The Short Story Four-Minute Mile

Sherlock Holmes

Half-finished in a Word file on my computer is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche story, the second one I’ve written. What I hadn’t realized is that my two stories follow a very well-trodden path laid by Arthur Conan Doyle and followed by Holmes acolytes ever since.

In a Sisters in Crime webinar last week with short story dream team Art Taylor and Barb Goffman, Art presented the classic seven-part structure of a Sherlock Holmes story (which he credited to the apparently out-of-print book, Sherlock Holmes for Dummies). Through some process of osmosis, it seems I’d absorbed and followed at least the first few of those parts: Part 1 – cozy domestic scene; Part 2 – Sherlock shows off; Part 3 – the problem is presented. In my first Holmes story, the problem arrived by letter; in the new one, via a distraught Mrs. Hudson. Structural awareness greatly simplifies the writing job and prevents wandering about in rhetorical left field. I know what needs to get done.

In a short story, emphasized Barb, the writer has to focus. As she puts it, “A short story is about one thing,” even if that thing is unclear at the start. If you’d asked me what my story “Burning Bright” in Busted! Arresting Stories from the Beat was about, I would have said, “Two Wisconsin ne’er-do-wells plan to rake in a lot of money by having a tiger fight a bear.” I would have added, “and it’s also about an outraged deputy sheriff trying to stop them while trying to persuade her dad to move into assisted living.”

So, would Barb say “Hey, that’s two things”? Only after I wrote “The End” did I realize the story was only superficially about those two things. What it was really about was respect for autonomy.

Art cited six steps in a typical short story, and they usually, though not necessarily, appear in order: 1- Introduce the character, 2- express their desires, 3- action (what the character does about those desires), 4- factors that impedes obtaining the desires (3 and 4 can repeat several times), 5- the climax, 6- resolution. In the classic analysis of Cinderella (below), action and impediments trade places many times (nothing to wear? fairy godmother).

Art pointed out that the six steps are useful as a tool for planning a story, and for diagnosing why it isn’t working. Barb pulls several of the steps together and recommends starting a story is by asking, “what’s the conflict?”

Lest you think these are recommendations to write to a formula, they are not. The variety and rearrangement of parts is practically infinite. Someone once said to crime writer Donald Westlake that writing genre fiction was easy: All you have to do is follow the formula. And he responded, “I’ll give you a formula for running a four minute-mile. Run each quarter-mile in less than a minute.” (Art’s talk and his slides will be in the members section of the Sisters in Crime website.)

Between Author and Reader: Amazon

A recent New Yorker article by Parul Sehgal that asks “Is Amazon is changing the novel?” sure sounds like a must-read for authors. There’s some history in there and some juicy stuff about the company some writers call “The Great Satan.”

The struggle writers face in meeting the demands of the book marketplace (versus readers) is not a new phenomenon. Sehgal cites an 1891 novel, New Grub Street, as an example of “pitiless portraits of the writing life.” A character in that book asserts that “literature nowadays is a trade,” and how many versions of that have you heard in recent years? The term potboiler was coined to reflect books created without regard to craft, but just to keep the stew pots boiling.

A hundred thirty years ago, the Amazon of book distribution was Mudie’s Select Library. Mudie’s market power–along with publishers’ financial incentives—demanded hefty three-volume works, much as publishers today like series books and for much the same reason. One popular book in a series sells the others.

But nine-hundred pages (roughly) were a lot to fill, then or now, and writing styles and habits developed to support that requirement. Victorian writers larded in subplots, created large casts of characters, and wrote desperate cliffhangers to carry readers (and themselves) through that long slog. Toward the end of the 19th century, new publishing forms began to take hold, notably less expensive books printed on cheap pulp paper, which opened book purchasing to new markets. As night follows day, new forms of reader enticement emerged, including the development of popular genre fiction—crime novels, Westerns, and the like.

Now, Amazon controls almost three-fourths of U.S. online book sales to adults and almost half of all new-book sales. In that river of print are the company’s own book imprints—16 of them. Do authors write a different kind of book when they know readers have power over not only their own book purchases, but can influence others, as well? Not one-on-one, either. Success or failure is right there on screen, thanks to reader-posted stars.

Kindle Direct Publishing takes reader feedback even farther, right to authors’ wallets. KDP writers are paid based on the number of pages read—increasing the financial incentives for producing lots of pages, new books every three months, and littering them with cliffhangers to keep readers hooked.

Whether all this has an impact on book quality, I’ll leave to you. In my opinion, it helps account for the increasing violence in crime novels, and the bizarre and gruesome nature these crimes. The frequency of plots with “girls” (usually not a child) and children as victims is simply used to raise the stakes. Do you see other evidence of Amazon’s effects? on you? on other writers? on readers?

Random Story Ideas

Buried in newspapers (online, of course), news magazines, advice columns, and every other account of real-life people and situations is a motherlode of story ideas. Here are a few I’ve been  hoarding that gave my internal story manufacturing machine a jolt.

Story Generator #1

“In 2001, following the accounting scandals at Enron and other companies, a publication called CFO Magazine quietly abandoned its annual Excellence Awards, because winners from each of the previous three years had gone to prison.”

Story Idea: Final meeting of the CFO Excellence Awards committee, harassed by pleas NOT to receive the award, nicknamed “Kiss of Death.”

Source: Evan Osnos article about white-collar crime, The New Yorker last August.

Story Generator #2

In response to employee work-at-home demands, designers envision a virtual representation of an entire office showing who is “at work,” wherever they are. It “tracks key team members and contacts based on (meeting room) reservation systems to ensure they are ‘showing face’ even when absent from their desk.” [sic]

Story Idea: The flowering of system gaming strategies; or, the Return of Big Brother.

Source: The Perkins Eastman Design Strategy Team “dream office” article in Metropolis, Sept/Oct 2021.

Story Generator #3

An obituary describing the deceased’s high school baseball career at length, naming team members, and recoungting highlights from notable games. Family gets a mention; career a sentence. Deceased is 76.Story Idea: If an eighteen-year-old knew that, 60 years later, tonight’s game would be the high point of his life, what would he do?

A Writer’s New Year’s Resolutions

2022. Already. The start of a new year feels like the opportunity to roll up our metaphorical sleeves and “this year get it right.” Time management, nurturing the creative spirit, supporting other writers, finishing that poem/story/novel—they’re all aspects of practice and productivity for members of the (you might say “storied”) profession of writers. My own 2022 resolutions:

  1. Finish stuff. When I work on a story, maybe for quite a while, and it’s Just. Not. Perfect, I hesitate to let it go. At that point, I resolve to assess whether additional changes I’m making are true improvements or just a rearrangement of the deck chairs.
  2. Stephen King says something like, “put the cat out.” This is a 2022 resolve I’ve already violated (blame in on William and Charles, pictured below). What he’s getting at it is avoiding distractions. It’s hard to eliminate them, what with cell phones, covid brain, life. Still, going to that private place in my mind is essential.
  3. Take more breaks. This seems to contradict resolution #2, but by giving myself a break—a walk around the block, a feline purr-fest, whatever—may burn up some distraction energy and fit me for unencumbered travel to that private place.
  4. Send stuff out. I will continue to review the list of short stories I’m actively trying to place or re-place every Monday. I keep a list of the stories, where I’ve sent them, yea or nay, and where I might send them next. Keep that list growing!
  5. Put my book promotion plan in order. My first novel is scheduled to come out in April, and a whole year yawned by without meaningfully tackling this impending challenge!

Someone I once worked for displayed this motivational poster: “It’s not enough to be busy, it’s what are you busy about?” If I keep these resolutions, I’ll surely be busy in the most productive way.

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.)

Cut Your Losses?

How much time should you invest in a book that you really, really don’t like? In The Guardian recently, novelist Mark Billingham is quoted as saying, “twenty pages.” Every time this issue comes up in social media (or Amazon reviews) a few extraordinarily patient people say, “I can’t not finish a book. I have to read to the end, no matter what.” If so, you’re in company with almost forty percent of readers, while only about 16 percent give up as early as Billingham.

I used to always read to the end, but now . . . life is short. Every year, I read and review (or start to read) 60-plus mysteries and thrillers. I try to give new and unfamiliar authors a chance, if the premise sounds good. Alas, one or two books a year simply are not ready for prime time. If the book came by way of the author and not a publicist, I thank them and say I won’t be able to write a review after all.

If the story is good, even if the execution isn’t quite up to par, I will keep reading. But if a book is boring, I stop. I figure if it can’t hold my interest when I am excited by the premise and predisposed to read and like it, that’s a fail.

If I encounter numerous typographical and grammar errors in the first few pages, I stop. Because such slip-ups distract readers, authors should care about them. A lot. As people who purportedly care about words, they should know the difference between diffuse and defuse, between pique, peak, and peek. And on and on.

These days, an occasional typo crops up even in books from big publishing houses, and I speculate that some homonym errors are due to spellcheck’s “help.” But if it looks as if the author couldn’t be bothered, I can’t help but wonder what else wasn’t attended to. Research? Historical references? Geography? The way guns work? The million little details that distinguish an immersive reading experience from a first draft.

I reached the “throwing the book across the room” stage of frustration recently with an audiobook. (No, I did not throw my iPod.) That was a first. Usually, having somebody read to me is pure pleasure. But this book, by a popular author, just didn’t grab me. I didn’t like the whiny main character. I didn’t like the bratty children she was nanny for. And, a teenage daughter was about to enter the story, and I just knew she’d be insufferable.

So I did something I’ve never done before: I went to the Amazon one-star reviews to see if I was the problem, or did other readers suffer too? Oh, boy. Got an eyeful, including a lot of complaints about the ending. So I did something else I’ve never done before; I found a website where the ending was discussed in detail. If, as they say, “getting there is half the fun,” not only did I not want the journey, but I didn’t want to arrive at that particular ending. Saved myself another ten hours of listening time. What about you? When you don’t like a book, do you stick with it or cut your losses?

The Ubiquitous Plants

Plants are all around us, so it’s no wonder that crime stories occasionally take advantage of what’s right at hand and make them part of a story. The fascinating history of poisons is just one example, and the history of my favorite poisoner Mithradates Eupator is well worth a read. As a recent post mentioned, analysis of plant matter is a frequent part of crime investigations too—what pollen or bit of plant material is present that shouldn’t be? (Writers of ITV’s Vera frequently include such clues.)

How digested is a victim’s plant-based stomach contents? How did authors use that peat bog (Val McDermid) or giant witch elm (Tana French) to conceal a body? A reader commenting thatRuth Ware’s Turn of the Key was too far-fetched asked, “Whoever heard of a poison garden?” This is a person who doesn’t know her Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is one of my favorite Hawthorne stories! (Maybe the commenter knows her Marvel Comics heir, Monica Rappaccini.)

There’s another side to planting plant evidence too. Rather than obscuring the method, timing, and place of a crime, plants can be used proactively, to send a message, not hide it. Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s novel The Language of Flowers takes on this topic explicitly, and a young couple lets specific flowers say what they are reluctant to express directly. (How Victorian!) As one reviewer said, it’s “a captivating novel in which a single sprig of rosemary speaks louder than words.”

For a tutorial on the practice of floriography, remnants of which have survived thousands of years, Amazon has at least two well received books (The Complete Language of Flowers and Floriography), neither of which I’ve read. Both are well illustrated, though some others are not, which is a big disadvantage when you want to see whatever it is so you can describe it.

Online sources helped me decide which flowers a character deeply sorry about the way he’d treated his late wife and son should choose. He took pale pink roses to his wife’s grave and to their son’s, asphodel, the flower of regret.

Roses have many meanings including as a symbol for silence or secrecy (“sub rosa”) dating to the myths of ancient Greece. Red roses are associated with both courage and romantic love. Yellow roses, aside from the Texas association, symbolize friendship and new beginnings. White roses are linked to innocence and purity, explaining their frequent appearance in bridal bouquets. Pale pink roses, as in my story, are linked to sympathy. Have one character give another a black rose and you’ve sent a message.

Floriography has been practiced for thousands of years, and even though your readers may not know the details, carefully selecting which flowers you use in a story adds emotional resonance, and for the cognoscenti, a grace note of delight. Authors from Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling have used flowers in this way. Ophelia’s flowers included rosemary (remembrance), pansies (thoughts), fennel (sorrow), columbines (affection), and daisies (innocence and purity). New meanings keep being added to our store of floriography too. One of the most compelling of recent years was London’s public art installation to commemorate the outbreak of World War I. Each of the 888,246 red ceramic poppies represented a British or colonial service member who died in the Great War. If you study the pictures, you’ll never forget the association.

poppy poppies Beefeater London
A small section of the 2014 London installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies, each representing a member of the British military who died in World War I (photo: Shawn Spencer-Smith, creative commons license)

What Blood Stains Tell Us

Lisa Black, a guest of honor at the recent Killer Nashville conference, is not only the popular author of several crime series, she’s a certified crime scene analyst. She began her talk about blood stains by reminding us that blood accounts for about eight percent of a person’s body weight, about 5-6 liters for men and 4-5 liters for women. In real numbers, this is about 1.2 to 1.5 gallons. A lot to clean up. 

If you’re writing about a crime scene and want to fling some blood around, these are the types of blood stains Black noted (here’s a good article for more detail and some pictures):

  • Passive stains, or drips. A droplet’s size will depend in part on what kind of surface it dropped onto (absorbent or not) and how far the drop fell.
  • Transfer stains—that is, swipes or wipes. People (or, conceivably, pets) get blood on themselves and transfer it from the place of origin to another surface—the bloody handprint by the door kind of thing. I once had a housepainter with a long ponytail, which was constantly getting in the newly painted surface. When he’d whip his head around, I got transfer stains on my furniture, woodwork, and everything else!
  • Projected or impact stains—a bloodstain cause by arterial blood may show an up-and-down pattern due to the pumping of the heart; a castoff stain comes from swinging a bloody object, possibly the weapon, and can reveal information about the object as well as the number of strikes (the first strike is “free”—the weapon isn’t bloody yet); splash or drip patterns of a liquid dripping into another liquid; and the very fine droplets of high-velocity spatter.

As blood flies around your crime scene, the tail on the droplet tells investigators which direction it was traveling and, therefore, which direction it came from. Investigators painstakingly recreate in three dimensions the “area of convergence,” using the shapes and tails of all the drops to calculate angles. This may be a little hard to visualize (the best pictures I found appear to be copyrighted), but at this link, which is full of useful information, you’ll find an illustration of convergence under the heading “Examination of a bloody crime scene is a slow and methodical procedures.” Amen to that!

If your character doesn’t see any blood, never fear. There are tools to bring it into view. Amido black is a general protein stain that makes fingerprints, footprints, and other patterns visible. Anyone familiar with Gone Girl came to appreciate the magic of Luminol, which is specific to blood, and especially useful in detecting minute amounts after attempted clean-ups. It works through a reaction with the iron in hemoglobin.

One last tidbit from Black that might come in handy as you write: Bleach destroys DNA. Plus, as Oyinkan Braithwaite began her award-winning novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer: “I bet you didn’t know that bleach masks the smell of blood.”

Guest Blog: Author Claire Matturro

The new book by Claire Matturro and Penny Koepsel, Wayward Girls (Red Adept Publishing), deals with society’s treatment of “difficult” females. Husbands and fathers may no longer have carte blanche to exile their prickly wives and daughters to mental hospitals. Yet, institutions like Claire and Penny’s fictional Talbot School for Girls persist. I’ll be reviewing Wayward Girls here in early October. Here’s what Claire says about the inspiration for this important book:

As noted in a CrimeFictionLover.com review, Wayward Girls is a “book with a strong sense of purpose.” It’s a loud warning about the oversight and accountability needed by delinquent/troubled teen facilities, boarding schools, and “wilderness schools,” because abuses continue to occur in such places, and adults continue to disbelieve the kids who cry out in protest.

What led Penny Koepsel and me to write the book does not arise so much from our own experiences at boarding school, but in the history of a Texas wilderness school for troubled teens, Artesia Hall. In the early 1970s, at that remote locale northeast of Houston, a 17-year-old girl ingested poison. Rather than immediately seeking medical treatment for the girl, the school’s owner allegedly had her put into a straightjacket and tied to a chair. She later died in hospital. Previously, escaped students had told of abuse, including a “GI bath,” where they were plunged naked into a trash can full of ice water and scrubbed with a wire brush. No one believed them. They were, after all, troubled. Kids who lied.

But these kids were telling the truth. After the teenager died and more students escaped to speak of dire mistreatment, officials finally listened. The State closed Artesia Hall.

Decades later, I—along with other former students from a Florida boarding school—reconnected as we organized a reunion. Our boarding school had existed at the same time as Artesia Hall, and both schools closed the same year. Yet they were as different as the sun and the moon. As reunion activities developed, Penny Koepsel, a psychologist from Texas, and I—a lawyer from Florida—met and formed a fast friendship. We had been students at the Florida boarding school, but at different times.

At the reunion, while groups of former students told tales from our school days, not one of us mentioned abuse, poison, rape, or anything approaching a GI bath. Few of us had ever even heard of Artesia Hall. However, Penny, a Texan, knew about the notorious school, and told us of the horrors there.

One of us said, “Let’s write a book!” Perhaps it was too much wine, or too much hubris, but the idea took hold. After all, I had already authored a series of legal thrillers published by HarperCollins, and Penny’s short stories and poems had been published in literary journals.

That’s how Wayward Girls came to be. The book deals head on with a sexual predator who targets petite teen girls at the fictional Talbot School for Girls and incorporates some of the horrors officials came finally to believe about the Texas wilderness school. Wayward Girls weaves in some of the playful hijinks from our Florida boarding school experience too.

While fictional, Wayward Girls stands as a warning. Schools for so-called wayward kids should not be unlicensed or easily licensed, and they must have strict oversight. Above all, adults should listen when kids speak up about abuse.

Historical Mysteries II

reading

The journal of Mystery Readers International, which includes essays on various authors’ response to a theme, compiled by Janet Rudolph, are consistent interesting and insightful. I reviewed part 1 of a pair of issues on historical mysteries a few months ago. The second one was released not long ago. The writers represent multiple points of view and provide lots to think about for other writers as well as readers looking to discover new authors they may like.

In that last category, I’m itching to read some of the work of Joe Gores after Catherine Accardi’s tempting essay in the summer 2021 issue. Similarly, David Clark opens the door on a fascinating period when he discusses Michael Russell’s Stefan Gillespie novels set in the nascent nation of Ireland in the 1930s and 40s, when the politics were rough and convoluted.

One of the benefits a well written historical novel can bestow is to bring the murky events and people of past decades into sharp relief enabling readers to see their choices and, one hopes, learn from them (without getting preached at!). As Harald Gilbers writes in the current issue, “The fact that a society with a high cultural level can descend into barbarism is a warning example and I think it is important to tell people how this could happen.” Similarly, Rebecca Cantrell writes about her World War II novels, “People always ask me how ordinary Germans could have allowed this to happen. How democracy could have been so fragile. How hatred and violence could have triumphed over truth and reason. How a civilized country could run to its own destruction.” Good questions worth thinking about. Then the kicker: “No one asks me that now.”

In “Should I tinker with the facts?” Jim Fusilli describes the tension between absolute accuracy and storytelling, when in one of his novels, reversing the timing of two events would enable a stronger narrative. “But doing so would make the story seem less real to me, making it more a work of speculative fiction.” When he wrote this, he was still deciding how to handle this dilemma. Gilbers, by contrast, has made his choice. “I am not allowed to change history for the sake of my narrative.” He see his challenge as recreating a world for his characters that nearly exactly matches what people at the time faced .

What these diverse authors and their stories have in common, is something all historical mystery writers face. As Clare Whitfield put it so well, “The events might be far away, but the people are much closer than you think.”