Todd Field’s In The Bedroom, based on short story master Andre Dubus’s seventeen-page piece titled “Killings.” Lucchino Visconti had a crack at it with one of his masterworks, Death In Venice. So did Stanley Kubrick, with Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Sentinel,” which was turned into 2001: A Space Odyssey. Perhaps my most recent favorite was the critically acclaimed 45 Years by Andrew Haigh, which was culled from British writer David Constantine’s twelve-page story, “In Another Country.”

Anyway, you get the idea. If you’re not already aware of it, the short story is a great provenance for equally great films. And we’re not even talking about the stories that are adapted and fail to garner the attention of the above-mentioned titles.

So what is it that makes the short story perfect fodder for cinema? Aside from providing the basic idea, the blueprint—and all filmmakers, like writers and painters and composers, need an idea—let’s think about the difference between it and its principal literary rival for notice by the movie folks, the novel.

When it comes to the novel, the adaptation process is by necessity completely different (making exceptions, of course, for the length and breadth of the TV series using novels as source material—the upcoming Showtime series featuring all five of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripliad leaps to mind). Aside from the very rare example—a film like Lord Of The Flies occurs—that is able to faithfully include the entirety of a novel, the screenwriter is saddled with the tasks of excising and compressing, cutting and deciding what and who to leave out. The results are often lacking. We only have to summon the titles of such bombs as The Bonfire Of The Vanities . . . Dune . . . andThe Great Gatsby to conjure up the disasters that these efforts resulted in. In some cases—Lord Jim, Ulysses, Tropic Of Cancer—the literature was too great to be wrestled successfully onto celluloid.

But not always. For instance, Anthony Minghella’s version of The Talented Mister Ripley—taking nothing away from René Clément’s first movie of the book, Purple Noon, which is chock full of its own merits, to be sure—is the perfect example of what I call “excavation.” This is the process by which the adaptor (in this case Minghella as both screenwriter and director) brings into daylight layers of implied but unspoken aspects of the original work and in some ways actually improveson it. I believe this is the case with Minghella’s film, the haters and naysayers notwithstanding. Highsmith would presumably have loved his version; she famously once said that she expected any director utilizing her work to impose his or her own unique vision over her original.

Which brings me to my central point about the short-story-to-film dynamic. The reason that the story is perfect provender for the screen is its sheer adaptability. Why? It allows for a real collaboration between the writer and screenwriter. What “lies below” the surface of the literature can be filled out, imagined, and “excavated,” as it were, as it was in the case of RipleyIn essence, the short-story writer has presented the filmmaking team with a ready-made treatment that can be stretched this way and that, manipulated and molded.

One interesting example of this phenomenon was the 2006 Australian film Jindabyne. The Ray Lawrence-directed movie starred Gabriel Byrne and Laura Linney and transplanted Raymond Carver’s classic story “So Much Water So Close To Home”—already adapted in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts—to Australia. Nearly every sentence of Carver’s original was given a different kind of life. The personalities of the main characters are deepened and filled out, the secondary characters are granted a fuller existence, and situations and scenes merely hinted at in the nine-page original piece are fully developed. Add to that the change of landscape and you have an utterly unique creation.

Annie Proulx, who wrote the original story for the award-winning and critically praised Brokeback Mountain—which totaled all of eleven pages in its original New Yorker appearance—said, after evaluating all of the advantages her story provided for cinematic treatment: “I began to wonder why movie people didn’t prefer short stories to novels, since the opportunity for original work is built in.”

I’m not at all certain that the fault in this regard lies with the movie people. Perhaps the problem lies with the major houses, like my publisher at one of the Big Five, who look down their noses at the short story and thus limit their accessibility in book form. I’ve always liked to say that one great short story is worth ten bad novels, and while that may be an exaggeration, I believe it to be true. Perhaps the film community doesn’t always know exactly where to look for all the wonderful material generated by the practitioners of the short form.

But the bizarre, unfathomable prejudice against the form can extend even further. Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana’s screenwriting partner on Brokeback Mountain, had to be forced to read the story in the first place. “No,” he objected when she tried to corner him with it. “You know I don’t read short fiction anymore.”

She went on to point out in her essay accompanying the published screenplay, “. . . . in my mind it was an excellent blueprint for a screenplay . . . We did not have to streamline or condense. We had the luxury of using our own imaginations to expand and build upon that blueprint, rounding out characters, creating new scenes, fleshing out existing ones. It was such an enjoyable experience, it made me wonder why more short stories weren’t adapted into films.”

She added that the Proulx story condensed twenty years of time into just a few pages and that she and her partner were able to option it with their own money—both obvious advantages over the novel form.

I’m not suggesting that you’ll find a movie when you read the next story you pick up. But I’m convinced that there is plenty of great material floating around out there just waiting to be discovered.

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“Shake It Up” (by Kieran Shea)

EQMM published Kieran Shea’s first fiction in August of 2009, in the Black Mask department rather than the usual placement for a debut, in the Department of First Stories. Since then, his writing has mostly been in the field of science fiction, where he has four well-reviewed novels to his credit. He has not given up on the crime genre, however, as Booklist’s description of his novel Off Rock makes clear: “A great tale that is part space thriller and part classic gold heist.” In this post, the author takes up a topic we’ve not often seen addressed on this site: To what extent is it appropriate for a writer’s views about our society (political and sociological observations, for example) to enter into their fiction—especially entertainment fiction.—Janet Hutchings

Ah, these days of deranged, suggestive spectacle—what a time to be alive, no?

A few years ago, I was invited to appear on a panel at a genre-fiction conference. I can’t recall what the panel was about; however, during my panel’s post-presentation Q&A an attendee stood up and, without warning, proceeded to lambast the lot of us. This included the panel’s gracious moderator, a kind soul who looked as if someone had just stuffed a dead rat down her blouse.

The gist of this boor’s sucker-punch was that, as authors, we ought to stick to “churning out” entertaining thrillers, whodunits, and whatnots and leave subjects like politics, religion, and sex the hell alone. You’d think the uncomfortable silence that then suffused the room would be enough to send the interjecting attendee sheepishly on their way, but you’d be wrong. Things then got very interesting. After the silence reached its fail-safe point, one of the more devilish gadflies on my panel retorted, with the laser-locked glare of an angry badger, “I’m sorry you feel that way, friend, but other than general despair and violence, what else is there?”

This rejoinder was received by the antendee about as well as the blouse-stuffing rat.

But I ask you . . . should fiction writers overtly indulge in polemics?

Outside of cave drawings, it’s hard for me to imagine a time when storytellers have not expressed their opinions or sought out argument. Even successful practitioners of romance yarns and plot-disciplined, baked-crumpet cozies fondle this forbidden fruit time and again, sometimes even brazenly. Yes, all of us acknowledge that what we create is a form of entertainment, and, yes, we all hope what we create sells, but what the grouchy accuser failed to grasp was that in order to invent such amusements, authors must build believable worlds and populate those worlds with credible characters. Stories kosherized of all sociological postulation and sex to boot would, I feel, read like a Soviet-era field manual on cheese.

As much as I believe in political self-expression, though, whenever I’m asked to submit a blog post, review, or piece of nonfiction, before tendering any material I always make an effort to clear everything I write with my agent first.

As a ferocious shield-maiden of her trade, one who negotiates, sells, and champions her roster of wordsmiths with indefatigable nerve and pluck, my agent deserves this courtesy, I believe. Most may assume I offer her this consideration because of the modest two-way fiscal relationship that exists between us, and to some extent that is true. But the real reason I defer to my agent’s critical capacities is because, on more than one occasion, she has saved me from dynamiting all my bridges and making a total horse’s patoot of myself.

Ask anyone close to me and they will readily tell you: I am more than mildly off as human beings go. No doubt these “anyones” may dither with other descriptive modifiers, some of which may even be flattering, but on balance I think I prefer the mild pejorative of off because it suggests a certain amusing unpredictability.  I like to think I’m an acquired taste, along the lines of a strange cocktail made with kümmel or a Lars von Trier movie marathon with squeaky helium voiceovers.

Unfortunately, there are consequences to sporting iconoclastic spots in a world of rigid stripes, the foremost being that, in instances when my bell gets tolled by something particularly sinister or vicious, my repulsion and anger manifests in words which at times overflow the bounds of decorum.

Thus enter my mighty shield-maiden agent, the keeper of the sacred pumped brakes. Gosh, how lucky am I that she’s always there for me before my worst impulses get the better of me.

In addition to her efforts, there’s also a personal temper maxim when I see my spleen venting permeating my nonfictional work; basically, if some thought or revelation has occurred to me, then chances are, even if it’s horrific and outrageous, it’s likely to have occurred to others as well. Being both brave enough and tactful enough to affirm these thoughts eloquently is the real trick of the craft.

But maybe not too tactful. I’m reminded of what a wise editor once told me after something of mine she published upset one of her publication’s readers. The reader was so offended that they drafted one of the longest, angriest letters the editor had ever received in her tenure at the publication. Brushing aside my profuse apology, she cannily said with a conspiratorial wink, “Trust me, Kieran, if you’re not pissing people off you’re not doing it right.”

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“A Book to Remember” (by Merrilee Robson)

We’re always pleased to see a post on this site from a reader’s perspective. Although Merrilee Robson is the author of both short stories and a first novel (2016’s Murder Is Uncooperative), she addresses here the question of what makes certain novels (or stories) stick in our minds. There are some spoilers in what follows, so beware, but we think you’ll find the post enlightening. Merrilee’s first short story for EQMM, “Edie,” is in our current issue (January/February 2020). Don’t miss it!—Janet Hutchings

I’m not a horse person.

I’m allergic. Not drop-dead allergic, but the kind of allergy that leaves me sneezing, wheezing, coughing, with runny eyes and nose after half an hour near any horse.

An encounter with a grumpy Shetland pony when I was a child left me with a bloody nose, a scar that didn’t fade until well into my adult years, and an aversion to riding.

So why, when we were planning a recent trip to Vienna, did I tell my husband that the one thing I really wanted to see while we were there were the Lipizzaner stallions, the famous white horses from the Spanish Riding School?

Well, it was because of a book.

Airs Above the Ground is a novel of romantic suspense by the late British author Mary Stewart, published in 1965. I read it a few years after its publication, but it was a book that affected me some fifty years after I read it.

Some writers are able to do that.

What makes a book have that kind of impact? During that trip, I tried to analyze what the author had done that captured my imagination so that I wanted to see those horses, despite the allergies?

Character

I discovered Mary Stewart’s novels through The Moon-Spinners, a Walt Disney movie starring Hayley Mills. The movie had all the mystery and thrills of those childhood books, but with a hint of romance.

I was hooked. Although the main character in that movie was a teenager, the heroines in Mary Stewart’s novels are adults, but with the same sense of adventure I found with a teenage Nancy Drew or the English children in my favorite Enid Blyton books.

In Airs Above the Ground, Vanessa is a veterinarian. One who quit work when she got married, of course (it was the 1960s) but a character with training and skills that helped her worm her way into a community in a foreign country and solve the mystery.

She has a husband but he is part of the mystery, so Vanessa needs to be pretty self-sufficient, aided only by her sidekick, Timothy, a teenager she is chaperoning on a European visit and whose dreams of working at the Spanish Riding School provide much of the background on the horses.

Opening Lines

“Carmel Lacy is the silliest woman I know, which is saying a good deal.” One of my favorite opening lines. For me, the opening captures the protagonist perfectly. She is wry, a bit frustrated with her mother’s friend, but willing to help her out. In the space of time it takes to have tea at Harrod’s, the reader learns that Vanessa has argued with her new husband, that he is supposed to be in Stockholm but has been seen in Austria, and that Vanessa has suddenly agreed to a flying trip to Vienna.

Setting

In an interview later in her career, Mary Stewart described how she usually set her novels in places she had visited and loved. In Airs Above the Ground, she made a trip to Vienna specifically to research the horses and the Spanish Riding School. In rereading it, I found the “information dumps” a little obvious, but at the time, when travel to Europe was just a distant dream for me, I found it impossibly exotic.

Demographics

Mary Stewart said that she wrote that kind of stories she wanted to read. Her Wikipedia entry claims she “developed the romantic mystery genre, featuring smart, adventurous heroines who could hold their own in dangerous situations.” While developing the genre seems a bit of a stretch (there are earlier examples, but perhaps without such take-charge protagonists), she certainly wrote best-selling novels that captivated a generation of postwar readers who were ready for independent heroines and travel to locations, such as Greece, Lebanon, France, and Spain, that were now more accessible to middle-class tourists.

But that’s not it!

While all of these make the novel enjoyable, I think I remember this book because of a single scene that packs an emotional wallop.

In my memory, the moment when Vanessa is alone in a mountain meadow, caring for an old circus horse that was injured in a fire, is the climax of the novel.

In fact, it’s near the middle, but it’s both a pivotal moment in the plot and the moment when (spoiler alert) Vanessa realizes that the old horse was stolen many years ago from the Spanish Riding School.

Stewart describes the distant music from the circus in the valley below, how the horse raises his head and pricks up his ears at the sound, then starts to move in the precise, disciplined figures practiced by the stallions.

It was a travesty, a sick old horse’s travesty of the standing trot which the Lipizzaner had performed with such precision and fire, but you could see it was a memory in him, still burning and alive, of the real thing perfectly executed. In the distance the music changed. . . . And in the high Alpine meadow, with only me for an audience, old Piebald settled his hind hooves, arched his crest and tail, and, lame forefoot clear of the ground, lifted into and held the same royal and beautiful levade.

And that was it. I had tears in my eyes. The description of the old, injured horse remembering his glory days hit me like a sledgehammer and left an impression that lasted for decades.

Amazingly, it’s a true story, sort of. In an interview on a Scottish television program, Stewart described someone at work stopping by the side of the road and an old horse in a nearby field dancing to the music from her car radio.

That story affected Stewart so much that she asked if she could use it in a book. And she recreated it so vividly, that it led me, years later, to watch white horses going through their moves in Vienna.

I believe that it’s an emotional connection between the reader and a book that makes that book memorable. It’s tough to do but worth aiming for.

Writers are always happy when a reader tells them they love their book. But the best compliment is, “That was a story that will stay with me.”

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“Die Laughing” (by Mike McHone)

Mike McHone is a relative newcomer to the mystery field, but his short fiction and poetry have previously appeared in such publications as Neo-Opsis Science Fiction and The Onion. He makes his EQMM debut in our current issue (January/February 2020) with the humorous tale “A Drive-by on Chalmer’s Road?”. The Detroit author currently has other short stories forthcoming in Mystery Tribune and Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. In this interesting post, he discusses the art of blending humor, mystery, and suspense in a fictional setting.—Janet Hutchings

You’ve probably heard the oft-repeated and sometimes misappropriated line, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Over the years, it’s been attributed to actors Edmund Keane, Edmund Gwenn, and Donald Crisp. There are a couple of variations such as, “Dying is easy, comedy is difficult,” or “Dying isn’t as nearly as difficult as playing comedy.” Regardless of the variation and whomever supposedly said it, there’s a reason why this line keeps hanging around after all these years. All of us understand that dying is indeed easy (so easy anyone can do it!), but not everyone can be funny. You either are or you aren’t. And telling an original joke, crafting a comedic bit, or knowing how to pace a humorous routine, book, story, or film, is an artform. Each word and syllable of the joke should be as close to flawless as possible, and the entire process, from beginning to end, needs to be executed with such precision timing it would make a Swiss watch jealous.

In this regard, the plotting of a mystery, crime, or suspense story (three genres that have a great dependence on that easy business of death and dying), means the tale must go through a very similar process. Pacing is crucial. Don’t tell or reveal too much in the beginning. Don’t overstay your welcome after the climax. Know when to pause. Know when to smirk. Whether you’re making them laugh or making them scared, both depend not just on knowing what to say, but when, where, and how to say it.

But what if a writer can do both?

Ah, yes . . . If a writer can tiptoe between the funny and the mystery, weave together the light and the shadow, wrangle up the goosebumps and the gut-laughs in a single story, then they’re on to something special. If words are fading from funny moments into suspenseful ones and vice versa, then the flow of the narrative can speak to a deeper part of us where we understand, in our bones, that laughing is the best way to ease tension. Since we were kids, most of us have giggled ourselves stupid right after a friend or sibling jumped from seemingly out of nowhere and scared the bejesus out of us, or after we’ve completed that victorious jaunt through a haunted house in October. And what’s the go-to line that people sometimes utter months or years after a car wreck or some kind of personal disaster? “We can laugh about it now.” Sharing amusing stories at a funeral makes the process easier to deal with, if only for a little while. A fart in school is already funny, but a fart while everyone’s in the middle of taking a final exam? Well, that’s like a mini USO Tour during wartime. If laughter is the best medicine, then comedy during a tense moment is a baptism. And in fiction, it can certainly bring balance to a story.

Consider the scene inThe Empire Strikes Back where Han Solo, that swaggering smartass, is about to be lowered into the carbonite chamber and to his potential death. Leia finally comes to terms with her feelings and tells Han, “I love you.” And how does he respond?

“I know.”

In the original script Han was supposed to reply with the obligatory, “I love you, too.” It was intended to be an earth-shattering moment, but considering twenty minutes later we hear Darth Vader shed some light onto the darker branches of Luke Skywalker’s family tree (not to spoil a forty-year-old movie, but he’s Luke’s dad—sorry for the shocker), it was a great decision by director Irvin Kershner to allow actor Harrison Ford to break the other way and give us a laugh before we see Han become frozen and sent off with the bounty hunter Boba Fett. Apparently after a long day of shooting the scene, sticking with the original line wasn’t working, so Kershner told Ford to just say whatever the hell came to mind after Leia confesses her love. Ford went with his instinct, stayed true to Han’s attitude and blessed us with that wonderful moment.

“I know.”

Perfect.

However, the funny thing about tension (or the frightful thing about comedy) is that sometimes the distinctions between the two in a fictional setting are so razor thin you could shave with them. Here’s a scenario: A main character is irritated at someone in a scene and he can no longer hold back his anger. The character grabs a blunt object and hits the other person upside the head with it. If the person receiving the hit gets knocked out or dies, and there’s a realistic sound effect at the time of the impact, then you’re watching, or reading, a suspenseful scene.

Now let’s take a very similar situation: Person A gets pissed at Person B. Person A grabs a blunt object and thumps Person B on the head. If Person B is in pain but still standing and the sound effect during the hit was something like a Boink! sound, then you have yourself a comedy. For proof of this, please see the infamous baseball bat scene with Robert De Niro in The Untouchables, versus the Three Stooges’ A Plumbing We Will Go wherein Moe bashes Curly in the head with a pipe wrench.

Of course, there’s an alternative to this wherein the violence is ramped up so greatly that a story could fall either into a relentlessly suspenseful horror story or a borderline slapstick comedy. Compare Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs to Tim Dorsey’s Florida Roadkill (but if you read the latter, trust me, you’ll never look at a pair of blue jeans or a can of Fix-a-Flat the same way again).

One thing we must also understand about comedy is that getting a laugh has very little to do with the joke itself and more to do with whomever is telling it. George Carlin’s material in the mouth of another performer doesn’t work, because there was only one George Carlin and no one could do George Carlin’s jokes better than George friggin’ Carlin. Characters in fiction must function the same. If jokes or observations can be interchanged between characters, then the writer isn’t allowing the character to tell the joke on their own. This is what we call lazy-ass writing. Characters have to have their own way of speaking, thinking, acting, reacting, living, breathing, and, yep, dying. When they’re allowed to be themselves, without interchangeable jokes or dialogue, or a bunch of narratively intrusive situations scuttling them along from scene to scene, their own life shines through and the reader or viewer is allowed to get acquainted with them. It’s because of this that, in the realm of mystery or crime fiction, we’re drawn to main characters instead of the mysteries they’re trying to solve.

We’ve seen dozens of medical dramas on TV, but we like Dr. Greg House because he’s a sarcastic curmudgeon with a heart. We adore Gregory Mcdonald’s Fletch because he reminds us of the class clown that never studied but somehow always managed to get straight As and irritate the teacher in the process. Sara Peretsky’s V.I. Warshawski can out-think, out-drink, and do just about anything better than any of us, always with a smirk on her face. And when it comes to Sherlock Holmes, we stand in awe of his supreme intellect.

Mostly.

As Dr. Watson points out in particularly funny scene in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes’ “ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge.” In the scene, Watson speaks of the Copernican Theory of the Earth revolving around the sun and Holmes literally does not know what Watson is talking about. Watson is gobsmacked. Holmes doesn’t possess even a child’s basic understanding of the universe! “What the deuce is it to me?” Sherlock asks. Watson replies because it’s “the solar system!” Holmes shrugs, says that it has nothing to do with his work, and that he will force himself to forget such nonsense.

Arthur Conan Doyle was wise to put this scene in A Study in Scarlet. Its usage shows that Mr. Holmes, for all his brilliance, certainly has his flaws. Normally, it would be cruel to laugh at someone’s lack of understanding regarding any subject, but if it came to solving a murder or navigating the streets of London blindfolded, Sherlock would absolutely embarrass us with his insight, and therefore Doyle is giving us the okay to titter at him for not knowing anything about Mars or Saturn. For replications of this type of humor at the genius’s expense, think Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, or Spock from Star Trek (and, fun fact, according to the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Sherlock is Spock’s ancestor).

And let us not forget that some of the greatest comedies have at least a semblance of a crime or mystery plot that propel them along. The Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona is nothing without its central element: a kidnapping. The Big Lebowski, also by the Coen Brothers, is an homage to the works of Raymond Chandler. Smokey and the Bandit is a cat and mouse story about bootlegging. The Naked Gun, based on their far-too-short-lived television show Police Squad!, is a sendup of police procedurals of the ’50s and ’60s. The sitcom Barney Miller managed to blend workplace humor with the day-to-day nonsense of trying to solve crimes in Greenwich Village (and because of this many critics, actors, fans, and police officers said the show is one of the most realistic portrayals of what it’s like to work in a police station). And yes, when you think about it, every incarnation of Scooby-Doo was in fact a mystery series. Zoinks, indeed!

Yes, the crime elements can be muted at times, well behind the visual gags or lines of witty dialogue, but without the crimes or mysteries, the main characters have nothing to play around in. In other words, there’s no story. And without a story, we can’t connect to the character, and what better way to connect with someone (fictional or otherwise) than sharing a laugh?

After all, a story without good characterization is just a joke. And a joke told poorly by the wrong character is simply a crime.

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“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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