Each year, I feel very privileged to be able to host interviews with the Agatha nominees for best short story in The Stiletto Gang and Writers Who Kill. I always learn from their answers and appreciate so much what goes into the craft.
Following is a list of the nominated stories with links on the titles so you can read and enjoy. Thanks to Gretchen, Barb, Debra, Gigi, and Art for taking the time to answer the questions. And check in at Writers Who Kill tomorrow to hear more from these talented authors. Best wishes to all. — PGB
“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)
How do you know an idea is “short story worthy”?
Gretchen Archer: If the elements are there—story arc, strong characters, interesting setting, and a puzzle to solve—I find the idea worthy. There are many colorful characters in the Davis Way series, so I had a surfeit of choices for a protagonist in Double Deck the Halls. From my character list, I chose Granny. The setting is always the same—the Bellissimo Resort and Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi. And the puzzle? What could be more fun than an octogenarian MacGyver?
Barb Goffman: When considering if an idea is better suited to be developed into a short story or a novel, I think the key is how complicated the plot is and how early you want to bring your main character in on the action. If your story involves multiple murders, for instance, and you want to show that your protagonist is on the case from the beginning, then you're likely describing a novel. That idea seems too complicated to develop properly in a short story. But if you have the same scenario and your protagonist comes in at the last murder and quickly figures out whodunit, then that could be a short story. Which way to go? I think that's a style decision for the author.
This is why I tell people that a short story is about one thing. One specific tight tale. The more complicated the idea, the more detail you need to show, the more pages your tale will take. The plot of my story "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" has two inciting incidents-- twice within a few days my main character, a legal secretary, feels slighted by her long-time boss--and the resolution comes quickly thereafter, so it was well suited for a short story. (For those who haven't read the story, in Myra's last week before retirement, she learns her boss has hired an airhead to replace her and he does something that makes her realize he's been taking her for granted. So Myra devises a plan to teach him a lesson.)
Debra Goldstein: I don’t initially know if an idea is “short story worthy.” When a story works, it flows and ends exactly where it should. The idea of the story may come from a prompt, a phrase stuck in my mind, or a character’s voice. In “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place,” the opening sentence “I remember the night they burned Ms. Dixie’s Place” was the first thing I thought of, but then I realized that most of the story had to be told on that night, when the main character was only nine years old. Once I recognized the voice would be a child’s, the importance of the premise became evident. I write both novels and short stories, but there was no question that this idea and the portrayed characters and incident would only work as a tightly written short story.
Gigi Pandian: I love short stories that have a satisfying twist. In my own short fiction, the twists that I like to play with are seemingly impossible crimes that have a rational explanation.
My full-length novels are adventures in addition to being mysteries, so while my books do have twists in them, the twists and the puzzle aren’t necessarily as important to keep the story going as the characters themselves and the adventures they’re having.
Therefore when I come up with an idea for a story involving an impossible crime twist, instead of an idea that centers around a specific character or a larger plot, then I know it’s a short story rather than a novel.
Art Taylor: I’m primarily a short story writer, so most of my ideas seem suited to that length—it just seems to be the form I’m most naturally drawn toward, the one I’m most comfortable in. Ideas come from a variety of places, of course: a bit of overheard conversation, a dream, a trip (the travel kind, not the hallucinogenic kind!), even other short stories or novels that prompt the imagination along. While I tend to think in narrative arcs at short story length, I also try to fold in other threads as well to help enrich the story’s texture and its breadth—by which I mean balancing several characters’ narrative arc and the ways they intertwine, for example, or by layering in some thematic arc alongside the arc of the plot, letting several things speak one to another. I may not be able to write long very often, but I try to write dense at least—dense in a good way, I hope!
Tell us about the publisher of your nominated short story and how the story came to be published.
Gretchen Archer: “Double Deck the Halls: is a short-story companion to my Davis Way Crime Caper mystery series published by Henery Press. I knew where Deck would land before I wrote it.
Barb Goffman: "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" appeared in the anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet, which was published by Koehler Books. This book is the brainchild of author Teresa Inge. She came up with the idea of a lighthearted anthology involving mystery and wine. She wanted to help promote the Virginia wine industry. So she reached out to a bunch of Virginia authors and asked if we'd be interested in submitting stories for the book. After doing a lot of interesting research I came up with a workable story idea, wrote my story, and submitted it. Teresa shopped the manuscript around and Koehler ended up picking it up. They're based in Virginia Beach, near where Teresa lives, so it all worked out very nicely. Koehler gave us multiple rounds of edits and proofreading. And royalties. What's fun about them is for each book they publish, they put two potential covers on their website and the general public can vote on which one they like better. The cover with the most votes becomes the cover of the book.
Debra Goldstein: Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine not only published my first submission to it, “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place,” in its May/June 2017 issue, but featured it on its cover. Neither of these exciting events almost happened. Even though several of my short stories had been accepted by other publications, I lacked the confidence to send my work to AHMM or Ellery Queen. Several friends, including Art, Barb, Bob Mangeot and Terrie Moran encouraged me to submit my work to these Dell magazines, but the one who made me believe in myself was B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens.
When I read her story, “Thea’s First Husband,” I was so blown away by it that I wrote her a fan email asking if she taught online classes. She didn’t, but she sent me suggested readings and we subsequently became friends. She encouraged me to reach beyond my fears. Last year, every Malice Domestic recipient received the AHMM which contained “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place” in their book bags. A few weeks after Malice, I received a package and note from Bonnie. She wrote she believed it was an award-winning story and knew, because it was my first Alfred Hitchcock submission and acceptance, I would want extra copies of the issue. I wish she had lived to see that her encouragement, as well as that of so many friends, made this wonderful ride happen.
Gigi Pandian: Henery Press publishes my Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mysteries. The most recent book The Ninja’s Illusion, is set in Japan, and I had an idea for a locked-room mystery twist that needed to have the characters stranded in a remote place. I was having such fun with the characters in The Ninja’s Illusion that I wondered if Jaya and her friend Tamarind could get waylaid on their way home from Japan. I came up with the idea to have them get stranded due to bad weather, so “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn” is set at the remote inn where they’re forced to seek shelter from a storm.
I had a lot of fun writing a story-within-a-story, because in “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn” there’s a ghost story about an avenging ghost that killed an unscrupulous man who was reading an Agatha Christie novel at the hotel nearly a century ago—and now the “ghost” is striking again while the guests are trapped. Can Jaya figure out what’s really going on? The team at Henery Press loved the story idea, and they published it as a short story single the month after the novel came out last fall.
Art Taylor: “A Necessary Ingredient” was published in Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea. Paul D. Marks—a good friend, fellow blogger at SleuthSayers, and co-editor of the first volume of the Coast to Coast—reached out to say he was doing this second volume with the same publisher, Down & Out Books, in this case focused on private eyes, and would I like to contribute something? I don’t generally write private eye stories, but the geographical slant on the anthology attracted me—the opportunity to explore the intersection of that subgenre of crime fiction and my home state of North Carolina, which was the region I was assigned. That’s also one of the things I enjoyed about writing the story, trying to navigate the shadow of one tradition (hardboiled PI stories) against another (traditional, regional mystery fiction, specifically here with nods toward one of my own mentors, Margaret Maron, another North Carolina native). An additional inspiration was the tonka bean itself, the “necessary ingredient” of the title, which I’d first heard about from another NC-based writer, Wilton Barnhardt—but to reveal more about that story would give away too much about the story I wrote.
If you could bring your protagonist as a guest to the Agatha banquet, what shoes would he or she be wearing?
Gretchen Archer: Easy Spirit Happy Feet Walkabouts. With Velcro. She’d pair them with a gold velour track suit.
Barb Goffman: Myra would choose something stylish and practical. I'm not quite sure what that would be, but it surely would be nicer than what I'll be wearing. I go for comfort, so I'll be in the equivalent of stylish slippers.
Gigi Pandian: “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn” has two main characters, historian Jaya Jones and her librarian friend Tamarind Ortega. Jaya is only five feet tall in socks, so she loves her heels. She’d dress in black slacks, a sleeveless black blouse, and three-inch shiny black stilettos. Tamarind is tall and big-boned, with short hair she dyes different colors (it’s blue right now). She thinks of herself as post-punk and loves her purple combat boots, so for the Agatha banquet she’d wear those boots with a homemade dress that looks like Molly Ringwald’s dress from Pretty in Pink.
Art Taylor: Ambrose Thornton comes from a fairly proper Southern family, so I’m sure he could spiffy up if he needed to: a sharply polished pair of wingtips maybe? But honestly, he strikes me as someone who would rather be back home reading than out socializing most nights.