Edith, north of Boston, wondering if we’ll ever see bare ground again.
I am so delighted to be one of this years nominees for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story. My fellow nominees are an extremely august group: Kathy Lynn Emerson, who has published 54 novels and was last year’s Malice Domestic Guest of Honor. Barb Goffman, who has won the Macavity award for Best Short Story and has been nominated for an Agatha eight times. And Art Taylor, who won last year’s Agatha for Best Short Story, and who is nominated for two stories this year. Wow! What an honor to be part of this group.
Since Barb Ross was nominated for Best Short Story last year, I asked her to come up with some interview questions for the four of us. Take it away, Barb!
Barb R: How do ideas for short stories come to you? Is it a character, a setting, opening lines and a voice? Is it the same every time or different? And when you have these ideas, how do you know which ones are worth pursuing? How did you get the idea for your nominated short story?
Art: Ideas for stories come from a variety of places for me: an overheard bit of conversation, a dream (or more likely a nightmare), musings about “what if?” in the middle of everyday activities, something I’ve read that prompted my own imagination in fresh directions, or even simple writing prompts and challenges. Just the other day, a student in my creative writing class at George Mason University was trying to talk about the witness protection program but talked about “victim replacement” instead—and I immediately called “dibs” on the idea! We’ll see where that one goes.
“Premonition,” my Halloween story from Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays, was sparked by a dream that kicks off the story—and then I wanted to pursue a little style experiment with the second-person narration, which drove the story the rest of the way. For “The Odds Are Against Us” from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, I had an idea about friendship and duty and the two coming into conflict with one another, motivated in part by a David Goodis story I taught at few years back, “Professional Man,” though mine’s not nearly as noir, of course.
For the project I’m working on right now—a novella—everything centers around a postcard that I found in an used book many years ago and have been hanging on to ever since, just waiting for a plot to spill out of it. (I finally think I’ve found one, but really, I never know which ideas will ultimately come together and which won’t until the story is done.)
Kathy: Almost all my short story ideas have started out as titles. They pop into my head, usually without any story attached. Some, like “Lady Appleton and the Creature of the Night” clearly call for me to use one of my series characters. That one, typically, came without any other details. If a title sticks with me long enough, I write in on the tab of a fresh Manila folder so I have a place to put random ideas, usually written on scraps of paper. Some folders go years without any attention, but they’re there, waiting, when I have time and inclination to think about writing something shorter than a novel.
Toward the end of last year, I worked on four of these. Two of them have been submitted. The other two need more work. One may actually end up being the proposal for a new contemporary cozy series. The other is “Creature” and I think all it needs is a better ending. I just haven’t thought of one yet.
As for “The Blessing Witch”—yes, title first again, only it started out as a title for a novel.
My agent had asked me if I’d ever thought about writing an Elizabethan thriller, possibly with witches. Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches had just come out to rave reviews. I gave it a try but my heart wasn’t in it. I wanted instead to go back to my Face Down series and spin off Lady Appleton’s foster daughter, Rosamond, in her own series. I’ve since done that. As of this week, Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe is available in both hardcover and ebook formats.
But to get back to the question, in the course of working on the witch/thriller idea, I put potential characters together and let them interact with each other. The result was Old Mother Malyn, the blessing witch of the title, and her granddaughter and apprentice, Joan, who was originally intended to be the protagonist in the thriller and is now the point of view character for both “The Blessing Witch” and the “Cunning Woman” and considerably more cozy. I currently have a folder labeled “The Finder of Lost Things” that in time may turn into a third short story featuring these characters. At the moment it is empty.
Barb G: My story ideas come in all different ways. Sometimes while reading a news article, an idea will spark. Other times, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, with a voice in my head, saying a sentence or two. I jump up and write that down. Ultimately, however, I need to also hear a voice for the main character. Without the voice, the idea goes nowhere. You can have an interesting conflict, but without the right main character/voice to react to it, causing the plot to unfold, the story will not work (at least for me). That’s how I know which stories to pursue–the ones with the exciting voice.
For my nominated story this year, “The Shadow Knows,” I started with a conflict in mind: A man who lives in a cold climate that always has a long winter truly believes his town’s groundhog is to blame, so he decides to get rid of that groundhog. I wanted to make the story funny. But it wasn’t until I started hearing my main character, Gus, grumbling about the cold and about Groundhog Day to his two best pals that the caper began to unfold in my mind. Considering this terrible and long winter we’re having, Gus might have had the right idea indeed.
Edith: I’m like everyone else. Sometimes a line or a character just pops up and won’t go away, and I think it’s different every time. Sometimes I see a person or situation on the street that demands a story. Right now, the line “Who wouldn’t fall in love with Adam?” is insisting I write a story about a cute thirty-something who wears vests and a pony tail. I’m trying not to give in because I have too much else to do. But don’t be surprised if…
My first crime story ever published, “Obake for Lance” (in Riptide, Level Best Books) sprang out of a true story I heard when I lived in Japan for a couple of years. The next tale of murderous revenge, “Reduction in Force” (Thin Ice, Level Best Books) I wrote after I lost my hi-tech job in a RIF: reduction in force. That was quite satisfying, as was my nominated story, “Just Desserts for Johnny” (Kings River Life Magazine). When I was trying to sell my first novel-length mystery, Speaking of Murder, I had a near miss with what turned out to be a fraudulent small press. The editor said his name was Giovanni Gelati. Really? So I could hardly not write a story of murderous revenge on a literary thief named Johnny Sorbetto, right? Voila, “Just Desserts for Johnny” was born.
Thanks so much to Art, Kathy, and Barb G for stopping in today, and we’ll see you in Bethesda. And great questions, Barb R!
Readers: Other questions for the nominees? Do you read short stories? If you’ve written them, what’s your process?