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Humor Short Stories This Whole Writing Thing

Seconds: “First of a Fine Spectacle”

Did you know Russian empress Catherine the Great wrote operas?  She did, badly, or so goes her history. Anyway, back in my own when came an anthology call for Catherine the Great stories and here she was upon research having tried her imperial hand at librettos. I wrote it, a comic romp. Got a yes. So there I was, 2013, me and a Catherine the Great opera romp. Not everyone can say that’s in their locker, y’all.

I like this one. It’s imperfect in execution but wonderful for its tomfoolery. It appeared only then in Pure Slush‘s Catherine, Refracted. Today, our world is struggling. People could use a breather romp. So, here is that Catherine story. As published, all hindsight editing resisted to preserve its goofball spirit. I hope it brings a needed smile.

FIRST OF A FINE SPECTACLE

Katerina hooded her gaze. “La Harpe told you everything?”

Her footman intoning “Katerina the Second, Empress and Autocrat of All the Russians,” still dizzied me even after it no longer echoed through her salon. My endless bow had me near toppling over, blood pounding in my ears. I, the librettist known for his single glorious failure, had been dragged into a private audience with the Empress herself.

“I’d have us speak plainly.” Katerina said. “Mr. Nowicki, are you quite well?”

I was not. My business in Saint Petersburg, to discuss texts for the soon-to-open Bolshoi opera, had ended badly. Before I could present my tragedy Kristall-Herzen, a fortune teller in love with her destined murderer, La Harpe made clear the true commission: to supervise texts credited to Empress Katerina. We debated the matter, he considering it an honor and I a prison sentence to be shunted into a ghost-writer’s closet. In that sense I won the argument when imperial guardsmen hauled me away.

“Mr. Nowicki?”

Katerina stood beside the piano, her face a once-perfect egg now swollen by age, her dark blue eyes still dancing with intelligence. Her white gown glowed in the sunlight surging through the windows. Outside the river flowed oblivious to my plight.

“Mr. Nowicki, I am accustomed to having my questions answered.”

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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.

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

It’s a Spider’s World: “Queen and Country”

Lesson one on writing a spider story: Never write a spider story.

Don’t do it. It’s been done. Since mythological times. Spider women. Tangled webs we weave. Innate fears and phobias. The built-in burdens alone will wrap poor writer you in literary silk. See what happens with spider stories? The metaphors have started already.

Lesson two: If you’re going to write a spider story anyway, have a plan.

A better one than I did, when in 2013 I started on something called “Orb Weaving in Wonderland.” There was this professor guy Nick, and he was using a field trip in the French Camargue to romance the fetching young Rachel. The story, soon retitled “Nephila Rachelis,” had it all, if all means an uncentered blech of sci-fi, Western, morality play, and mixed message. 

Lesson three: If you’ve started a spider story, know when to de-tangle and walk away.

The thing was, now “Nephila Cassandris” (Rachel/arachnid, too on-the-nose, that metaphor problem again) had