The Agatha Best Short Story Nominees!

by Barb, who’s getting excited about seeing everyone at Malice

Malice27Today, 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 Cleaned-up version croppedBarb 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?

Picture BKSIt 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?

hsacklerIn 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?

Edith MaxwellEdith Maxwell: Thanks for these great questions, Barb! My story looks like a springboard, but actually Delivering the Truth, the first Quaker Midwife Mystery (released last week!), was in first draft when I wrote “A Questionable Death.” I was already following forthright Quaker midwife Rose Carroll around in 1888 as she catches babies, hears secrets, and solves crimes. At one point during the writing I realized she needed a bestie partner in crime, as it were, so unconventional Bertie Winslow popped into my head. She’s the forty-something postmistress of Amesbury, rides a horse (astride, not sidesaddle) named Grover – after the President – and lives with her lover Sophie in a “Boston marriage.” She and Rose are good friends and get up to some good detecting together.

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?

31 Thoughts

  1. I love short stories and have read three of the ones nominated for an Aggie. I’m reading the others today, I promise! Congratulations to all these lovely ladies on their nomination.

  2. Hi Wicked Cozies, Thanks so much for inviting us to join you here today and thanks Barbara for a great interview. Terrie

  3. First of all, congratulations to each of you on the nomination. Huge accomplishment. Barb Ross, what wonderful questions!

    I have written short stories, and am awed by your craft. Such a talented groyp, thanks for visiting the Wickeds today!

  4. I always liken writing short stories to traveling on a round-the-world trip with only a carry-on bag. You have to be sure to pack everything you need but not a thing more. It is a miraculous feat and I admire you all! Congrats on your well-deserved nominations!

    1. I love this analogy!

      (At one time in my life I fantasized about opening a company called “Analogies ‘R’ Us. Want to be partners?)

  5. Thanks to the Wickeds for hosting us today, and thanks especially to Barbara Ross for sending these interesting questions. I hope everyone will take the time to read all the nominated stories before they vote.

    Barbara asked for suggestions of other short story writers. If you love reading short stories and haven’t read John Floyd yet, you’re in for a treat. He has a few compilations of his stories out there. Well worth the time and money.

    1. I’ve never read John Floyd. Will put him on my list. For mystery shorts, my favorites are Ruth Rendell and Robert Barnard. For shorts in general, I have to go with Alice Munro.

      And, every year in the fall I buy Best American Mystery stories. So excited that Level Best has a story in it this year (a first!), Bruce Robert Coffin’s, “Foolproof.”

  6. Barb and Edith, thanks so much for hosting us today! Barb, I think your idea of asking each of us a different question made for a lively, interesting interview. I love the question you asked me–this was my first chance to talk about that particular element in the story.

    1. I loved what you did in the story, because I wasn’t quite sure you did it. I had to look back and make sure I was correct. Its subtlety is what made it work so well in my opinion.

  7. Great interview, Barbara. Your questions brought out the unique aspect of each story. I admire anyone who can create a world and a story so succinctly. Congratulations on the Agatha nomination to Edith, Terrie, Harriet, B.K., and Barb G!

  8. I really enjoyed this Barbara. Great questions.

    And great answers, all. A very interesting mix of short stories this year, that’s for sure.

  9. Such a terrific post! I enjoyed both the answers AND the questions, the way they zeroed in on interesting things about each story. Nice work, Barb—and best of luck to all of the finalists. Can’t wait to see you all in a couple of weeks!

  10. Hard to decide which I like best. The electors have a difficult task.

  11. Thanks so much to Barbara Ross and the Wicked Cozies for hosting us here and a major thank you to all the commenters for their good wishes. xo

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