Buy the Books
Level Best Books has published ten anthologies of Crime Stories by New England writers. You can buy them here
Daniel Moses Luft lives just north of Boston with his wife and two kids. He’s had stories published or forthcoming in Beat to a Pulp, Spinetingler and Powderburn Flash. The story “Skinner Alive” published in the e-anthology Action: Pulse Pounding Tales is a sequel to “Boxed,” his story that appeared in the Level Best anthology Best New England Crime Stories 2012: Dead Calm.
Your story, “Strictly Male Fantasy” seems to portray the inner workings of a bar pretty realistically. Is this an arena you know something about?
Yes, I am very familiar with bars. I have been a bartender for almost fifteen years and I worked for a long time in Harvard Square where the story takes place.
“Strictly Male Fantasy” has the flow and feel of a well-polished bar story, something told over and over. Is it an often retold tale, or something you just made feel that way?
Wow, that really makes me feel good that it’s polished. The story had been kicking around in my mind for awhile and it contains bits and pieces of a lot of things I’ve seen or heard about. People who worked with me might recognize a few things that ended up in the story. So maybe I have told this it before but I just never told it in this exact way. The little speech that Fitz gives about the 1980s definitely overlaps with the location of my 80s experience, so that kind of shorthand speech was pretty easy to write.
Your story in Dead Calm was your first published fiction, but since then you’ve had several stories accepted for publication. What advice do you have for writers who want to up their level of submissions and acceptances?
The thing that’s been working for me this year is to make everything even simpler. For a long time I tried to pack too much physical detail, motivation, plot, and back-story into everything I wrote. I killed a lot of stories that way. “Strictly Male Fantasy” has four characters in it and I don’t know that much about three of them. But I know enough for a ten-page, single-scene story.
What are you working on now?
Right now, this week, I’m writing a short story with three whole scenes in it and it feels long to me. After that I have a number of partially complete stories and have no idea which I will pick to finish.
After thirty-six years as a pilot in both military and civilian aviation, John found his way back to school and his currently finishing his MFA in Writing at the University of New Hampshire. His short story, “Ambush” was published in Level Best Books’ 2012 anthology Dead Calm.
We love No Corners, a story that takes multiple twists and turns. What was your inspiration?
I was in a Creative Writing course and the assignment was to begin a story with, “It all started when…”. My dad had just been diagnosed with cancer and I had recently read Ken Gergen’s, An Invitation to Social Constructionism, which speaks to the role society plays in crafting how we become who we are (and I do a great disservice to that book with that minimalist synopsis). Then there’s Tim McGraw’s song, Live Like You Were Dying. And if stress can cause illness, a notion around which there appears to great consensus, can removing stress cure illness? The reference in the story to a New York Times article reporting on a period of exceptional stress as an igniter of cancer that is found 18 months later is true. I didn’t know what I was saving it for after I read it but…I think we all have this mélange of experiences and information waiting to be used. I still am amazed at what pops up after I start writing.
Your story has several layers of identity changing and identity theft. What got you into this topic? How much research did you have to do?
Identity Theft–Again, my dad. In the last five years of his life, he became worried about someone stealing his identity. We talked about it a lot as he had become well informed. He did my research for me. I just listened and remembered.As to identity changing—I enjoy reading a story where a character’s sense of self changes. I think the answer to the age-old question, “Who am I?” is a moving target.
Everyone who writes short stories talks about building a tight narrative frame, but your story takes place in multiple locations over the course of a year. What challenges did you have in writing it?
In this story, the challenge was to create a tight plan of attack in the mind of my protagonist and have him lay out that plan for the reader. Once the plan was in its execution phase (pun intended) the reader knew it would involve multiple locations over time. Creating that expectation allowed me to take the reader through more time and space than one experiences in many short stories.
What are you working on now?
Something longer and also a short story about a dog named Zeus.
Ben and Beth Oak’s story in Blood Moon featuring Henry David Thoreau as their detecting protagonist won an honorable mention for the Al Blanchard Award. Ben and Beth met in a literature course at Boston University and have been enthralled with Henry David Thoreau (and each other) ever since. What little free time they have away from their writing is spent meandering along New England trails or the historic streets of Boston. Despite all the murder and mayhem they create on the page, they are upbeat Transcendentalists who believe in the inherent goodness of people. Their historical mystery Thoreau at Devil’s Perch will be released Nov., 2013. You can read more about it at www.bboak.com.
What inspired you to have Henry David Thoreau as a detective?
Ben Oak – His whole life inspired us. Thoreau devoted himself to investigating the world around him and he had all the makings of a great detective.
Beth Oak – We like to compare him to Sherlock Holmes. Like Holmes, Thoreau was an avid collector of arcane information that could prove useful in solving a case. Also like Holmes, he was an expert tracker. He wrote that he could always tell if visitors had come to his cabin in his absence by observing bent twigs or grass or shoe prints.
Ben – He could even ascertain their sex and age and station in life by some slight trace left, such as a dropped flower, or a bunch of grass plucked and thrown away, or by the lingering odor of a cigar or pipe. He had the analytical skills of a professional surveyor along with the observational skills of a natural scientist.
Beth – And he trusted his instincts. As a confirmed Transcendentalist, he believed in following his intuition.
Ben – Along with his nose. A contemporary of his claimed “no hound could scent better.” Another friend claimed that Thoreau saw as with a microscope, heard as with an ear-trumpet, and his memory was a photographic register of all he saw and heard.
Beth – It was also said that Thoreau measured a man at a glance and nothing could be concealed from “such terrible eyes.” Eyes that were quite large and beautiful, by the way.
Ben – And like the best American detectives in fiction, from Chandler’s Marlowe to Parker’s Spenser, Thoreau was a loner by nature, totally self-reliant, with his own inborn code of honor.
Beth – He did indeed march to his own drummer.
You also have a book length mystery called Thoreau at Devil’s Perch coming out next November with Thoreau as the protagonist. Which did you write first? How was it to move from long form to short form or vice versa?
Beth – We wrote the book first and about a week after completing it we got an idea that would work well as a short story. Death from a Bad Heart is narrated by Dr. Adam Walker, who also narrates much of the book. The short story takes place a year after the book ends.
Ben – Because we knew the historical background and setting so well, the writing went fairly quickly and easily.
Beth – So Ben says now. It took a lot less time to write than the book, of course, but it was pretty intense. After we thrashed out the plot the words flowed, but then we had to cut out a lot to meet the word count requirement. And cutting can be painful.
Ben – Especially when one partner is slicing and dicing the other’s precious words.
Beth – Short story writing requires discipline. No room for meandering dialogue or needless scenes.
Ben – But plenty of room for disagreement about what stays in and what goes out.
As a husband and wife writing team, do you disagree often?
Ben – Not that often.
Beth – Often enough.
Ben – Okay, quite a bit.
So how do you manage to collaborate?
Beth – Sometimes it’s astoundingly difficult.
Ben – Only when Beth is astoundingly wrong-headed!
Beth – Ben’s sense of humor does smooth things over most of the time.
Ben – Except when it rubs Beth the wrong way.
Beth – That too can happen. But when we manage to put our egos on hold and work as a team, nothing could be more satisfying than working together. Our individual strengths as writers complement each other.
Ben – And two heads really are better than one when it comes to plotting. We keep building on each other’s ideas until we construct this intricate edifice called a story. Sometimes it gets a little shaky and we have to go back to the drawing board. But there’s never any doubt we can figure things out if we keep at it.
Beth – So we do. Well into the night at times. And in the morning we’re energized. We give each other passion and purpose. So what if this passion flares up on occasion? It’s all part of the process.
Ben – Let the fireworks begin!
What are you working on now?
Ben – The second book in our Thoreau mystery series. We’re having a great time plotting it out and so far no fireworks.
Beth – So far. But I’ve been meaning to bring something up with you, Ben. I think the first scene may be too grisly.
Ben – It has to be for the plot to work. Besides, that stuff really happened.
Beth – Which makes it all the more disturbing.
Ben – Hey, that’s fine with me.
Beth – But maybe not with me.
And so it continues ……
VR Barkowski won the 2012 Al Blanchard Award presented at the New England Crime Bake for her story, “Out to Sea.” She is a third generation Californian, transplanted to Atlanta, who writes about New England. A finalist for the 2012 Daphne Du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mainstream Mystery and Suspense for her unpublished novel, A Twist of Hate, her short fiction has appeared in Mysterical-E and Spinetingler. Her website is www.vrbarkowski.com. Her Facebook page is www.facebook.com/VRBarkowski. Her Goodreads author page is http://www.goodreads.com/VRBarkowski and her twitter address is @vrbarkowski.
You’re a third generation Californian transplanted to Atlanta. How do you write so convincingly about the wildness of an almost off-season Monhegan Island in your Al Blanchard Award-winning story “Out to Sea?”
It would have been impossible for me to write “Out to Sea” without the internet. YouTube is an amazing visual resource. A video of the Elizabeth Ann ferry leaving the Monhegan dock in early October actually made me seasick, but it also gave me the opening scene of my story. The personality of a setting is more than physical topography, it’s also the character of its people. I scoured Monhegan visitor resources, read blogs written by Island residents, and dropped in on Monhegan business and community webpages, studying everything from ferry schedules to grocery store hours. I spent days clicking through photographs in order to write about vistas and what a resident or visitor would see if standing in a particular location. Then I’d run to Google and map the site to make sure my descriptions made sense.
I also read everything about Monhegan I could get my hands on: books, old magazine articles, newspaper archives, even hearing transcripts. I was so caught up with life on the Island that at the end of the day I’d walk out of my office and announce I was home from Monhegan—that’s how it felt.
We understand “Out to Sea” is your first traditionally (non-e) published fiction. Tell us something about your journey as a writer.
I’ve kept a journal most of my life filled with ideas, story snippets, impressions, interesting turns of phrase, and other minutiae. In that respect, I’ve always been a writer.
Five years ago I relocated back to California from the Seattle area. Unemployed, I took a fiction course to fill my time. Two things soon became obvious: writing is what I was meant to do, and I had a lot of catch up ahead of me. I took more classes, attended seminars, read books on writing and joined writers’ groups. I started my first novel and a year later completed my first short story. Writing is a brutal joy, but not a day goes by when I’m not grateful for the privilege of doing what I love.
“Out to Sea” won the Al Blanchard contest and you unpublished novel,A Twist of Hate took second place for the Claymore Award at Killer Nashville.What advice do you have for other short story writers
Read. Don’t limit yourself to a single genre. Reading is the gateway to writing. It serves not only as an example of how-to but also provides endless inspiration.
A good short story contains the same elements as a good novel: a cogent plot, believable characters, realistic dialogue, and fine storytelling. The challenge of the short story is to accomplish all this in a few pages. Every word must count, so don’t try to do too much or make the story too big. Zero in on a single incident or point in time, limit the number of characters and write with a definite idea of theme and what you hope to accomplish.
What are you working on now?
Crying for Mercy is my new novel-in-progress, a psychological crime thriller about a history teacher at a small New England Catholic high school and his obsessive relationship with the owner of an occult shop.
On the short fiction front, I’m working to develop my two-page vignette about loss, “Tiny Heart,” into a short story.
Peggy McFarland lives in Nashua, NH with her family, and is the general manager of a restaurant in Chelmsford, MA. Her stories have appeared in numerous on-line venues as well as in Shroud Magazine, and anthologies published by Absent Willow Review and Six Sentences. She is currently working on a longer story (using the word novel intimidates her). Baby steps. Peggy blogs at http://pegjet.blogspot.com. You can also find her at the Facebook page for Friday Flash http://www.facebook.com/groups/fridayflash/?view=permalink&id=10150361001945568. Her Twitter address is @peggywriter.
In your story in Dead Calm, The Red Door, a aspiring author mourns the failure of his relationship. What was your inspiration for this story?
I find it fascinating how people see the same situation in such different ways. Perceptions become our reality, and often get us into trouble. I think many relationships have their rocky parts because one partner’s interpretation of an event, a comment, or even a look is so different than the other partner’s interpretation. ”The Red Door” has the protagonist mourning his loss, and his perception of what went wrong with their relationship. Even as Shamus thinks about it, he gets a glimmer, though he refuses to accept it, of Cheri’s point of view. Even though I chose to write this with only one point of view, I hoped to get across that Cheri had valid perceptions too, but ultimately, they couldn’t find the sweet spot where both points of view meshed.
You started out writing short shorts and your bio in Dead Calm says using the word novel intimidates you. Can you tell us something about your journey as a writer?
My first “success” as a writer was at a blogspot called Six Sentences. Yes, every story on the site is six sentences long. Learning to tell a story in such a short space became a challenge, but one that helped me hone word choices. From there, I had longer shorts printed in various places, including a “best of” anthology, won a flash contest at a horror magazine and eventually, stumbled upon a community of flash fiction writers (under 1000 word stories, in this case) through Twitter. Some of those flashes have been printed in various print and on-line publications too. I finally have the confidence to say I’m writing a novel, but the sheer volume of words that will need to be edited is overwhelming! The editing to get rid of the extraneous words is much more intimidating than the writing.
My most current publishing credit is a flash story that I wrote for the Twitter community, which will be out in April. “Charlie Makes His Way” will be in the latest Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader, Flush Fiction
What are you working on now?
I am trying very hard to come up with a clever crime story/mystery for “Blood Moon”; I am working on a horror short story for a challenge at a new venue; I have a story that has been through three edits and refuses to be done, but refuses to let go; and I’ve started the official first novel, working title “The Bleeding Spot.” It will be a story about accepting responsibility, atonement for hideous crimes and redemption, but only after an evil journal refuses to be lost. Maybe I’ll get one of these completed before the year ends!
Woody Hanstein lives in Farmington, Maine and has been a trial lawyer for thirty years. He is the author of six published mysteries: Not Proven, Cold Snap, State’s Witness, Mistrial, Sucker’s Bet and Alibi Blonde and a number of short stories. He teaches at the University of Maine at Farmington and coaches that college’s rugby team. He is also the founder of the Smiling Goat Precision Juggling Corps.
In “Endgame,” a lonely young man befriends an older neighbor toward the end of his life and as a result receives a legacy. What was your inspiration for this story?
There really was no inspiration for “Endgame” – I started with an overly timid school teacher and decided he should receive a letter which might shake him out of his doldrums. I play chess infrequently and badly, but somehow that game still ended up being the passion which tied the young teacher to his elderly neighbor.
The villain in your story, in some ways, is a big bank. Given the turmoil of the last few years, are you making a statement here?
I really never thought of the bank as the villain – it really just got (to the penny!) what was coming to it for cheating an employee. It’s not a very lawyerly thing to say, but “self-help” can sometimes be a far better way of obtaining justice than simply accepting what a courtroom will produce. (And now that I think about it, a number of my past Level Best stories have had a “self-help” kind of theme).
What are you working on now?
In my spare time I’m working on another Pete Morris mystery, but I am getting side-tracked both by my efforts to recruit jugglers for the Smiling Goat Precision Juggling Corps — Maine’s pre-eminent (and only) troupe of marching jugglers and also to help prepare my UMF college rugby team to defend its Maine Championship next month.
Adam Renn Olenn was born in Providence, Rhode Island and figured out how to read by the time he was three. He studied English at the University of Virginia and music composition at the Boston Conservatory, and lives near Boston, Massachusetts with his wife and children. He blogs at http://adamrennolenn.tumblr.com and you can find him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Adam-Renn-Olenn/236562506396117 and Twitter at http://twitter.com/adamolenn
In “Coronation”, a young writer travels to the home of a Famous Writer to discover the source of his inspiration. The answer is quite surprising. What was the source of your inspiration for this story?
Accomplished authors invariably get asked where their ideas come from, and often answer to the tune of “I just keep working and they show up.” I wondered what would happen if the writer’s answer was simply that he was acting as a journalist to his own bizarre experiences.
The idea seemed to come from nowhere. I was walking to my writing space, wondering what I’d write about that day, and then this notion just materialized in my mind. It smelled like a good one, so I picked up the pace to get right to work.
“Coronation,” your first published fiction, was nominated for a Derringer Award for best short. Can you tell us something about your journey as a writer?
I wrote poetry and prose through college, but after that I mostly focused on writing orchestral music. I played in bands for several years after that, and returned to writing in 2008. I wrote a short story that blossomed into a novel, and have been working exclusively on fiction ever since.
What are you working on now?
I have a few pots simmering on the stove. I’ve finished a draft of my second novel, and will begin revising it in the next few weeks. I’m also pushing myself to finish as many pieces as possible for the 2012 edition of Best New England Crime Stories. I have three ready to go and another three in-progress. That way I’ll have to decide which stories are the very best fit for Level Best Books.
Pat Remick is an award-winning short story author and veteran journalist, and has co-authored two non-fiction books. She won the 2007 Al Blanchard Crime Fiction Award and her stories have appeared in previous LBB anthologies. A member of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, Pat is working on a novel. Her web site is www.PatRemick.com. Her personal blog is at http://patremick.blogspot.com and she blogs with the Working Stiffs at http://workingstiffs.blogspot.com
In your story, “The Lesson,” a schoolteacher gets a series of messages that at first seem benign, but then get steadily more threatening. How did you come up for the idea for this story?
I wrote “The Lesson” as a birthday gift for a dear friend and modeled the main character, Richard Springfield, after her cheating, no-good, slimy ex-husband. Having him get his due this way provided great satisfaction. There are clues to his identity in the story but fortunately; taking revenge through fiction doesn’t automatically lead to an arrest or lawsuits. The escalating series of threatening messages was modeled after a successful prank I learned about years ago, but I probably shouldn’t say any more about that.
You’ve been a winner of the Al Blanchard Award, and then a judge on that panel. What do you think makes a good short story?
I believe a good short story captures the reader’s imagination and conveys setting, character and plot with tight but vibrant prose. Because of the length, a short story author must carefully control all the elements and carry the reader to the conclusion without being obvious. But it’s also important to “play fair” so the reader can solve the mystery if he or she looks closely enough. Being able to lay in the clues and red herrings in a short mystery without the reader becoming aware of the mechanics—or solving the mystery too soon—is a true art form requiring great skill and creativity.
What do you look for as a reader?
I am extraordinarily fond of stories with a good twist. I absolutely adore being surprised at the end and realizing the author has nimbly manipulated me without my knowledge. Like many authors, I devour books but it’s a rare — and exhilarating occasion – when I finish a short story or novel and think, “I NEVER saw that coming.” I love that experience.
What are you working on now?
I am working on several short stories that are in process and preparing to return to “Murder Most Municipal,” my novel in progress. I’m doing some non-fiction writing, as well.
C. A. Johmann, Ph.D., is a research biologist turned science reporter turned pharmaceutical R&D manager turned children’s author of seven non-fiction books, among them the award-winning The Lewis & Clark Expedition. This is her first short story, her first mystery, and her first fiction for adults. A former director of the Rochester (NY) Children’s Book Festival, Carol lives in Connecticut. Visit her website at http://www.caroljohmann.com
In “Death by Deletion” you tell an entire story in 504 words. You describe “Death by Deletion” as your first short story, your first mystery and your first fiction for adults. What drew you to flash fiction?
I had not heard of flash fiction before attending a panel discussion by several Level Best authors at my local library in Cheshire last spring. During the discussion, one of the panelists (I think it was Leslie Wheeler) mentioned this very short style and I immediately saw the benefit of trying it. For me, writing too short has never been a problem. Going on and on, explaining ad nauseam, has. I figured telling a story in 500 words or less would be a good way to practice paring down my writing, editing it before making an editor groan. The same panelists provided the inspiration for my mystery when they spoke about editors making them groan over requests to cut word count, plot lines and even characters. Within minutes my mind was spinning a tale of a writer having to “terminate” a favorite character on orders from up high, the Editor.
One reviewer called “Death by Deletion” his favorite story in the entire collection. How does that feel?
That was a real “wow” moment. Very nice, very gratifying. Then I started to hear the same from writing buddies and began to wonder if the reader who wasn’t also a writer would think as highly of the story. Being a scientist by training, I experimented, though in the end in a not-so-scientific way. After a few so-so comments, including one from my own mother (“Well, that wasn’t much,” she said after reading the two-page story.), I decided against going for statistical significance and to listen only to fellow writers!
By profession, you’re a science writer and an author of children’s non-fiction. What are you working on now? Any plans to write more short stories for adults?
I’ve got too many things going right now – a proposal for a series of activity-based biographies on American entrepreneurs for kids 8-12, four picture books that need paring down before I can submit them again, a fictionalized family memoir that’s begging for a middle, an idea for a mystery series for children that focuses on the science of forensics, and a full-length mystery for adults. Among all that, around the edges of my brain, an idea for another Level Best mystery short is creeping about. I may need to attend another panel discussion to get it to gel.