by Barb, who’s getting excited about seeing everyone at Malice
Today, the Wickeds are delighted to host the nominees for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story. The Agathas are given every year at the Malice Domestic conference to the best examples of traditional mysteries. You can see the nominees in all the categories here. You can also access and read all the nominated short stories, which I highly recommend.
As you might guess, from my years as a co-editor at Level Best Books, I have read tons of short stories. After I read the nominated stories, I had SO. MANY. QUESTIONS.
Thanks so much to the nominees for indulging me today.
Barb Ross: Barb Goffman, your story, “A Year Without Santa Claus” is genre-bending, combining a cast of magical beings with a crime story. What was your inspiration for this story? Was crossing genres something you did consciously, or was it the result of the tale that came to you?
Barb Goffman: The main character’s voice came to me in a dream. I heard a woman complaining about someone having killed the Easter Bunny. When I woke up, I tried to think how I could use this character in a mystery set in New Jersey. (There was an open call at that time for NJ-based mysteries.) I wrote the first page, having figured out that my main character, Annabelle, was the head of everything magical that happens in NJ and that Santa wouldn’t come to NJ this year because there was a killer on the loose, killing mortals who dressed as magical beings. Annabelle couldn’t allow Santa to skip Jersey (think of the poor children), so she decided she had to catch the killer. It was a good setup. But then I got stuck on the plot. It took me more than three years to figure out how to proceed. (Yes, I missed the deadline for the NJ anthology.)
Did I cross genres consciously? Well, the magical realism aspect of the story came from the dream. Since I write crime stories, it seemed obvious to merge the two genres. It ended up working out well because it allowed me to get my sleuth access to police files (through a magical snap of the fingers) without subjecting her to police procedural rules. Giving her that ability helped move the story along quickly. But I didn’t want her to solve the crime using magic. That would have felt like a cheat. So while she used her magic to get background information, in order to figure out whodunit, she had to use old-fashioned sleuthing techniques available to any mortal. It was fun to write. And, I hope, for people to read.
Barb Ross: B.K. Stevens, one of the cleverist things about your very clever story, “A Joy Forever” is that you never reveal the gender of your protagonist, who is far from a disembodied voice, but is a very strong presence in the story. Why did you make this story choice? Was it your intention from the beginning or did it evolve?
It evolved. In early drafts of the story, the narrator was unambiguously male—a young man named Dan, Mike Mallinger’s nephew. But although I liked other elements of the story, the narrator’s voice always seemed off to me. It was too flat, too bland. In one sense, that was all right. After all, in this story, the narrator is essentially a spectator and a reporter—or maybe I should say a photographer, since that’s the narrator’s profession. I didn’t want Dan to be so dynamic that he’d distract attention from the central drama unfolding between Mike and Gwen. But I also didn’t want the narrator to be simply two dimensional, so I looked for a way to connect Dan to the story’s themes about conflicts between men and women, about Mike’s attempt to force Gwen into the role of a traditional wife who’s completely domestic and utterly dependent on her husband. I started toying with the idea of making the narrator someone who doesn’t fit comfortably into the traditional roles for either men or women. So I renamed the narrator Chris and decided to leave his or her gender ambiguous.
I do think it’s clear that Chris is either gay or lesbian. Chris accepts Mike’s invitation to stay at the Mallinger house in Boston, then says, “When my partner offered to come along, I said no. I’m all for confronting prejudices and shattering stereotypes. But not with Uncle Mike, not now.” Once I made these changes, I rewrote the story again, and it seemed to me that the narrator’s voice became livelier and more definite. I hope the changes make Chris a more interesting character who helps develop the story’s themes more fully. And maybe the events in the story make Chris more confident about taking every opportunity to confront prejudice and shatter stereotypes.
Barb Ross: Harriette Sackler,”Suffer the Poor” is historical, set in another country, (London’s poverty-washed East End in 1890), and includes characters of different social classes. That seems like a massive amount of research to do for a short story. What came first, the setting or the story, and how did one come out of the other?
In answer to your question, the setting for my story came first. Several years ago, I visited London’s East End during a trip to England. I honestly felt as though I had stepped back in time, walking the streets of London’s poorest souls, and imagining what it must have been like to live in despair every single day of one’s life.
Life in Victorian England has been an interest of mine for some time, so I already had done a great deal of reading on the subject. Bu what I chose to focus on in “Suffer the Poor,” were the efforts of both missionaries and members of the wealthier classes to help improve the lives of those less fortunate. And that is what I researched for this story.
Truthfully, my undergraduate days as a sociology major so long ago, never left me. One way or another, the complex nature in which people interact with society provides the foundation for all my stories.
Barb Ross: Terrie Farley Moran, “A Killing at the Beausoliel” incorporates Sassy and Bridgy, the central characters from your Florida-based Read ‘Em and Eat Mystery series. When you write a short story about series characters, how do you decide how much backstory to put in? Also, in this story you do advance the Sassy-Bridgy plot. How do you handle this given some series readers will never read the short story and some short story readers will never read the series? (I’m, er, asking for a friend.)
Terrie Moran: Hi Barbara, thanks so much for having us visit the Wicked Cozies. I am so excited to be here. I should tell you that the genesis of “A Killing at the Beausoliel” came directly from the readers of the Agatha Best First Novel, Well Read, Then Dead. Shortly after the novel was released, I started to receive lots of e-mails and Facebook messages from readers who wanted to know what happened after Sassy and Bridgy left Brooklyn but before we met them for the first time in the Read ’Em and Eat Café and Book Corner. I suppose it was because in that first book, Sassy mentioned that they had moved to Fort Myers Beach three years earlier and folks were wondering how they spent their time when they weren’t waiting tables and running book club meetings at the Read ’Em and Eat. Were they kayaking in Estero Bay? Were they lying around on the sand at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico working on their tans? Were they sitting around waiting for a murder to investigate?
Apparently Sassy and Bridgy’s readers have inquisitive minds. So I decided to write a prequel story which would allow us all to hang out with Sassy and Bridgy on their very first day as Floridians. Given the length of a short story, there isn’t a lot of word count available for backstory, but I felt it was important for the readers to know why Sassy and Bridgy had left Brooklyn.
And you are absolutely right, some series readers will never read the short story and some short story readers will never read the series, so I answered the “why” question briefly in “A Killing at the Beausoliel”. It does come up in every novel in the series because I never know which book a reader will pick up first. As a prequel, the story does advance the reader’s knowledge of Sassy and Bridgy’s history but it still leaves plenty of space between that first day and the opening pages of Well Read, Then Dead. What was going on during those years? Let the readers’ imaginations run wild.
Barb Ross: Edith Maxwell, your story, “A Questionable Death,” was the springboard into your new Quaker Midwife historical mystery series from Midnight Ink. What came first, the idea for the story, or the idea for the series? How did the second emerge from the first?
I liked Rose, Bertie, the era, and the setting so much I wanted to keep writing about them, and this was before I had the three-book contract from Midnight Ink. When I saw the call for submissions for History and Mystery, Oh, My, I immediately knew the where, when, and who! I just needed to come up with the details of the story. Those came along easily, too, after I read about police attitudes toward domestic violence in those days, and about how it was already possible in 1888 to detect poison from a hair sample. Figuring out the twist at the end was the best part, though!
Thanks, Agatha Best Short Story Nominees. Readers, short stories–yes or no? Favorites? Twisty or straight?