A good story raises questions in the reader’s mind right off the bat and then provides answers in interesting and entertaining ways as the story progresses. Sometimes, writers have questions about their own characters and the answers are often found the same way—in moving forward through a story.
That’s what Annie Reed did when she wondered why her character, Lightfinger Lenny, grifted around Reno when Vegas is much richer hunting ground. Her story, “Strike Two,” in the thrilling anthology, And Then There Were Nine, provides the answer to her question in a compelling and fascinating way.
I recently interviewed Annie, and I think you’ll enjoy reading the interview, as well as her story, “Strike Two.” The book, And Then There Were Nine, is available for free to members of my readers’ group. So if you haven’t signed up, make sure you do that now!
Here’s a snippet from the story
Lenny Masterson knew better than to ply his trade with kids in groups, but sometimes life threw a curve ball so sweet it would have been criminal not to take a swing.
These kids, three girls barely legal enough for the round of drinks lined up on the casino bar in front of them, never spared Lenny a second glance as he brushed by behind them. Women usually didn’t. Most men would mind being treated like that. They’d run out and spend a fortune on hair plugs and a personal trainer, but blending in was part of what made Lightfinger Lenny so good at what he did.
The other part? Practice.
Lenny’d lived in Las Vegas for a couple of years now. The place was thick with tourists and southern California transplants who walked around The Strip all googly-eyed, trying to take in the sights and sounds all at once. Most of them never gave a second thought to the scrawny guy who bumped into them by accident, especially not if Lenny gave them the glassy-eyed stare of a lifelong alcoholic on a serious bender. When he was working, Lenny drank only enough to put the smell of alcohol on his breath. He could fake the look of a true souse when he needed it. He’d spent years of his life drowning his sorrows in a bottle. All that practice had to come in handy sometime, right?
Be sure to get the book and read the rest of the story. You’ll be glad you did!
And now, for the interview…
How do you come up with names for your characters, and do they hold significance?
Ooo, let’s start with a hard one: character names.
Most of the time picking a character name is really, really hard, just like story titles can be hard. Whenever that happens, I tend to pick a name while I’m sitting in front of the computer or looking around my office and seeing what name strikes me.
Sometimes, though, names have a special meaning. Take Abby Maxon, the main character in my private detective series. I named Abby after a character in the Jesse Stone movies (based on Robert B. Parker’s books). I liked that character so much, and she died so early in the movies, that I wanted to honor her by giving one of my characters her first name.
Other names just seem to fit the characters I’m writing about. Old-fashioned names fit old-fashioned characters, especially when I want to convey old-fashioned ideals or an older generation mindset in a shorthand kind of way. Other names have a beat that just strikes my ear.
The reverse can also be true. I’ve avoided certain names because the names convey the wrong impression. For example, the pickpocket in “Strike Two” was originally Lester until about halfway through the first draft when I realized I didn’t want readers subconsciously thinking “Lester the Molester.” Way wrong vibe for that character. So Lester became Lenny, and we were both happier with the name change.
I also named a recurring character after a favorite football player because I’m a fan and I wrote the first story with that character during football season. The character in my stories has zilch in common with his namesake—I just like knowing the connection while I’m writing those stories.
Writers are weird.
Where did you get the idea for the story in this collection? How did you develop it?
“Strike Two” grew from an idea I had for a novel about a pickpocket who witnesses a murder while he’s working the crowd at a minor league baseball stadium in Reno. Sometimes when I get novel ideas, I’ll write a shorter piece first as a way of getting to know a character and their world. In Lenny’s case, I wanted to know why he worked the crowds in Reno when it would seem Vegas would be a much richer stomping ground. I answered that question in “Strike Two.”
How important is research in your plotting? Tell us how you go about it.
I write into the dark, no outlines, most of the time without even much of an idea about how a project will end when I start. That’s true even with my mysteries. While I might think I have a vague idea at the beginning who the bad guy is, that rarely turns out to be true by the time I type “The End.”
So for my contemporary fiction, I won’t know what research will be necessary until I actually start writing. For instance, when I first started my second Abby Maxon mystery, Paper Bullets, I had a glimmer of an idea at the beginning who the bad guy would be. Then halfway through, I needed to come up with a city (any old city, just someplace on the east coast) where a particular character hailed from. My fingers typed Boca Raton. I had no idea why. That meant I had to research Boca Raton, since I’ve never been there. In doing that, I discovered a brand-new element to the story which ended up impacting the rest of the book in a totally unexpected way. What fun!
I think when I can surprise myself like that, the stories also surprise the readers.
For historical fiction, it depends on what I’m writing about. I have a lot of general knowledge about my area of the Western United States and the Old West time period thanks to reading I’ve done over the years. For those stories, I’ll research what I need along the way. But when I wrote “The Color of Guilt,” a story about a concentration camp survivor—a gay man who survived the horrors of the camps when so many other homosexuals didn’t—I did a lot of research prior to writing the story so that I would get the important elements of the story right.
What’s your favorite part about the writing process?
When a project seems to take off by itself and all I’m doing is writing down what’s going on in the characters’ world. That means I’m fully immersed in that fictional world, and that’s a whole lot of fun.
What’s your biggest challenge, as a writer?
Remembering that it’s all right if I don’t know where a story or novel’s going as I’m writing. That can be a scary part of writing into the dark without an outline, but it’s also one of the most rewarding parts because I’m entertaining myself along the way.
Also, not to get lost in the weeds and be too critical of the writing while I’m actually writing. In other words, kicking the self-editor to the curb while I’m being creative. I’m a recovering perfectionist, so some days that can be harder than others.
How do you view your relationship with your readers?
My goal is to entertain readers with my stories. I’ve been consuming fiction in one form or another (books, television shows, movies, the implied stories in works of art) all my life. Fiction can be escapism, it can be a learning experience or a lesson in empathy, but most of all I think it should be entertaining. If my stories make a reader think, that’s great! But if all my stories do is entertain, whether with a mystery, a romance, an urban fantasy tale, or a science fiction adventure, I’m a happy camper.
Which authors have influenced you the most, and why?
Stephen King, certainly, for the sheer effortless way his storytelling sucks me right down into whatever world he’s created. Whenever I read a King book, I feel like he’s sitting in the room with me, just telling me what can often be truly horrible things about people he happens to know, and I’m utterly fascinated.
Robert B. Parker for his Spenser, Jesse Stone, and Appaloosa books. Not only am I a big fan of those books, as well as the television shows and movies based on those series, those books taught me a great deal about how to write series with on-going characters whose lives grow from book to book while telling a complete story arc within each individual book. And to a lesser extent, Jim Butcher for his Dresden Files books, Bill Pronzini for his Nameless Detective books, and Janet Evanovich for her Stephanie Plum books for the same reasons.
But far and above, the biggest influences on my writing have been Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith—teachers, mentors, and friends. If you want to learn all stages of the fiction writing craft (beginner to advanced), or if you want to learn the business side of fiction writing in today’s world, you couldn’t ask for better teachers.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
Oh my. I’ve been writing for decades, literally. I’m sure I wrote stories for school projects that I can’t remember now, and I used to make up stories for my favorite television shows when I was a kid. Gilligan and the Professor had way more adventures in my childhood imagination than they ever did on TV. When I was a little older but still in elementary school, a friend and I used to record our own stories for TV shows like The Invaders on those 3” reel-to-reel cassettes. (No, I don’t still have those tapes. Too brittle to last, especially in a desert climate.)
I’m not sure what story I was first brave enough to send out to a paying market, but I do remember my first professional sale. That was “The Beginning,” a Star Trek story, which was published in Strange New Worlds Vol. VI.
What are you working on next?
I always have multiple projects going at once since I suffer from bright, shiny new thing syndrome. That seems to work for me. I don’t believe in writer’s block; it’s more of a project block thing, and that usually happens when my inner creative self is trying to tell writer me that I took a wrong turn somewhere along the line. So I switch to another project to keep writing (which I try to do every day), and when I catch a clue about where the wrong turn happened, I’ll switch back to the first project.
That said, I don’t tend to talk specifics about whatever I’m working on at the time. (Right now that happens to be two novels and a short story.) I will say I have plans to release the first in what I hope will be a new mystery series (The Saints and Sinners Mysteries) later this year. I’ve written a few stories in this series to get my feet planted in this new universe, and I’m excited about the novel series.
More about Annie Reed
A frequent contributor to both Fiction River and Pulphouse Fiction Magazine, Annie’s longer work includes the gritty mystery A Death in Cumberland and private detective novels Pretty Little Horses and Paper Bullets, along with her superhero novel Faster.
The first novel in her new Saints & Sinners mystery series will be released in the fall of 2021. Annie’s short fiction appears regularly on Tangent Online’s recommended reading lists, and her story “The Color of Guilt,” originally published in Fiction River: Hidden in Crime, was selected as one of The Best Crime and Mystery Stories 2016.
A founding member and contributor to the innovative Uncollected Anthology, Annie can be found on the web at www.annie-reed.com.
How about you? Have you read And Then There Were Nine yet? If not, why not? Nine thrilling stories for your reading pleasure, and it’s FREE. What are you waiting for?
Join the growing group of readers who’ve discovered the thrill of Chase!
Writing Into the Dark. What a great way to describe it! That’s going to be my catch-phrase from now on.
I try to plot in detail or create outlines, at least, but the story always ends up somewhere I didn’t expect and I feel like I’ve wasted my time.
I’m having a really hard time with the second book in my current series, as it’s a prequel and I’m bound by things like birth and death dates etc. and events that must happen in order for the series to work.
Every time I get drawn into a rabbit hole I have to remind myself about the timeline I’m compelled to follow. I’m not enjoying it at all and sometimes I’m tempted to drop the whole concept of a series and start something completely new.
Hi Thomas! Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I wish you the best with that troublesome new book and I am feeling some of your pain. I’m also struggling within the confines of a series and it’s taking so much longer to write the second book than it did the first and much of that is because I’m trying to get an overall picture of the story arc of the series. It’s fun, but sometimes frustrating.
Both Annie and I got that term “writing into the dark” from Dean Wesley Smith, and he’s written a book on the subject by the same title, if you’re interested. Thanks again for stopping by to read the article!
Enjoyed the interview, although I have never read this author. But I do want to, now. I loved the way she says “…kicking the self-editor to the curb”. I could relate to THAT alright.
You raised some very pertinent questions. I have not read Annie Reed’s books. She certainly sounds interesting. I read the bit about the pickpocket. Great!
Hi Indrani! Great to hear from you, and I’m happy you enjoyed the interview. Yes, Annie writes great stories and she’s a very nice person, too. I’ve enjoyed meeting her and working with her. I think you’ll like her books, so be sure to check it out. I hope you’re doing well!