Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Random Observations after Compiling a Short Story Collection

One of my resolutions for the New Year was to gather a number of Anita Ray stories into a collection for publication in response to requests from readers. These stories about life in a South Indian resort are scattered among Level Best Books anthologies and issues of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. The first story appeared in 2003, and thirteen have followed over the years. The current collection gathers those only from LBB anthologies. I’m almost finished with the editing and arranging, and it’s been educational and enlightening.

First, the Anita Ray stories are uniform in length, all of them ranging from five to seven thousand words. I’m not sure why this is but it may have to do with the time I take to establish the setting and traditional cultural issues involved in the mystery. As a result, I plan to write a number of shorter stories, closer to two thousand words, to introduce greater variety.

Second, not every story includes a murder though every one includes a crime. This is something I’d like to do more with. One of my favorite Marian Babson mysteries is Line Up for Murder (1981; English title: Queue Here for Murder, 1980), which takes place on a London sidewalk outside a department store in the days leading up to the store’s famous New Year’s Day sale.  There is no murder, but there is the threat of one. The novel has stayed with me partly for the setting and partly for the skill with which Babson manages to create suspense without the usual corpse.

Third, the Anita Ray stories hover around two main themes—jealousy and greed. These are the same themes found in the Anita Ray novels, in particular For the Love of Parvati. I didn’t intend these themes in the short fiction but it became obvious when I lined up the stories. When I get an idea and start writing, I begin with a character and follow his or her behavior, not intending any specific motive for murder or a crime, but I evidently take a familiar path. The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999), for which I served as consulting editor, dedicates four and a half columns to “Motives,” with numerous references and discussion. The author considers greed the most common, but I’m now looking to the many others listed for future stories.

Fourth, I am an American woman writing about South Asia, and there are many who now say that no one outside a culture should try to write about it. This is nonsense. But I am sensitive to any charge that I am writing with less than respect for the India I love, so rereading the stories was an absolute requirement, to search out anything that smacks of the “otherness” that academics search for so avidly. (Oh, dear, my biases are showing.) Anyway, I think the stories hold up well, and if anyone thinks there is anything subtly disparaging in them, I certainly want to hear about it.

Fifth, one of the themes throughout the stories is the clash of old and new, traditional and modern. Another theme is the changing role of women in modern India, though the settings and individuals belong often to a traditional culture. But I am an equal-opportunity writer of villains and victims—both groups include representatives of all cultures found in South India. The visiting Western tourist is just as venal and vicious as the middle-class Indian.

As it stands now the Anita Ray collection includes eleven stories, three of them new for this publication. The ms now heads out to beta readers before getting a final read-through and a cover. Until then, try these books featuring Anita and her Auntie Meena.


  1. Interesting! Isn't it wonderful to find similarities and differences in your stories. Good luck and God's blessings.

  2. Thanks, Pam. It challenges me to broaden my scope, which I hope to do in new stories.

  3. Hi, Susan,

    I agree with you that people outside a culture can also write about it, especially since you have spent so much time in India and understand the customs and country so well. I love Alexander McCall Smith's take on Botswana for instance.

  4. Thanks, Jacquie. I think the world would be a poorer place if we could only write about our own culture. And who is to decide what is our own culture and background? Particularly in this country, each of us can claim several cultures by reason of our mixed heritage. I also love McCall Smith's books, Tony HIllerman's, and many others whose authorship we never even question.

  5. Hi, Susan, interesting post. I agree that of course you can write about a different culture, even give some perspective that natives might lack. Another example is when people say you can't write in male POV if female, and vice versa. Of course, writers do that all the time. Much good luck with the collections. I'll look for it when it comes out.

  6. Thanks for adding your comment on this topic, Jan. Perhaps it calls for a longer post. I'm amazed when people say what others can and can't write about. Why would you want to limit anyone?

  7. Congrats on getting this far with your collection, Susan. Can't wait to see this one!

  8. Thanks, Bobbi. I don't seem to move as fast as other writers but I think I'll get there.