Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Back-Story: A Plotting Activity

An oft-held fiction-writing truism is as follows: start as close to the end of your story as you can. It is a valid philosophy but one that can be problematic for the writer. The scribe must determine how to effectively and efficiently deal with the back-story, all the events that came before the story begins. How much back-story does your narrative require? How much previous information does your reader need to effectively process the existing material? And does the narrative need to be linear--can the back-story be conveyed via flashback? (The great Elmore Leonard, after all, insisted in his "Ten Rules" that all prologues were nothing but flash-back material that should be dropped into the narrative at appropriate spots in the text.)

Below is an activity I have used with fiction-writing students for quite a while. Many routinely tell me it is the single most helpful activity we do all semester. Perhaps you’d like to try it. If you do, I’d love to see what you come up with. Feel free to e-mail me at jcorrigan@pomfretschool.org or author@johnrcorrigan.com.

What’s My Back-Story? A Plotting Activity

Must every story be told in a linear narrative style? No way. Readers want a scene that allows them to figure out the story on their own. So how do we tell stories in a cinematic manner? By using scenes to convey the storyline. This allows the writer to use flashback sequences while starting in the middle of the action and continuously pushing the story forward.

Read the following plot line and determine which numbers (there are several, after all) at which the story could begin. How will you include the information that came before your starting point? Must you include all of it?

Write a first- or third-person opening scene (one to three pages using narration and dialogue) beginning at one point on the line and dropping in the necessary previous material as the scene moves forward.

1) Mary Howard grew up in Readfield, Maine, the daughter of a doctor.

2) She went to UMaine at Orono, where she studied history, graduating with a 3.5 GPA, and met Steven Smith, a political science major, whom she married following graduation.

3) After graduation and one year of marriage, Mary dutifully helps Steven launch his political career.

4) Mary, now in her mid-30s, helps Steven becomes a Maine State Legislator and raises their three kids.

5) Unbeknownst to Mary, Steven begins an affair with a fellow Maine State Legislator.

6) Mary gets a phone call from an intern in Steven’s office, who tells her of the affair.

7) Mary confronts Steven. This takes every ounce of courage she has. In 15 years of marriage, she has morphed from the confident, bubbly Mary Howard, to the housewife of powerful Maine State Legislator Steven Smith. As his career has taken off, her identity somehow got lost.

8) Mary listens as Steven tells her the affair is just “a sideline” that “this is how some political marriages are.”

9) Mary packs her bags, grabs her kids (now ages 11, 9, and 7), and walks outside, determined to start a new life.

10) She drives to Santa Fe, New Mexico, a place she’s only seen on TV.

11) In Santa Fe, she enrolls the kids in school, gets a job in a bookstore, and hires attorney Phil Rogers, who is 35 and single.

12) Mary doesn’t know what to do when Rogers asks her to dinner six months after she’s been in Santa Fe and following what was a surprisingly easy out-of-court settlement with Steven. She wonders what message a date would send to her kids. Would her acceptance tell them that they are all starting over? That it’s okay to move on? Or would they think she’s callus?
# # #

Stories & Novels: How different are they?

Gary Phillips’s guest blog last Sunday still has me thinking about short fiction.

As a high school teacher, I’ve read and studied short stories of all types for years (you can cover more ground in a literature class using them as opposed to novels). But I've never wrote them. Whenever anyone asked why, I explained that I just never saw my stories in such a condensed form or (and even less articulate) that nothing I wrote “ever seems to turn out that short.” If you believe that the shorter the form is, the more difficult it is to write, then maybe I just wasn’t good enough. All I know is that my first attempt at fiction was a novel. It was the story I had in me at the time. After that, I moved on to the next story, CUT SHOT.

But I sold an essay this fall, and lately, I’ve been thinking more and more about short fiction. My former professor (and a Type M guest blogger) Rick DeMarinis, author of THE ART AND CRAFT OF SHORT FICTION, once said, “Some people are novelists, others are poets, others are short-story writers. Some are all three.” I’ve always wondered about that, thinking of Raymond Carver’s stance on the subject. (Carver once took an advance to write a novel, couldn’t, and gave the money back.)

I know that much of this discussion hinges on the story one is trying to tell. Not all stories can be told in 5,000 or 10,000 words. But aside from that, I’m curious to see what others think. Not all novelists write (or at least publish) short fiction, too, and vice versa. But could they? Or are they, as Rick said, novelists as opposed to short-story writers?

Cannon Fodder

As always, our family went to the States for Christmas. It was the usual round of visiting relatives, trying to squeeze in quality time with too many people, attempting not to eat too much and sometimes having to try to make it feel like we were having fun. The usual holidays...

That all changed on Christmas Day in Detroit when yet another airline disaster was narrowly and unbelievably luckily avoided.

My son and I were flying home on Sunday, since I had a gig on Saturday night. My wife and other son had driven on ahead because of a rehearsal for her back in Toronto. Because of all the restrictions and new searching procedures now in place, we didn’t get out that day. After 6 hours at the airport, they canceled the flight. No planes were making it down from Toronto, so no planes were available to take us home.

So how does all this fit in with Type M’s mandate of “all murder (writing), all the time”?

Well, I had plenty of time to just sit and observe, and under such a stressful situation (fully-armed soldiers all over the place, not looking very friendly), there was a lot to observe.

There’s always a bit of anxiety where flying is involved. Some fear it a lot, some less, but I don’t think that there’s anyone who doesn’t feel the slightest twinge. With the attempted bombing in Detroit, that anxiety was ramped up by at least a factor of ten.

What did I notice? First of all, almost everyone was watching everyone else — closely. Anytime someone moved, eyes would swivel in that direction. Obvious, too, was the fact that certain people merited more monitoring than others. Why is that guy sitting in the corner wearing such a heavy coat when it’s so hot? Those people down the row keep whispering among themselves — why? Down the hall someone dropped something and it made a pretty loud crash. Two women in our lounge area actually screamed and several people leaped to their feet. I swear they were ready to bolt.

With a plot I have percolating in the back of my mind, I got a first-hand look at exactly what I may wind up writing about. It wasn’t a pleasant situation to be in, for sure, but it turned out to be potentially very useful. I have several pages of notes in the journal I always carry when traveling.

Best part of the trip? The security people wanted to see inside my trumpet case. I took it out and the guy wanted me to take it apart, not something I wanted to do at a security check point. I offered to play it instead to prove that explosives weren’t stuffed into the tubing. I don’t think the security people or passengers around me thought “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” was the appropriate thing to play...

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Guest Blogger Gary Phillips

Debby here, announcing this Sunday's guest blogger, Gary Phillips. Aside from making up stories and putting them on paper for others to enjoy, one of the most rewarding aspects of writing is meeting others whom you admire and who share your interests. I've had the pleasure of serving on the SoCal MWA board with Gary, and I'm delighted to introduce Gary as this week's guest blogger.

Gary Phillips has short stories in the recently released collections, Phoenix Noir, Sex, Lies and Private Eyes, Between the Dark and the Daylight, and Once Upon a Crime, and is editor and contributor to the Orange County Noir anthology out in April 2010 from Akashic.

Short Hand, by Gary Phillips

In the glow of firelight, storytellers transfixed the tribe with their short stories of how the world began. These verbal tales were passed down and became the written word. The Bible and the other tomes of the world’s religions are filled with parables and short stories of wonder and redemption, horror and damnation – the tools of the writer’s trade.

I got hooked on short stories as a kid watching those half hour reruns of the original black and white Twilight Zone episodes on TV, many of them written by the on-air host Rod Serling. Actually, it was getting a short story collection from my Uncle Sammy’s common-law-wife (does anybody use that phrase anymore?) Virginia, From the Twilight Zone, published by Doubleday, that was my Eureka moment. She’d gotten this anthology, along with a collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s work and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes -- most of which were short-- stories, from the Reader’s Digest book club. If I recall correctly, she gave me the three books for my ninth or tenth birthday.

The stories in From the Twilight Zone were conversions by Serling of his teleplays into prose. Mind you, I wasn’t throwing around those kind of words then, but I realized reading stories like “The Midnight Sun” and “The Big, Tall Wish,” I’d seen them acted out the TV program. I know I hadn’t seen a script at that point, but knew it was what a writer wrote for actors to use “The Method (whatever that was) to say their lines. I’d learned about scripts interestingly enough from another Twilight Zone episode, “A World of Difference” written by Richard Matheson, in which a man thinks he’s a businessman but he’s really an actor, or maybe not, on a movie set. Anyway, I devoured those short stories in the TZ collection along with the ones by Poe and Doyle.

All these years down the line the short story still holds a fascination for me as a writer and editor. Unlike the long form of the novel, your beginning, middle and end are compressed and concise. Writing the short story forces you to make every word count, details sparring but relevant, with every action paying off. That’s not to suggest characterization is sacrificed as in its best form, your characters are honed like seaside cliffs washed pristine after countless waves.

The moody, introspective outlaw Ben Wade and the hard-pressed farmer Dan Evans pushed together by circumstances in Elmore Leonard’s “Three-Ten to Yuma”; the arthritic, doubting Sheriff Doane in John M. Cunningham’s “The Tin Star”, the basis for the film High Noon; Matheson’s “Duel” with another harried middle class businessman man symbolically named Mann hounded by a big rig; the one-armed vet Peter Macreedy unwelcome in the whistle stop town under the bad man’s thumb in “Bad Day at Honda” by Howard Breslin, the basis for the film, Bad Day at Black Rock; or the various Sherlock Holmes filmic and television treatments based on various Holmes’ short stories.

“Sure, I suppose it was a little bit like prying, could even have been mistaken for the fevered concentration of a Peeping Tom. That wasn’t my fault, that wasn’t the idea. The idea was, my movements were strictly limited just around that time.” This seemingly conversational but tense early first person passage from “It Had to Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich made as the film Rear Window.

Plenty of short stories aren’t made into film. But it does seem as traditional publishing continues transforming given e-books, Kindles, internet magazines offering original fare in text and audio, iPhones and so on, people in the hurry up world of instant this and instant that, interests in the short story won’t wane but, hopefully, grow in demand for in the words of Rod Serling…”You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas.”


Gary Phillips has short stories in the recently released collections, Phoenix Noir, Sex, Lies and Private Eyes, Between the Dark and the Daylight, and Once Upon a Crime, and is editor and contributor to the Orange County Noir anthology out in April 2010 from Akashic.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Good King Wenceslas

Happy Boxing Day to all you Brits and Canadians out there.  We had a lovely Christmas, and hope you all had the same. Boxing Day isn’t much celebrated in the States.  In fact, I never heard of it until I was a teenager.  For me, December 26 is the day that Good King Wenceslas looked out.

Until I was about ten, Good King Wenceslas looked out upon the feets of Stephen. At the time, I supposed the reason that Good King Wenceslas was looking upon Stephen’s feets was that Stephen was barefoot. Since the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even, it occurred to the King that Stephen’s feets were very cold.  Good King Wenceslas, as we know, had a special affinity for feets, since with every step he trod, where the snow lay dinted, heat was in the very sod which the Saint had printed.  And so,moved by the poor man’s plight, he had his goodly page bring him flesh and bring him wine, and bring him pine logs hither.  Then page and monarch, forth they went together, through the rude wind’s wild lament, so that they could bear them thither and see him dine.

I did eventually discover that Stephen was not yonder peasant, but the Saint upon whose feast day Good King Wenceslas looked out. That realization took some of the joy out of the story for me, for the the thought of the actual Saint Stephen’s broken corpse lying under a pile of rocks doesn’t comfort me much.  I loved the idea of poor cold-footed Peasant Stephen standing in the king’s toasty footprints and receiving an armload of pine logs and meat and wine for Christmas dinner, and to this day, I am warmed by the image of this act of compassion.

Therefore, Christian men, be sure

Wealth or rank possessing

Ye who now will bless the poor

Shall yourselves find blessing.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Have a Yule that's Cool

Here’s to the things that make every day a holiday – family, friends and swingin’ nightspot!

This is a shot of our Christmas fete at Pier 45. Pictured (counter clockwise) Shannon, Michelle, Yours Truly, Rick, Dan, Elena, Paula and my lovely wife Rose. About the date. Every day for the past 14 years, Rose and & I have taken our picture holding the date. No, we haven’t missed a day, yes, we know that camera can add the date but that’s not part of the tradition, and when we’re apart we each take a shot.

On behalf of my fellow blog mates—Vicki, Rick, Donis, Debby and John, have yourself a merry little Christmas.


Thursday, December 24, 2009


It’s Christmas Eve and there are lots of things to do around the Corrigan house. But we’ve had 18 inches of snow here in Connecticut, so it feels like Christmas.

The students are gone, so the Pomfret School campus is quiet. My daughters, Delaney, 11, and Audrey, 8, (Keeley, 13 months, is also in our 2009 Xmas-card photo) love this two-week stretch. The campus is empty and the prep school becomes their 500-acre theme park, and Dad has a key to the rink. So we pack a cooler full of sandwiches and drink boxes and bring an iPod with plenty of Disney tunes and head down “hockey hill” for a skating party with the girls’ friends.

My wife, it seems, with family constantly coming and going, never stops cooking. God bless her.

For me, I can't cook anything that can't be made on a grill, and I'm free from evening commitments (save for a couple blog entries), so I use this time to write. I’m shooting for 30 finished pages in two weeks, working mostly nights, when everyone is asleep. Fingers crossed.

Happy Holidays from the Corrigan family!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Holiday Thoughts

Happy Holidays to all. It’s Wednesday, so it’s Debby this morning and I’m in Wyoming, where there’s hardly any snow. Usually it’s piled higher than the cars on the roads. This picture is of last year's snowfall, just so you believe me. This year, however, it went elsewhere—one son is stuck in Boston with thousands of other stranded travelers, dealing with the airlines’ struggles to get runways cleared, planes up, and people out. We think he’s on his way this morning, and hope that everyone on the road and in the air gets to their destination safely.

Our family has spent Christmas here in a cabin in the woods for the last seventeen years, and I love the peace and tranquility. I look forward to it. Oh yeah, there’s also one of the best ski areas in the Northern Hemisphere (will I start an argument with that statement?) about a half hour away. I love that, too.

But things are changing. Our sons are both in college, and they would prefer to spend the holidays in Honolulu where they can reconnect with hometown friends (and go to parties). Next year, we’ll probably bend to their desires, and my husband and I will escape to our little refuge in January or February. I’ll need to let go of my self-constructed traditions. Will I pack up the Christmas ornaments the kids made in Kindergarten? Will we struggle with other islanders to buy a tree that was cut before Thanksgiving, instead of putting on snowshoes (usually) and hiking into the forest to cut our own?

On the bright side, maybe we’ll go to more holiday parties. Maybe even invite good friends over for one of our own. Life changes, doesn’t it? Maybe I’ll even get a bit more writing done over the holidays. Wait—I’ll still have to cook, wrap, clean, and…forget it. That isn’t going to happen between December 15th and January 2nd.

Despite all the festivities, part of me is itching to get back to my stories. And does anyone else find that getting back in the flow is a struggle after a couple of weeks off? I’m going to spend a week writing crap before the words come easily and the characters find their missions.

But that’s okay, it’s part of the process. Happy holidays!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Wandering Thoughts

If it’s Monday it must be Vicki writing. Alas, I have very little to say. I have spent the day cleaning, shopping, cleaning, menu planning, cleaning. My mom comes tomorrow and two of my three daughters shortly after. It’s not that my house is normally a dump, but when company is coming I like to clean it top to bottom. Okay, not bottom – I have a rubble cellar.

After all that hard work, not to mention all the cooking in my immediate future, I find I have nothing very inspirational to write about.

A fitness expert wrote an article recently in the paper about how to boost your metabolism over the holidays. One of his tips was to do an hour’s workout just before sitting down to dinner.

A woman (natch) wrote a letter to the paper mentioning it was obvious this gentleman was not in charge of basting the turkey. Nor, I would add, setting the table, minding the children don’t set the tree on fire, mashing the potatoes, getting Grandpa his whisky and soda, peeling vegetables etc. etc.

Made me think about how oblivious some people can be to the amount of work other people put in to give them a nice holiday.

So if you’re going to someone else’s house for Christmas dinner, or even having someone in your own household do most of the work, please thank them.

To make up for the lack of writing tips, how about some cross-national understanding. I believe from what I read that for many people in the U.S. Thanksgiving is the major family holiday of the year.

Not so up here in the Great White North. For us, it’s Christmas by a large margin. We have Thanksgiving in early October and it’s a day for families to get together and eat turkey, but very few people would travel more than a couple of hours to visit family on Thanksgiving, and not many would take a plane ride. But everyone makes all the effort they can to get home for Christmas. The traditional meal is turkey (Yeah! We can have it twice because it’s been two and a half months since the last time). I’ll be doing the turkey and all the trimmings, with two pies for dessert made from scratch (pastry included) apple and a butterscotch pie. On Christmas Eve I’m going to make a traditional Quebec meal of Tourtiere (which is a spicy pork pie)and on Boxing Day (which is a national holiday) I’m going to make baked beans with the beans I harvested myself from the field next door.

However, and wherever, you celebrate Christmas, have a great one.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Supermoms, Supersleuths!

Today’s guest blogger is Canadian writer, Jill Edmondson whose first novel has just appeared in bookstores all over North America — to some excellent reviews, I might add. She also...but then, why don’t I just let her get to it?


Hey all you writers out there (published and aspiring)! This may just be an untapped niche for you to exploit: Supermoms, Supersleuths!

Crime fiction is quick to latch on to socio-cultural changes, and it is also (usually) quick to reflect shifting demographics. To that end, crime fiction nowadays is pretty diverse: We have gay police officers, black private eyes, priests who sleuth on the side, physically challenged lawyers, senior citizen amateur gumshoes, and so on. For more information on the breadth of protagonists in crime fiction, have a look at the Diversity Index on the website Stop You’re Killing Me: www.stopyourekillingme.com/DiversityCats/index.html

Along with other socio-cultural changes, women in crime fiction have come a very long way in recent years, especially since 1977 when Marcia Muller introduced Sharon McCone, the first ‘hardboiled’ female sleuth. We now have several kick-ass female sleuths, including Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone; Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski; Liz Brady’s Jane Yeats, and Linda Barnes’s Carlotta Carlyle. Women (besides being avid mystery readers) have a strong presence in crime fiction. According to scholar and mystery aficionada Maureen Reddy:

In the 1980s, 207 new mystery series by women were begun, most of them featuring female protagonists; an average of 79 new titles were published in those series annually. Roughly half of those series were begun in the last three years of the decade. By the end of the 1980s, then, the situation for readers wanting to move from Nancy Drew to adult female detectives had changed utterly from what it had been when the Nancy Drew series began in 1929. Instead of having trouble finding mystery books with female detectives, readers were likely to find it difficult to keep up with the sheer volume of such books published. The 1990s have continued this trend (“The Female Detective” in Mystery and Suspense Writers, pages 1047 to 1067).

For many years, the traditional dick was a “lonely man” according to Raymond Chandler’s 1944 essay “The Simple Art of Murder”. And, he was isolated, with no family circle or genealogical background to speak of. Robert B. Parker echoed this in an essay in the late 1970s in which he stated that the hardboiled hero “is not of the people; he is alone. His adventures are solitary statements.” Scholar Lewis D. Moore expands on this by saying:

Except for occasional references to family members, earlier hardboiled detectives have no distinct pasts.... This withheld past of course objectifies them in ways that clarify the hardboiled detective in his early stages … In the modern period, the families of both the detectives and their clients become important focuses.

Over the years, the protagonists have changed from the isolated PI with no past and no family, to the sleuths of today who have parents and siblings, maybe an aunt or a grandparent. Today’s detectives also have families of their own: they may be married, divorced, or foster-parents. The point is that families – biological or chosen – are part of our modern day mysteries. As Lewis D. Moore states in “Lies and Deceit: The Family in the Hard-Boiled Detective Novel”:

Whether because of post-sixties societal changes, the advent of feminism, or the problematic shift of the hardboiled detective novel towards elements of the novel of manners and morals, … relationships have assumed increasing importance.

However, a gap remains. There seems to be an under-representation of single moms in mystery fiction. Now, before you start yelling at me and saying “what about [insert character name here]?” I am thinking in particular about single mothers in crime fiction who have official law enforcement or investigative jobs. And I’m thinking of series. And I’m thinking of children who are still minors, not adult children.

Yes, there are a number of amateur single mothers who figure out whodunit, but crime solving is something they stumble into. Some examples of these ‘accidental’ detectives include the Joanne Kilbourn series by Gail Bowen (Kilbourn is a university professor), or the catering capers featuring Goldy Schulz by Diane Mott Davidson, and then there’s also Marianne MacDonald’s series featuring bookseller Dido Hoare.

But where are the single mom police procedurals? Why isn’t there a series featuring a private eye who rushes off to pick up her kid from daycare?

When I began wondering about this question, I sent out a query to members of Sisters in Crime asking for suggestions of series that fit these parameters. I was told of a few stand-alone titles, and several responses included suggestions for ‘accidental’ single mom sleuths, but I got very few leads for single mother cops, investigators, or other ‘official’ law enforcement jobs.

It seems, perhaps, that the roles of sleuth and single mother are to some extent mutually exclusive. The nature of the work – the irregular hours, the emergencies, the overtime – do not lend themselves well to single mothers in this genre. Childless women can enter and navigate the world of detection, as can be seen by the sheer numbers of female-led series published every year. Peripheral family can also be an element of the story, whether with “little sisters” (Carlotta Carlyle), or via close bonds with the offspring of the detective’s inner circle (Tempe Brennan’s niece Lucy). Perhaps few single mom official law enforcers exist because -to create such a character believably- the sleuth would have to be flawed and unable to satisfy all the demands placed on her (family or career – which one is going to suffer?). The “unofficial” sphere offers sleuths the freedom to chase down leads while making dinner.

Maybe it’s best that single moms remain within the comfort zone of amateur detective work. Or is it? Maybe this is a gap that needs to be filled.

Cheers, Jill Edmondson
Blood and Groom: A Sasha Jackson Mystery (published by The Dundurn Group) is now in stores!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Persons and Tenses

I don’t mind reading a book or story written in first person present tense.  I’ve actually read many pages of a novel before it dawned on me that the story was occurring in the moment.  In the comments to John’s post, below, Dana mentioned Tim Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty series being in first person present.  I’ve read all of the books in Hallinan’s series, and Dana’s statement startled me.  I immediately got up and retrieved The Fourth Watcher  and Nail Through the Heart  from my bookshelf to check, and lo and behold, they are present tense. 

This says to me that if you are a skillful enough artist, you can pull off anything.  The point, as John noted, is that the writing should be invisible. If it distracts the reader, this is a bad thing.

Yet style is incredibly important. The voice, the vocabulary, the immediacy of present tense, the intimacy of first person, the distance of past tense, or the slight remove of the third person all contribute to setting the scene, creating atmosphere, creating the world of your novel.  Second person might even be the most intimate voice of all, since, if well done, the conversation would be only between the author and the reader and exclude the entire rest of the world.

The author creates a universe with her choices and invites a reader in.  If the writer is really good, the reader is enveloped in the story and moves through it without being quite aware that he’s in a made-up world.  The writing is all-enveloping, but unseen.

I’ve quoted this before, but it‘s to the point.  The very best writing reminds me of one of my favorite Zen sayings :  The fish is not aware of the water it swims in. 

That’s what we writers are shooting for.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas Present Tense

I was excited to read John’s post about writing in present tense since that’s the route I took with the young adult novel that Harper Collins will be publishing next year. The comments that follow his post were also quite interesting, so before you read this, go back and reread those as well.

In her comment, Vicki noted that present tense sounds forced because that’s not the way we tell a story. That’s true, yes, but the way we write isn’t the way we tell a story either. No one says things like “Jack said as he lifted the gun from the case, the light raising an oily sheen on its dull blue finish.” And no one – I hope – describes sex scenes the way they really happened. This is obvious stuff, sure, but it makes a case that when we read we are not really looking for a story the way people tell story. So first person, third person, third person limited omniscience, second person…they’re all correct because they’re all wrong.

Dana suggests that present tense doesn’t work because our minds are too well aware of the fact that what we’re reading can’t be happening now since, well, we’re reading, not seeing what’s supposed to be going on. True, but that falls in the suspension of disbelief category. I’m not the most disciplined thinker in the room (any room), but if I can let go enough to believe that there’s a race of Hobbits fighting for survival against dragons and wizards and magic rings, I think I can believe just about anything.

I don’t think that there’s any right or wrong voice, just like I don’t think there’s any right or wrong story. In the past year I have read (and have written) stories that follow the traditional format that fell flat. And I have read (and have written) stories that aren’t what you’d call traditional but that still rung true. Either it works or it doesn’t.

Dana wrote that when it comes to stories, “Anything that happened in the past is fair game.” To me it’s all fiction and that means that everything is fair game.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Present Tense: When and Why?

I wrote a guest blog last week for our counterparts at Criminal Brief: The Mystery Short Story Web Blog Project (criminalbrief.com) in which I discussed the use of present tense as a means of jumpstarting a story or scene. The subsequent comments and posts pertaining to my blog dealt with when and/or why an author should use present tense. I wish to continue that thread here.

I love S.J. Rozan’s three-page story “Going Home,” which is written in second person point of view and in the present tense. And I just picked up THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION, which appears to be heading in that same fast-paced direction. I began my current project writing in the present tense. Wrote maybe 30 pages that way. Then I went back, revised, and changed it to past tense.


If I’m being totally honest, I must admit I switched to past tense partially because I lost my nerve: I didn’t know if I could continue that pace—effectively and with sufficient purpose—for 300 pages. But I was really tempted to try. For at least several opening pages, I liked the way it read a great deal. But I felt the present tense voice would eventually distract the reader. (And my mantra is: the author shouldn’t be noticed.) Plus, the story’s point of view is first person (so, logically, my protagonist is therefore retelling a sequence of events that have already occurred). In that scenario present tense would not be one’s natural speaking voice. So I cut my emotional ties to it and revised, making it past tense.

The question of when to use present tense and why persists. I use it when it punches up the tension in a scene. Present tense offers an immediacy that past tense, no matter how vivid, just can’t offer. Most of the time, in novel-length fiction, I find it hard to leave past tense to incorporate present tense, but there have been a few rare times when I thought it was justified and the switch added the level of tension I was looking for.

That’s my two cents worth. I’m curious to see what others say about present tense versus past.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Hands on!

After reading Vicki’s blog entry below, I felt the need to state the opposite side of the argument, not that I’ve ever been known to do something like that.

I will agree on her main point: computers make things much easier. But in a very real way, they may make it too easy. Let me explain.

I have done an ms on a typewriter and I still write out long portions of my novels longhand — and if you knew I was left-handed and the way that I hold my pen, you’d be even more impressed that I bother. Either that, or you’d think I’m completely daft.

As for using the typewriter, I didn’t have a computer at the time. I do feel that one of the best things that the advent of cheap personal computers accomplished was to get rid of typewriters. I won’t go into all the reasons why they made writing extended pieces a major headache, but you can imagine. The problem was inversely amplified by the skill (or lack thereof) of the typist. I fell into the latter category, and I say now, with the choice between using a typewriter or a computer, I’d choose the computer every time — and with nary a nostalgic look backward at the erstwhile mechanical writing marvel.

So why go back even farther and use a pen (a fountain pen in my case) and paper to jot down one’s latest literary marvel? Simply this: I think it causes one to slow down and think more before committing anything to paper (or virtual paper) and that makes a big difference in my prose, I can tell you.

Many years ago, I ran across Robertson Davies as he stalked the halls of the University of Toronto’s Massey College where he was master. Slamming me hard against a wall and lifting me up by my coat collar, he fixed me with a distain-filled eye, his long beard bristling, and snarled, “Do you do your writing using one of those abominable typewriters, or do you write as God intended, by putting pen to paper to record your miniscule thoughts? Well, do you?” I stammered out that I had been accustomed to using a typewriter, a graduation present from my mother as a matter of fact. “Throw it in the garbage!” he roared, anointing my face with spittle as he shook me. “You will never be a real writer otherwise! A writer needs to give himself time to think!” I was terrified for my very life.

He finally let me go after I’d promised faithfully to at least trying the old-fashioned way. And when I did, I found out he was right. My sentences had more clarity, more focus, because I thought of what I wanted to say, then refined it, then examined it and refined it again, and then wrote it down. How many times do you just blast through something on the computer? It’s almost as if your fingers are racing ahead of your mind. It’s a heady, seductive feeling, but I find that it can produce sloppy, undisciplined prose. More often than not, my computer speed-written work yields sentences that I look at later and think, “Who sneaked into my manuscript and wrote that abomination?” My “slow-written” work fares much better. Coincidence? I think not.

I now do all my really important scenes this way, and I’ve been quite happy with the results; my editors have, too. Now, whenever I get into a plot bind, I grab a notebook, find a quiet corner and work it all out, slowly and methodically on paper with my favorite fountain pen. Oftentimes, because I’m being more contemplative, new ideas have time to pop out and then gestate a bit, mellowing before I commit them to paper, rather than just vomiting them into the computer.

Do I keep everything I’ve written this way? No, but 95% of the time it forms the backbone of what does become my final copy.

Try it. You may find it works for you.

NOTE: part of the above is apocryphal...

Monday, December 14, 2009

The things you learn on the internet

Vicki here today. Here is a short list of things I learned this weekend on the Internet:

Some bars in NY State have a waiver that allows smoking
How to make a Singapore sling
The cost of a rototiller
How to spell Rosacea
What green vegetables can be harvested in Ontario in October
Not to bother borrowing a cat for a few days to control a mice problem

I began my creative writing career around 1995. I have always used a computer. I cannot imagine trying to write an entire novel on a typewriter or – more unimaginable – by hand. But even more, I cannot imagine writing a novel without the Internet. With the exception of the latter, everyone of the things listed above I need to know for the new novel I’m working on. What on earth would I have done without the Internet?

I have a full set of Encyclopaedia Britannica (going cheap, anyone interested?) so I could look up things such as the year of Napoleon’s death or the name of the really big dinosaur that ate only plants. But probably not those bits of information that give a book a sense of reality, such as if you can smoke in a bar in New York.

I would have had to write to Charles (i.e. use a pen on a piece of paper, put the paper in the envelope, address it, go to the post office, buy a stamp, put the letter in the red box). Charles would then have had to either make a special visit to a bar, because I am sure he doesn’t know what goes on in such places, or phone the state authority in charge. He would then have written me a reply (i.e. use a pen on a piece of paper, put the paper in the envelope, address it, go to the post office, buy a stamp, put the letter in the blue box). By the time I got the answer I would no longer remember why I needed to know.

And how about hard-to-spell words? I have never understood the principal of looking up in a dictionary a word you can’t spell. I can’t spell it, how can I find it in the dictionary? Now I might be able to find a book on bartending somewhere in the back of the bookshelf, but what if I don’t? Do I phone someone (Charles again?) who might be able to tell me how to make a Singapore Sling.

Never mind the cost of a long distance phone call. I remember my father – IT’S LONG DISTANCE!!! – standing by the phone with a time piece so we didn’t talk to Grandma for longer than three minutes and everyone trying to say Merry Christmas as fast as we could to get in under the three minutes.

So I wonder, did books just not have an aura of verisimilitude (spell checked that one!) in the past? Did people not write about things they weren’t familiar with? Sure I could say “He made a Singapore Sling” without actually having to describe what went into it. Or not mention if anyone was smoking or not in that N.Y. bar. I could just assume a rototiller costs a lot and hope the sort of people who read my books don’t know either.

I know publishers had much bigger editorial staff in those thrilling days of yesteryear, so I suppose they would have had to know how to spell Rosacea, not me. And they had piles of reference books containing such tidbits as gardening seasons in Ontario.

The last question on the list above, by the way, is not for a book. I need to know, and my many friends on Facebook chipped in with their opinion.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Guest Blogger Kris Neri - The Mystery of the Paranormal

What if you could have anything in the world you wanted — except the one thing that you wanted most?

That question sparked the creation of one of the protagonists of my new paranormal mystery, High Crimes on the Magical Plane (Red Coyote Press). Combining the supernatural with a mystery is great fun, but it also comes with great challenges. The characters need to work effectively in both realms. Their powers and otherworldly abilities must seem vast enough to be believable within the paranormal framework. And yet they need the same flaws and blind spots as other characters to allow for the growth arcs that readers want. It’s a tough juggling act to create a character that is simultaneously powerful, yet lacking.

Within the world I’ve created, which plays out on the streets of Los Angeles, Special Agent Annabelle Haggerty of the FBI is also a genuine Celtic goddess. While her ancestors have returned to their mythical homeland of Tir na n’Og, their decedents continue to live among us, hiding their true natures. Generations of intermarrying with mortals has diluted Annabelle’s powers, but she has plenty of magical skills left to give herself most anything she wants — yet a burdensome sense of responsibility blinds her to the life she could be living. Too determined to reject the notoriously bad behavior the gods have always engaged in, this resolute goddess keeps her nose so firmly pressed the grindstone, she’s worn it to a nub. 

One of the great advantages of injecting the paranormal into your writing is that you get to address the big philosophical questions in life, such as fate and why we are here, and whether we should welcome into our lives the people we want, or those we need.

Annabelle has little choice about the latter when plump fake psychic and scam ancient deity, Samantha Brennan, crashes into her case. Despite her dubious professional choices and highly eccentric wardrobe, Samantha embodies everything Annabelle’s family believes she should be. While Annabelle is cautious and responsible to a fault, Samantha is joyous, lusty and daring. Only a universe with a twisted sense of humor would put those two together.  

When movie star Molly Claire is kidnapped and made the centerpiece of an inexplicable gangland siege that brings the City of Angels to its knees, these polar opposites are forced to work together, a relationship made harder by the fact that each of those women lives the life the other secretly covets. 

The most enjoyable part of writing a supernatural mystery is choosing the creatures that will populate it. I wanted to draw on beings that were wacky and new. First I recruited Angus, Annabelle’s ancestor, the ancient Celtic god of youth and love and laughter. In Celtic mythology it’s said that anyone who has heard Angus playing his sweet harp is unable to resist him. In my modern world, he becomes a lounge performer, not to mention Samantha’s love slave. 

But I didn’t stop there. I brought in banshees to patrol Griffith Park in Los Angeles, leprechauns that go undercover in schoolyards to spy for Annabelle, as well as flower fairies and dolphins. And I can’t forget the shape-shifter/FBI agent who isn’t from some distant realm, but whose ability to transform himself is the result of some nasty toxins in the air. (Watch what you breathe!)

Ultimately, though, a mystery, even when it contains elements from other genres, needs to hold together as a mystery. It must have sufficient plot twists, strong suspects, rising stakes and some plausible red herrings. Most importantly, we need to feel the outcome of the struggle could go either way, that the villain could outwit our sleuths and evade justice. With a supernatural being, it becomes that much harder. 

But that’s where character flaws and blind spots come in. Annabelle misinterprets her psychic visions, and in her effort to behave more like an ordinary mortal, she overrides her own judgments. We’re left to think that if she and her family of deities are no match for the Demon of Darkness that Annabelle believes is masterminding L.A.'s own Armageddon, a poor little fake like Samantha will have no chance at all. 

It’s a fight to the finish. Along the way, each woman learns something from the one she considers the last person who could teach her anything. Even when you’re a goddess, it seems life holds some wicked surprises.  

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Christmas Mysteries

In my 2009 Gift Book Recommendation entry last week, I mentioned the fact that it seems there were an awful lot of very grim books published this year.  Is it because it was a very grim year?  Perhaps I was in a very grim mood.  Who knows? 

In any event, I had just read Nevada Barr’s exceptionally gripping 13 1/2, right after finishing Sara Paretski’s complex Bleeding Kansas, shortly after I finished David Wroblewski’s  Edgar Sawtelle (which is nothing more than a reworking of Hamlet, so you get the picture.). I generally enjoy edgy books, but, as my uncle used to say, Lord a'mighty!

It was time for a break.  This is when I got hold of Carolyn Hart’s Merry, Merry, Ghost. This is the second installment in Carolyn’s new series featuring a mystery solving ghost who comes down from heaven to help people find justice.  This light-hearted book gave me a lift and an chuckle, and made me think about other mystery novels set around Christmas time.  Following is a list of a few that I thought of just off the top of my head, though I’m sure I’m leaving out some real classics, of which I’m sure you Dear Readers will remind me.

First up is Vicki’s Winter of Secrets. NOT cozy.  Read it.  Enough said. 

Katherine Hall Page has a new Faith Fairchild mystery out, her eighteenth. Body in the Sleigh is set at Christmas on the Sanpere Island in Maine’s Penebscot Bay.

Back to deep and edgy, Louise Penny’s Fatal Grace for Christmas in Quebec, and Julia Spencer-Fleming’s In the Bleak Midwinter, in upstate New York.  Sue Grafton’s E is for Evidence is set at Christmas time (California), and so is Linda Lael Miller’s Creed Country Christmas (Montana in the 1910s).

And if you like short stories, the Desert Sleuths (Phoenix Chapter) Sisters in Crime has issued a collection of mysteries set around the holidays entitled How Not To Survive The Holidays.

Someone asked me not long ago why I haven’t written an Alafair novel set at  Christmas.  Oh, I intend to.  As the plan now stands, the Christmas novel will be the last in the series.

Now, allow me to inform you, Dear Reader, that tomorrow’s guest blogger really, really, is KRIS NERI, owner of The Well Red Coyote Bookstore in Sedona, Arizona, beloved of every mystery novelist who passes through this state, and successful mystery novelist in her own right.  Do not miss her!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Fingerprints on everything

There’s a fascinating piece on the BBC News website about linguistic research being done at Umea University in Sweden on how an author’s word choices create an identifiable writing style fingerprint. This research is built upon earlier work by linguist George Zipf, the guy who formulated Zipf’s Law which demonstrates a mathematical relationship between the frequency of a word in a text to that word’s rank in the author’s list of most commonly used words. The new research found that authors have what they’re calling “unique word curves” based on words that appear just once in a text, and here’s the freaky part – if you pull out 1,000 words from a 10,000 word work, 10,000 words from a 100,000 word work or 100,000 words form a 200,000 word work, you get the same word curve.

Now I’ve never been any good at math and the jury is still out if I’m any good with words, but what this says to me is that even with a (estimated) half-million English words to choose from, we predictably come back to the same ones.

So far the researchers have analyzed the complete works of Hardy (Thomas, not Oliver), Melville and Lawrence, but I would like to offer my books up for study as well. While I haven’t a clue which words I use uniquely in a given text, I can tell you words I probably use way too much. The ones that come to mind (their conjugations and/or pulrals) are probably common for all authors: said, look, stand, sat, drank, hair, eye, person, guy, paper, grab and pestiferous.

That’s my fingerprint, I think, I’m sticking to it.

Or is it sticking to me?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

From Edgar Allen Poe to Jan Burke: How the Genre has changed

All this talk of book recommendations has me thinking about what I read and what I take from those works. Two of my recent reads served to illustrate the expansion and progression of the genre.

Among what I read this week were two stories, Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841, available in full text at mysterynet.com) and Jan Burke’s “Unharmed” (1994, in her collection EIGHTEEN). I discussed each with my students at Pomfret School and pointed to the stark differences between them to illustrate of how the genre has changed in the century-plus since Poe created his famed detective August Dupin.

The comparative assignment is brief (30 or so total pages), and, as writers, we might all do well to read these two. For starters, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is important to our genre because, among other things, it establishes Poe’s Five Rules of Detective Fiction: A crime must occur; a sleuth must possess superior inductive and deductive reasoning skills; the police must be incapable of solving the crime; the author must play fair with the reader by offering logical clues; and the conclusion must provide an explanation of the crime (the who-what-when-where-why questions must be answered).If you haven’t read “Rue Morgue” yet, I won’t give away all the details, but, despite the rules Poe established, many holes in the plot exist. (My students weren’t shy about pointing them out either; they never are). And who am I to argue? An orangutan is the antagonist, and the plot hinges on spring and a broken nail. However, the story also establishes the sidekick and the puzzle game aspects of the mystery.

By contrast, Burke’s “Unharmed” takes Poe’s version of the mystery and flips it on its head. “Unharmed” is written in the first-person voice of what seems to be a murder victim’s ex-lover. The story begins with our speaker pacing in his “cell.” He explains why he is there: The woman in his life, a sympathetic blind character, became too overbearing, too needy. So one day, at a crosswalk, he let her walk into oncoming traffic (or nudged her into the road). The story concludes with a news brief describing the details of the accident, finally stating that the blind woman’s seeing-eye dog was “unharmed.” The students all had that “ah-hah” moment we teachers live for. The cell was not prison but a dog cage—and other “play-fair” clues abounded. The kids loved it.

“But this isn’t a mystery,” one boy said. “We know who did it from the start.”

“Do we?” I ask. “No one in here guessed the speaker was a dog before the end.” Then we went over Poe’s five rules again to see which ones were present even in this “what-if” mystery.

“Look how far the genre has come,” I said, as they smiled and nodded.

Then I reminded them that the first test is at the end of the week.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Book Recommendations

Because I spaced out last week—hey, how’d it get to be Thursday already?—I’m coming in late with my Christmas book list. But I’ve been jotting down everyone else’s reads. What fun!

I have to admit up front that I’m having trouble staying with 2009 publications for my recommendations. The requirement of not knowing the author knocks out quite a few, too. I’d love to put William Kent Krueger’s Heaven’s Keep on my list, but I consider Kent a good friend. So I’m adding it as an extra—it was both gut-wrenching and gripping, a great read.

1. One 2009 book I’ve been raving about to anyone who will listen is The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann. Grann has woven Percy Harrison Fawcett’s monomaniacal zeal for discovering the lost civilizations of the largest and most lethal jungle in the world with his own growing zeal for finding out what happened to the explorer. Not only did Grann portray the explorers’ ordeals and sufferings in skin-crawling detail, the end is a cultural revelation.

2. Warning: I’m going to stray from 2009 publications. Blink came out in hardback in 2005, but its topic, how people make important decisions in an instant via their “adaptive unconscious” and how the adaptation succeeds and fails made me analyze a lot of my own behavior. Malcolm Gladwell, a compelling writer, is able to identify and dissect human abilities/characteristics in a way that opens readers’ eyes.

3. People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks. Brooks fictionalized the passage of the rare and ancient illustrated Jewish text, known as the Sarajevo Haggadah, through time to its discovery in Sarajevo, where it was rescued by a Muslim museum director. Brooks creates a believable tale of the people who contributed, at great risk, to the survival of this volume. Made me want to view the real item. I actually listened to this book on CD, and found the narrator, Edwina Wren, to be excellent—she contributed to the experience. I didn’t want to get out of my car.

4. Six Bad Things, by Charlie Huston. I know, this came out in 2005—but where the hell was I? I am missing some good stuff—absolutely riveting noir. Huston does a vampire series, which I haven’t read. I’m tired of vampires, but have the feeling I’m alone on that one. Six Bad Things has nothing to do with vampires—it’s about a likeable guy who gets way, way on the wrong side of the law. And it just goes downhill from there, kind of like an avalanche. I couldn’t put this down, and I’m going to order his new book, The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death. Huston has a new fan.

5. Another new author discovery for me: Tom Corcoran. I had the pleasure of meeting Tom on my panel at Bouchercon, and picked up Air Dance Iguana (2006) at the conference. Another How Did I Miss This Author moment. Corcoran has a dry, deadly wit and his characters are desirable, detestable, and everything in between. I’m going to track down his newest, Hawk Channel Chase. If it’s anything like Air Dance Iguana, I’m in for a rockin’ read.

Hope this helps with your Christmas shopping. As my blogmates have mentioned, try and order from independent stores. Free long distance minutes make it easy—I just call the mainland and order from some of my favorite stores: Poisoned Pen http://www.poisonedpen.com/, M is For Mystery http://www.mformystery.com/index.html, Mysteries to Die For http://www.mysteriestodiefor.com/, Mystery Bookstore http://www.mystery-bookstore.com/blog/, Aunt Agatha’s http://www.auntagathas.com/, Book Passage http://www.bookpassage.com/, and many others.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A day late and a dollar short

I hate having to work for a living — most of the time. By work, I mean doing things for money that I don’t really want to do. Currently, I’m doing graphic design for my daily bread and butter. Don’t get me wrong. I really appreciate having the work, especially considering the current economic climate.

You see, working keeps me from what I really want to do (and also don’t consider “work”): writing.

The daily grind also keeps me from one of my other pleasures, and that’s reading. Time was, I used to read 3-4 books a week. Now if I’m not doing the design thing, I either spend those spare moments writing or practising. Spending precious time reading makes me feel incredibly guilty. I know I should be practising or writing. It really is a vicious circle.

All of the above is a circuitous route to admitting that I have a very “select” pool of books from which to make my recommendations for seasonal buying. To top it off, four of the books that I would have told you to run out and buy have already been mentioned by my Type M confreres.

So here’s what I’m going to suggest: why don’t you go to a local bookstore? If at all possible, make it an independent, but if all you have left in your area is one of the gigunda chain stores, so be it. Go there.

Head over to the mystery section and buy a book by an author you have yet to read, hopefully someone you've never even heard of. You are allowed to read the flaps or back cover, but be aware that most of what you find there will be marketing BS — and quite often wildly inaccurate, since the person who wrote it probably hasn’t read the whole book.

I’d like to further suggest that you be adventurous and read outside the sort of book you normally would. It is also acceptable to ask for recommendations from staff at the store — as long as they appear to know what they’re telling you. (If they mention Dan Brown’s latest, they're just recommending what they know is selling big.)

It is also acceptable, if you’re “stretching” your reading to peruse a few pages to see if you like the author’s writing style.

Under NO circumstances should you order online. That it strictly against the rules!

Happy reading.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Vicki on T.V.

Vicki on a cold Monday morning. I try to be an optimistic sort and to that end I believe that no event is too small. You never know when fortune is going to smile on you and what looks like a write-off turns out to be a big deal.

Case in point – a couple of weeks ago I was the guest speaker at a library in the Niagara Region. That’s a long way for me to go, but I combined it with an evening with my critique group in Toronto and a day of gift shopping with my youngest daughter. The library turned out to be very small, in a small town, and only a handful of people showed up. It could have been a real waste of two days of my time.

Except for the fact that local TV came. They interviewed me and filmed me giving my talk. And put together a really great piece they aired on their station. I didn’t know they’d be there; the event organizer didn’t know.

Book promotion is sort of like writing the book in the first place: you have to be an optimist, and you have to believe that no amount of effort is too small.

Here’s a link to the program on YouTube. Vicki on T.V.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Sunday Guest Blogger: Linda Landrigan, editor, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine

Linda Landrigan is editor-in-chief of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. I had the good fortune to meet her in 2004, when her husband, editor extraordinaire, John, bought the second novel in my Jack Austin mystery series for the University Press of New England. There are few couples who know more about the mystery genre. To her credit, Linda has also edited the commemorative anthology Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine Presents Fifty Years of Crime and Suspense, published in 2006 by Pegasus Books. She graduated from New College in Sarasota, Florida and received her master's degree from Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. I know you will enjoy her essay below.

Many thanks to John Corrigan for inviting me to visit this terrific blog. I thought I’d type a bit about short stories, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and the opportunities of technology.

I know that the travails of the publishing industry have been an occasional topic here, but despite these challenges, the mystery genre remains one of the most popular segments of the industry. Given the popularity of the form, I’m surprised sometimes by the number of avid mystery readers who don’t know about Hitchcock or about our sister publication, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. I think this is partly to do with the evolution of the magazine industry and partly to do with reading fashions, but I believe that change is in the wind: I believe that AHMM and EQMM are well- positioned to thrive in the new landscape of reading technology.

Though many people are aware that there was a period in the middle of the twentieth century when readers looked to magazines for fiction of all kinds, the industry as whole has been moving away from fiction for decades, and so consumers have naturally lost the habit of looking for it in that quarter. While Hitchcock, Queen, and some science fiction magazines have kept the faith, the reading public has learned to turn almost exclusively to books when it wants fiction. Except possibly for the New Yorker, magazines no longer generate an automatic association with fiction in the mind of the consumer.

If you aren’t familiar with AHMM, we are a digest-sized magazine that publishes original mystery and crime short fiction. We publish monthly (or rather, ten times a year, with two double issues). Each issue contains eight to thirteen original short stories that vary in length, tone, and subgenre. Four times a year we publish “Mystery Classics,” selected and introduced by our regular contributors. And we include a fairly challenging mystery-themed puzzle in every issue, as well as our “Booked & Printed” column of book reviews and a very popular “Mysterious Photograph” short-short writing contest.

We don’t publish on glossy paper, or run photos of hot young movie stars, or prattle endlessly on Whosit’s latest peccadillo, or bury our content under pages and pages of advertising. And yet, even without the glitz of the glossies, we still have a loyal and steady base of subscribers who far outnumber the buyers of small literary journals or even of the themed anthologies that seem to be proliferating. Our readers tend to be well educated and relatively well off. A portion of them subscribe to the magazine because they are avid short story readers but not necessarily mystery lovers.

I think of our readers, of course, when I start to pull together an issue from the stories in our inventory. Our readers like a little of everything, so I strive to create an issue with a lot of variety. I like stories that are tightly plotted, with clear, well-written prose, and a fresh perspective. (A good story is sometimes hard to define, except in the negative: I don’t like plot strands that go nowhere, obvious red herrings, a back story that isn’t particularly pertinent to the story at hand, vague or generalized language . . . ) It’s a thrill for us to introduce new writers to our readers. It’s a thrill to offer a new story from a literary luminary. But who we publish is less important that what we publish, and what we have to offer is some of the best fiction on the market, or so I believe.

Before we publish anything I have to like it. I have to get drawn into a story that takes a different turn than the hundreds of other stories I’ve read recently. I have to fall in love with the dialogue that is teasing and has the cadence of poetry and yet sounds natural at the same time. I have to sense the locale, have my imagination pricked by the historical details, my understanding of the world altered (if even just a little bit) by the unfolding of the premise of the story.

But back to the business of publishing—there is no denying that the newsstand is struggling today. Years ago, when fiction digests and pulp magazines were more numerous, you could find AHMM and its sister magazines at a number of locations—the grocery store, the local (and independent bookstore), the tobacco shop. Nowadays, the magazine rack is shoved to an inaccessible corner in my local grocery store. Independent bookstores aren’t being serviced by the national magazine distributors, and the small news shops are disappearing rapidly.

To reach out to new audiences we’ve had to stretch our wings a bit. We’re available for all the electronic readers produced by Amazon, Sony, and Barnes & Noble, and for other hand-held devices. We have an active forum Forum page on our Web site (http://www.TheMysteryPlace.com) where I and my counterpart at EQ, Janet Hutchings, post regularly and engage as much as we can in a conversation with our readers.

And most exciting—to me—is our newest venture, podcasting stories from our archives and making them available for free in order to develop more short fiction aficionados. You can link to the podcasts from our Web site, or go to http://ahmm.podomatic.com/.

Podcasting is new—so new the annoying spellchecker on my email system doesn’t recognize it as a word—and yet it recalls something very old at the same time. It highlights the performative aspect of storytelling. The sound of the story, the need to pace the story for dramatic effect, to provide transition cues for the reader, for precision in syntax—these are all things you become aware of as you listen or even as you prepare your story to be read aloud.

Podcasting recalls a time when we spent more time entertaining or engaging one another swapping tales. It reminds us that storytelling is communal; for every writer there is a reader, or a listener, and an exchange of ideas. Writing may be solitary, but story telling—and publishing—is not. Storytelling is a dialogue with the world, and at AHMM we’re proud to be a facilitator of that dialogue.

I invite everyone to check out our Web site and post on our Forum page, download our stories, and of course, submit a few of your own. You’ll find our writers’ guidelines right on our Web site.

Happy holidays!

Friday, December 04, 2009

Donis' List of Gift Books for 2009

Like John and Charles, I had a bit of difficulty coming up with five books that fit our gift- recommending criteria. When I began to review my 2009 reading, I realized that most of the books I read and liked were older than 2008 or 2009, and many of those that weren’t were written by friends and close colleagues.  Not that I didn’t read lots of new books, some of which were written by my favorite Very Famous Authors.  It’s just that I didn’t like a lot of them.  

It’s probably me.  It seemed to me that there were a lot of really dark and downer books published over the past couple of years.  I know good writing when I see it, and said downer novels were for the most part excellently crafted.  I was simply not in the mood to appreciate them.  

1.  Having said that, I did choose Louise Ure’s  Liars Anonymous as one of my recom

mendations. Louise always writes interesting, dark, complex, stand-alone myst

eries.  Her characters are often pretty flawed themselves.  What I like about all her novels is her really great ideas for both plot and protagonist.  In her 2008 book, The Fault Tree, the protagonist is a blind female auto mechanic who witnesses a murder. In Liars Anonymous, roadside assistance operator Jessie Dancing thinks she hears someone being murdered while she’s on the phone with him.  Oh, and there’s so much more to it than that... 

2.  During a discussion about great novel beginnings, my editor, Barbara Peters, told me that Stephen Hunter’s Night of Thunder has not only one of the most effective beginnings she ever read, but the last page knocked her socks off.  When Barbara Peters’ socks get knocked off, that is some book, so of course I acquired this prodigy ASAP.  

My dirty little secret is that I’m a sucker for manly man thrillers, and boy, is this one. The story is set at a week-long NASCAR event in Bristol, Tennessee.  It’s filled with Deliverance-style gangsters, corrupt lawmen, burning rubber, and ex-Marine Special Forces top kick Bob Lee Swagger out to find whoever put his daughter in a coma.  And wait till you read the last page. Kee-rap, y’all!

3.  Rhys Bowen’s Royal Flush is the third installment in her ‘Royal Spyness’ series, set in the early 1930s and featuring Lady Georgiana Rannoch.  Georgie is a penniless minor royal, who makes a little money by secretly cleaning houses, and does a bit of spying on the side for Queen Mary.  Bowen writes three different series, all of which I enjoy very much, but the Spyness books are light, and have a humor and feeling for the time and place which remind me somewhat of Kerry Greenwood’s ‘Phrynne Fisher’ books.  This series also has a little bit of that P.G. Wodehouse subversive disrespect for the British higher classes.


4.  Historical novels are my first love, and big old honking historical tomes a la Edward Rutherford, Colleen McCollough,  or James Michener are right up my alley.  Steven Saylor’s Roma is an episodic novel which covers 1000 years, from the time of Rome’s first settlement on an island in the Tiber River, to the assassination of Caesar. Saylor is the author of the beautifully written ‘Gordianus the Finder’ mystery series set in Rome at the end of the Republic. 

 5.  Louise Penny had two books out this year A Rule Against Murder in January, and The 

Brutal Telling last month.  It was hard to decide between the two, so I won’t.  I’m always immediately carried away by Louise’s almost mythical tales, and I love intuitive and compassionate Inspector Gamache and his family-like team of homicide detectives.  The beautiful Quebecois setting is exotic, to this Southerner, at least, 

and if you don’t come away from reading these books with an unreasonable longing to leave everything behind and go on a quest for your own Three Pines, then I just don’t know about you.

Bonus recommendation:  Like to eat? Ever heard of the Pioneer Woman?  I hadn’t either, until last summer, when my sister in Joplin, MO, told me about her.  Ree Drummond is a young woman who left her birth state of Oklahoma in a frenzy to get away to the sophisticated civilization of California (I can relate), went back home to visit family, met “Marlboro Man", married him, and, in her own words, “went from spoiled city girl to domestic ranch wife in the blink of an eye.”  She lives way out in the Oklahoma boonies, homeschools her kids, cooks up a storm, and writes the most fascinating blog you ever read.  She just came out with a cookbook entitled Pioneer Woman Cooks, full of “recipes, cows, children, and butter.”  What fun!  I was talking to Gayle Shanks, owner of Tempe's fabulous local independent bookstore, Changing Hands, who told me that when Ree’s publisher called to arrange a signing last month, she almost demurred because she didn’t know about Pioneer Woman.  She’s glad she didn’t, because the publisher sent her 400 copies of the cookbook, and they all sold out in a week, before Ree even got there.  The  publisher sent another 400, which arrived the day before Ree’s event.  They’re sold out again. Ree’s website, www.thepioneerwoman.com, gets about 13 million page views a month.  You heard right.

I’m so pleased to inform you, Dear Reader, that tomorrow’s guest blogger is Kris Neri, owner of The Well Red Coyote Bookstore in Sedona, Arizona, and successful mystery novelist in her own right.  Do not miss her!