Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Flying cars--I want one!

Your character is being chased in this car, which can go to speeds as much as 95 mph or more.  The bad guys are driving a fast car, too. But there’s one problem. Their car can’t take off and fly.

Your character is test driving this new car. Maybe the bad guys will think he/she is someone else. And off he goes into the wild blue yonder.

Of course, this car in the air only flies 40 mph right now. But think of the possibilities you could use with this flying car. It could be a comedy, a drama, a dream.

I live in Central FL and in the link above shows the car driving from Central FL to another state. I-4 is one of the worst interstates for accident in the country. When I drive it to work, and there are accidents or slowdowns for no apparent reason, I often sit there wishing for this car. Except I didn’t know it existed until the other day.

When these idiots who drive recklessly, nearly clipping car after car, or flipping people the bird because there’s nowhere to get out of their way,  how fun it would be to suddenly turn the car into an airplane and take off away from them.

When I was a child I dreamt of flying cars, colored TV and other things that have come to reality over the years. Wish I had been smart enough to figure out how to design them.

What would you do if you had this car? How would your character be able to use this in a chase scene?

Monday, May 30, 2011

A Memorial Day Book Review

Memorial Day is a time of remembrance to honor those who have fought and died for this country. Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobb series is set in England at the outset during WWI and focuses on the following decades’ events leading up to WWII. Although told from the English perspective, as allies, much of the loss and effect of WWI that Winspear brings to her fiction is equally true for Americans.

There are many reasons why this series is special. Winspear combines the horrors and chaos of war and its effects on relationships, investigation and romance, comingling historical fact with fiction. Yes, I am one who likes mixing genres. To me, the mix brings authenticity to books, as if I were living their lives, not focusing on one aspect of their life as an investigator.

The series starts before WWI and then follows Maisie after the war as she relives her experiences and starts her investigative practice. Winspear doesn’t spare the reader, showing the effects of WWI’s brutal fighting tactics and the equally brutal surgical techniques, which keep soldiers alive when death may be more merciful. Soldiers survive catastrophic injuries only to die from secondary causes, such as bacterial infection since antibiotics had not been discovered or from drug addiction. Horrific injuries are no match for the time’s anesthetics. When Maisie employs an assistant, she learns about the black market for cocaine, which brings temporary relief from the pain of acute injuries, but she also learns of the cost and addiction that destroys those battlefield survivors’ lives.

The reader, through Maisie’s memories as a nurse in France, experiences the effects of chemical-gas warfare and trench warfare exacerbated by a lack of military and government social services, which are eventually remedied through reform laws, providing social security and veteran benefits. The medical community is incapable of coping neither with chemical-warfare exposure or from shell shock, results of trench warfare. Diagnosed initially as nerve damage, shell shock is re-diagnosed as psychiatric injury. In its infancy, psychiatry provides little healing.

In A Lesson in Secrets, the eighth novel in this series, Maisie’s investigation helps police and government intelligence organizations safe-guard national security by her enmeshment in the peace movement, at one end of the spectrum, and Nazi proponents, on the other. In doing so, the Winspear reminds the reader of the forces culminating in WWII were rooted from WWI. Such lessons must not be forgotten in today’s global conflicts.

Look for other books from the series at: http://www.jacquelinewinspear.com.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Characters Who Are Not Characters

Character Who Are Not Characters

Sometimes the most essential character in a story is not a character at all. The effectiveness of Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” would be lost if the protagonist awoke to find himself under a child’s swing instead of in a torture chamber. Like “To Build A Fire” by Jack London, the unique environment is the major entity in the story and the sole human character has to react brilliantly or die.

I cannot imagine Sharyn McCrums’s Nora Bonesteel outside her beloved Appalachians or Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak away from her rugged but welcoming Alaska home. They are part of the natural landscape.

Is there is a better opening passage than the start of Raymond Chandler’s, Red Wind?

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

Here’s a challenge: Open a novel with an equally enthralling weather report.

For other authors Like Adrian McKinty or Nevada Barr the changing human and natural settings combine to test their characters to the core.

In Nancy Pickard’s The Virgin of Small Plains the tornado dominated the action, like an experienced actor or actress cast in a walk-on role who has the presence to draw the audience or the camera away from the lesser performers cast as stars.

Weather, mountains, wars or natural settings, what non-human elements became characters in your favorite stories?

Thursday, May 26, 2011


Elaine discussed revenge as a motive for murder. I’m looking at greed.

Theodore Dreiser depicted greed for money and possessions in his novels. He showed men and women who started life poor and were determined to do what it took to acquire wealth. He was criticized in his day for showing people who sinned and weren’t punished. Today, even though readers might want good to triumph over evil, they don’t expect automatic punishment for wrongdoing. Wasn’t greed considered good in the eighties, especially in the stock market?

Dreiser showed women as eager as men to rise in the world, using others to acquire what they wanted and putting money above morality. These women didn’t dream of worshipping an all-American football star, and spending their lives in domestic bliss, cooking, raising children, and remaining pretty for their bread winners. I think there has to be luxury and wealth before there can be sheltered women who don’t have to work hard at home and/or outside the home to achieve what they want.

When I studied Dreiser, I thought his novels were too long but he told a good story and his characters rang true. Most of my fellow students didn’t like Dreiser or American Realism and Naturalism so why did I enjoy the course?

One of my nursing instructors said, and I paraphrase, there are those who see the glass half full and those who see the glass half empty, and then there are the realists like Pauline who see the glass and think eventually someone’s going to have to wash that glass. I might be a realist at work but not in my writing.

The problem with greed as a motive is that any sleuth worth his keep would ask who stands to gain. A greedy person did not necessarily commit the crime and can be used as a red herring in a story.

I’ve never had to worry about one of my siblings inheriting more than me. In wealthy families, wanting the largest piece of the pie and wanting it fast could be an issue. Again, the motive is transparent. A writer would have to provide twists and subplots to obscure the final guilty person.

Then there’s the real out and out greed of cannibalism and Hannibal Lecter. Lions kill a zebra to feed a pride. A cheetah kills a gazelle to feed her three cubs. Lone animal hunters such as tigers stash their kills to feed on over several days. (Guess who likes to watch Animal Planet).

Human cannibals have to chop up the body and store it in a freezer and refrigerator or they might eat their favorite parts and bury the rest. Do cannibals worry about catching diseases? Surely their identification with other human bodies has to be minimal or how can they cut up and cook flesh similar to their own?

A solution to the storage problem could be a group of cannibals living together and sharing. Individuals with extreme behaviors tend to be loners. No one is like them. They’ve always been different. If only they could use the social media and find there are others just like them. I wonder if I could make a story out of a modern day cannibalistic group.

Greed certainly motivates us. Advertisers rely on that. However, greed in a murder mystery can’t be too obvious. I think I’d like a villain motivated by greed and passion, or greed and revenge.

Do you see greed as a good motive for murder?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Jean M. Goldstrom

Jean M. Golstrom is an author and former newspaper reporter, editor and publisher who now publishes print anthologies. Her company is Whortleberry Press and she publishes a number of themed anthologies in various genres every year. She has shown the wisdom to include my work in three of her anthologies (so far) and the kindness to answer questions for Writers Who Kill from the point of view of an editor/small publisher.

-Warren Bull


First of all: What is a Whortleberry? Why name a publishing company after one?

A whortleberry is a plant that grows in the Highlands of Scotland, the land of my ancestors. It looks somewhat like a holly tree with red berries. The whortleberry is the "badge" of my clan, Clan Mackintosh. (Back in the day, the Highlanders did not all have tartans in the family plaid. So the clansmen pinned their clan "badge" to their hat before they went into battle, so they would not be bashing their friends and relatives by mistake.) You can see a whortleberry bloom at the tope of this blog.

My dear spouse took me on a trip to Scotland in the 1990s, where I learned much about my clan and its history. When we came home, I wrote two books about it. About that time, I was thinking of starting a book publishing organization. I had to think of a name that nobody else had. Think, think, think, thinkity think think think...and I came up with Whortleberry Press! For sure, nobody else has that name!


Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? And about your company?

I am a retired newspaper reporter, editor and publisher. My main stint was with The Baltimore News American (circulation 180,000 daily, 230,000 Sunday) but after The News American folded in the mid 1980s, (along with most other afternoon dailies across the US.) I worked for a number of other publications. My favorite, of course, was my very own newspaper, The Knoxville-Mt.Oliver American, which purported to cover the two communities where I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA. During its five-year existence, The American grew to fit the somewhat pretentious title of The South Hills Communities American. It was a monthly, and circulation ranged from 15,000 to 20,000, depending on how many ads I could sell. (You sell the ads to pay the printer, so if you sell more ads, you can order more copies of the paper.)

After folding the dear old American when I moved from my native Pittsburgh PA to Florida, I just could not stop publishing things, thus Whortleberry Press.


What does an editor/publisher actually do?

You post on your website (and on a couple of great websites for writers, like Duotrope and Ralan's Webstravaganza) that you're open for submissions. If it's to be an anthology, you tell what kind of stories you want (ours are science fiction, fantasy and horror), what lengths -- 2000 to 4000 words, and when the deadline will be for your book.

As the submissions come in, you read them and pick the ones that are the most suitable.

After the deadline, you look over your submissions, beg your copy editor (the person who reads for errors -- in my case, my dear husband) to start reading, and you start formatting. That means putting the stories into a form that will make a nice-looking book.

And you also get the cover artist working on a cover -- also, in my case, my dear husband Chuck. Talk about a Man For All Seasons -- he is that! (He also writes the occasional delightful story, usually about Sy and Arnie, the two little New York cats.)

Finally, you get all these things together, and send them off to the printer. When you get your proof copy back (meaning the one that shows whether you did everything right or not!) you do your dance of joy and post on your website that this wonderful new anthology is now available. If the proof copy shows you did NOT do everything right, well, you take another whack at it, and, one hopes, it comes out right this time, and then it's time for the dance of joy, etc.

Then you hope hope hope that somebody will buy it. And you start thinking about the next one.


I know you have written books, and published various types of books in the past. During the last couple of years it seems you have mostly edited anthologies. What is your current focus?

Anthologies, yes. Thanks to this @#$%$ recession, which has put many publishing organizations into early graves, we are only doing anthologies at present. That's because our dear writers each act as a promotion specialist and sales person for us, encouraging everyone they know to buy our books. That's how we have managed to avoid the dire fate of so many other publishers. If and when this wretched recession ever ends, we will happily go back to one-author books along with anthos.


What does your motto: Unusual books for unusual readers mean?

My personal favorite genres are science fiction, fantasy and horror. They are NOT the biggest selling genres. Actually, I think non-fiction is the big seller in the book world. But I dearly love sf/f/h. And those who read our sf/f/h books are definitely NOT the average, typical readers. They are looking for something interesting, different and -- unusual!


When you review submissions what are you looking for? What would automatically disqualify a submission?

I look for something clear -- you would be surprised how many people love to write incoherent babble. I look for something interesting -- not yet ANOTHER vampire story or anything else that has been done to death and beyond. And of course I look for something that meets my request -- the theme of the antho, the right number of words, the PG13 rating that I personally prefer.

Automatic disqualification? The overly-hackneyed vampire/zombie story; the gratuitous sex, violence, blood, gore, etc. As I have said in my Writers Guidelines, "nothing that makes your editor sick." And I stick to our "PG-13" guidelines -- not because I can't deal with the occasional bare rear or heavy breathing, but because many of our writers like to give books as gifts to their family and friends. And since family and friends tend to have a range of likes and dislikes, we try to hit the former and miss the latter.

I try to please our readers, inasmuch as I can tell what they like by what our most popular books are. That's why we do an annual "Strange Mysteries," as readers have shown they love those weird mysteries! We have just published our third annual Strange Mysteries collection, and we already have several stories accepted for Strange Mysteries 4. Readers also show (with their purchases) that they like our annual Halloween and Christmas books. To my pleasant surprise, something new we tried this year, "Dear Valentine," a love stories anthologies, proved to be a runaway top seller for us. You can bet there will be another one for next year! But of course these are science fiction, fantasy and horror love stories -- unusual stories for our beloved unusual readers!

Thanks so much for letting me tell you about my fun adventures with Whortleberry Press. I have really found a happy and exciting activity in corresponding with our delightful writers, and presenting their outstanding work to our readers. I really love doing this activity, and plan to continue with it -- indefinitely, if not longer!

http://WhortleberryPress.com -- Unusual Books for Unusual Readers

http://DearTabbyTheAnswerCat.com -- You have questions? Tabby has answers.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ten signs

Ten Warning Signs That You May Be a Writer

If your favorite work apparel includes Jammies or sweat pants…

If your footwear at work includes bare feet or bunny slippers…

If you have deep discussion about the handiness of em dashes…

If you know the difference between your, you’re and yore…

If the words genre and noir appear frequently in your vocabulary and you are not French…

If you’ve ever gnashed your teeth over a review…

If like there certain word usages that like drive you like nuts…

If you’ve been asked, “Where do you get your ideas from?” more than four times…

If you have a first novel manuscript somewhere marked in red with, “Burn this after my death”…

What warning signs have you detected?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Revenge As Motive

AVENGE, REVENGE-both imply to inflict pain or harm in return for pain or harm inflicted on oneself or those persons or causes to which one feels loyalty. The two words were formerly interchangeable, but have been differentiated until they now convey widely diverse ideas. AVENGE is now restricted to inflicting punishment as an act of retributive justice or as a vindication of propriety: to avenge a murder by bringing the criminal to trial. REVENGE implies inflicting pain or harm to retaliate for real or fancied wrongs; a reflexive pronoun is often used with this verb: Iago wished to revenge himself upon Othello.

Using revenge as a motive for murder is quite realistic. Many people are insecure. They are overly concerned about others’ opinions of them. At the first perceived slight, the person who feels injured reacts defensively but this reaction may escalate into offensive action.

What drives people to act in revenge?

A perpetrator’s actions challenge some aspect of the victim’s identity, such as his masculinity, his standing in the community, his success in monetary matters, or his fidelity in his marriage. There are many more examples, but it gets personal, hits home, invokes his “fight” survival mechanism and aggression results. Sometimes revenge starts in passive aggressive forms; the derisive comment, a social payback, a takeover in business in various forms, a nasty substance slipped into a drink, etc. But the aggression can escalate to—murder. The threat to the victim is eliminated by the death of his enemy and his identity can then be restored because the source of his challenged identity is gone. The perpetrator’s opinions and aspersions die with his death.

Betrayal is another aspect of revenge. Any broken contract is perceived as betrayal. Emotional betrayals are more prone to violence, but usually those murders are considered crimes of passion. Premeditated murder is more complex and controlled. There is a temporary detachment from emotions, at least while revenge is conceived. The mechanical brain takes over to plan murder. The revenge is justified by the victim on the grounds that the perpetrator wouldn’t have committed the wrongdoing in the first place if he had a conscience, so there is no need to take the high road and confront the perpetrator, which would lead to more abuse or ridicule. Revenge negates the need to take a higher moral road. The victim acts with stealth to enact revenge—making that motive all the more compelling for the writer.

When someone uses revenge it is a reaction to having been wronged, or at least, that’s the victim’s perception, and he assumes that the perpetrator has evil intent. The original perpetrator may be clueless that his actions hurt someone, and this obtuseness may indicate the perpetrator’s insensitivity or the victim’s oversensitivity, which can complicate a plot and change the reader’s perception of the original wrongdoer, which may be a figment of an antagonist’s imagination.

In the case of actual wrongdoing, the victim may be portrayed by the writer as avenging a wrong. People respond positively to avenge because it balances the scales of justice, like heavenly avenging angels, who enact “an eye for an eye,” compensating the victim. Avenge is measured through a continuum in which “0” represents a neutral, balanced relationship. As soon as a wrong is committed, the perpetrator zooms to “10” on the continuum and knocks his victim to “-10.” When the victim fights back avenging the wrongdoing, he knocks the perpetrator and himself back to “0” on the scale of justice and thus they are now even again—the victim of the original wrongdoing has gained equality. But of course, revenge, which usually involves a heinous act that is twice as bad as the original wrongdoing, just reverses the perpetrator’s and victim’s positions.

Is revenge one of your favorite motivations, too?

“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

“While you are meditating revenge, the devil is meditating a recruit.”
Francois de Malherbe

“Revenge proves its own executioner.”
John Ford

“The best revenge is massive success.”
Frank Sinatra


Friday, May 20, 2011

Murder Manhattan Style, new review

Warren Bull’s Murder Manhattan Style

Warren Bull’s Murder Manhattan Style

If you’ve been following my blog, you know I’ve always written about novels before now.

But when I read Warren Bull’s short story collection, MURDER MANHATTAN STYLE, not long ago, I saw the chance to study how a writer develops his fiction skills over time without my having to read a bunch of books. Besides that, the fifteen stories present a tasty sampling of mystery genres.

The collection starts with “Beecher’s Bibles,” “Kansas Justice,” and “Butterfly Milkweed.” All three unfold in first person point of view, but from the perspective of a different member of the same family, the Millers, who lived near Manhattan, Kansas, not long before the Civil War. The first generates considerable suspense when two thugs capture Joshua, the narrator, only twelve, and his stepsister Amy and lie in wait for Joshua’s father. The kids trick the thugs and all ends well. The second is narrated by Amy. These two stories are straight-forward narratives, plot-oriented, and rest firmly on facts as we expect from historical mysteries.

But the third made me sit up and pay attention from the start with the narrator, Mr. Miller, caught in a deadly trap. It hooked me so well that I happily followed the narrator back in time in a well-executed flashback to discover how he hoodwinked the bank robbers who tried to kill him. At the end, the narrator returns us to the present scene and thus completes the frame in this skillfully structured story.

The next three stories, all set in Manhattan, New York, in 1938, are written in the spirit of Damon Runyon. “One Sweet Scam,” “Java Judy,” and “A Detective’s Romance” are very short and very tight. You can see Warren having fun practicing the set-up and pay-off in just a few words. But he’s also playing with voice and getting better at characterizing through it. Here’s a quick quotation from near the start of “Java Judy.” “A doll walks in who looks familiar. I puzzle my noodle until the penny drops.” Isn’t that fun? Plus, the voice clearly evokes the time, place, and Damon Runyon.

The next story, “A Detective’s Romance,” is the only one of the entire collection presented in third person, well chosen because this point of view gives the reader distance from the protagonist and gets the reader involved in figuring the mystery out.

Next we come to “The Wrong Man,” the first in a series of noir detective stories, set in 1947/48. Here Warren shows many of the skills he’s gained. This story has a frame around the main story in the past. It’s short. It’s tight. It’s got a surprise ending, neatly presented.

And the narrative voice rings true. Just look at the first sentence of the story. “The bulls shoved me through the precinct doors and double-timed me down the hall into the interrogation room.” “Bulls” is the right word for cops at this time. The verbs “shoved” and “double-timed” move us right into the story and down that hall so fast we can practically feel it. Also the dialogue in some of the early stories seems stiff, but here it’s snappy. For instance, one of the bulls calls the narrator a runt and another observes that if the narrator “sang,” that is, confessed, he’d sound “like one of the Andrews sisters.”

The next story, “Funeral Games,” another example of noir, is among other things a meditation on war and mortality. The narrator, the title, and the story itself all contribute to the theme of honoring those who’ve served their country.

I’ll leave the rest of the stories for you to discover on your own, except for the last one, “A Lady of Quality,” winner of the Best Short Story of 2006 from the Missouri Authors Guild. Quite rightly, too, as this is a beautifully written story. Like most of the stories in MURDER MANHATTAN STYLE, it’s written in first person and the narrator reaches out and grabs us with her first words: “Listen here.” She commands our attention from the start and holds it in this compelling, yet subtle story of suspense.

As defined by Carolyn Wheat in HOW TO WRITE KILLER FICTION, suspense revolves around a crime that unfolds before our eyes instead of a crime already committed at the start, like more traditional detective fiction. Will the narrator Lizzie, a young black woman in the 1960’s, escape from the velvet-gloved hand of steel of Mrs. Edwards, the white gentlewoman, who’s very aware of her position in the society of a southern town? Will Lizzie even see the trap in time?

Read “A Lady of Quality” and find out. I will tell you, in closing, that this last story shows a clear shift from plot-driven fiction in the earlier stories to character-driven fiction and Warren wrote it with an impeccable grasp of history, great sensitivity to the diction of the narrator, and powerful insight into, as William Faulkner said in his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, “the human heart in conflict with itself.”

NEXT TIME, on May 26: Louise Penny’s BURY YOUR DEAD

Meanwhile, happy reading & writing, Juliet


Thanks to Juliet for the great review. Her approach is unlike any other review of my work and it gives me as the author something to think about in my future writing. One thoughtful review can make a difference, especially since reviews by credible sources are painfully difficult to come by.

You can order Murder Manhattan Style at http://www.ninthmonthpublishing.com/books.html

Please support the small publisher who helped make this book possible.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


I imagine best-selling authors want to continue because they’ve been rewarded for their efforts. Possibly they’ll fall below their previous achievement but I picture these authors striving to go beyond what they have already accomplished in terms of writing. I also imagine earning enough royalties to pay the utilities and the rent might be another inducement.

Midlist authors might want to break out. Perhaps the current work in progress will be the book that brings them recognition and more cash.

Writers who’ve published a large number of short stories might want to reach three hundred, five hundred, or a thousand publications. For all the above-mentioned writers, the incentive is there.

I used to send out short stories and poems on a regular basis and took pleasure in publication and printed copies. Now, marketing is a more serious part of my writing, and marketing is a skill I still haven’t mastered.

I enjoy reading mystery short stories and feel lost if I don’t have at least one short story anthology beside my bed. I’ve published a couple of short stories but I’ve learned most from my failed short stories. I’ve come to realize they’re often outlines for a longer works.

So what keeps me writing day after day? Images—a picture in my head that commands my attention. For a novel I’m revising now, the original image was of the carrion flower that smells like decaying meat. My apologies to the male of the species. You’re stuck with the 397px-Amorphophallus_Wilhelmaequipment you were born with. But experience has taught me that there’s nothing loving and sharing about phallic-inspired emotion. I associate such emotion with destruction and death.

Another time, I was struck by the image of someone drowning in a huge vat of chocolate. In the end, I realized I misidentified the drowning victim, and it was a secondary character rather than a main character.

Lately, I’ve seen spiders, large shadow images on white tiles. Spiders seem more female than male. A dead male victim inspired the spider image but maybe there’s a woman behind the death. A Black Widow perhaps.102_0410_small

What excites you to write every day? Your critique group? Your latest publication? A sibling rival?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Warren and Nancy Pickard Discuss Short Stories

Warren Bull and Nancy Pickard Discuss the Mystery Short Story"

Note from Warren: I've been working with this text for hours and I cannot get the format to appear as I want it. The errors are mine. Please see the Border Crime page in Facebook for a more readable copy.

Sisters in Crime Feb. 5, 2011 Meeting

“When the two riders appeared out of nowhere, I knew they came to kill my pa.” So begins our own Warren Bull’s short story, “Beecher’s Bibles.” 
That first line gives a sense of time. “Those two riders aren’t on Harleys,” Warren said. The word “pa” also implies it’s historical. Finally, it sets the scene for the story and draws the reader in. What happens next?

 Warren invited friend and fellow short story writer Nancy Pickard to help him present the February program on writing mystery short stories. The first line of the story is crucial, and Warren said it can take as long to come up with the right first line as it takes to write the rest of the story. 
Warren got his start writing short stories because of the Manhattan Mystery Conclave’s contest. (For which he wrote the winning story!) Since then, he’s had a number of stories published and now has his own collection of short stories available: Murder Manhattan Style. 
Short stories present different challenges from writing novels. You don’t have a lot of words.

Here are some of the elements discussed by Warren and Nancy:

• Characterization must be achieved quickly. Warren said that can be accomplished with a few well-chosen words of description, such as this line: “When I met her, I figured she was the sort of girl who ironed her own socks.” Dialogue helps define character and Warren finds writing in first person does, too.

• Pacing must be tight. Action must start immediately in a short story. It’s a struggle for horror writers who like to set up the mood and atmosphere, said Nancy. 

• A crucible moment should be part of every short story, according to Harlan Ellison, Nancy said. That’s a severe test that may be the most important moment in that character’s life.

• Epiphany is another important element in a short story. Every story needs that “ah-ha” moment, said Nancy. Learning that at a writer’s conference at William Jewell College in the early 1980s completely changed her approach to writing short stories, she said, and she was much more successful after that. 

• The iceberg describes the form of a short story, according to Ernest Hemingway. Warren said what you see and read in the story is only part of what’s going on.

• Endings of mystery short stories do tend to be resolved and tied up neatly – frequently with a twist – and often with plenty of surprises along the way, as opposed to the sometimes ambiguous endings of literary short stores. 

You can see these elements in Nancy’s and Warren’s favorite short stories. Nancy likes “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Hemingway (read it at http://www.mrbauld.com/hemclean.html )and “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” by J.D. Salinger (read it at http://www.nyx.net/~kbanker/chautauqua/jd.htm )

One of Warren’s favorites is short enough to be reprinted here in its entirety: 

The Soap Bubble

It is.

It was.

“It’s a completely satisfying story with a popping good ending,” Warren said.

Other advice: 
Follow the directions exactly for submissions to contests, anthologies and magazines. Don’t believe that if the editor likes the story enough, he or she will take the time to correct grammar, punctuation and format. (As a former magazine editor, I cannot emphasize this one enough. Editors are stressed-out people with too much to do; make their jobs easier and they’ll love you.)

Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock magazines.
E-zines. Check out http://sandraseamans.blogspot.com/ for a list. 
Contests such as the one for Mystery Writers of America. 
More info:
 Warren’s blog at http://Writerswhokill.blogspot.com/

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Can you brag about your dog--for 10 pages?

I remember as a new writer how I wrote a 10-page-story about our brilliant German Shepherd dog, Max. He truly was smart—but 10 pages worth? You’ve all seen those dogs on TV who it sounds like they say Mama and Love you (or wov you).  Our dog would only say that for the girls and me. Therefore, I made a fool of myself when he refused to say it for the neighbors. Thirty years later, I still get teased about it.

So I signed up for a creative writing class at the local community college. I explained to the professor that 
I’d been out of school for 20 years and was clueless as to how I should write a story. I’ll bet anything he 
wished he hadn’t said to me, “Just write anything. That’ll get you started.” So I did. I wrote all those 
pages—which I never read again—about Max, the brilliant, wonderful dog. The dog who protected our 
children, who was a great judge of character, when hungry, shoved his bowl across the floor at me. I took 
countless pictures of Max, dressed him in T-shirts, sunglasses and hats. He really was a good sport for putting up with me. No wonder he favored the men in the house.

My husband was an insurance adjustor at this time. One of his claims was for Jackie Gleason. Jackie had 
been hospitalized when my husband first worked on his claim. When my husband had to make a second trip 
to his place, I made a get well card with—well? What else? Max’s picture with him in the T-shirt, sunglasses
and, um, reading a book while lying on the couch. He told my husband to thank me. Probably thought I was 
a lunatic.

At that time in my life I knew of two things: raising children and dogs. So my next stories all seemed to be on 
the Erma Bombeck side of life, or so my classmates said. I was always told to write about what you know. 
That was it.

I did take stretch-and-sew lessons, but I really don’t like sewing. I took guitar lessons to keep me sane when blizzards came our way. Never did learn how to play. Then I took belly dancing lessons for exercise. 
Should’ve kept that up, great for weight loss. That’s when my husband suggested I might want to attend 
college. I still didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. Writing has always been the one thing I loved to do.

Since that time, I’ve had a lot of experiences, which gives me much more to write about.

 How about you? What did you first write about? How did you get started with your writing? What pushed 
you to start putting words on that page?

Monday, May 16, 2011


In the middle of an argument, I asked my father (who is bipolar) why he was fighting. He said, “I’m bored.” I’ve learned to quell his melodrama by interjecting logical questions. By doing so, I disrupt his emotional vehemence and the confrontation stops. Of course, I also wanted to hit him because of his pretense, thus provoking more confrontation. And that is the nature of confrontation—a domino effect—which compounds and becomes a force unto itself, such as gravity on dominos. Without conflicts and confrontations, a novel goes nowhere because there isn’t anything to resolve.

Like the finger pushing the first domino, writers present a conflict to the reader in order to start a novel’s action. Hopefully, this conflict, either a character’s internal conflict about some issue or an argument between two characters, occurs on the first page to hook the reader and set up the plot. But then, that initial conflict spurs more conflict, resulting in a motive for murder, or if the murder has already occurred, resulting in a motive for the main character’s involvement, usually the reason for that character to solve the murder (especially in cozies).

The lack of conflict and complication results in deadly middles. The pace stops, the plot bogs down, and the reader becomes frustrated with the main character because there isn’t enough action. The remedy is more conflict.

How often do killers want to be identified and caught? Never! (Unless they’re into punishment and confess to every crime they hear about, in which case they aren’t usually the real killer.) If the killer is aware of the main character’s pursuit of him, does he roadblock the main character’s investigation that must be overcome by the protagonist? He may even attempt a second kill to stop the investigation, putting the main character in peril, or kill a vital witness. Not everyone will cooperate or assist the main character’s investigation. People lie, people refuse to answer questions, people may stymie your main character in various ways, but that pursuit of truth and overcoming those obstacles provides the action that alleviates deadly middles and makes readers want to champion the protagonist.

Motive springs from conflict. What are the reasons for the kill? I’m not talking about the seven deadly sins here, which in all probability are character weaknesses, which are moral flaws that authors may want to pursue in a character sketch or police profile. But motives are usually money, sex, power, self-protection of the non-physical sort, or revenge. Each motive results from conflict in which two or more characters confront each other and the murder of one is the outcome.

Conflict may or may not result in confrontation, but of the two—confrontation provides the most action and dynamic force propelling the plot forward. The kill itself is confrontation, unless done by passive aggressive means such as poisoning. That too is confrontation, but of an insidious kind, like faceless terrorism that provides little action unless the author describes the victim’s death throes. Even in that type of confrontation, the main character, in the denouement, confronts the killer or gets apprehended by the police. A one-on-one face-off provides emotional satisfaction, which leads us back to my melodramatic father.

Confrontation for the sake of confrontation doesn’t provide the compelling drama to hook readers. There must be an emotional investment on a very human level that drives the reader. Two drunken brawlers, who fight every Friday night will bore readers unless used for comic relief or compound a real conflict. A fight over an iPod probably won’t get a reader to emotionally commit. But a child’s death, a good man brought down because another profits, or a woman’s struggle to survive abuse enlists the reader’s outrage and compels reading further.

What conflicts have you written into your novel? What confrontations has your main character faced? What fear have they overcome?