Sunday, February 19, 2017

BEHOLD: MURDER INK 2!

For fifteen years, I wrote sports/action & adventure/celebrity features for the late, great magazine, Heartland USA. During that time, I covered such diverse topics as the X-Games, building demolition, the Softball World Series, and the Cape Cod Baseball League. I conducted one story from the dugout at Fenway Park, did a ride-along with the U.S. Coast Guard (a float-along?), and interviewed such notables as Keith Olbermann, Guy Fieri (for a special football tailgate grilling story), Dirty Jobs star Mike Rowe, PGA golfer Boo Weekley, and the bad boy of bowling, Pete Weber. I also had the joy of appearing in the second-largest men's general interest magazine after Playboy -- Heartland USA boasted a bi-monthly circulation of 3.5 million issues.

During one of those late nights writing to deadline for the magazine, I fell asleep at my desk with ESPN playing in the background (in 1999, I was invited as part of a select group of reporters to the sports giant's 20th Anniversary party, held at ESPN's headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut). I jolted awake and immediately reached for pen and a blank note card, upon which I recorded an unforgettable dream about a former Major League pitcher, his career derailed by injury, who is brought aboard at a big sports network to help its media director determine whether a series of seemingly natural deaths are really the work of a murderer. This past June, camped on my sun porch, I long last penned 'Murder at Channel Ten', and fired off the edited draft to Murder Ink 2, edited by Dan Szczesny (my tale of small town crime, "Exhuming Secrets on a Hot August Day', appeared in the first Murder Ink). Submitting a story set in a sports network newsroom was something of a risk -- though 'Murder at Channel Ten' technically adhered to all of the guidelines. The risk paid off, and my story now appears in an impressive Table of Contents.

Many of my fellow Murderers shared the back-stories behind their stories.

Karen Dent and Roxanne Dent on "The Werewolf Murders": "Many of the same characters Karen and Roxanne Dent created in, ‘The Death of Honeysuckle Rose,’ Volume 1, Murder Ink, insisted they be included in Volume II and ‘The Werewolf Murders’ was born. The story takes place three years later, April 1948. The war is over and big changes have occurred in Portsmouth, NH. Peace and prosperity are on the rise, along with a drug trade snaking its way up north. Ruby, promoted to senior crime reporter, is checking out a lead down at the docks, when a particularly savage murder occurs. The howl of a wolf, vicious lacerations, and an eyewitness who swears they saw a werewolf, has all the earmarks of a sensational exclusive. But Ruby doesn’t believe in the supernatural, and follows the twisted trail of clues straight into the jaws of a brutal murderer."

Dan Rothman on "The Devil's Tail": "The first newspaper in the Americas was printed in Boston in 1689. Exactly one issue of ‘Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick’ was published before it was shut down by the government. (The Governor and Council complained of ‘sundry doubtful and uncertain Reports’; i.e., fake news.)

I read all four pages of ‘Publick Occurrences’, curious to see what was of interest to the 17th-century reader. I was not too surprised to find a story which began: ‘A very Tragical Accident happened at Water-Town’ -- a story which ended with an Old Man swinging from a rope in his own cow-house!

Tales of untimely death have sold newspapers for hundreds of years. One such untimely death was that of John McLaughlen, who was found dead in the well of his New Hampshire tavern in 1787. My story ‘The Devil's Tail’ imagines how an early newspaper might handle John’s tragical accident. Warning: the tavern-keeper may not be the only character who shuffles off this mortal coil!"

O. Lucio d'Arc on "Obituary Mambo": "My first story in Murder Ink Vol. 1 was ‘One Way Dead End’ and many of the characters are the same in my second story, ‘Obituary Mambo’ -- the title of a Tom Waits song, by the way -- which is in Murder Ink, Vol. 2. A key line in the story is, ‘Some things are worse than reading your own obituary.’ The main character, the reporter Randy Dixon, is the same but the real star of this story -- which includes murder by cremation -- is a cadaver dog, Boner. A lot of the action takes place on Cape Cod. This story also includes an ‘erotic’ sex scene between the reporter and the female publisher. As far as writing goes, I write when I feel like it, morning, noon or night, with no particular schedule. Every time I work on a story in progress, I start reading it from the beginning, changing phrases or actions or characters as I go, until I get to where I left off the last time and then I continue from there. That eliminates a lot of the bumps in the narrative. For my second story, for the first time I thought a little bit ahead and doped out in my mind where I wanted the story to go. For my third one, ‘Beta Theta Pie Man,’ written but unpublished, I actually made a list of the characters so I could keep track of them. Some of the fiction in my stories is based on real life, because it’s always better when you write what you know. In ‘Obituary Mambo’ I’m actually two people, the reporter and the old guy helping out his son at his breakfast restaurant. The third book in the Randy Dixon trilogy, ‘Beta Theta Pie Man,’ also has a lot of noir and pulp fiction elements: atrocious murders of innocent young people, a women’s rugby team that’s into human sacrifice, a little mutilation, a secret symbol taken from a Kurt Vonnegut book. I am currently working on another work, ‘Kindergarten,’ which is a first-person account of a woman who stumbles into a series of gruesome murders."

Mark Arsenault on 'Hashtag Splat': "I started working on my story idea for ‘Hashtag Splat’ back in the 1990s, when I was working in Lowell, Mass. Driving around the city, you’re always crossing one of the bridges over the Merrimack River. One time I started daydreaming about a scenario in which a man climbs to the top of one of those bridges and demands to talk to a reporter. For seriously the next 20 years or so, I would be reminded of this idea every time I drove over a bridge -- any bridge, anywhere. And I’d slip back into that daydream. What makes this a good idea for a story is that the situation immediately brings up a lot of whys. Why would he climb up there? Why would he want to talk to a reporter? These are the kind of questions that drive a narrative forward, and pull readers along. I dropped my characters from Murder Ink 1 into this situation and let them figure out the whys. Not that I want to make it sound easy. It wasn’t. This story was written by the trial-and-error method, and that’s a grind. Too bad I didn't daydream an ending 20 years ago."

Judith Janoo on "Bitter Pills": "I grew up watching fishing boats come in and out of our small Maine harbor. When the opportunity arose to write a mystery story for possible publication in Murder Ink 2, my mind was already climbing over the rocks to get to the sea. ‘Bitter Pills’ scratches the surface of quirky, gutsy, eccentric characters that inhabit this coastline. It addresses the fact that fishermen, when the fishing grounds are depleted, have no one to bail them out. The ocean belongs to no one, and there’s international competition, too, for its dwindling resources. Ted Holmes, aspiring to be the Michael Moore of the Maine Coast, bought the local weekly newspaper. The news thus far in this fishing town consisting of who launched the longest mid-water trawler, caught the most herring, or took in the most stray beagles. But now, out of the blue, Ted finds himself investigating a disappearance, and uncovering the story behind a murder. This was so much fun to write. There’s something about a dead body that gets the ink flowing."

Stephen R. Wilk on "Unexpected": "There are two roots for my mystery ‘Unexpected’. The setting in a small New England newspaper office derives from my own experiences in small papers and magazines, all of which were pretty grungy and kind of cheap. It was light years removed from the classy, polished world of publishing portrayed in the TV series Name of the Game, with their pristine offices in a mid-town Manhattan high-rise. In particular, I was inspired by a university magazine my mother worked for, which ran out of two old Army Barracks buildings at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, with creaking wooden floors, temperamental heating, and the presence of their mascot, Kelty the Retarded Dog. I thought that title a little un-PC, so I changed it and made him a cat. The other root was a supposedly true story I heard from someone at a research lab I worked at. I’ve since learned that a similar story has been told about other research labs, so this might simply be a science-tinged urban legend. I had actually written it up, but couldn’t figure out where to use it until the call for submissions for Murder Ink 2 came along."

Amy Ray on "Kittery Killer's Club": "This story revisits the characters from ‘A Nose For News’ which was featured in the original Murder Ink anthology. Kay Leavitt works for a small weekly -- much like the newspaper I worked for ten years ago as a reporter covering the ‘exciting’ school board and town meeting beat. Kay prefers mundane news, but murder seems to follow her, as it did the evening of her writers’ group meeting. For many years, I’ve been privileged to be in a group of talented writers who critique my work, including this short story (and my upcoming mystery/thriller Color of Betrayal, due out next year from Barking Rain Press.) Kay’s group, which includes her boss Wayne and his faithful pug companion Poe, are awaiting the arrival of their featured speaker when they learn he has been found dead. Murdered. In a most heinous way. With no shortage of suspects, Kay -- and invariably, Poe -- set out to solve the mystery of who killed their esteemed speaker. The motivating circumstances that precipitated the killing in the story actually happened, but luckily it was not resolved with murder. That end is better left on the pages of a fictional short story."

Robin G. Baskerville on "Obit Desk": "When I was a child I used to watch hard-boiled detective movies in the afternoon with my mother. These black and white beauties were full of hard-boiled dames and equally jaded dicks. When I sat down to write something, anything, for Murder Ink, the phrase ‘ . . . trading on the entrée that my job affords me, not carte blanche, but carte noir, assured access via back entries and alleys, the forgotten ways in that rats, mice and reporters use,’ came to me, and I built my story ‘Obit Desk’ around that. Work with enough people and there’s always that one who is too tightly wound. Work the obit desk and/or letters to the editor beat and you will meet a lot of colorful characters, some whose reality is not shared by the majority of us, or – perhaps -- by any of us. I took these three elements, added some social commentary and wound up with ‘Obit Desk’, a tight little package of a story written in the style of an aspiring (expiring?) ace reporter."

Jeff Deck on "Making the Transition": "Though I’ve held several editing jobs, my experience in actual journalism was brief. I happened into a copy-editing and page layout job at Seacoast Media Group in Portsmouth, N.H., a few years ago, mostly because I needed income but also out of some lingering nostalgia for my college paper days. The work was fast-paced and demanding, the hours were not great (my fiancée was often asleep when I came home; 11 p.m. would be an ‘early’ night), and the pay frankly sucked. But nobody was there to get rich. These were people with a deep commitment to facts and the truth. My comrades on the copy desk were the most delightful group of snarky English-major nerds you could ever meet. Unfortunately, the job didn’t always love them back. As the newspaper group was shuffled from one behemoth corporate owner to the next, freezes on raises and ever-multiplying responsibilities per staffer made it hard to be loyal. Every time a reporter bailed for a saner job with a more livable wage, their replacement got younger and greener. I lucked out with a job offer out of the blue that basically doubled my income. The rest of the copy desk hung in there until several months later, when the latest corporate giant to own SMG decided to consolidate the copy desks at all of its ‘assets’ around the U.S. into one centralized editing and layout center in Austin. Sure, you could keep your job; you just had to move halfway across the country. I was working on a supernatural mystery / urban fantasy series, The Shadow Over Portsmouth, when I saw the call for submissions for Murder Ink Vol. 2. I realized that a side character in my series, a copy editor for the Portsmouth Porthole, would be going through the same type of difficulties as my old colleagues at SMG -- and that corporate downsizing would be only the beginning of her nightmare . . ."

Patrick Sullivan on "The Confession of Mike Reardon": "My editor at The Lakeville Journal, Cynthia Hochswender, met Dan Szczesny at the 2016 New England Newspaper and Press Association conference and informed him I would submit an entry for the second volume of Murder Ink. She promised ‘murder, fly-fishing and nekkidity.’ I have avoided the NENPA event the last few years, mostly because I made a joke about it being ‘the world’s longest funeral’ and nobody laughed. Informed I had months to write something, I naturally put it off until a couple days before the deadline. I made a couple of false starts. They were horrible. I put it out of my mind. Then I had a dream. I woke up and fumbled around for a piece of paper, scrawled a couple lines, and went back to bed. Come morning, there it was, on a Post-It note: ‘Always wanted to be a detective. So when found body hoped for best.’ So my detective, a reporter with a sort of Walter Mitty thing going on with fictional gumshoes, was born. I didn’t fulfill Ye Editor’s promise exactly, but I did provide a corpse, some angling, and partial nekkidity. And I did it in one four-hour sitting."

Donna Catanzaro on the creation of Murder Ink 2's cover: "Like most of my work, creating the cover for Murder Ink 2 is was like writing a story.  I searched old pulp magazine covers for sleazy characters and imagined a who-done-it, complete with noir characters that could be either heroes or villains. Due to the number of bullet holes (they were fun to make!) it’s clear a murder has happened here. The female reporter has crossed the police line. Is she the perpetrator back to scrub her prints, or a faithful reporter back to do her job? Next to her is a dagger, ready for her to defend or attack. But notice that there are two cigarettes in the ash tray. Is there another person in the room with her, sitting to the left out of view? Is the man in the doorway, the villain, her sidekick, or a jealous lover? I leave the rest of the story to your imagination."

Sunday, February 12, 2017

BEHOLD: FINAL MASQUERADE!

A few summers ago, I gave myself permission to spend almost two weeks in June free writing -- the act of putting pen to blank page and just allowing my writer's imagination to wander. From those weeks, a plethora of completed first drafts emerged -- a Western for one of my publishers in Germany, a dystopian tale that sold on its first time out to another, and several flash tales. In and among that wonderful time of creativity, I penned a story about a woman who'd suffered from blood cancer, declared healthy following a radical procedure but with little memory or proof of the actual treatment. At night, she's haunted -- and taunted -- by images of a man in a cage with silver bars. "End of Nights", like the other stories written during that warm, bright spell, jumped from pen to page, and then its first draft went into my filing cabinets for possible future submission.

Two summers later, I pulled out the manuscript and submitted it to Lycan Valley Press's newest anthology, Final Masquerade. The project's wonderful editor, Stacey Turner, accepted "End" with a request for a little tweaking to the ending. That was a gray and humid Sunday. Lightning crackled and thunder boomed, and, rarest of rarities in this part of New Hampshire's North Country, we lost power. And so, by the waning battery charge in my laptop, I tackled that minor rewrite -- and actually scared myself as the storm raged outside!

Several of my talented co-authors shared the back-stories behind their stories in Final Masquerade.

Joshua Chaplinksky on "Mummer's Parade": "I wrote the original version for a different themed anthology, one about clowns. I figured there’d be a lot of Pennywise-inspired killer clown stories and I wanted my piece to stand out. I had the idea of mummers in my head (probably from reading Game of Thrones) and discovered there was an actual thing called the mummer’s parade, so I started doing research into that. That led to the idea of masks and ‘animals with human faces.’ The opening came to me pretty early on -- Triboulet was known throughout the realm for having the King’s ear. He wore it around his neck on a silver chain -- and it just got weirder from there. Ultimately the story was rejected, which was fortuitous, because it was too short and I am much happier with the final product. When I came across the Lycan Valley anthology call, I knew it was a perfect fit. I’m glad they agreed!"

Samantha Lienhard on "The Artist": "When I first wrote ‘The Artist,’ it was a very different story. I’d heard a criticism of someone as not being a ‘real artist,’ and that inspired the initial version of Ian -- a bitter, arrogant man out to ruin the artist whose work got more attention than his. I wrote this story, and while it covered the same basic beats as the version in Final Masquerade, it had one major problem: neither character was likable. I took ‘The Artist’ to a critique session at Seton Hill University, where I was working toward my MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. During that critique, I not only realized this flaw, I also saw how Ian could be sympathetic. I altered his past and revised the story through that lens, which led to the version you see today."

Brian C. Baer on "Make Believe": "My girlfriend is a big fan of scary stories. Anytime she is doing homework or housework or just dozing on the couch, she's listening to them. Her phone is constantly playing the spooky, supposedly real life tales read aloud on podcasts like "Creepy Pasta". I decided to write a story for her but quickly ran into trouble. She was only scared by gritty stories of psychological torment and life-or-death panic, and those were well outside of my creative wheelhouse. As I kept hammering away at the various drafts, more and more of my own interests leaked in. I added all-night dive bars, a noir-ish sense of sarcasm and cynicism, and a love of the schlocky slasher films of the 1980s. The disparate elements all merged together in an unexpected way. ‘Make Believe’ became a story of existential horror, of being terrified of the randomness of real life. It explored what bizarre lengths mankind will go through to find some kind of order. I finished the final draft, and I loved it. Then I read it to my girlfriend. She said it wasn't scary enough."

Naching Kassa on "Hero": "‘Hero’ is a story near and dear to my heart. My father was an Army veteran and a dog trainer. When he passed away in 2014, I became involved with a charity called Operation Dog Tag. The purpose of ODT is to provide veterans who suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and other disabilities, with a dog who will assist them in routine activities. Not only is the dog a helper, he is a companion and friend. I wrote ‘Hero’ to honor these service dogs as well as the veterans they love. Sarge, the narrator of the story, is a German Shepherd dog. He’s based on my dad’s dog, Ranger. Ranger was one of the best dogs I have ever known. He was brave, strong, smart, mischievous, and loyal. Sarge is loyal too, loyal to a fault. And, it’s his love for his master and his mistress that leads him into the final masquerade. I hope you enjoy reading this story and that you will take time to honor all veterans, whoever they may be."

D. S. Ullery on "Delivery": "In the grand tradition of EC Comics titles such as The Vault of Horror or Tales from the Crypt, my stories are frequently morality plays disguised as horror. I was wondering what to write about next when I saw a news item about a serial rapist. I got to thinking what sort of Hell would await a man like that. Once I began to apply the notion of ironic justice to the equation, all manner of wonderfully dark things started cooking inside my frankly twisted imagination. I hit upon the notion of having him experience the same degree of torment he exposed women to from their perspective, while feeling helpless the entire time. From that, my little monstrosity was born."

Sheldon Woodbury on "The God of Flesh": "I’ve always been attracted to characters that engage in horrible acts, but do so out of an emotional need we can all relate to. Stories that are just about a mindless monster or a cartoon villain are easy to dismiss. But real horror is when you realize you’re never truly safe, because bad things can happen in the most innocent of places, and the cause might even be you.  I came up with the title first, then the idea of a surgeon as the main character came next. If you want guts and gore, they’re bloody warriors fighting death every day. That takes more than a little arrogance to believe that you have the godlike skill to cheat death. The story began with a simple question. ‘How far would you be willing to go for the person you love?’ ‘The God of Flesh’ is a horror story, but it’s also about the power of love."

Adrian Chamberlin on "Urban Renewal": "The Green Man and its mysteries is a subject that has long fascinated me, as can be seen in my 2011 novel The Caretakers and the short story ‘The Spirit of Summer’ (in the 2013  collection The Dark Side of the Sun). I also love writing post-apocalyptic stories, and exploring how humanity either thrives or destroys itself under such extreme conditions, when new standards of morality have been established. With this story, I wanted to put a new spin on the Green Man mythos and explore what really lurks beneath the mask of civilisation when the bombs have long since dropped and mankind believes itself to be redeemed. ‘Urban Renewal’ takes place in a post- apocalyptic Britain where social divisions are stark, and the few areas that survived have raised barriers -- real and imagined -- between their prosperous lands and the industrial areas blighted by nuclear destruction. The relationship between humanity and the natural world has become perverted, twisted; a promised land for those who believe themselves to be superior, even blessed. This new civilisation is merely a mask that hides the dark nature of humanity, and as is always the case, it is the innocent who suffer -- we see this in the alienation of the orphan boy from the wasted lands who arrives at the new boarding school in this seemingly bucolic paradise; he is alone, alienated and isolated, but has a unique artistic talent that peels back the fake mask of beauty and order to reveal a primal force of nature that too has become corrupted. It is the eve of May Day, and the schoolchildren have been tasked with creating models of the Green Man, an iconic image that appears in churches and cathedrals throughout Britain; it is an archetype of humanity’s connection to the natural world. What the boy creates reverses that. It is a mask of the Green Man in retreat, composed of scrap metal and dangerous materials from the devastated lands of the apocalypse that he once called home, and an act of malice from one of his schoolmates awakens the power within the icon -- and himself."