Crooked as a Dog’s Hind Leg

September 6, 2015


Kelner-CrookedDogsLeg

Back in 1993, I started publishing my Laura Fleming mysteries about a young woman who left home to to go to college, married a Yankee, and moved up North. On her vacations, she came back to Byerly, North Carolina to solve mysteries. (A lot of this was true about me, too, except I lived in Charlotte, NC and I never got into solving mysteries.) The series ran for eight books, all of which are still available as ebooks and Audible downloads. But those eight books don’t tell you everything that happened in Byerly.

As I was writing the series, and for a few years after, I’d go back to Byerly for short stories. There were seven all together, and they were published in magazines and anthologies that are long since out of print. A friend — and she knows who I’m talking about — kept pushing me to produce an electronic collection, but I was hesitant. I’d never done a project quite like this and, of course, I was worried that nobody would want to read the stories except the one friend. But she’s persistent, and after republishing the eight Laura Fleming novels, I decided to take a shot at collecting those Byerly stories.

Getting ready for publication wasn’t as easy as I’d expected. I had the original story files, but it took help from the family tech specialist — my husband Steve — to get them opened because the programs in which they were written are obsolete. After that, I had to compare them with the published versions, since the galleys back then were on actual paper, and re-make all the corrections the anthology and magazine editors made. Then I had to proofread them, along with help from the persistent friend and Femmes Charlaine and Dana. But that was all details. The real tough part was reading them again.

Folks, I was scared to death of rereading stories that were written so long ago. What if I hated them? What if I was embarrassed by them? What if I was just bored? But it turned out not to be so terrible. Okay, there are places I wish either I or previous editors had been more vicious with red pencils, and sections I’d never write like that today. I even found some out-and-out errors that I could now fix. But overall, I’m happy with the result.

“Gift of the Murderer” was my first published short story. My editor of the time, John Scognamiglio of Kensington, called one day and said, “You write short stories, don’t you?” “Yes,” I lied. Honestly, it wasn’t easy to make myself write short instead of novel-length, but I guess he liked it, because he asked for another story for an anthology the next year. “Marley’s Ghost” is an homage to Dickens, and some of the issues raised in it led me to write the novel Mad as the Dickensyears later. Those two stories are the only ones in the collection to actually include Laura Fleming and her Shakespeare-quoting husband Richard.

“The Death of Erik the Redneck” was an Agatha nominee, and features Byerly’s Chief of Police Junior Norton investigating a kind of Viking funeral. “An Unmentionable Crime” is about Sue, one of Laura’s cousins, and was inspired by admiration for women who really understand how to fit customers with bras. “Bible Belt” isn’t actually in Byerly, but is set in the neighboring town of Rocky Shoals, and characters from it show up in Byerly later on. It was published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and through oddities of timing and the mail service, I found out about the sale when I met editor Janet Hutchings at the Malice Domestic banquet. That story was nominated for the  Anthony and the Macavity awards.

“Old Dog Days” has Junior Norton’s father. It was originally written for a book that never happened, which just goes to show that writers never throw anything away. With “Lying-in-the-Road Death,” it was back to Junior again. I had that title floating around in my head for years before I finally wrote the story to go with it.
After all was said and done, I rather enjoyed going back to Byerly, and Crooked as a Dog’s Hind Leg will be published on September 8, 2015. I hope people will want to come back to Byerly, and maybe some newcomers will want to visit, too.

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Excerpt from The Skeleton Takes a Bow

September 1, 2014


The Skeleton Takes a Bow

by Leigh Perry

Chapter One

I should have known better than to let Madison talk me into letting Sid appear in Hamlet. Of course, he was made to play the part she had in mind for him. Like Yorick, Sid was a fellow of infinite jest and most excellent fancy, had borne me on his back a thousand times, and his flashes of merriment were indeed wont to set the table on a roar. More to the point, Sid and Yorick were both dead. But while Yorick is usually depicted as an inanimate skull, the Thackery family skeleton is a full set of bones and he is quite thoroughly animated.

It started on a Friday in late March, a few days after the Pennycross High School Drama Club held auditions for its production of Hamlet. My teenaged daughter Madison had spent most of the afternoon conferring with Sid in his attic room, and when they finally emerged, they cleaned up the kitchen, washed and folded two loads of laundry, and gath- ered the garbage and recycling to take out to the street—all without being nagged. So of course I’d known they were up to something.

Over our spaghetti dinner Madison said, “They announced the cast for the play today. Becca Regan is going to direct, and she’s great.”

“Excellent!” Madison had joined the drama club as soon as she started attending classes at PHS, but it had been too late for her to be in the fall show. This time she was ready. “What part did you get?”

“Guildenstern.”

“Guildenstern?”

“He’s one of Hamlet’s friends. Claudius brings him and Rosencrantz in to try to cheer up Hamlet and then uses them to—”

“Sweetie, I know who Guildenstern is. English degree, remember? It’s just that I thought you were going for Ger- trude or Ophelia.”

“I was, but so were all the other girls in the club. There are only two good female roles in the play, after all. Guil- denstern will be interesting.”

“Are you going to be the mature one this time? I want to know before I start complaining about club politics, playing favorites, and so on.”

“Tonight I will be playing the role of maturity incarnate.”

“Okay, then. They gave you such a small part because you’re a freshman, right? And a new kid?” Even though we’d moved so often that Madison was remarkably adept at fitting herself into a school’s society, some schools were more insu- lar than others.

“Maybe, but to be fair, Becca doesn’t know me well enough to know if she can rely on me to carry a big part. This is her first time directing a show, and you can’t blame her for wanting to go with a known quantity.”

“Yes, I can. Especially if you gave a better audition.”

“Oh, I nailed that audition!” Then she remembered that she was being mature. “Of course, we both know that plenty of people audition and get a role, then don’t even bother to show up for rehearsals.”

“Please. She could have checked your resume and real- ized that you were dependable enough for more than a small part.”

“There are no small parts, only small actors.”

“Which you are not, so you are going to rock that part!” “Agreed. Besides, there are a lot of even smaller parts. And Tristan, the guy playing Rosencrantz, is really cool and we get to hang out together at rehearsal. He’s a really good actor and would have been a great Hamlet, but the guy who got it is good, too, and he really looks the part. He’s got that whole dark-haired emo thing going on—Tristan is blond.”

I resisted asking the questions that sprang immediately to mind: Is Tristan cute? Is he cool for a boyfriend or just as a friend? Does he have a girlfriend? When can I meet him? In other words, all the questions that were guaranteed to make Madison’s hackles rise. If she was going to be mature, I should take a stab at it, too. “So are you going to be a female version of Guildenstern, or dress in male drag?”

“Drag!” she said happily. “We talked about setting the show during the twenties or something, but decided to go full-out Elizabethan. Tights, swords, doublets. Jo Sinta is doing costumes again, and she’s so excited!”

“Sounds great. I look forward to it. Just let me know the rehearsal schedule so I can put it in my book.” As an adjunct English professor, my classes tend to be at those odd times that full-time profs don’t want, and I also have to keep office hours. Keeping up with that while monitoring the activities of a busy teenager was a constant challenge.

“There is one thing I wanted to ask about, schedulewise.” Madison looked at Sid, and I knew the moment had come for them to ask whatever it was they’d cooked up earlier. “You know high schools have to work with tight budgets.”

Sid spoke for the first time since we’d sat down to dinner. He doesn’t eat, of course, but he likes keeping us company during our meals. He also likes sneaking tidbits to Madison’s Akita, Byron, under the table, not because he likes the dog but because he was hoping to convince him that there were much better treats available than Sid’s own bare bones. He said, “I think it’s shameful that the arts are so poorly supported in public schools. I’d like to do more to help.”

There was a thump under the table that I interpreted as Madison kicking Sid in the shinbone. Had she known him as long as I had, she’d have known that, unlike her, he never could stick to a script. But I’d known him most of my life, while she’d only been formally introduced to him a few months before.

Madison said, “Becca said we’re going to spend most of our budget on the costumes. That’s the way they did it back in Shakespeare’s time.”

“I know. English professor, remember? Even adjunct faculty members are familiar with the way Shakespeare’s work was originally produced.”

“Right. So we’ll have some props and scenery, but they’ll be minimal, whatever we can scrounge up. And today Becca 1S pulled out this really awful papier-mâché skull and said we’d be using it for the grave-digging scene.”

Sid assumed a dramatic pose. “‘Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy—’ ”

There was another thump under the table.

“Anyway,” Madison said emphatically, “I thought that the scene would play so much better with a more convincing skull.”

“Like Sid’s?” I asked.

“What a great idea, Georgia!” Sid said, and I think he was trying for enthused surprise. He’d have never made it through an audition if that was the best he could do.

“Nice try,” I said, “but we all know it wasn’t my idea—it was yours and Madison’s.”

“Was doing the laundry too much of a giveaway?” she asked.

“Just a bit.” Not that I was complaining—it meant fewer shirts for me to fold. I took a healthy bite of spaghetti so I could chew on it and the idea simultaneously. “Do you have any idea how you would work this out?”

“It’ll be easy,” Madison said. “I’ll take Sid to school with me and keep him in my locker until rehearsal.”

“You’re going to take all of Sid?”

“No, just the skull.”

“I’m fine with that,” Sid added.

He really was eager. Usually he hated to be separated from the rest of his bones because it made him feel so help- less. The essential part of Sid—I never know if I should call it his soul, his consciousness, his ghost, or his memory chip—travels with the skull, which means that when the skull is elsewhere, the rest of his bones are just that, a pile of bones. He could move the rest of his skeleton from a few feet away, but not from as far away as the high school. On the plus side, I wouldn’t have to worry about a skull-less skeleton wandering around the house getting into trouble.

“Won’t you get bored cooped up in a locker all day?” I asked.

“I’ll put him on the shelf in front of the vents,” Madison said, “so he’ll be able to watch people.”

Since Sid was an enthusiastic eavesdropper and peeper, I could see how that would appeal to him.

She went on. “I’ll take him with me to rehearsals, then bring him home every night. All we need is some sort of padded bag to carry him in, and Aunt Deborah has an old bowling bag she’s not using anymore that would be perfect.”

“You told Deborah your plan?”

“No, no. I just noticed the bag the last time I was over at her place.”

That was a relief. My older sister had grudgingly accepted that Sid was a part of the family, but I was pretty sure what her reaction to this plan would be. My initial feeling was the same, but after all the cleaning they’d done, I owed Sid and Madison a chance to convince me.

So I listened to the rest of their pitch as I finished my plate of pasta. Madison’s argument that it would add a vital element to the play’s success didn’t sway me much. Yorick’s skull appears onstage for exactly one scene—as long as the skull they used onstage was approximately the right shape and color, it would be fine. It was Sid’s plea that really got me. Once he abandoned his “support the arts” platform, I could see how much he really wanted the chance to leave the house and spend more time with Madison.

Sid had moved in with us when I was six, but for obvious reasons, he only rarely left the house. As long as I’d been living at home, he’d had me for company, but once I moved out, he’d spent most of his time alone in the attic. Since I’d come back to Pennycross for a job at McQuaid University, and was house-sitting for my parents while they were on sabbatical, his life had been far more interesting. He had me and Madison to hang with, Byron the dog to fuss about, and when he discovered the Internet, a whole new world to play in.

But still, he hadn’t had an opportunity to actually leave the house for months, and this sounded like it might be a safe way to allow him a little more freedom. After obtaining pinkie swears from them both—Sid’s that he wouldn’t play any tricks and Madison’s that she’d be exceedingly careful with him—I agreed.

But late that night, after I went to bed, I started counting up the ways it could go wrong. The problem was, I couldn’t go back on my word to my daughter and my best friend, no matter how much I wished I’d never let them talk me into it.

 

Chapter Two

My misgivings were proven all too correct just three weeks later. Madison had just started down the street to take Byron for a walk when I got home from work, even though it was after five. Knowing that she usually takes him out first thing after she gets back from school, I deduced that she’d had a long day. So while she tended to his needs, I went inside to tend to hers. In other words, I thawed out some of the chili we’d made and frozen the weekend before and baked a can of crescent rolls. Since it was Thursday, we’d just about run out of fresh supplies from the previous weekend’s shopping trip, but there was enough produce left to toss together a salad.

I had everything ready by the time Byron dragged Madison back in, and while she washed up, I made sure all the curtains were closed tightly for privacy before I went to the bottom of the stairs and yelled, “Sid! Dinnertime!”

Sid doesn’t eat, of course, or even drink, but he usually likes sitting with us during meals. But this time, there was no answering clatter of bony feet.

“Sid? Are you coming down?”

Madison came out of the bathroom with an expression of guilt it didn’t take a mother to interpret.

“What?” I asked.

“I left him at school.”

“You did what?”

“I left Sid at school!”

“Madison! How could you—?”

“It’s not my fault. I had to take that makeup Spanish test after school, and Senora Harper made me wait until after she finished tutoring some kids, and then the test took for- ever so I barely made it to choral ensemble. Then Samantha’s wheelchair was acting wonky so she needed help pushing it outside, and I couldn’t just leave her outside alone with her chair messing up, especially since her mother was late. Then when she finally showed up, they offered me a ride home, and it was so late and I was so tired—”

I held up my hand to stop the flood of excuses and asked, “Where is Sid?”

“Well, I didn’t remember the test until after I’d gone to rehearsal, and we weren’t working on any of my scenes today anyway. Only Becca wanted to keep Sid because she wanted to work on the graveyard scene, which I said was fine, so she said I could come pick him up later. But I had that Spanish test and—”

“Madison! Where is he?”

“He must still be backstage in the auditorium.”

“Fine. We’re going to go get him.” I grabbed my purse and car keys, and she followed me out to our somewhat battered green minivan.

Rush hour was in full swing, something I usually manage to avoid by virtue of working in university settings that don’t keep standard business hours, and even in a town as small as Pennycross, the delays were annoying. Madison, realizing that I hadn’t bought her explanations for why it wasn’t her fault, was sunk in silence and I was too mad to say anything to make her feel better.

Had I been totally honest with her, I might have admitted that I was blaming myself nearly as much as I was her. I should have noticed sooner that Sid wasn’t clattering around in the attic. When a person has no skin to mask the sound, and no reason to keep himself hidden, it can get pretty noisy. I’d figured he was on the computer, catching up with his myriad Facebook friends and Twitter followers.

Though the parking lot was nearly deserted when we got to Pennycross High, the two cars parked near the front door gave me hope that somebody would be available to let us in. No such luck. I pounded on the door repeatedly and Madison trotted all the way around the building to see if she could find a door that had been left unlocked, but there was no sound from inside the building. After fifteen minutes of raising as much of a ruckus as we dared, we admitted defeat and got back into the car.

We were halfway back home when Madison said, “I’m sorry, Mom. It was my fault.”

“No, it was mine. I should never have let you talk me into letting Sid be in the play.”

“But he’s been having so much fun!”

“And now he’s stuck at the school all night. Alone.” “At least it’s not Friday—one night is a lot better than the whole weekend.”

She wasn’t even convincing herself, and I was not appeased.

I warmed up the chili and rolls in the microwave when we got back to the house, but neither of us had much appe- tite. Afterward, Madison dove into her homework while I graded student papers. I’m afraid my students paid the price for my bad mood—I wasn’t as patient as I usually was with grammar mistakes and confusion over syntax.

The night seemed long and empty without Sid, and once Madison went to bed, I snuck up to his attic room. With his skull gone, inhabited by whatever it was that kept Sid mov- ing and talking, the rest of his bones were abandoned on the couch. Normal skeletons, meaning the kinds of specimens I see fairly often in the halls of academe, are held together with wires and bolts. Sid holds himself together, so the pieces he’d left had no reason to stick together. It was vaguely creepy seeing him like that, but I suppose it would have been creepier still if his body had been wandering around blindly, searching for his skull.

Byron was standing at attention outside the attic door when I got back downstairs, so I carefully closed it behind me. It was bad enough that we’d left Sid at school. I didn’t want to think about what his reaction would be if we let the dog gnaw on his bones while he was gone.

 

Chapter Three

Usually Madison rode her bicycle to and from school, but the next day I drove her and her bike, hoping she’d be able to get to the auditorium and grab Sid so I could take him home right away. Unfortunately the cheerleaders picked that morning to rehearse for a pep rally, so we had to postpone our apologies until later.

I blew off my office hours that afternoon and was back at PHS when the bell rang. Madison ran out to where I was waiting, gave me the battered black and purple bowling bag Sid been riding to and from school in, and jumped on her bicycle to take care of an urgent errand.

“Sid, I am so sorry,” I said as soon as I started driving. I’d unzipped the bag so he could hear me better, knowing that if anybody saw me talking, they’d assume I was on a cell phone.

“Georgia, we need to talk,” Sid said, his voice a little muffled from still being in the bag.

“I know, I know, this was unforgivable. We went to the school as soon as we realized you’d been left behind yesterday, but the doors were locked and nobody would let us in. Madison beat herself up over it all night long, and she really wants to make it up to you, so she’s at Wray’s Comics right now looking for something special to get you as an apology present.”

“Forget the manga,” he said. “This is important.”

“Of course it is, but you know we’d never have left you there all night on purpose. It’s just that Madison had to make up that Spanish test she missed when she was out sick last week, and it took longer than she expected, and she had choral ensemble practice after that, then went to help Samantha, and she just forgot to come back by the auditorium to get you.”

“It’s okay, but—”

“It’s not okay!” By then I’d arrived at the house. “Hang on until we get inside.” Normally I’d have zipped up the bag, even for the short walk from the driveway into the house, but under the circumstances, I just couldn’t do it.

As soon as I was in the front hall with the door firmly shut, I pulled Sid out of the bag to continue apologizing face-to-face. Or at least face-to-skull.

“Okay,” he said, “it’s not okay and I will be happy to let you and Madison grovel for the next month. Maybe two. But right now I have to tell you something.”

“Okay, what is it?”

“I witnessed a murder.”

“Excuse me?”

“Last night, somebody killed a man in the high school

 

For the rest of the Family Skeleton’s latest adventure, read The Skeleton Takes a Bow from Berkley Prime Crime, available as a paperback, ebook, and Audible download.



Evolution of a Cover

February 19, 2014

Okay, we aren’t supposed to, but we all do it. We judge books by the cover. So as you might guess, there is a lot of back-and-forth and creative wrangling over every book cover.

Take, for instance, my alter ego Leigh Perry‘s upcoming Family Skeleton mystery The Skeleton Takes a Bow. We went through all kinds of ideas. First was the most obvious.

Sid-Bow-Pink

Unfortunately, it was the wrong kind of bow. Sid the Skeleton never wears pink. So we went back to the drawing board.

Sid-Bow-Arrow

Very Hunger Games, and goodness knows Sid looks hungry. But this wasn’t quite the bow we were looking for, etiher. Besides, we left out the arrow. Is he going to shoot his ulna or his radius?

Back to the drawing yet again.

Sid-Bow-Boat

This time it looks a little too Titanic, and the bow of a sinking ship wasn’t quite what we were going for.

In fact the bow in the book is the kind an actor makes after a successful performance, say as Yorick in Hamlet.

Sid-Bowing

We finally had the right kind of bow, but unfortunately, Sid’s skull wouldn’t stay on long enough for him to pose.

So what does the cover look like? You’ll have to check out BOLO Books on Feb. 18 to find out and see how you’d judge this book from its cover.


Goodreads Giveaway

July 31, 2013

My alter ego Leigh Perry has asked me to post that she’s got a giveaway running on Goodreads. If you’re on Goodreads, just follow that link before August 20 and enter to win an ARC (advance reader copy) of  A Skeleton in the Family along with this cuddly skeletal sock monkey:

Skeletal Sock Monkey

The link for the giveaway is HERE.

By the way, I do realize that the giveaway page has and old title and my real name instead of my pen name. I’ve got a note into Goodreads to try and get that fixed.


The Next Big Thing

November 29, 2012

Have you heard about The Next Big Thing blog hop? It’s a chance for authors to let the world know about their newest writing project, whether it’s something already published or coming soon to a bookseller near you or even just in the works. I was invited to participate by the effervesecent short story author Barb Goffman, who blogged as one of the Women of Mystery, and now I’m answering the same batch of questions here.

What is your title of your story?

My most recent short story is “Pirate Dave and the Captain’s Ghost,”, which appears in An Apple for the Creature, the fifth anthology I’ve co-edited with Charlaine Harris. Ace published it in September, just in case back-to-school sales weren’t scary enough for you.

Where did the idea come from for the story?

All my stories tend to be Frankenstein-monster-like in their creation–I sew on a piece from here, and a piece from there, and eventually there are enough pieces for a story. In this case, the initial inspiration was the anthology theme: supernatural creatures and school. You’d think that since Charlaine and I were the ones to come up with the theme, I’d already have a story in mind, but no. Apparently my editor brain is completely separate from my writer brain.

Anyway, I started with schools. Then I remembered my story “Pirate Dave’s Haunted Amusement Park”, which I wrote for a previous Charlaine-and-me anthology (Death’s Excellent Vacation). I really enjoyed the characters, and since the protagonist Joyce had only recently been turned into a werewolf, I thought she might well attend a seminar about lupine-American life. As for the Captain’s ghost, I was at my daughter Valerie’s drama class, and the teacher said he’d love to be in a story. His name is Bob, and I figured that would be easy enough to fit in. Then he said, “Can it be my nickname: Captain Bob?” That was going to be a pain, so I killed him. Not the real guy, but the character, and he became Captain Bob, the really annoying ghost.

What genre does your story fall under?

Mystery and/or urban fantasy.

What actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Nathan Fillion of Castle and Firefly for Pirate Dave. Not that he looks like Pirate Dave in any way, but (1) he can do anything and (2) I might get to meet Nathan Fillion. Nicholas Brendon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for Captain Bob in his younger form–he’d need makeup for the older form. No idea for Joyce, the newbie werewolf. I don’t have any female actors I’m dying to meet, so that limits me.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your story?

It’s hard enough to make friends when you’re a newly turned werewolf, and having a vampiric boyfriend doesn’t help, but it’s being haunted by a cranky ghost that really keeps Joyce from blending into the pack.

Was your story self-published or represented by an agency?

Whether wearing my editor hat or my author hat, I’m published by Penguin and represented by the JABberwocky Agency.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

About three weeks, or a bit more if you count sitting-staring-at-the-wall time.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Favorably or not? I’d love to be compared to Charlaine’s Sookie Stackhouse series, but I’m not holding my breath. I tend to compare it more to the movie The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Deadlines! Seriously, part of the deal of the anthologies is that I contribute a story. So once the school theme was set, I had to be inspired.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Speaking of the whole anthology, and not just my story, we all know how scary school can be. Adding a vampire, demon, or werewolf isn’t that much of a stretch. Even if my story doesn’t sound like your favorite class, check out this honor roll of contributors: Charlaine Harris, Ilona AndrewsAmber BensonRhys BowenMike Carey, Donald Harstad, Steve HockensmithNancy HolderFaith HunterMarjorie M. LiuJonathan Maberry, and Thomas E. Sniegoski. Talk about the cool kid’s table in the cafeteria!

Thanks again to Barb Goffman for inviting to participate in this blog hop. You can read her blog hop post here.

To keep the hop going, here is another author who’ll be blogging next week about his next big thing: Stephen P. Kelner, who is working on a 10th century Viking mystery! (Yes, that last name does sound familiar, doesn’t it?) Steve will be guest blogging right here. 


Spitballing for Fun and Profit

June 7, 2011

A while back, I was invited to contribute an essay and exercise for a book on writing mysteries. I wrote the piece, but ultimately retrieved it from the book’s editor because of a disagreement over terms. So I thought it would be fun to put it here instead.

***

In his books on screenwriting, William Goldman (author of the scripts for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princes Bride, and Misery, among others) refers to spitballing as a way to improve a script. It’s a form of brainstorming where you throw out random ideas and see what sticks. Though I don’t write screenplays, I’ve found that spitballing works just as well for revising novels and short stories.

A couple of years ago, I was writing a mystery story where I already had the plot (a teenager accuses another kid of breaking a school tradition), a setting (a high school), a protagonist (a teacher fresh out of college), and the twist to provide the reveal (I’m not telling you that!). I liked the idea, but every time I sat down to write the story, I got bored. Now, if the writer is bored, it’s a pretty good sign that the reader is going to be even more bored–obviously something was wrong.

So I tried spitballing, which is to say I started changing elements at random. First I tried moving the setting to a college or a big city high school or a futuristic high school. None of those worked with the other elements. Now I really liked the plot, and I needed the twist to go with, so all that left to play with was protagonist. Sure enough, she was the boring part.

I tried making her older, but that destroyed a sub-plot of her feeling intimidated by the school’s principal. Then I made her male, but that didn’t do anything. Finally, I made her a student instead of a teacher, and the plot structure was stronger and the emotional payoff was higher. Moreover, I could hear the character’s voice, which is key for me. From that point on, “Kangaroo Court” was a pleasure to write, and it sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

That’s why I use spitballing.

It’s worked for me time and time again. It can be as simple as changing a gender. A teenaged werewolf was boring when she was a girl conflicted about turning furry every month, but great fun as a boy who loved being the biggest monster on the block (“Keeping Watch Over His Flock” in Wolfsbane and Mistletoe). An earnest young zombie raiser didn’t work for one story, and neither did the old crotchety one, but when I made her less earnest and more snarky, the pieces came together (“In Brightest Day” in Home Improvement: Undead Edition).

Now the examples I’ve given are all dealing with characters, because that tends to be the place where spitballing really works for me, but the technique works just as well with changing other aspects.

The thing to remember about spitballing is to let yourself go wild. Pick the craziest settings you can think of, the quirkiest characters, the most outrageous voices. Not only will you come up with ideas that had never occurred to you before, but in rejecting some of those ideas, you’ll discover which parts of a story are the most important to you.

Exercise

  1. Pick a story or novel that just isn’t working.
  2. Write down the key elements of the piece: setting, protagonist, time frame, reveal, and so on.
  3. Decide which ones can be changed. (Obviously if you’re writing something in a series or to specific requirements, you won’t have quite as much freedom to play around.)
  4. Pick one of those spitball targets, and go crazy. For a character, try switching the gender, age, race, personality, hobbies, even the name. For a setting, change from historical to present, present to futuristic, city to country, small town to Navy base, college to nursery school, office to fast food restaurant.
  5. Now imagine the ripple of changes that would result from that change.  Would the resulting story be better?  Would it have more pizzazz, stronger suspense, or a more powerful emotional punch?
  6. If the answer is an enthusiastic YES!, go ahead and revise your story.  If not, pick another aspect and start spitballing again.
  7. Repeat until you’ve got a story you’re going to enjoy writing, and that the rest of us are going to enjoy reading.

Whoops! Make that a triple release day!

April 8, 2011

I totally forgot an anthology release on Tuesday! Brilliance Audio also released the audio version of Crimes by Moonlight!

Mea culpa! I haven’t seen a copy yet, and it just slipped my mind.