When Janet Hutchings, the editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, asked if I would read one of my stories to be recorded as a pod cast for their web-site, I was very happy to oblige. ‘Roller-coaster Ride’ was the story we agreed on, and it’s one that’s close to my heart. It was inspired by a visit to the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. My mother had long wanted to go and I took her to Denmark for her 80th birthday and we visited it not once, but twice. Once darkness had settled over the famous pleasure garden and the air was filled with the screams of teenagers on the roller-coaster, it had an unexpectedly sinister aspect and in the way of crime writers I jotted down an idea for a short story.
Though I did eventually write the story, my mother didn’t get to read it. She died two years after our visit. Still, we had Copenhagen and she did see the Tivoli Gardens. Writing the story was a way of revisiting them and reliving our time there. My mother makes a cameo appearance. You can listen to me reading the story here: https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/eqmm/episodes/2017-11-01T10_18_39-07_00
It arrives through my letter box every month or so in its neat transparent wrapper. It’s the perfect size and weight – better even than a Kindle – to slip in my handbag for emergency reading. I encounter old friends in its pages and read work by writers new to me. I like the old-fashioned feel to the cover and the fact that it actually has illustrations. It’s a treasured survival from the golden age of short story publishing, but it also has a great blog, somethingisgoingtohappen.net, written by the editor, Janet Hutchings, and guest contributors. So I love it as a reader, but perhaps I love it even more as a writer. I’ve just had a short story accepted (the one that’s a kind of riff on the locked room theme). It only took six weeks from submission to contract. They pay a proper fee and they pay it when you’ve returned the contract instead of waiting for publication. Every Christmas a card arrives from New York signed by the editor and her assistant, and when one of my stories was short-listed for an award Janet wrote me a personal letter. It’s a beacon of light in a publishing world where good manners are too often in short supply.
Last week I was surprised and delighted to get a letter from the editor of ELLERY QUEEN MYSTERY MAGAZINE telling me that my short story, ‘A Tour of the Tower’ has been nominated for the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Derringer Award for the Best Long Short Story. It appeared in the March/April 2010 edition.
I’ve written elsewhere on my blog about my affection for EQMM and about how much I enjoy writing short stories and the freedom that they give me to experiment with different voices and viewpoints. But one down side is that one rarely gets any feedback after they have been published. Crime novels do get reviewed, not necessarily in the broadsheets, but there will be some, particularly on web-sites that specialise in the genre. There’ll probably be feedback on Amazon. There’ll be sales figures and there be Public Lending Rights which will tell you approximately how many times your book has been taken out of British (and now Irish) libraries.
But so often with a short story it disappears into the blue and that is that. Do readers like it? Usually you have no idea, unless they make a special effort to get in touch with you. The Derringers are voted on by members of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, in other words, by readers and other writers. That’s why being nominated for an award like this is so gratifying.
I’m delighted to say that I’ve just had a short story accepted by the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It’s set me thinking about the form. There are not many modern writers who devote themselves exclusively to it, though one who did, Edward D. Hoch, wrote over 900 and famously published one in every copy of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine for 34 years. Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore are best known for their short stories and there are other writers, like John Updike, who are as well regarded for their short stories as for their novels. Generally speaking though publishers are reluctant to publish collections of short stories and if it is difficult to make a living as a novelist (and it is!) then it is even harder if all you write is short stories. It didn’t use to be the case: the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century were a golden age in that respect, think of the Strand Magazine and Sherlock Holmes. And it’s a pity because a well-crafted short story can be deeply satisfying for both reader and writer. It is possible to do things in a short story – for instance, write from an unusual viewpoint or sustain a particular tone – that might grow tiresome or be too difficult to pull off over length of a novel. The short story of mine that EQMM has accepted is set in the years following the Gunpowder plot in the early seventeenth century. I’ve never written any historical fiction before, but didn’t feel too daunted when it was a matter of a short sprint rather than a marathon.
The Strand has recently been revived, by the way, and is published in the US, where they seem more receptive to the short story as a form.