Friday, January 30, 2015

Finding Your Next Story

My part of the world, eastern Massachusetts, is in the midst of a rough winter, with snow banks six feet high and more storms on the way. But life doesn’t come to a halt, not if you have a dog. While I was out walking our lab during the worst of the storm an idea for a story took shape. Those high snow banks along the street or in the yard by the garage are the perfect spot to hide a body. And no one thinks anything of a homeowner out snow-blowing in the middle of the night. The streetlights reflect off the new white snow, but not too much, and windows are shut tight against the cold and any noise.

This is how my stories usually begin, with a sudden awareness of how dangerous the mundane can really be. During my regular visits to South India, I always noted how things were changing and what remained the same. There were always new shops, and that got me thinking. In a story originally published in a Level Best Books anthology, a young woman opens a shop, earning her own money and new independence. This doesn’t sit well with some members of her family, and she soon ends up dead, in “The Secret of the Pulluvan Drum.”

The first book in the Anita Ray series grew out of my first breakfast in a new hotel/guesthouse. I was still exhausted from my trip to India (twenty-plus hours on a plane) and too tired and jet-lagged to make small talk. I listened half-awake to the other guests at the family-style dining table, and was struck by how casual comments could be and yet carry threads of danger. How could it be that so many of the guests were from the same part of the United States but didn’t know each other? And why was one so hostile to one stranger but not another? This is the opening of Under the Eye of Kali, the first Anita Ray mystery novel.

During the summer months I waste a lot of time trying to rid my garden of invasive species, especially Lily of the Valley. I once stood in front of a large side garden taken over by the poisonous flower, and marveled that something so dangerous could be such an ordinary fact of life. That became a key feature in a short story featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva and posted on Wattpad as “Bad News with a Touch of Class.”

It’s a truism that the world is a dangerous place, but for a writer, it’s a reminder of the truth that opportunity is everywhere. Good stories come out of turning the mundane on its head, seeing past the surface, and asking, What if?

For these and other works by Susan Oleksiw, go to

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Short Fiction and Anita Ray

One of the pleasures of crime fiction and the mystery writing community is the respect given to short fiction by writers and editors and readers. Today we have a fair number of magazines in which to publish short fiction.

At the top of the list are the two Dell magazines, Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen. Close behind are the Level Best Books annual anthologies for New England writers. Sisters in Crime chapters and Mystery Writers of American produce solid collections of stories, and numerous ezines publish a wide variety of stories--no subgenre is overlooked, it seems. Also close to the top is the "solve-it-yourself Mystery" in Woman's World. I can't think of another genre in which writers can move so easily between long and short forms, and often do.

Sandra Seamans lists a large number of publications for short fiction at her blog site, My Little Corner ( and her site is a must-look for short story writers.

I have a special affection for short mystery stories because I discovered Anita Ray, my Indian-American sleuth, in one. I had a sense of who Anita was but I couldn't capture her whenever I started writing the opening scenes of a novel. It seemed that the demands of the longer story crowded out the space and authorial focus she needed to emerge. Once I started a short story, where she had to carry the story line, Anita Ray came through, with her irreverence, sense of humor, and unflappable commitment to justice.

Writing an Anita Ray story never seems like work. The dialogue flows, the clues pop up, and the characters throw themselves into the plot. I wish everything I wrote came that easily.

This month, and through the summer, I'm republishing Anita Ray stories originally published in AHMM and Level Best Books. Adding to the fun will be the chance to use some of my own photographs of India for the covers. First up is "The Secret of the Pulluvan Drum," which first appeared in Deadfall: Crime Stories by New England Writers (Level Best Books, 2008). I hope you have a chance to take a look.

For more Anita Ray stories, go to:

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Defining Features of a Series

A successful mystery series is a package of several features: recurring characters, vivid setting, titles,
and types of stories. We followed Miss Jane Marple through a number of villages and stately homes while she chatted with the vicar, a spinster, a young married couple, a colonel back from the colonies, and more of the same. Christie’s titles for all her books varied but she did have a series of nursery rhyme titles, most of which featured Poirot.

Peter Lovesey introduced Sergeant Cribb in a series of historical mysteries that introduced the reader to fads and facts of the late nineteenth century, such as indoor pedestrian races, bare-knuckle fighting, and music halls. The world of the contemporary sleuth Superintendent Peter Diamond is different. Lovesey sets the series in and around Bath, and draws in references to Jane Austen and other literary figures, in contrast to his detective Diamond, who alienates just about everybody, drinks too much, and dislikes the way technology is taking over old-fashioned police work.

These are the kinds of mysteries I read avidly and the ones that come to mind when I wanted to start a new series, after the Mellingham series set in New England. I already had some of this material published in short stories and thought a lot about setting, titles, and plots.

I had a recurring character, Anita Ray, an Indian American photographer living in India at her aunt’s hotel, who had already appeared in a number of short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Level Best Books anthologies. The setting would remain South India, along the coast, and the tone would be mostly light with examination of some serious issues along the way.

The setting, in and around Auntie Meena’s hotel, meant some of the recurring characters would be hotel workers with problems of their own, conveniently, and other workers at the resort. But setting also becomes a character in that it becomes a place the readers know well. To help with this part of the series I have two maps, one of the hotel and the rooms on each floor and a second one of the resort area, with lanes and other hotels indicated briefly.

One way to reinforce the boundaries of the series is through titles. The Sherlock Holmes short stories often begin with “The Adventure of . . . ” and the Inspector Ghote mysteries by H.R.F. Keating often have the detective’s name in the title, such as Inspector Ghote Hunts the Peacock.

For the Anita Ray series I decided to use a phrase with a Hindu name, either of a deity or figure from mythology, in every title.  The first in the series is Under the Eye of Kali, followed by The Wrath of Shiva and For the Love of Parvati. Each title indicates setting and something of the nature of the story. My work in progress is titled When Krishna Calls.

The setting of a hotel and Anita’s photography gallery ensure that a wide variety of people will walk into the series—foreigners and Indians alike. And Anita’s membership in an Indian family means she has a large number of relatives spread throughout the state and the country, if necessary, for the story line.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine March 2015

I began this year, 2015, with good intentions of posting a blog every Monday and writing and publishing four short stories. I wish I could say that I’m on track, with the arrival last week of the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. This issue contains an Anita Ray story, “Perfect in Every Way,” but the story was written and accepted some time ago. Still, the issue arrived, with my name on the cover, which is always a thrill. As always, I settled in to read the issue through. So, while I can’t say I’ve achieved one of my goals in relation to short fiction, I have achieved another one—posting every Monday (or perhaps Tuesday).

I love AHMM for the variety of work I find here. The March 2015 issue opens with “Pill Bug,” by Joseph S. Walker, a story about two soldiers discharged after Korea looking for work. They get jobs as extras in a low-budget science fiction movie. Nelson is glad to have the work, and Kellner follows along because Nelson keeps him stable, taking his pills and staying out of trouble. This story had so many twists I had to read the last few pages three times—worth it every time.

In “A Joy Forever” by B.K. Stevens, the story switches from the wife’s fantasy of a happy marriage to her husband’s when he marries a woman who, under pressure, finally learns to cook. In “The Woman in Brown” by Tony Richards, a young man in 1959 encounters an apparition or a real person—he can’t be certain—crossing an empty park in the fog. She seems to be imploring him for help. The image haunts him but he can find no answer to the riddle, and moves on.

In “The Color of Gold,” Donald Moffitt takes us to the seas around Borneo and other parts of Southeast Asia in the nineteenth century, letting us sail with all the marginal characters of that time and life. People rise and fall very fast. In “Blueprint,” J.A. Moser gives us a writer with a diabolical turn of mind.

The mystery classic is “Red Dot,” by Samuel Hopkins Adams, featuring Average Jones, and originally published in 1911. The writer is new to me, and I’m glad to come across the story.

Jones is intrigued by the announcement of a reward, posted in a newspaper. That got me thinking about the role newspapers played in mysteries in the years up to World War II. One title that comes immediately to mind is A Murder Is Announced by Agatha Christie. Somehow I don’t see an announcement on FB as having quite the same impact as one in a newspaper read by thousands.