Thursday, May 23, 2024

All I ask is a Theme and a Deadline. Guest post by Susan Daly

What moves short story writers to get creative? To get us past staring out the window for inspiration?

After years of writing short crime fiction and finding my way into a surprising—to me—number of anthologies, I like to think I’ve nailed down what gets me kickstarted.

A theme and a deadline.

Fortunately, writer and publisher Judy Penz Sheluk of Superior Shores Press has been feeding this habit now through four anthologies. 

Judy’s good at themes. Moonlight & Misadventure, Heartbreaks & Half Truths, Best Laid Plans... You get the idea. 

Last fall, she tossed out her latest challenge—Larceny & Last Chances—along with a deadline, mid-February. Tons of time, as viewed from the halcyon days of November.

Larceny? Piece of cake. Someone steals something. Add a few lost and found chances. The writer’s mind kicks in.

Tick tick tick...

Late January. I’m still staring out the window at bare branches. Not a story in sight. Lots of crumpled ideas lying around. 

What happened to “all I need is a theme and a deadline”?

I’m sorry Judy but—

No. Don’t give up yet. This is about last chances, right? Well, that’s what I need. A Hail Mary pass. A last moment shot on goal.

Time to dip into my stash of old half-done tales. This one? No. This one? Not hardly. 

Okay, what about this one? A story conceived for a really off-beat submission call. Erotic mystery tales involving classical orchestra instruments. Yes, really. 

I may know nothing about classical instruments, but I have other talents from my past. Writing talents, I mean. In the long run, however, I never finished it. Just as well, as it turned out, because the project was eventually cancelled.

The abandoned story, in the face of February’s looming deadline, has it all: fully plotted outline, engaging opening scenes, characters just begging to be resurrected.  Larceny involving a valuable viola. A last chance to recover it. Sex. A beguiling tattoo.

Wait....back up there. Judy had made it clear. No overt sex. (Also, no werewolves.)

With barely a week left to submit, my storyteller’s mind finally shifts into gear. The characters come back to life, the opening scenes flow into the rest of the story, the sex scenes remain unwritten. My Hail Mary pass has worked.

I sit back in astonishment at how months of not writing has eventually turned into a week of pure production.

Perhaps, after all, I need more than the Theme and the Deadline. I need a cache of old stories to dig out, dust off and clean up. And not just a deadline, but a looming deadline staring me down. 

Judy accepted my story, ‘Hail Mary Blues,’ for the anthology. 

I’m pleased with it too. No werewolves. No sex.  

But I left in the beguiling tattoo. 

About the book: Larceny & Last Chances: Sometimes it’s about doing the right thing. Sometimes it’s about getting even. Sometimes it’s about taking what you think you deserve. And sometimes, it’s your last, best, hope. Edited by Judy Penz Sheluk and featuring stories by Christina Boufis, John Bukowski, Brenda Chapman, Susan Daly, Wil A. Emerson, Tracy Falenwolfe, Kate Fellowes, Molly Wills Fraser, Gina X. Grant, Karen Grose, Wendy Harrison, Julie Hastrup, Larry M. Keeton, Charlie Kondek, Edward Lodi, Bethany Maines, Gregory Meece, Cate Moyle, Judy Penz Sheluk, KM Rockwood, Kevin R. Tipple, and Robert Weibezahl.
About Susan Daly: Susan Daly writes short crime fiction as her way of crusading for social justice. Her stories have appeared in a surprising number of mystery anthologies, and ‘A Death at the Parsonage’ won the Arthur Ellis Award for best short story from Crime Writers of Canada.  She lives in Toronto and hangs out with Sisters in Crime, Crime Writers of Canada, and other known criminal types. Find Susan at
About the editor: Judy Penz Sheluk is a former journalist and magazine editor and the bestselling author of two mystery series, several short stories, and two books on publishing. She is also the publisher and editor of four Superior Shores Anthologies. Find out more at

Wednesday, May 22, 2024


Memorial Day aka Decoration Day is a day of remembrance of those men and women who fell protecting us, for those who didn't return home. Many people go to cemeteries and memorials on the last Monday in May, and there's a tradition to fly the flag at half mast. Memorial Day in the U.S. is part of a three day holiday weekend. Many think of this weekend as the beginning of Summer, a time for Barbecues, the Beach, the Cabin, and S'mores. Not planning a get-together? You can celebrate Memorial Day by reading some of these Mysteries set during the Memorial Day Weekend.

In memory of all who served their country, here's an updated list of Mysteries set during Memorial Day Weekend. Let me know if I've forgotten any titles. You may also want to check out my Veterans Day Mystery List.

Memorial Day Mysteries

Death is Like a Box of Chocolates by Kathy Aarons
Last Man Standing by David Baldacci
The Twenty Three by Linwood Barclay
Treble at the Jam Fest by Leslie Budewitz
The Decoration Memorial Day War by David H. Brown
Memorial Day by Sandra Thompson Brown and Duane Brown
Flowers for Bill O'Reilly: Memorial Day by Max Allan Collins
Black Echo by Michael Connelly  

Absolute Certainty by Rose Connors
One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer Fleming (not technically Memorial day, but it fits the theme)
Memorial Day by Vince Flynn

The River We Remember by William Kent Krueger
Memorial Day by Harry Shannon
Beside Still Waters by Debbie Viguie
Who Killed the Neanderthal by Cheryl Zelenka

Children's Mysteries:

Trixie Belden: The Mystery of the Memorial Day Fire by Kahryn Kenny
Sam's Top Secret Journal: Memorial Day by Sean Adelman, Siri Bardarson, Dianna Border & Andrea Hurst

Rosemary is for Remembrance. Check out the recipe for Rosemary Chocolate Chip Cookies on my other blog:


Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The Marlow Murder Club TV News!

I'm really looking
forward to this production. 

MASTERPIECE Mystery! today announced that The Marlow Murder Club, adapted by author Robert Thorogood, will premiere on PBS Sunday, October 27, 2024 at 9/8c. Samantha Bond, Jo Martin, Cara Horgan and Natalie Dew star in The Marlow Murder Club. And, great news, The Marlow Murder Club has already been renewed for a second season!

Sign up for the Masterpiece Email Newsletter for breaking news on upcoming shows and adaptations.

Monday, May 20, 2024

Why are plot twists pleasurable? Guest Post by John Copenhaver

If you’re a crime fiction lover, you’re most likely a fan of plot twists. I know I am. I've had several twists and turns in all of my novels, including my most recent novel, Hall of Mirrors.
But why do we like these twists so much? On reflection, I love the moment when I’m forced to reevaluate the narrative I’ve been told, where nothing is as it seems. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012) provides one such moment (spoiler alert): When we discover that Amy Dunne’s diary is a fraud, a convincing invention designed to implicate her husband Nick in her faked murder, we’re forced to reevaluate Amy and Nick, and the dynamic of their relationship. We also must confront our own gullibility. Amy’s not only tricking Nick and the police; she’s fooling us. We’re implicated. The famous reveal of Agatha Christie’s 1926 The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where our narrator is also our villain, laid the groundwork for Flynn’s brilliant psychological novel.
But back to the question: Why do we find earthshaking reveals like the one in Gone Girl pleasurable? Sure, there’s an appreciation that the author has played on our assumptions, our compulsion to follow the red herrings and be distracted by skillful misdirection, or even our built-in biases about particular characters—Christie often counts on our tendency to underestimate the help. While I admire these twists in classic whodunits, I don’t always feel moved by them. To be fair, I experience pleasure, but it’s more intellectual, not emotional.
In contrast, several novels with surprise endings have floored me. Interestingly, neither novel is a mystery per se: Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin. In both cases, the revelation, which I won’t spoil, cast a shadow backward, making me reevaluate not just the characters I encountered but the meaning of the text itself. What exactly had I just experienced? How has its meaning changed? I admire the author’s skill, but that pleasure was followed by something more profound and mysterious. It wasn’t just about discovering concealed information—who killed so-and-so—but finding out something about myself.
These sorts of twists, I believe, are superior because they require us to think differently—to reflect and reconsider. They are pleasurable because we gain a sense of having broken through an illusion, of now seeing the world more clearly for what it is, even if that vision is darker or more complex. I go for this effect in my own work; in the final moments of my novels, I want to tilt perspective and upend assumptions. I’m particularly interested in pressing the reader to reevaluate or, perhaps, own their sympathies for characters who do bad or transgressive things. I want to leave the reader in a more morally complicated place, not free them from it.
When we learn that the actual Amy Dunne is vicious and vengeful, we must reconsider why her performance in her diary is so compelling. At first, this might be humbling—owning that a sociopath has taken us in often is—but it’s followed by the pleasure of clear-sightedness. After all, learning the truth is empowering. Interestingly, by the end of Gone Girl, Amy and Nick can neither be fully embraced nor easily dismissed. Yes, they are terrible people, but they are also familiar to us and not easy to set aside, which is a deliciously uncomfortable thought.


John Copenhaver won the 2019 Macavity Award for Best First Mystery for Dodging and Burning and the 2021 Lambda Literary Award for Best Mystery for The Savage Kind. He is a co-founder of Queer Crime Writers and an at-large board member of Mystery Writers of America. He cohosts on the House of Mystery Radio Show. He’s a faculty mentor in the University of Nebraska’s Low-Residency MFA program and teaches at VCU in Richmond, VA.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

THOUGHTS ON THE MURKY MIDDLE: Guest Post by Baron Birtcher

While attending a recent writers conference, I had the opportunity sit in the audience while a panel of respected writers and colleagues were asked to opine about their approach to the craft. As often happens during Q&A, the conversation shifts to either (a) “Plotter vs. Pantser” or (b) “The Murky Middle” of a manuscript. 
For those of you who have attended a writers conference, you know what I’m talking about. 
Personally, having long ago lost interest in conversing about item (a), I do feel compelled to weigh-in on item (b). Here’s why:  When the question came up at the conference panel, the author who replied first gave a lengthy and world-weary reply about slogging through “the Murky Middle” and how painful that process can be. I happened to be seated in the audience beside an award-winning female colleague whom I respect greatly, and upon hearing this world-weary reply, we both shared a look that included raised eyebrows and shrugs of puzzlement. 
“I like the Middle,” my to-remain-anonymous colleague whispered to me. 
“I do, too,” I responded. “That’s where all the good stuff happens.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but here’s where I come down on the subject: If the Middle is ‘Murky’ it’s yourfault as the author. So, fix it. 

Because, in a Three-Act story structure, the second act is where the action happens. Here’s a brief review:
                        Act 1: Setup, exposition, inciting incident
                        Act 2: Confrontation, rising action, character development
                        Act 3: Resolution: lead-up, climax, conclusion
Therefore, if your second act is murky, you’re missing an opportunity to more fully develop your cast of characters, your setting, and—particularly in the case of a series—an opportunity to deepen your reader’s engagement with the breadth and scope of the narrative as a whole. Ask yourself ‘Why?’ Were you in a hurry to get to that next scene (which is not uncommon)? We all know how easy it can be to get lost in the weeds of our own stories, we’ve all done it. It’s equally easy to get lost in the weeds of the fabulous amount of research that we want to regurgitate and show off to our readers. We need to resist those temptations, and instead, focus on calibrating the pace of the narrative to the tone of the story we’ve actually set out to tell.
I often equate the process to what it is like to listen to a great piece of music. At least that’s a perspective that works for me. Each of us has our own methodology or metaphor; But if you find yourself slogging through your own work, this is clearly a sign that you might need to step outside, take a walk and clear your head. Which is usually all it takes. Or maybe just a good night’s sleep. Come back and reevaluate your work with a fresh perspective.
Now, just to be clear: I’m not anybody’s advocate for formulaic writing. In fact, I despise it. I like exploring the boundaries of literary convention as much as the next writer… But when our work is aimed at keeping our reader engaged within a linear narrative, and the story seems to bog down in that proverbial “Murky Middle,” I suggest that you take a good hard look at the overall pace of your narrative, and determine whether you may be missing out on an opportunity to actually slow down, dig a little deeper and consider a slightly different manner of engagement among your characters, your readers (and yourself). You might discover that if you take your foot off the gas pedal and listen to your characters more closely, they might teach you a little something you didn’t expect from them. 
Long and the short of it is this, IMO: Embrace the deep water in your story, the complicated, beautiful, Mysterious Middle, and don’t dread the density. It’s exactly where the heart of your story may reside.
Baron Birtcher is the winner of the Silver Falchion Award (Hard Latitudes); Winner of Killer Nashville Readers Choice Award (South California Purples); and Best Book of the Year Award for Fistful Of Rain.
He has also been nominated for the Nero Award, the Lefty, the Foreword Indie, the Claymore, and the Pacific Northwest's Spotted Owl Awards. 
I invite you to join me on the ride with Sheriff Ty Dawson, and to (re)visit those heady, turbulent, beautiful and terrifying times of the 1970s; and to join me on Facebook and Instagram at: 
            Instagram: www.instagram/BaronBirtcher_author
 Books in the Ty Dawson series
            South California Purples
            Fistful Of Rain
            Knife River