“Deadbeat” by Thomas Pluck is an immersion into the world of high-rise ironworkers, their women, and their baggage. It’s a way of life that wrecks havoc on bodies and vows, and you might think a world away from the criminal activity on the streets down below. But you’d be wrong.
The Digest Enthusiast: Unless I just plain missed them, I don’t think you’ve written many short stories, but “Hit Me” in the first issue of Down & Out: The Magazine was terrific. What triggered the tale, and what was unique about writ- ing a short story versus a novel?
Rick Ollerman: Thank you for that. What triggered that particular story was the notion that it was simply not a good idea to hire a hit man to kill somebody, for any number of reasons. The first time they get into trouble themselves, they’re going to say, “Wanna trade? Let me go and I’ll give you someone who wanted to have someone else murdered.” Huge backfire on you.
I’d like to write more but it’s just an easier thing to do if I either have a weekend or long chunk of time free (that happens, right?), or if someone invites me to their anthologies (I’m still waiting). Last year I had a story appear in Windward: Best New England Crime Stories 2016 from Level Best Books as well as another in Jay Stringer’s Waiting to be Forgotten: Stories of Crime and Heartbreak, Inspired by The Replacements (Gutter Books).
Since I don’t outline a novel and I definitely don’t know how it ends before I start, the biggest difference in writing a short story is while I don’t necessarily have to know the ending before I start, I absolutely, positively must know the point of the story.
Once I know the point of the story, I need someone who can tell that story, if it’s going to be in the first person. This gives me the voice of the piece, and if I have that, and the point, I like to take a weekend or three days and just work on the story start to finish. That clearly shows an obvious difference between novels and short stories: one of the two has far fewer words.
I know when I write it out like that it seems simple, and it is. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s far from that. The sharper, more refined the point and the voice are in your head, the more the story can help you write itself, but simple does not equate to easy. You have less space to develop characters, ideas, and plot, so that means you have fewer tools available for you to make your story what it is in your mind. Unlike a novel, you can hold the entire story in your head at once, but that means it has to be clear enough for you to do so, not something nebulous and ill-defined.
Each edition of The Magazine pays tribute to pages past where crime fiction writers earned only “A Few Cents A Word.” Rick Ollerman sets the stage for his first pulp-master, Frederick Nebel, with background on Black Mask, its editors, and Nebel’s rise when he was tapped to fill the void when his friend and contemporary, Dashiell Hammett, left the magazine.
Nebel’s voluminous career began in Black Mask, from which his featured story, “Rough Justice,” first appeared in November 1930.
Nebel’s yarn stars “Tough Dick” Donahue, of the Inter-State Detective Agency. Donahue’s assigned to recover a valuable ring for the insurance company that hired his agency; which leads him to St. Louis, (where Nebel lived at the time and often set his stories). Because he’s new in town, Donahue needs someone local who knows what’s what.
“A cop that can be smeared. A cop that knows this burgup, down and across—and”— he lowered his hard blunt voice—“a cop that’ll keep his jaw shut after he’s smeared and stay out of the way. No harness bull. A bigger guy.”
If you’re a pulp fiction fan, you can’t go wrong with Nebel’s prose, patter, or plotting. It captures the style and substance of its era beautifully—which makesfor a fascinating contrast with The Magazine’s brand of new crime fiction.
“Process is an interesting topic because it changes and evolves as your experience as a writer grows and evolves. Often I like to start with “what if ” questions when I start to think of a plot. When I began Truth Always Kills, it was something like, ‘The FBI tells us that stalking is the closest thing we have to a reliable predictor of murder. What if you know that, and what if your significant other is being stalked by someone in exactly those ways that often don’t end up well? What would you do? What can you do?’
“That led me to think of the kind of character that would have this kind of knowledge, and then made me think of what kind of person he’d have to be, to be capable of following through on any of the alternatives. And when you think about the most extreme of these, how would anybody make that happen without becoming a suspect themselves? Other people would be aware that the stalker has a victim, so if he just up and disappears, clearly the stalking victim and the people around her would warrant a look by the authorities, wouldn’t they?
“Then I took it further. I presented the character with choice after choice, each one giving him the opportunity to do what’s right morally or what’s right by the letter of the law. Each time he does what he feels he has to do, yet each time someone ends up suffering. This is an immense burden, but it serves as the crux of the character with which I built the plot around. I don’t want to say any more because I don’t like spoilers, but it should give an idea of one way I come up with what I think of as a character-driven sort of plot.”
Jen Conley explores her series’ character, Andrea Vogel’s tangled relationships with her man, his affair, her dog, and herself, in “Trash.” Vogel’s a cop whose inner circle of pals rank barely a notch above her day job’s perps and perjurers. By the time Vogel rises from her self-made bed a bittersweet new day dawns on her doorstep.
“I’ve written in both the third person and the first person, and I’ve enjoyed both. I expected to retain a preference for third person and feel limited by the first, but that turned out not to be the case.
“Since I’ve had readers ask for a sequel to Truth Always Kills and the publisher ask for a sequel to Mad Dog Barked, I think there’s a way to do both in one book even though both of the predecessors were written in the first person. It will require some experimentation, and I truly hope I can do it well enough so that readers either will not notice or not lose patience and stay with it, but I think some terrific scenes can come out of the collision of the two books.”
Slick is one sick bastard. He’s dicey about the serial partners he deems worthy of his criminal intents. The new guy, Bo, gives it a go in “On the Job Interview” by Eric Beetner. As bad as Bo’s initiation is, it’s less of an ordeal than the firing of the sucker he’s replacing. “. . . [Beetner] has amassed a number of award nominations and wins as his reputation for good old-fashioned hard-boiled prose is as uncompromising as anyone’s.” Beetner is also cohost, with S.W. Lauden, of the excellent crime fiction podcast, Writer Types.
“The first time I discovered digest magazines I was a boy living in Simsbury, Connecticut. I’d walk up through the woods, jump over a small creek, walk along a road, cut through a graveyard and then the Little League fields, and finally down a hill to the public library. I’d wander through the upstairs section, with the adult books, and at some point, I came across boxes of old Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact magazines. I think they were being edited either by Ben Bova or Stanley Schmidt at that time.”
“Breakage” by Reed Farrel Coleman is the issue’s feature story. Rack up another win for PI Moe Prager’s casebook, and for Coleman, who hits all the right notes. The mystery is a missing person’s case, with emphasis on the characters’ humanity and the scars of wounds sealed, but never really healed.
Rick Ollerman’s Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals collects many of his essays from the collected works of paperback original authors, published by Stark House Press. Below is an excerpt from his interview in The Digest Enthusiast No. 7 in which he describes his approach to research for his essays:
“Whenever I write an essay, I always want to find something new to say about either that writer or their work, maybe both.
“It’s not always easy to know what that something new is going to be before I start researching and taking notes for the essay. In fact, it’s usually not. Sometimes I have an idea what it could be, and sometimes it even works out, but often not. Very often in the case of some of the paperback original guys, no one seems to have written down much about them, and reading is my primary form of research.”