blogged by Jule Selbo

This is kind of jumping off from Shelley Burbank’s guest posting on Tuesday. Not on purpose – but when I read her blog – I thought – ahh! Minds in the same place!

My very first “writing sale” was to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I was in my early twenties and since childhood, I’d always picked up the small publication at various libraries or bookstores and read its stories. I can’t remember what made me decide to sit down and try my hand at writing one. I’ve tried to climb into the deep-memory state (lay down and let your mind go, Jule) or (take a walk, Jule, and some brain-pictures of the time might show themselves) but so far, no luck. I was totally into writing plays at the time – pretty silly ones because it was hard for me, in my twenties, to reveal I might have a few serious thoughts, worries, frustrations, wonderings. (Shameful now, in retrospect, that my self-confidence was so low and my cowardice so high).

But sit down I must have done. I’d just moved to NYC, so did I write them at the Greek Coffeeshop on the corner of Broadway and 72nd? At a long table in the NYC Public Library? Or at my pay-the-rent job in midtown Manhattan, in between trying to convince, via telephone, medical professionals to sign up for chat-and-sell sessions on the latest pharmaceutical marvels?

What I do remember is that they came from some part of my brain that was un-educated in the form (except for being an avid reader). And that it was fun. Fast. And somehow I had dipped into a junior high and high school “character voice”. And, until I got the acceptance and the paltry (I didn’t care) payment, I had no idea how cool it was to have a short story accepted by a publication.

I haven’t written a short story since. I have written short plays (10-minute, 20-minute plays are the most viable), short screenplays (11 to 12 minutes for the TV screen) but haven’t done anymore short prose. I think my short story career must have been halted when I was hired to write for a daytime soap and two night-time horror anthology shows (George Romero’s Tales from the Darkside and Monsters…

…in essence they were stand-alone 30 minute film stories so the short form was still there but…) – and writing just for “fun” had to be put aside.

Now thinking about going from writing long-form novels to experimenting with the short form again – I know my brain will take some re-training. I’ll have to lose some character complexity and my love of creating lots of obstacles and twists and turns. The point (as I think I see it, but ready for some edifying) of the short forms is to concentrate more on a single goal, a smaller cast of strong characters and maybe only one or two obstacles. Nuanced set-ups need to be put aside, and the pieces may often (must?) start in the “middle of the problem”.

QUESTION: For the short story writers out there – do you find yourself starting at the inciting incident? Or in the middle of the conflict (like looking at the dead body)? If set-ups are necessary – are they, in the short story form, truncated?

This desire to work in the form again has been a whisper in my ear for a few months, it’s now becoming a louder directive. Don’t know why – but it’s probably because I’m deep into the frustrating middle of 8 DAYS, A Dee Rommel Mystery, and I’ve been longing to have something completed. My friend, Anne Elliott (South Portland) is a great short story writer and I read her stuff all the time and marvel at the succinct, literary set-ups and twists and completions (on average in about ten pages). She’s not writing crime/mysteries but tension and the reader’s “what’s gonna happen next” is definitely tweaked.

On the MWP site, I read about a short story read-and-talk taking place at Back Cove Books. I attended it last week.  A.J. Bermudez and Josh Bodwell were presiding and

reading from their work. I bought A.J.’s book Stories No One Hopes Are About Them and read a few of the entries. Her style is heady, intellectual and focused on deep character studies – characters who are thrust into new, challenging situations. One reviewer on the back cover stated “…(she) mixes the daily and the outlandish in a vision that is often wrenching and surprising.”  From my reading: they’re not crime mysteries but there’s a sense of foreboding and suspense in many of them – and they seem to be great set-ups for crime/mysteries – as if IF there were a next chapter, someone could be found, murdered. I also purchased North by NorthEast, New Short Stories By Maine Writers (2022). Joshua Bodwell’s story, “We Are The Tide” is earthy and grounded and again (because my mind always floats towards the crime genre) I read it as a fantastic character study of a man whose life (and the neighborhood bar he owns) are being taken away from him. IF the story had continued (doesn’t need to, it’s great as is), it could be ripe for violence and mayhem.

I did a Dee Rommel book event at Camden library last month (what a gorgeous library!!!)  and browsed their “For Sale” table. I found Sue Grafton’s Kinsey and Me collection of short stories.

There was that tap on my shoulder again – a reminder to revisit the form. I hadn’t even known that Grafton wrote short stories. Reading Grafton’s preface was interesting – she wrote: “A mystery (detective) short story is a marvel of ingenuity. The writer works on a small canvas, word-painting with the equivalent of a brush with three hairs.”  She listed the variations she considered when she decided to write some short stories:

  1. A Crime story dramatizes the planning, commission and execution of a crime – usually no mystery involved.
  2. The Mystery story proposes a puzzle – with the crime in the center – for the reader. Does not necessarily rely on a sleuth going through the investigation process, it lets the reader serve in that role.
  3. The Detective story is governed by a set of laws (laid out by many, but she likes S.S. Van Dine’s 1928 essay). There needs to be sleuth who detects. The reader must be privy to all the information the detective uncovers. The culprit needs to be a visible entity in the body of the tale (can’t pop up at the end). The crime needs to have its roots in the past or present reality of the victim.

QUESTION:  The last observation– the crime must be in the roots of the past or present reality of the victim.  Huh.  Never heard it described that way. Do I agree? Do you agree?

Grafton also expanded on the detective/investigator variation. She wrote that the writer needs to:

                  • Lay out the nature of the crime
                  • Introduce two or three suspects
                  • Create suspense
                  • Add a bit of action if possible
                  • Demonstrate how the investigator investigates
                  • Arrive at a theory which must be tested for accuracy.

I looked up S.S. Van Dine’s potent admonitions to writers of detective fiction on the Sisters in Crime (Indiana chapter) site: “A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no ‘atmospheric’ preoccupations. Such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction.”  Mr. Van Dine is (was) very opinionated and it’s an enjoyable read.—twenty-rules-for-writing-detective-stories.html

I’ve now read most of the Kinsey Millhone short stories in Kinsey and Me. (Kinsey is, of course, Grafton’s protagonist in her famous alphabet series that started with A is for Alibi). Most adhere to her own tenants, but there are a few where the bullet points above are given short shrift. Kinsey is awfully smart and fast at landing on a theory and testing it for accuracy (usually without cops involved), but every once in awhile, “create suspense”  “add a bit of action if possible” are sidestepped. Some of the stories are gems of cleverness and almost satire (the very short ones).  But in stories like “Non Sung Smoke”  and the one about the antique firearm tick more of her “hope-to” elements.

QUESTIONS: Any thoughts/tips on how to create high suspense and action in a short story? Does Poe do it best?  Susan Glaspell? Arthur Conan Doyle? Phillip K. Dick? I have Megan Abbott and Sarah Cortez and Agatha Christie shorts to check out, as well as Frankie Y. Bailey and more – including the short story writers on Maine Crime Writers Blog. I am loving my “research”


QUESTION: Is there a website/publication that includes short mystery/crime/investigator stories by Maine writers?

Yeah, it’s been a few decades since I’ve written a mystery/crime/investigator short story. Is this interest stemming because I want to avoid the “toughest” part of the full-length novel I’m writing now? Maybe. But I do remember the fun I had writing those Hitchcock stories. Looking for that “fun” again.

About jselbo

Jule Selbo's latest book, 10 DAYS, A Dee Rommel Mystery, the first in a mystery/crime series, received a starred review on Kirkus and just landed on Kirkus Top Five List of Crime/Mystery books from independent publishers. It's also a finalist in the best of Foreword Review and Maine Literary Award. She absconded from Hollywood (and her work there as a produced screenwriter)to Portland Maine to write novels. Other books include Find Me in Florence, Dreams of Discovery -The John Cabot Story and Breaking Barriers - Based on the Life of Laura Bassi. The next book in the Dee Rommel series: 9 DAYS, A Dee Rommel Mystery was released in September 2022 and is nominated for a Clue Award and received a starred Kirkus Review. 8 DAYS, the third in the series, is scheduled for release November 2023 and Jule is now working in 7 DAYS.
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  1. David Plimpton says:

    One of the best things I’ve read on writing is “Story” by Robert McKee:

    Though devoted to screenwriting, in my view, it’s equally applicable to short story or novel writing, including crime/mystery. It’s been a while since I read it, but in a nutshell: create action and conflict right off the bat, Much of what I read these days starts off with long preface or stage-setting. I’ll be 25 pages in and realize nothing has happened.

    • jselbo says:

      I’ve taken McKee’s class (while living in LA). He’s a character. (Well, Charlie Kaufmann proved that in the movie. ADAPTATION. (Orchid Thief).

      • David Plimpton says:

        Thank you for responding, Jule.

        I also just found this on Robert McKee and his ideas on writing:

      • jselbo says:

        I agree with the article in a lot of ways – McKee’s class became a “must-do” for all studio executives and thus the “predictable” movie structure took a big hop forward. The other really really bad book on screenwriting is Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. It suggests to the writer on what PAGE there should be a turning point. I taught screenwriting for years at Cal State – so – full disclosure here – I wrote a textbook called SCREENWRITING: BUILDING STORY THROUGH CHARACTER. In it I reference the Campbell/Vogler Hero’s Journey, some of McKee – and would blatantly talk down Snyder’s advice and advocate knowing what STORY IS/HOW CHARACTER is most important – and that each movie SHOULD have it’s own pace and trajectory or we would (eventually) lose movie-loving audiences. We can see now – with the growing passion for Video Games where audiences don’t want the same old same old (the fact that they want control is a different matter I think). Glad to say my book is used in quite a few universities – it’s an easy primer and a good reminder for anyone working on a screenplay.
        I love that Scorcese is quoted as the Marvel Universe movies are just “theme park rides”.

      • David Plimpton says:


        I’m going to read your Screenwriting book, as I’m still trying to do some writing.

        What you say about character makes sense. I’m a big fan of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. I’ve read much of what they’ve written.

        I’ve published a number of short stories, including one where a painting is the main “character”, seen through the eyes of the narrator, a bored, retired professional women, who begins to see things. Real or imagined, the reader can decide:

        Speaking of crime, I’ve also written an unpublished novel about my four
        summers working in a New Jersey Teamsters warehouse dominated by Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano and his goons, subject to a mandatory lottery racket, with lousy payoffs. You learned to keep your eyes open, your mouth shut and your nose clean. Tony Pro, as portrayed in “The Irishman” movie is the rumored killer of Jimmy Hoffa.

  2. Hi Jule: I have a feeling you are going to have fun writing short. It’s nice to finish something in less time than an elephant’s gestation, for one thing.

    I like to write flash fiction for fun. It can be made as challenging as you like. You can give yourself a word limit, for instance. You can polish it into a perfect, shiny gem, or, unless you plan to submit it somewhere other than your own social media, you can ignore all rules and just make it a slice (or bite) of life. I’ve only written one regular-length mystery short story for publication. It was a puzzle, a modern retelling of the “writing on the wall” Bible story.

    I have no idea if it confirmed to any of the rules listed here, but I had a blast writing it (and it’s been accepted into an anthology.)

    Must the crime have something to do with the victim’s past or present? I’d say normally that would delight the reader; one exception might be the serial killer story. Often that’s a wrong place/wrong time situation. Not always. These are great questions to ponder.

  3. John Clark says:

    I write a lot of short stories. Most of them begin with a description of the main character, or something that person says that I think will serve as a good hook.

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