Where Stories Come From: Outside and In

People always ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” which is not a question with a straightforward answer. So many facts, ideas, memories, glimpses, pet peeves, dreams, loves, and outrages weave themselves into a story, the truthful answer would be “everywhere.” For people who aren’t writers and haven’t engaged with the word-collage building that is storywriting, that is not an insightful or satisfactory answer. Certainly, it gives no aid to the questioner whose unspoken follow-up may be “and how can I do it?”

I’ve identified the seeds of two of my recent stories. One was prompted by an external source and the other, by my own experience. Being a great believer in the ability of the unconscious mind to put things together, I confess these are only the influences I’m aware of!

“Saving the Indiana Dae”

Published in issue #10 of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, along with works by my friends and writing acquaintances Steve Liskow, Barb Goffman, and Liz Zelvin, with seven others I look forward to meeting. In a nutshell, it’s the story of a Wall Street wheeler-dealer who buys and refurbishes a permanently beached ship in Cape May, N.J., turning it into a quirky vacation cottage. Stunning. But then the trouble starts. Is the ship haunted? Is he losing his grip?

The long-ago origin of this story was a John Gardner writing prompt my writers’ group worked on. It asked us to plot a ghost story with certain elements. We had such fun with this cooperative exercise that we all went home and wrote the story, each one very different, but involving a vacation cottage, Cape May, a crusty 1800s sea captain, and (for two of us, a very fowl-mouthed parrot [sorry about the pun]). The eventual story in BCMM takes off from that early effort, though the hero has considerably more agency, and the existence of the ghost is still in question. I suppose the message is, whatever fires your engine, let it rip!

“A Hungarian Christmas”

If you’re familiar with the hilarious books about Eloise, the six-year-old girl who lived at the Plaza Hotel you may remember how she was always angling to get herself a present. In this story, published in the Mystery Magazine December issue, along with works from several fellow-members of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, the unsuspecting Bert and his fiancée Veronika are anticipating the holidays. She’s helpfully explained to him that, as a Hungarian, she should be given a special present on December 6, Hungarian Christmas. (This is a scam that actually works, don’t ask me how I know.) Maybe it was taking the Zoom class on precious gems last year that inspired it, or the several notable jewel robberies I’d read about recently, but Bert decides his special gift should be something from Tiffany’s. As you can predict, mayhem ensues.

I set the story in northern New Jersey, close to Manhattan, but not in it, so that the scale of the police presence and Bert and Veronika’s living arrangements wouldn’t present word-count busting logistical difficulties. Because I believe most complicated problems/investigations benefit from a team approach, I gave her a loving family—older brothers defending her and Bert’s interests.

To quote a lyric from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum by the late Stephen Sondheim, “And a happy ending of course.” Hey, it’s the holidays.

For Your Bookshelf

John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. (I still don’t understand some of this one.)

Best American Mystery & Suspense: 2021 – Part 2

Yesterday’s post delved into the steamy politics surrounding this collection and its new editor’s highly successful efforts to make the selection more representative of the breadth of American crime and mystery writing. Here are some of my favorites from the new collection.

A good example of how criminals paint themselves into tight corners—which once again proves the validity of Murphy’s Law—is E. Gabriel Flores’s story, “Mala Suerte.” In it, Carmelita wonders whether bad luck runs in families. A recounting of her family history suggests it may. But she’s plucky and talks her way into a pretty good job. Now, if only she would leave well enough alone. But she’s one of those people who cannot recognize when she’s about as well off as she has any right to expect, and you know she won’t.

It’s hard to say much about Ravi Howard’s suspense story, “The Good Thief,” without giving away the clever plot twist. A conscientious cook at a small-town luncheonette is asked to prepare a prisoner’s last meal, actually a cake the young man once ate in her establishment. Alone in the kitchen of the prison’s new wing—the biggest kitchen she has ever seen—you are alone with her thoughts, as she talks briefly with the warden and methodically goes about preparing the cake. So little action, so much happening.

Aya de León’s touching “Frederick Douglass Elementary” delves into the crimes a mother will commit in order to get her son into a decent elementary school, when all manner of bureaucracy is set against her. Keisha’s not a serial killer or a bank robber, or someone at the very fringes of society. She’s just a working single mom. Her crimes may seem trivial, but in the lives of her and her son, they are hugely consequential. (You could be forgiven for believing that the real crime is the condition of the schools that tempted her into law-breaking.) Any parent will recognize the stomach-dropping uncertainty that hits Keisha throughout.

In “The Killer,” by Delia C. Pitts, you return to familiar crime-story territory. A mother and small child are on the run from New York to Tampa, with a gangster hot on their heels. The story’s told from the point of view of their driver and bodyguard, who believes every stop along the way risks bringing their pursuer closer and every encounter risks betrayal. They stop at the kind of rural Virginia diner where the manager and cook have never met up with anyone as dangerous as their pursuer, and even that naivete presents a potential risk. First published in the literary magazine, the Chicago Quarterly Review, it’s a nail-biter.

I’d read “One Bullet. One Vote,” by Faye Snowden in the Low Down Dirty Vote collection, liked it then and on repeat. In the mid-1960s, a young Black man from up north has arrived in small-town Louisiana determined to convince his new wife’s relations to register to vote. “What you trying to do? Get us all killed?” His wife’s elderly grandmother is the only one who takes him up on it. Bureaucracy repeatedly thwarts her, but she’s dealt with that before. The author not only created an engaging story of people pushed to extremes, she provides a powerful demonstration of what’s meant by “systemic racism.” Not one, but two true heroes in this one.

Among the other authors included are Jenny Bhatt, Gar Anthony Haywood, Alison Gaylin, and Laura Lippman. If you’re puzzled by the title to the second story in the collection, SWAJ by Christopher Bollen—it’s the logo to the movie ‘Jaws,’ read backward. In some circles, that’s a thing.

On the whole, the selections were excellent, and you may find yourself returning to several of them for the issues and social truths they reveal. In this era of social media bubbles, when we hear mostly from people who share our beliefs and outlooks, seeing the world through the eyes of some of these characters is enormously valuable. If this collection presages what Cha will manage in future editions, they will be well worth looking forward to.

Yesterday: the controversy over editorial direction.

Best American Mystery and Suspense: 2021 – Part 1

Edited by Steph Cha–Short mystery/crime fiction lovers in the United States have been more than a little curious to see what changes might be made in this annual series since publisher HarperCollins yanked the project from founding editor Otto Penzler last year. The ousting prompted a juicy literary brouhaha. Some thought Penzler was mistreated, but many (including me) believed that, under Penzler’s guidance, the anthology trended too “white and male.” It wasn’t bringing in new voices and, by extension, wasn’t expanding the audience for the crime/mystery genre.

The new series editor is award-winning author Steph Cha (Your House Will Pay) with guest editor for the 2021 edition, Alafair Burke (The Better Sister). The process worked the same as under Penzler. Cha, as series editor, took an initial whack at the huge pile of stories and gave her favorites to Burke, who made the final selection.

The differences in the new collection are immediately obvious, in the refreshing diversity of authors and story content, as well as in the large number of new (to me) bylines. Undeterred by his ouster, Penzler maintains his past preferences in another new collection, confusingly titled, The Best Mystery Stories of the Year: 2021, now published by his own company, The Mysterious Press.

While the titles of the two collections have created some (deliberate?) confusion, their content couldn’t be more different. Only six of Penzler’s twenty-one selections (28 percent) are from women authors, compared to 60 percent of Cha’s. My data may not be perfect, but as far as I can tell, not one of Penzler’s 21 “best” was written by a person of color, whereas 45 percent of Cha’s selections were.

To bring a wider array of voices to the “best” table, Cha scoured literary journals, anthologies, and online publications. It’s heartening to see the number of high-quality, non-genre magazines that cherish high-quality crime and mystery fiction, well outside the usual stalwarts.

Diversity is the name of the game here. Not only diversity among the authors and the publications where their stories first found a home, but in the types of mystery and suspense stories represented. Whether your taste is for police procedurals or amateur sleuths, people getting their comeuppance, or giving it, or the hapless nature of criminals, you’ll find stories that hit those buttons, from across the social spectrum. They aren’t all conventional crime stories, either; in several, the characters are up against implacable bureaucracies.

Tomorrow: Some of my favorites from this year’s selection.

A Question of Identity

pumpkin, book art

Our house is full of masks. They’re from 19th century China, modern Venice, the Northwest Indians, Mexico, Ecuador, Indonesia, and most of all, Africa. They make a dramatic display and watch television with us in our family room.

So, as I cast my attention forward to forthcoming holidays and focused on Halloween, the theme of masks—what they hide, what they reveal, and their impact on wearer and viewer—came naturally to mind. I’m so pleased that Kings River Life has included this story in its MysteryRatsMaze page—a great place to find new short stories any time of year!

The jumping-off place for this story was wondering what would happen if children’s families recognized them by their Halloween costumes and not their true selves? How confusing would that be? In my story, Jen and Tamika, nine-year-old best friends, play a trick on their parents and switch costumes—costumes that arrived mysteriously in the girls’ rooms, no one sure where they came from, but part of busy families’ “whatever.” And the parents don’t notice: right costume, wrong girl. Now, that’s confusing. Jen and Tamika don’t know what to think. Do their parents know what’s going on and have turned the tables on them?

When they put that bit of confusion to rights, Jen and Tamika display evidence that these costumes have some other, potentially darker powers as well. You, the reader, will have your own “what happens next?” ideas, and they may not be pretty. It all does take place around All Hallows Eve, after all, when all manner of strange events can occur.Read “A Question of Identity” for free here.

tiger, mask

Short Story Collections: EQMM (Sept/Oct) & Fiction River

reading, apple

For its 80th Anniversary issue, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine assembled almost 200 pages of short stories, book reviews, and blog suggestions. Among my favorite stories this issue were:

  • Jane Jakeman’s “Trick or Treat”—She adds an element of timelessness to her tale of small-town revenge by heading scene breaks with quotes like these: “Beware of meeting a witch underground, for then she is at her most powerful—The Grimoire of Lysbet Malkin.
  • Matt Goldman’s entertaining “Sixteen Lies” (but who’s counting?).in which a savvy private eye unravels the motives that led to the death of a disabled woman, which his client, the dead woman’s sister, believes is suspicious. The fake-supportive banter between the sister and her husband is priceless.
  • “Demon in the Depths,” a novella by William Burton McCormick kept me riveted. A reporter’s Norwegian expedition to investigate her great-grandmother’s death in a mysterious plane crash some 60 years earlier is disrupted by volcanic debris, subzero temperatures, international politics, and a 500-year-old Greenland shark.
  • And I liked John F. Dobbyn’s adventure poem, “Nugget,” which begins: “I’d come in from our claim on the Klondike that week, and I’d made it just under the gun. The trails and the rivers were hell on the dogs, once the icing and snows had begun.”

Fiction River’s latest anthology, Dark and Deadly Passions, deals with crimes that come from emotion—especially extreme emotion. Editor Kristine Kathryn Rusch has a story in the above issue of Ellery Queen, and her long story for Fiction River, “Grief Spam,” was one I couldn’t put down. Other especially good tales included:

  • Annie Reed’s “Missing Carolyn,” which shows just how complicated revenge can be.
  • Lauryn Christopher’s  “Tilting at Windmills,” demonstrating that art can have unexpected value.
  • Michael Warren Lucas’s “Getting Away with It” further shows that the value of art depends on the beholder.

Moonlight & Misadventure

Edited by Judy Penz Sheluk — Moonlight & Misadventure is the third short story anthology from Judy Penz Sheluk’s Superior Shores Press, and there’s lots here to like. For this collection, she’s attracted some of the best known and award-winning shorts masters from the US and Canada. Here are just a few of my favorites.

A short story is the ideal place to show off a funny bone because, unlike in a novel, it’s over before the joke gets tiresome. Susan Daly’s humorous “My Night with the Duke of Edinburgh,” involves a long-ago kidnapping of Prince Phillip, or at least his waxwork incarnation. This is just the kind of prank college students would dream up, for exactly the justifications they used, and with a perfect eye-opener of an outcome.

Joseph Walker’s story, “Crown Jewel,” features an obsessive collector of copies of the Beatles’ White Album (he has 348 of them), which is a thing in the United States anyway and makes a case for the advantages of being an only child. Full of delicious double-crosses.

Of considerable charm was MH Callway’s “The Moon God of Broadmoor.” A public health inspector engaged in a clean-up campaign allies with a resident of the Broadmoor apartments who styles himself Thoth, God of the Moon. A chubby, middle-aged man, he routinely dresses in a powder blue tunic, shiny mauve tights, and gauzy iridescent cape. “I see that I have struck awe in your heart,” he says to the inspector when she first spots him. As the two become more acquainted, she finds that, although he’s certainly eccentric, he makes a substantial contribution to his community too. He’s unhinged, unforgettable, and more than a little help in her campaign.

Elizabeth Elwood’s “Ill Met by Moonlight, Proud Miss Dolmas” makes the moon much more than atmospheric. It’s a murder weapon that fells a persnickety school principal during a rehearsal of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Elwood nicely captures the sharp perceptive powers and callous affect of high-schoolers too.

Treat yourself to twenty moonlit escapades in this outstanding, action-packed collection, which shows the short story genre at its sparkling best.

Order here from Amazon or here from your local independent bookstore.

Fireworks from Ellery Queen

The July-August 2021 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, “The World’s Leading Mystery Magazine” is once again filled with dazzling stories, 19 of them. Here are just a few of the standouts:

Elvie Simons’s “Not So Fast, Dr. Quick,” shows how a tidbit of arcane knowledge can grow into a full-fledged plot. Engaging characters too.

Richard Helms’s “Sweeps Week” provides strong characterizations, then rewards with some old-fashioned retribution.

Jon L. Breen’s “The Body in the Bee Library,” wryly humorous, provides satisfying comeuppance.

Dave Zeltserman always makes me smile, even before I start reading. His characters Julius Katz and his cyber-assistant Archie delight once again in “Julius Katz and the Two Cousins.”

Barbara Allan’s “What’s Wrong with Harley Quinn?” takes you to San Diego Comic-Con, and you can witness the attendees’ shenanigans without donning your Spiderman costume.

Joyce Carol Oates’s “Bone Marrow Donor” is only three pages long, but to me was the darkest story of the lot. I couldn’t stop thinking about the nonfiction piece she has written about her own husband’s last day in our local hospital and imagining how that colored this story, even subconsciously. As I remember what she wrote, she received an urgent call to come to the hospital, and, of course, she drove there pell-mell, pulled to the curb on one of the nearby residential streets, and rushed inside. The staff had been right. The end was very near. When she’d signed all the paperwork, she walked to her car in a daze and found this awkwardly spelled note on her windshield: “Learn to park, bich.”

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – May/June 2021

Eighteen stories in this issue, blanketing the gamut of mystery and crime subgenres. Recently I read 75 short stories published last year for the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Derringer Awards. Most I hadn’t read previously, but some I recognized immediately as having appeared in EQMM. It’s a testament to the editors of the leading mystery fiction magazines that they select such memorable short fiction!

Among my favorites in this issue:

“The Hidden Places” by Linda Stansberry – A nice barroom tale: “The Open and Shut wasn’t a bar for wine lovers. It was a bar for lawyers who needed to drink.”
“The Case of the Strangled Man” by Steven Torres – A suspect is strangled to death while sitting alone in a police station interview room, and the cops must investigate each other. A detective and the desk sergeant had “gotten to the part of the interview where it was relevant to ask who was the greatest hitter in baseball history.” LOL
“Frank Scarso Finds His Life” by Doug Crandall – A true feel-good story, as is “Birdman” by Alex Knight. Revenge takes many forms.
“The Bunker” by Herbert De Paepe and translated from the Flemish by Josh Pachter. Great evocation of a bizarre workplace!

And, best of all, this issue contains the news that my editor, Barb Goffman, won the EQMM 2020 Readers’ Award for her “Dear Emily Etiquette.” Barb’s “irrepressibly satirical tale about the modern wedding” appeared in last year’s Sept/Oct issue. I certainly enjoyed that story and, clearly, many other readers did too!

Be sure to check out the issue cover, for a challenge along the lines of “what’s wrong with this picture?” I see at least three mysterious and deadly references.

“Living to Tell the Tale” – EQMM March/April 2021

The title of this issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine reminds readers how grateful they are that so many authors—20 in this issue alone—lived long enough to tell their tales and continue to do so! I should add a 21st writer—Dean Jobb—who writes the “Stranger Than Fiction” column. Probably many writers keep a file of head-shaking stories they know they’ll never use because, “who’d believe it?” I have a file like that. Lots of stellar tales in this issue, and here are four that stood out for me.

“Who Stole the Afikomen?” by Elizabeth Zelvin – After reading Liz Zelvin’s story, you’ll feel you’ve already done Passover this year (my Seder table pictured). The bantering among the family members across generations is perfection. Sharon take her new fiancé (the narrator; nice use of “external viewpoint”) to his first Seder and to meet the family. Her mother has thinly disguised objections. Bad enough that he’s not Jewish, he’s a cop. I loved this can’t-win exchange, which starts with the mother’s line: “This is what I get for sending you to Harvard Law?” “You didn’t send me to Harvard Law! I worked every day through high school and college and went into debt up to the eyeballs so I wouldn’t have to ask you.” “So you didn’t trust your mother and father to give you an education?”

“Cold Hard Facts” by Chad Baker – The corrosive effects of suspicion taint a woman’s view of her husband. Surely, he couldn’t have murdered their awful landlord. Or?? Insightful line: “She did not fear Adam. She feared the future.”

“Yeah, I Meant to Do That” by Mat Coward – I’m a pushover for stories about grifters and con artists. In this tale, a near-retirement grifter is recruited by an oddball assortment of “civilians” to devise a con on a wealthy and successful man who’s cheated them. Though they’re inexperienced, their Fagin gives them each a role, and it’s fun watching them play it!

“The Phone Message” by Robert Cummins – a juicy police procedural in which the detective turns over every investigative stone in the hope he won’t find anything. And his suspect appears to be giving him free rein. Cummins really has you rooting for these dueling protagonists.

Intrigued by great stories like this? Subscribe to EQMM here.

Ellery Queen Strikes Again!

The short stories collected for the bimonthly editions of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine are always entertaining and diverse. The current issue has some classics as well as brand spanking new ones, though I don’t recall any actual spanking. That must be some other magazine. Here are some of the stories I enjoyed best:

“Pink Squirrel” by Nick Mamatas – Stories with clever Lithuanian grandmas are always entertaining. “Welcome to America! Where you can drink ice cream and alcohol simultaneously!”

“Stray” by debut author Ken Lim – What if what you’re running from isn’t really after you?

“The Interpreter and the Killer” – There’s a big international drug-trafficking case that takes an unexpected courtroom twist for Jeff Soloway’s Spanish-language interpreter. The plot hinges on a single word.

“Boo Radley College Prep” – Karen Harrington’s heartfelt tale about how a young boy learns not to make assumptions about people. This one will stay with me a long time. Excellent characters.

“Curious Incidents” – Steve Hockensmith devised a clever girl who is a Sherlock Holmes devotee, of course, for his latest Holmes on the Range story about Big Red and Old Red and a disappearance out west. Funny and true to the master of detection.

Many of the authors in this issue write novels as well. You can get the flavor of the way they think and write in these short, pleasurable bites.