Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Agatha Nominees for Best Short Story

I can’t tell you how excited I am to be hosting this interview with the Agatha nominees for best short story. They all are accomplished writers and kind, humble human beings. During their blog tour, they have been dispensing wisdom and supporting each other as well as the mystery writing community. Reading what they have to say is like getting a mini-course in writing shorts. More importantly, read their brilliant stories, listed with links below.

Best Short Story

Double Deck the Halls“ by Gretchen Archer (Henery Press)
Whose Wine is it Anyway by Barb Goffman in 50 Shades of Cabernet (Koehler Books)
The Night They Burned Miss Dixie’s Place by Debra Goldstein in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (May/June 2017)
The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn by Gigi Pandian (Henery Press)
A Necessary Ingredient by Art Taylor in Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Seat (Down & Out Books)


Best wishes to Gretchen, Barb, Debra, Gigi, and Art. You all are phenomenally talented.—PGB

Is it more difficult to develop a protagonist or antagonist in a short story?


Gretchen Archer: For me, writing the antagonist is more difficult. I tend to avoid adversarial characters and put them off until the last minute.


Barb Goffman
Barb Goffman: I haven't really thought about this before. I'm interested in what everyone else says. My gut answer is that neither is more difficult. Each character needs to be properly motivated and his or her actions need to make sense. Creating characters that meet these requirements involves the same amount of work, whether they're the protagonist or antagonist. A protagonist might seem to be more difficult (i.e., take more work) because you see his or her thoughts, but those thoughts spring from who the character is. So if the character isn't well developed, he or she will fall flat on the page, no matter if she's a protagonist or an antagonist, and no matter if you see the character's thoughts or not.


Debra Goldstein: I believe developing an antagonist in a short story is more difficult because the story’s limited structure means every word dedicated to the antagonist must advance his/her character, motivation, behavior, and sympathetic element. The flow of the story and interaction with other characters automatically allows a greater opportunity to illustrate these things respecting the protagonist. Because “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place” incorporates psychological interaction between the two primary characters, I only had limited space to develop the antagonist. This required painting the character by using very broad strokes.


Gigi Pandian
Gigi Pandian: Antagonists can be tricky for me, because I usually write only from the point of view of the protagonist. The motivation of an antagonist needs to be believable, though, even when we’re not in their heads seeing their inner thoughts. The explanation of their motive at the end of a story needs to ring true. To achieve that, I plant clues related to motivation throughout the story, so it’s easily—and believably—clear at the end. I had a lot of fun with the antagonist in “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn.” The clues are there if you read carefully…


Art Taylor: As others have said here, I think that the goal is to have each character as fully fleshed as you can—each with his or her own desires and concerns and challenges, really each with his/her own storyline maybe, and the main story’s conflicts emerging at the collision of these competing and interweaving storylines. In “A Necessary Ingredient,” detective Ambrose Thornton, his client Esmé (a new chef in town), and the antagonist (won’t say who here!) are working toward their own ends—and the plot and its resolution wouldn’t have much weight if each character weren’t developed pretty clearly, as humans first and foremost, and as protagonists or antagonists only secondarily. 


How can dialogue help with the action and pacing in a short story?


Gretchen Archer
Gretchen Archer: When words count, delivering information quickly is important. Dialogue does that faster than narrative generally allows.


Barb Goffman: People love reading dialogue. When done well, it makes a story move. It's the epitome of showing (versus telling). Instead of having a character explain in narrative what bad thing happened to her, you show it happening. In many cases, that will involve dialogue. 

If you want to include humor in your story, dialogue will usually help with that too. Humor can be shown through the interaction of two or more people, or the internal monologue of one person reacting to what's happening. Or both.  And humor is good because it can speed up the pace. 


Debra Goldstein: Dialogue is how people communicate. In “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place,” Southern phrases and the language of a nine year old are juxtaposed with that of a weary adult to establish the time, place, and feel of the story. Quick bursts of dialogue from other characters underscore important changes and decisions facing the main characters. Dialogue is also used to evoke associated memories in readers’ minds that negate the need to slow the story’s pace with information dumps.


Gigi Pandian: After working on my twist, dialogue is my favorite part of writing short stories. I love putting contrasting characters together and letting the story unfold through their banter. It’s a great way to plant clues without them being obvious, and it’s a fun way to drive the action.


Art Taylor
Art Taylor: Short stories are short, of course, and in the ideal story, every element should ideally serve two or three purposes. Dialogue is a key example of how this might work. What do a person’s words reveal about him or her? not just in terms of what’s said but also diction (elevated? conversational? slangy?) and rhythm (full, forceful sentences? short, fumbling ones?) and other aspects of language. How does a bit of dialogue put the speaker in conflict with other characters? (One wants something the other doesn’t want to give, for example.) And how might dialogue reveal something about the larger plot in motion—some bit of information revealed or hidden or misconstrued? Good dialogue can, in one swoop, do all that.


What details are important when creating setting in a short story?


Gretchen Archer: Finding an easily identifiable setting is important when word count is a consideration. For example, readers are more familiar with the interior of a hotel than they are the interior of an abandoned oil rig. The hotel requires less space devoted to description. That said, the setting needs to be compelling. In “Double Deck the Halls,” most of the action takes place in an all-white bedroom suite. Snow white. Icy white. That room says something about the woman who puts her head on the pillow each night.


Barb Goffman: I provide just enough details to bring the setting to life and to enhance the plot. Sometimes you don't realize something about the setting will be important until you get into the story. For instance, when writing my story “Whose Wine Is It Anyway?” I didn't plan in advance to mention how, on her last day of work before retiring from her job as a law firm secretary, my main character, Myra, gets melancholy about typing up her last time sheet, shelving books in the law firm library for the final time, doing little things she'd done for years without much thought. But they turned out to be useful details. By showing these details of law firm life, I brought not only the setting to life, but Myra too. That's really the best way to use setting--letting it come to life by eliciting an emotional response from a character.


Debra H. Goldstein
Debra Goldstein: When creating setting in a short story, the writer only needs to provide sufficient details to awaken the five senses and trigger associated personal memories for the reader. For example, in “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place,” the reader quickly understands that it is a house, but a house that changes the sheets repeatedly during the night. References to the linoleum floor, catching a breeze through the screen door, and grabbing a glass from the drainboard, establish that the main setting is a 1960’s non-airconditioned kitchen. Using trigger details, like these, means the limited words of the story aren’t wasted on long descriptions.


Gigi Pandian: Since the key word is “short,” extraneous details need to go. Unique details can make a story stay with you, even if the descriptions aren’t as long as in a novel. It doesn’t take much to plant a vivid detail that sets the scene, especially if it’s a description of the setting told through a strong point of view. To simultaneously describe the remote inn where Jaya Jones is stranded during a snowstorm, and to foreshadow the ghost story she hears in front of the hearth later that night, I used this description:

The snow was still blowing sideways, but outside the car I was able to see the outlines of a hotel. It looked more like a Victorian mansion than a modern hotel. Two turrets flanked the sides of the three-story building. A curtain fluttered in the high window of the left turret. Was someone watching our arrival?
Art Taylor: Setting was one of the key components of “A Necessary Ingredient”—in keeping with the “Sea to Shining Sea” aspect of the anthology, each writer setting a story in a specific region. A small North Carolina city (large town really) was the setting for my story, and so you’ve got specific physical components (a struggling-to-gentrify downtown, a farmer’s market, a roadside vegetable stand) and larger social and political markers as well: a class system, for example, and the expectations the inform characters within/outside of that class, as well as a political backdrop, a looming election, that seems backdrop but ultimately factors into the storyline.  To me, setting should never be just backdrop; instead, it should ideally inform plot and characters both—and I strived to make that the case here.


  1. Wow, Paula, what a great intro to some great writers - and I'm thrilled to say I e-know all of them and have followed their careers with joy and enjoyment. Congratulations to all.

  2. Thanks so much for hosting us, Paula! Have enjoyed the conversation here, and look forward to chatting more with everyone at Malice next week!

  3. Thanks for having us today...... looking forward to visiting everyone at Malice next week!

  4. Fun discussion about dialogue and setting. Thanks for hosting us, Paula. I'm looking forward to seeing everyone at Malice next week.

  5. Thanks to Writers Who Kill for sharing this interesting conversation and to the writers, of course. I especially enjoyed the comments on using dialogue. I agree strongly and am still learning how to do it.

  6. Great answers. Another Agatha category that is going to be agonizing for me!


  7. Fascinating to read these insights.

    Thanks, Paula, for the great questions, and thanks to the nominees for the informative answers.

    Congratulations to everyone for achieving this wonderful honor!

  8. This blog post is a master class in short stories. Thank you, Paula, for putting this together. Art, Barb, Debra, Gigi, and Gretchen - you’ve made the voting on this category impossible! Congratulations on your terrific stories.

  9. Thanks for having us on the blog today! It's really cool to see what everyone thought of these questions about crafting our stories. I'm looking forward to Malice Domestic next week!

  10. Art, Barb, Debra, Gigi, and Gretchen, you are all wonderful. Thank you for such insightful answers. And thanks to all who have stopped by to read and comment.

  11. Great stories, and congratulations to ALL of you!!