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Crime, Mystery & Suspense Short Stories Southern Fiction

Stagg, For The Little Guy: Behind “Lord, Spare the Bottom Feeders”

You never hear much about river mussels. That’s even in comparison to other bivalve mollusks. While a river mussel sits in that stream bed cleaning gallons of fresh water daily, water you and I and countless animals straight out of a Disney film depend on, who gets the attention? Clams. Clams have restaurants and packaging named after them. Clams have frigging Venus springing ashore from their shells. And then there’s oysters. To be an oyster is to offer the world. Did you know that river mussels also form pearls? Now you do. Kind of makes you reconsider the river mussel, among the littlest of gals and guys in our ecosystem.

Some may find glory, but there’s no glory or drinking water unless the bottom feeders do their job. Enter Vernon Stagg, attorney for the injured and aggrieved. Vernon’s role in our ecosystem is to land his clients a buck or two upon quick settlement, whether or not their pains and mental anguish are legit. Only a fast buck or two, but it’s a volume business.

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Unless the filtering system gets clogged. In Vernon’s case, a long-term accumulation of ethics sediment in his revenue stream. Oh, there was a heyday when Vernon could go on punching that lawyering ticket. But heydays pass as they do, and here’s Vernon in a reputation-damaged fees crunch. Counsel for the little gal/guy is in trouble–and in that sense, so is the little gal/guy.

This is my second go at Vernon, after 2016’s “The Cumberland Package.” That first try was about force of will, its forgings and its failings. Spoiler-free version: Vernon went through a wringer of his own vacillating will and lack thereof. Choices and his reasons behind them: It’s as good a guess as any for why Vernon works on the page. He’s a bloviating moral compromise–but only so far. Vernon has a code. For a second try at him, I was after his particular sense of right and wrong.

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Crime, Mystery & Suspense Short Stories This Whole Writing Thing Uncategorized

Title Fight

You can do a lot with fiction. You can remove all narrative or all punctuation. You can go stream of consciousness and remove spelling norms and paragraph breaks. Cormac McCarthy removes the dialogue quotes. Do it right, and you can remove most everything in fiction and still have terrific writing. Except for one unavoidable thing: a title. Every piece has a title, to include those forever “Untitled.” It’s called something or else it ultimately can’t be something.

I’m doing a workshop soon for Sisters in Crime on short story writing, and I’ve been playing with the importance of titles. I know, because I’ve horked up some bad ones.

Smarter authors than me have held forth on title strategies, so I’ll just recap what I’ve learned by experience. A story’s best title is like the primed wick to its fireworks. It’s just sitting there, waiting on a spark — a reader or editor’s eye. Said best title catches said eye and promises to light the works. A promise it delivers when the thematic meaning and story unity plays out on the page.

For grins, here are three past stories of mine with their initial title idea, excluding working titles.

Categories
Crime, Mystery & Suspense France Short Stories This Whole Writing Thing

Pride Cometh Before the Sale: Behind “Murder on the First Night’s Feast”

There is a C.S. Lewis quote about the blindness of the proud. To paraphrase, someone completely full of themselves is so busy looking down their noses that they’re blind to what’s above them. And what’s above them, of course, is the whole, wide world.

We’re all prideful. Someway, somehow we’re all darn proud of something: kids, cars, bankrolls, something. Hell, writing for publication is itself an exercise in pride. It takes vanity to assume another person would invest their time and money in your words. Yes, we’re all proud because we’re all human, and it’s all healthy enough.

Until it’s not.

I’ve tackled pride as a subject before. In “Crack-Up at Waycross,” (Murder Under the Oaks, 2015) the would-be pecan truck jacker has such a grandiosity complex he’s barely bothered to plan the jacking. “Book of Hours”(AHMM Jul/Aug ’18) is about recovering self-confidence. I’ve even done pride in an amateur sleuth way, one Vi Celucci in “Two Bad Hamiltons and a Hirsute Jackson” (AHMM May ’15) being too self-actualized not to meddle in a Secret Service investigation. Pride is endless fodder for a humor guy. But I’m not sure I’ve done the whole pride thing as intentionally as with “Murder on the First Night’s Feast” (ahem, proudly included in the November 2019 Mystery Weekly).

Enter Madame Feubert. It’s 1932, the Touraine countryside and the height of French complacency between WWI and WWII. Mme. Feubert and her gown-and-tux cabal are the latest in a line of self-declared gourmands devoted – I mean devoted – to the Sanglier a la Montvaste, a cut of boar served at only one Loire River chateau and only at a presumed peak each October. For centuries, their retconned legend goes, the Montvaste family has entertained Europe’s finest palates for a two-week feast and those-in-the-know soiree.

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Mangeot of The... Travel

Mangeot Not of the Guanacaste, 2018

A Disclaimer:

Mangeot of the Nordlands is my floppy-hat wearing, perma-addled, globe-trekking alter ego. His is a thirst for the strange marrow of new lands and their cocktails. He is well-meaning and gets to live my best life.

22 September
We make the Ninth Parallel at Costa Rica. It is the rainy season, and by afternoon our party is drinking Rhum cocteles. A fine fellow named Errol arranges the bar service and sees to our baggage. His ceviche is good and true and his bar is clean but for the grackles who angle to steal my cassava chips. From the valley a macaw cries the invitation to press onward. “When does the rain break?” I ask Errol. With great solemnity he studies the misted clouds flowing over the mountains from the inland forest. “December,” he says.

24 September
The rains do not abate. Neither do the raccoons. From dusk through the night, the beasts probe the latches and doors of our lodgings. Randolfo says we must guard our luncheon and the mini-bar from their thieving paws. We place locks and a guard and wait as the rains rain steady and true. Prevented from inland explorations, we catalogue the base camp’s various species of iguana and Assorted Lizardry and coconuts and also the Rhum varieties. Randolfo serves me a Rhum drink of fiendish red made apparently from