“My first novel was Interpretation of Murder, published by Black Opal Books in 2015. That novel has a tie to AHMM, too: The protagonist was introduced in a 2010 story that won a Derringer—or, to be more precise, half a Derringer (it was a tie). The protagonist, Jane Ciardi, is an American Sign Language interpreter who takes a freelance job from a Cleveland private detective and promptly gets drawn into dangers, ethical dilemmas, romantic entanglements, and the other sorts of challenges amateur sleuths tend to encounter. I think the novel’s a solidly constructed, satisfying whodunit, I think it’s got plenty of humor, and I hope it offers readers some insights into deaf culture and sign language interpreting. Our older daughter, Sarah, is a nationally certified ASL interpreter—she’s the one who first suggested that I try using an interpreter as a protagonist in a mystery—and our younger daughter, Rachel, has serious hearing loss. So hearing-related issues are important to our family. My husband, a fifth-degree black belt, contributed by choreographing the action scenes—the novel’s a true family effort. And it’s set in my favorite city, Cleveland. It hasn’t burned up the best seller lists, but I’m proud of it.”
“One of the things I enjoy most about this series is Leah’s relationship with Detective (later Lieutenant) Brock. Amateur sleuths wouldn’t get far without a source of police information, and many amateur sleuth series involve female sleuths who have romantic relationships with male police detectives. But Leah’s happily married, and so is Brock—his wife never actually appears in the stories, but he mentions her often. So Leah and Brock are simply friends who like and respect each other. He’s more practical and sensible, and she’s more imaginative. He brings her down to earth when she gets carried away, and she helps him see possibilities that hadn’t occurred to him. Together, I think, they make a good detective team.”
AHMM Feb. 1998 Leah Abrams #1 “Death on a Budget”
AHMM Jan.1999 Leah Abrams #2 “Death on the List”
AHMM Oct. 2002 Leah Abrams #3 “Death of the Guilty Party”
AHMM May 2006 Leah Abrams #4 “Death on a Diet”
AHMM May 2010 Leah Abrams #5 “Death in Rehab”
“Mainstream writers start with character. Genre writers start with situation. That’s why people who mostly read genre stories can get bored and think too little is happening in a mainstream novel, just as a mainstream reader gets whiplash and feels there’s too little character development in a genre novel. This is a hugely gross generalization, and of course every writer comes up with their own melding of the two. It’s a continuum.”
Ex-cop turned private detective, Iphigenia Woodhouse, premiered in the Mid-Dec 1991 edition of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, in a story called “Night Vision.” Her assistant, Harriet Russo, appears on the cover of AHMM April 2000, painted by Tomek Olbinski, for the sixth mystery, “A Wild Justice.”
Iphigenia Woodhouse began, in part, as a response to some of the fictional female private detectives who became popular in the 1980s and 1990s. I enjoyed many of the novels and stories about those detectives, but their lives seemed very different from the lives of most of the women I knew. Usually, these detectives had no family obligations: Their parents were dead, their husbands (if any) divorced, their children nonexistent. If they liked, they could choose mentors they found compatible, have sex with men they found attractive, offer guidance to young people they found interesting. All their relationships were voluntary and temporary: They didn’t owe anybody anything and could move on whenever they chose. If they decided to fly to another city to pursue a lead, they didn’t have to coordinate schedules with anyone or arrange for childcare. In those respects, they had more in common with traditional male fictional private detectives than with most women today. That’s fine—it’s probably healthy to fantasize about complete independence from time to time. But I thought it might be interesting to write about a female private detective whose life is both enriched and limited by deep, lasting ties and obligations.
AHMM Mid-Dec. 1991 Woodhouse/Russo #1 “Night Vision” reprinted in Women of Mystery, ed. Cynthia Manson (Carroll & Graf, 1992)
AHMM Dec. 1993 Woodhouse/Russo #2 “Sideshow” reprinted in Women of Mystery II, ed. Cynthia Manson (Carroll & Graf, 1994); reprinted as “Une simple diversion” in Histoires d’homicides a domicile (Livre de Poche, 1995)
AHMM Dec. 1994 Woodhouse/Russo #3 “Death in Small Doses” reprinted in Women of Mystery III, ed. Kathleen Halligan (Carroll & Graf, 1998); reprinted in translation in a collection published by Livre de Poche
AHMM May 1996 Woodhouse/Russo #4 “Butlers in Love”
AHMM Jun. 1998 Woodhouse/Russo #5 “The Devil Hath Power”
AHMM April 2000 Woodhouse/Russo #6 “A Wild Justice”
AHMM May 2003 Woodhouse/Russo #7 “More Deadly to Give”
AHMM May 2008 Woodhouse/Russo #8 “Table for None”
AHMM Jul/Aug 2013 Woodhouse/Russo #9 “Murder Will Speak”
When I was in high school I read all the digests I could lay my hands on, preferring one that’s no longer around named Galaxy. Where Analog tended to have more tech-oriented stories, and Fantasy & Science Fiction was usually more literary, Galaxy hit a sweet spot of SF focusing on characters and the soft sciences. I have a complete collection still, barring a couple of later magazine-sized issues from when it was being passed from one publisher to another.
The magazine nowadays that’s inherited that mantle is Asimov’s, where I’m very happy to have sold several stories. They’re a little more adventure-oriented, but that’s not an issue where I’m concerned.
An excerpt from B.K. Stevens’ interview from The Digest Enthusiast book six. Here she discusses her process, working out a plot, and weaving a list of suspects together.
It probably won’t come as a big surprise when I say my writing process varies significantly from story to story. Once in a while—and I wish it happened more often—I’ll get an idea for a story, devote only a little time to planning, plunge into the story, and write it straight through. Usually, the process isn’t nearly that simple and delightful. Usually, when I get an idea for a story—and it’s sometimes only a title, sometimes a murder method or a character or a plot twist—I write it down in a computer file titled “Notebook.” Ideas often languish there for years or decades—dozens still languish and will doubtlessly never go further. But sometimes I eventually think of a way to make the idea work, or I look through the notebook for inspiration, run across an idea I’d forgotten about, and see new potential in it.
When I decide I definitely want to try to turn an idea into a story, I sit down at the computer and start taking notes about it, using a method I called “focused freewriting” when I taught English: I stay focused on the story but write down virtually anything that comes to mind about it, from plot possibilities to bits of description to thoughts about theme. Sometimes, I’ll put together a list of major incidents in the plot; occasionally, I’ve used a variation on the “beat sheet” Blake Snyder recommends in Save the Cat; often, I don’t come up with anything that formal or orderly. For one recent story, I took a page and a half of notes; for another, I took forty- seven pages of single-spaced notes before finding the key to making the story work. (The second story was a whodunit—I have to take far more notes for whodunits than for other sorts of mysteries.) When I feel I have a clear idea of the story’s direction, I start writing the first scene.
“First, the more I critique other people’s work, the better I’m going to get at revising my own work. There are three levels of looking at a story. At the highest is to see it as a whole: is the idea interesting? Are the characters well chosen? Does the plot make sense? Is there a compelling theme? The middle level considers each scene: does some character change in some vital way from the beginning to the end of the scene? What is the emotional turn? How is tension ratcheted up or released? At the root level there are the individual paragraphs: is the language suited to the story? If alliteration or other clever manipulations of words are used, are they well-used? Sentence fragments? If so, appropriately used? A masterpiece is going to excel at all three levels. When I’m critiquing, I have to pay some attention to all three levels of storytelling, just as I have to when I’m writing.
“Second, critiquing is a give-and-take economy. If I don’t care enough to do a good job reviewing someone else’s story, why would they put themselves out to critique mine? Plus, I just don’t want to half-ass it; the world needs more good fiction.
“And last, giving critiques is a way of paying it forward. Writers like Joe Lansdale and Ardath Mayhar corresponded with me when I was a beginning writer, giving me useful advice. I’ve been going to science fiction conventions for decades where I can talk to great authors or attend informative panel discussions. When I critique at a con or when I appear on panels, it’s to help the next generation of writers.”
“He [Manny Frishberg] and I are in the same writing group, Sound on Paper. We meet once a month to critique stories each of us has written in the meantime, be they novels or flash, or whatever—even nonfiction occasionally. A few years ago Manny and I started getting together once a week to write stories. In three years we wrote sixteen stories, and sold half of them. That includes two sales to Analog, the biggest magazine in the field.”
“Tenéré” by Manny Frishberg and Edd Vick, Analog May/Jun 2017, cover design by Victoria Green
“Ashfall” by Manny Frishberg and Edd Vick, Analog Jul/Aug 2015, cover by Tomislav Tikulin
TDE: How did the Lt. Johnson and Sgt. Bolt series develop, and why did you choose to tell the stories as letters?
BKS: Believe it or not, the premise for the Walt Johnson and Gordon Bolt series came to me in a dream. I’d been writing mysteries for two or three years, without coming up with anything publishable, when I woke up one morning with a vivid impression of a scene. Two police detectives are walking across the grounds of a large estate, talking. The first detective says, “It was a clever murder, wasn’t it?” The second replies, “Not so very clever—unless you mean the part about the horse.” The first detective is utterly confused—it had never occurred to him that a horse might be involved. “What horse?” he demands. The second detective misinterprets his question and says, “Does it matter what horse? One from the stables, I suppose.”
That sliver of conversation defined the characters of Walt and Bolt, established the relationship between them, and set the pattern for every story in the series. Walt Johnson is a highly respected police lieutenant. Everyone, especially his adoring subordinate, Sergeant Gordon Bolt, sees him as a brilliant detective. But Walt is in fact a dim bulb, earnest and well-meaning but always in a fog. He blunders through his cases, missing every clue, blurting out clichés and irrelevant observations that reveal just how lost he is. Bolt, much smarter than Walt but far too humble, thinks Walt is a genius and seizes on everything he says, misinterpreting all his muddle-headed remarks as dazzling deductions. Bolt’s the true detective. He’s always the one who figures everything out, and Walt’s always the one who gets the credit. Walt feels guilty about it but lacks the courage to admit the truth to anyone, including Bolt. That’s the basic plot for all twelve Bolt and Walt stories.
As for the letter-writing form of the stories, I read several epistolary novels in graduate school, including Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa—I didn’t love the novels, but I was intrigued by the form. (And I relished Henry Fielding’s epistolary parody of Richardson, Shamela.) I also read Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, an early mystery and a variation on epistolary form, and I was struck by Jane Austen’s use of long letters in novels such as Pride and Prejudice. When I gobbled up Dorothy Sayers’ works, I liked her use of epistolary form in “The Documents in the Case,” a long short story she wrote with Robert Eustace. So when I cast about for a way to tell Walt’s story, epistolary form occurred to me as a possibility. Walt is plagued by guilt because he’s become a success by taking credit for Bolt’s accomplishments. He needs to confess, and to whom should he confess if not to his mother? In the third story in the series, “True Romance,” Walt’s widowed mother emerges from the letters when she pays Walt a long visit and wins the heart of Sergeant Bolt. That story is told in the form of a long letter from Walt to his ever-patient wife, Ellen. Of course, Walt has no idea that his mother and Bolt have fallen in love, just as he has no idea of what’s going on in the case he and Bolt are investigating; readers have all the evidence they need to realize the truest romance in “True Romance” is the blossoming one between Bolt and Mrs. Johnson, but Walt never suspects. All the other stories, as I recall, are written as letters from Walt to his mother—except that by the eleventh story, “True Test,” Walt has switched to e-mail, and breaks off suddenly when Ellen goes into labor with their second child. The final story, “True Enough,” is a letter Walt writes to his mother while she and Bolt are on their honeymoon.