Today on Awesome Authors I’m excited to introduce you to award-winning short story mystery author, Barb Goffman. Barb is a fellow Sister-in-Crime member and has worked previously as a journalist and an attorney. Here’s her bio:
“Barb Goffman won the 2013 Macavity Award for best mystery short story published in 2012. That award-winning story, “The Lord Is My Shamus,” was recently republished in her collection of crime-fiction stories, Don’t Get Mad, Get Even (Wildside Press, April 2013). The collection includes all her award-nominated stories, plus five new ones. Barb has been nominated multiple times for the Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity crime-writing awards, as well as once for the Pushcart Prize. She works as a freelance, crime-fiction editor. In her spare time, Barb serves as a co-editor of the award-winning Chesapeake Crimes series (Wildside Press), as program chair of the Malice Domestic mystery convention, and as secretary of the Mid-Atlantic chapter of Mystery Writers of America. She’s also a past-president of the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime.”
B: Thank you, DV, for inviting me to blog here. I’m a short-story author. Most of my stories involve crime/mystery. Just last month, I won the Macavity Award for best mystery short story published in 2012. My first collection of short stories, Don’t Get Mad, Get Even, was published in April by Wildside Press. I also run a crime-fiction editing service, offering developmental editing, line editing, and copy editing. In my past lives, I was a newspaper reporter and an attorney.
D: Congratulations on winning the 2013 Macavity Award for Best Mystery Short Story for “The Lord is my Shamus” (not to mention being nominated for the Anthony and the Agatha, as well). You must be thrilled! Tell us about the events leading up to the award.
B: Thrilled is a good description. After my name was announced as the winner, I sat in my seat like a deer in headlights for several seconds, not quite believing I’d heard correctly.
The Macavity Award is given out by Mystery Readers International (MRI). Each spring, members of MRI submit their choices for best mystery novel, first mystery novel, mystery short story, mystery non-fiction book, and mystery historical novel published in the prior year. The books/stories with the most votes become the official nominees, which this year were announced in July (that was a great day). MRI readers then vote for the winners over the summer. The winners are announced each year during opening ceremonies at the Bouchercon mystery convention.
One thing that’s particularly lovely about the Macavity Award is that it’s a reader-based award. It’s extremely satisfying to know that people read my story and liked it enough to submit it in the spring for possible nomination. (Winning was quite wonderful, too, especially considering the stiff competition.)
D: Tell us about your latest release. What was your favorite part about writing it? Least favorite?
B: “Dead and Buried Treasure” came out in mid-September in the Halloween crime anthology All Hallows’ Evil. The call for stories for this anthology stressed that the editor wanted character development, so I created an introverted character with low self-esteem who finds love and begins to feel better about herself. But not everyone is happy about that.
I’m an introvert. I tend to feel uncomfortable at large social gatherings and have always felt that my desire to avoid such situations was looked down upon by some friends and family who thought I should be more social. This story gave me the chance to show my side of things, which I really enjoyed. As for my least favorite part of writing the story, there really isn’t one. I love writing. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t do it.
D: What inspires you and why?
B: I love anthology prompts. I love being challenged to come up with interesting story ideas that, hopefully, make the editor think, Ahh, this is what I was looking for. Or even better, for the editor to think, I didn’t even realize I was looking for this. When I’m writing a story, I want the reader to finish and have an emotional reaction. Sometimes I want them laughing. Sometimes I want their mouths hanging open in surprise or shock. I love the challenge of writing a story that will prompt a reaction like that.
D: What do you find most challenging about writing short stories? Why?
B: I find coming up with plots to be the most challenging part. I can come up with interesting beginnings—I often will hear character voices in my head that set up a good story, but figuring out what happens next is most difficult for me. I’m envious of other authors who say they have plot ideas pouring out of them. For me, plots often are elusive and devising good ones require a lot of work.
“Being able to create a complete story is very satisfying, and since short stories are, by definition, short, writing them gives me the chance to have that satisfaction on a regular basis.”
D: Tell me about your process: do you plot or do you write by the seat of your pants?
B: I plot. When starting a story, I’ll often sit with a pad of paper and jot down ideas. For example, with my very first story, “Murder at Sleuthfest,” I started with the idea of wanting to kill off the person who stole a ring I stupidly left sitting on a bathroom sink at the 2004 Sleuthfest conference. So I wrote down “kill ring thief.” Then I thought, why would a person who steals a ring get murdered? And I wrote down possible answers to that question, which prompted more questions in my mind, and resulted in me writing down more ideas to flesh out the plot. When I go through a process like this, I often end up with a sheet of paper filled with possible ideas and arrows leading from one idea to another. Once I’ve come up with a plot and characters that excite me, I’ll circle the key ideas that figure into my final idea, and then I’ll start writing. At that point, I probably won’t have all the characters in my mind or know the exact route I’ll take to reach the story’s conclusion, but I’ll know what that destination is and I’ll know the key stops I’ll want to take on the trip to get there.
D: What do you like best about writing short stories?
B: I like how I can go from story idea to typing “the end” in a short period of time. I used to be a daily newspaper reporter. Every day I worked on a different story. I loved the fast turn-around and how I could work on something new every day. Short stories provide the same opportunity. I regularly can come up with new ideas, new characters, and new twists, instead of working on the same story for months on end (which I’d be doing if I wrote novels). Being able to create a complete story is very satisfying, and since short stories are, by definition, short, writing them gives me the chance to have that satisfaction on a regular basis.
D: Short stories require a bit of a different skill set than writing novels. You need to draw the reader in, tell the story, and wrap things up much more quickly. How do you develop your characters within the parameters of that shorter form and still make the reader care what happens?
B: Each story needs that zing—the thing that draws the reader in and keeps her turning pages. With me, it’s often humor, such as in the Thanksgiving mysteries I’ve written. But I also write more serious stories in which I devise a situation that whets the reader’s desire to see justice done. The reader hopefully keeps reading to see if (and how) the bad guy gets what’s coming and if the good guy is vindicated.
Stories work—really work—when they resonate with the reader. For instance, a story about a woman foiling a bank robbery could be a good story. But to make the story stick with the reader long after it’s over, have the woman realize that the robber is her baby’s father. Should she do the right thing and save the poor hostages, resulting in the man she loves going to prison and her baby growing up without a father? Or should she help him, compromising her own ethics and risking her own freedom and putting her child at risk of having no parents to raise him?
“Stories work—really work—when they resonate with the reader.”
It’s not difficult to have a complete plot, fleshed out characters, and resonance in a short story. The use of small details can be very telling. A single thought can show so much. And, as with the bank robbery example above, you can come up with a scenario that tugs the reader’s heartstrings and have the story play out in just a few pages. The key is focusing on the important details and making every word count. You also have to remember that you’re telling one tight tale. There are no subplots. No family sagas. You come into the story as late as possible to tell the tale you want to tell and then, as soon as you hit the sweet spot at the end, you stop.
D: What advice would you give to new writers?
B: Read, read, read. Then write, write, write.
I learned how to write mystery short stories by reading them, letting their structure become a part of me. (And I still read them to this day. It’s always interesting see how other authors approach things.)
Once you’ve read a few stories, begin writing. (Actually, if you’re a plotter like me, first come up with an idea for your story.) Know that your first draft won’t be perfect. It might not even be good. That’s okay. You can always revise but only if you get your first draft done.
D: Which writers have influenced you the most?
B: I’ll start with the late Barbara Parker. I loved her legal-thriller series. One day I was reading one of her books and suddenly thought, “I could do this. I could write a novel.” Barbara Parker created characters that I wanted to visit with again and again, and she inspired me to want to replicate that experience.
I also have to mention Jan Burke because when I decided to write my first short story, I picked up Jan’s story collection, Eighteen, to learn how short stories were structured and written. So Jan was my first short-story instructor.
“Know that your first draft won’t be perfect. It might not even be good. That’s okay. You can always revise but only if you get your first draft done.”
And finally I need to mention Donna Andrews. In the mid-2000s, I’d had one short story published and had stopped writing. It hadn’t been a conscious decision to do so, but I’d gotten busy with other things and since I’d met my goal of being published, I didn’t feel that internal push to keep going. Donna, who lives in my neighborhood, knew all this, but she encouraged me to join her critique group anyway. She told me I didn’t have to write anything, that I should just come and give my thoughts and be with other writers. I know she thought that if I spent time with other authors, I would be inspired and start writing again, which is exactly what happened. I don’t know if I’d be writing today if it hadn’t been for Donna’s push.
D: What practices have you found to be most effective in promoting your short stories?
B: This is a difficult question to answer because I usually don’t know when a book I have a story in is purchased and what prompted that purchase. So I asked my Facebook friends this question. It appears that my social-media promotion works best. When I have a new story accepted for publication, I mention it on Facebook. When the cover becomes available, I post it. When the story comes out, I mention it. If the book goes on sale, I let folks know. Each time, I include a purchasing link to make things easy. I’m on Facebook often, and my story promotion amounts to a small percentage of my posts, so (hopefully) my friends don’t feel bombarded by them. I also have been very fortunate to have been nominated for a number of awards. Whenever that happens, I mention it. I’ve heard from some readers that they picked up my stories because of the nominations.
I’ve also noticed that whenever I blog or am interviewed on a blog, the Amazon ranking on whatever book I’m promoting goes up.
Another thing I do that I think probably has been effective is getting out into the mystery community and meeting readers and other writers. I regularly attend my local Sisters in Crime meetings, for example. People get to know me and hopefully like me, so they’ll try one of my stories. And as a reader who’s become my friend told me, once she read one of my stories, she was hooked.
D: If you could time-travel (either backward or forward) where would you go and why?
B: I would go back to October 14, 2006. That was the date I brought my now-late dog, Scout, home to live with me. Scout died this past July, and I miss him every day. I would love to go back to the day he came to live with me and have the chance to relive and cherish every moment.
D: I’m so sorry, Barb. Losing a pet is so hard. I love the idea of going back to when you first brought Scout home and being able to see him again.
Thank you for stopping by, and sharing a little bit about yourself with us. For more information on Barb’s stories, please see the links at the end of this post. But first, we get a teaser from her award-winning short story, “The Lord is My Shamus”:
B: Here’s the first scene from “The Lord Is My Shamus,” which appears in Don’t Get Mad, Get Even. It originally was published in Chesapeake Crimes: This Job Is Murder.
You’d think after all these years, I wouldn’t be nervous in his presence. Yet my sandals shook as I approached the swirling cloud.
“You asked to see me?” I crooked my head, trying—but failing—to spot him through the mist. Why was he always such an enigma?
“Yes.” His booming voice echoed. “I’m sending you back to Earth to do some investigating for me.”
“A man has died, and I’d like you to probe those who knew him best. Find out what happened.”
Now I know better than anyone that it’s not my place to question God. He has his reasons for what he does. But come on. He’s omniscient. Why would he need me to investigate anything for him?
“Umm . . . okay,” I said. “But don’t you already know what happened?”
He chuckled. “Well, yes, I do. But you of all people understand suffering and the need to know why it happens. So I want you to help this man’s family by looking into his death and encouraging the killer to admit his sins and repent.”
“The killer? You mean—”
“Yes. This, Job, is murder.”
Link to e-book version of Don’t Get Mad Get Even at Wildside Press
Link to print version at Wildside Press