Writing “It Came Upon a Midnight Ice Storm”

By N.M. Cedeño

People like to ask writers, do you ever use details from your life in your writing? Answer: Sometimes. It depends on what I’m writing. If I’m writing science fiction or noir, nothing in the story may be evocative of my life. Other times, details from my life do creep into my stories. “It Came Upon a Midnight Ice Storm” is one of those stories that has a bit of my life in it.

Black Cat Mystery Magazine #12

Written originally in 2010 or 2011, the manuscript sat forgotten in a file for seven or eight years before I decided to revise and submit it for publication. The story is available in Black Cat Mystery Magazine #12, the special cozies edition, edited by Michael Bracken.

Without further ado, here are some things from my life that influenced my writing of the story “It Came Upon a Midnight Ice Storm.”

  • The story is set in Dallas during a Christmas Eve ice storm that traps a party of houseguests together overnight. Trouble ensues when one guest accuses the others of stealing her bracelet. I grew up in Dallas County where ice storms hit the city every few years. The city doesn’t get frozen precipitation often enough for anyone to have to drive on it with any regularity. When an ice storm hits and coats everything with an inch of ice, the city shuts down and everyone stays home for a day or two until it melts. Historical note: the first draft of the story was written about ten years before the 2021 catastrophic ice storm that hit Texas. Texans are used to ice storms hitting sections of the state. Ice storms big enough to coat the entire state in frozen precipitation for a week, as happened in 2021, are a whole other matter.
Things I’ve baked and decorated.
N.M. Cedeño
  • The main character in the story, Eleanor, spent the day baking and preparing for a Christmas Eve family gathering. I enjoy baking. A lot. Cookies, cakes, brownies, muffins, quick breads, scones, and scratch-made baking powder biscuits are the favorites in my house. Pies and fudge appear seasonally. As much as I enjoy baking, there have been times, usually after prepping for an event, where I have been utterly tired of baking, a feeling shared by my main character.
  • Eleanor’s husband Joe has three siblings with whom he is close in age. I come from a large family and grew up with two brothers and two sisters for a total of five of us, plus two parents, plus assorted dogs. Between friends and relatives our house was frequently packed. Holidays in my family have always involved a lot of people, and, thus, family dynamics. However, none of the characters in the story are like my siblings or my husband’s siblings.  
Nativity scene from Pixabay
  • As with Joe’s family in the story, my husband’s family has a Christmas tradition involving setting up a prominently-displayed, elaborate Nativity scene in their home in which the infant Jesus in the display remains covered from head-to-toe in a cloth until December 25th.
  • According to the character Luke, Die Hard is a classic Christmas movie. Most of my family would agree with this statement.
  • Like Becky in the story, two of my siblings and my eldest son attended UT Dallas.
  • Among my more than a dozen nieces and nephews you will find an Eleanor, a Joseph, a Luke, a Rebecca (not called Becky), and a (middle name) Helen (not Helene). However, two of them were born AFTER the characters in this story were named and, in truth, all of the names are coincidental. I wasn’t thinking of anyone in particular when I named the characters. This isn’t the first time I have used a family member’s first name for a character. If the first name fits, I use it.

The above are all details to the story. The plot about the disappearance of an expensive bracelet during a Christmas Eve party is entirely fictional.

*****

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter and is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Find out more at nmcedeno.com

When Submitting Short Stories to Markets, Patience is Required

By N.M. Cedeño

How long does it take to hear back from editors with acceptances or rejections of short stories? That depends on a number of variables, but in most cases in the world of short mystery fiction, patience is required.

How much patience?

I currently have stories that have been pending for 387 days, 200 days, and 190 days, respectively.

For the story pending the longest, I heard from the editor about several issues that have delayed responses. He made it clear that those who submitted are free to submit elsewhere, and, if the story is picked up by another market, to simply withdraw it from him. However, the story was written for a very specific call for submissions. I would have to re-edit the manuscript and change details to make it submittable elsewhere. So for the moment, I’ve decided to wait and see what happens rather than submit the story to another market.

The manuscript currently at 200 days post submission will probably not receive a response until a full year has passed. I know this because it’s submitted to one of the most prestigious markets in short mystery fiction, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. The statistics on how long AHMM takes to respond to submissions are available online at The Submission Grinder. The average response time is currently 371 days. I know of authors who won’t submit to the magazine because of the extreme length of response time and low odds of acceptance. My current thinking, which may change at some point, is that if I don’t submit, I’ll have no chance of getting published by the magazine. The wait is the price I have to pay for that opportunity.

The next story, submitted 190 days ago, is a bit more perplexing. I submitted it early, well before the call deadline. So although the editor has had it for six months, the deadline for submissions was three months ago. From what I can see online and from asking other authors, no one has had a response from the editor yet. Since the call for submissions didn’t give a timeline for responses, only the planned publication date, which is just a few months away at this point, I sent an email inquiring if my story was still being considered. Sadly, I haven’t received a response to my query. Unless I want to withdraw the submission and try to submit the piece elsewhere, all I can do is have patience and wait to see if anyone else receives a response or if the editor responds to my query.

These three stories submissions represent the longest wait times for responses that I usually experience from markets that actually bother to send responses. (Some markets never respond unless they want the story. And, yes, that’s REALLY ANNOYING.)

Many markets respond much faster to submissions than the above examples. Data on response times for various magazines can be found on The Submission Grinder and other places online. Waiting a few weeks to receive a response is common, as is waiting a few months. But the need for patience doesn’t end with the submission process.

And then, wait some more…

Once a story is accepted, the wait to publication begins. The longest I’ve had a short story pending publication after acceptance is currently at 16 months and counting. I’ve heard from authors who’ve waited as long as two years between acceptance and publication of a short story in a magazine. In this case, the story will be published shortly because I received the proof pages from the editor a few weeks ago. It’s coming … eventually.

To reiterate: In writing and submitting short mystery fiction for publication, patience isn’t merely a virtue, it’s a necessity.

*****

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter and is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.

Facing a Writing Challenge

by N. M. Cedeño

Many writers find motivation in challenging themselves in various ways. Some attempt to write a novel length manuscript each November as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Some writers set daily, weekly, or monthly word count targets as challenges to meet. Most do this because they know that when they challenge themselves, they find out what they are capable of accomplishing and learn to push themselves to accomplish more.

Sometimes we writers set these goals for ourselves, other times someone, like an editor in need of a story, provides the challenge for us.

Opportunity Knocks:

In the last week of May 2022, I received an unexpected writing challenge. It arrived in the form of an email from an editor, inviting me to submit a short crime fiction story for an anthology. The catch was that the original deadline, which the editor was willing to extend for me, was only about a week away.

I read the submission criteria, considered my options, and reviewed what was already on my schedule. Then I asked for a month, June, to submit the story, not knowing if that would work for the editor’s timeline.

Could I have said no? Sure. But I recognized that the challenge was also an opportunity to show myself and the editor what I was capable of doing. I was afraid the editor might need the story sooner than my suggested deadline and that he might say no.

The editor replied to my email, agreeing to give me until the end of June to submit the story.

Hooray! And Yikes! I had a deadline to meet.

Meeting the Deadline:

The short story had to fit the specifications for the anthology in question which meant that it had to be set during a particular time period and incorporate some historical event. The time in question happens to be the decade in which I was born, so I have no personal memories of historical events from then. I had to do research. Normally, I research until I get a good grasp for an era before writing. I’ve been known to fall down research rabbit holes and find far more material than I need. My research process had to be curtailed to cover only what was essential: the time and place where I was going to set the story.

Next, I selected a previously created character to make a second appearance in my new story. That character, a private detective named Jerry Milam, appeared in a story called “Nice Girls Don’t” which I wrote for the anthology Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties. Already having a protagonist saved me from having to create a main character from scratch.

After researching the decade and selecting a protagonist, writing the first draft took about three days, resulting in a manuscript that was missing some details. Then, I left on a previously scheduled, nine-day, family vacation, taking my laptop, but knowing I wouldn’t have time to do much work. As it turned out, I only opened the laptop twice during my trip, both times late in the evening.

Once I returned home, I went to work in earnest adding the details I knew were missing. The middle of the story felt muddled, so I reworked it in another draft the following day. Satisfied that the manuscript was complete, I emailed the story to two of the world’s best beta readers, two analytical and detail-oriented people who know that I WANT them to point out every possible error. They know I can take criticism. (I’d rather hear about errors from them than have the story rejected for those same errors!) Both returned notes on the story within a few days, for which I am extremely grateful. (Thanks, Mike and Deb!) After reviewing what errors my beta readers noticed, I corrected and completed the final draft of the story.

In the next few days, I reviewed word choices and line edited the entire document. I made MSWord read the story to me, so I could proofread by listening for errors. Finally, I submitted the story to the editor on June 18, almost exactly four weeks after I received the initial invitation to submit.

Did I hesitate before hitting “send” to submit the manuscript, wondering if I needed to review it one more time?

Yes.

Did I send it anyway?

Yes.

Results:

A week later, I heard back from the editor. The story was accepted for the anthology. I’ll provide more details on the story closer to publication.

I met the challenge and learned something. I could have done it in even less time. I’m glad that when an opportunity dropped in my lap, I was able to rise to the occasion. I’m grateful that the editor gave me the opportunity to meet this challenge.

Leave me a comment on writing challenges you’ve met!

*****

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter and is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.

Review: Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own (A Public Service Repost)

by Kathy Waller

I wrote the following for my personal blog to answer a “challenge.” I intended to post it at the end of September 2009–yes, 2009. But I got all tangled up in words and couldn’t write a thing. Then I intended to post it at the end of October. I still couldn’t write it. I managed to write it after the October deadline.

In the middle of the “process,” I considered posting the following review: “I like Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own very very very very very much.”

But the challenge specified a four-sentence review, and I had hardly one, and I didn’t want to repeat it three times.

So there’s the background.

I must also add this disclaimer: I bought my copy of A Broom of One’s Own myself, with my own money. No one told, asked, or paid me to write this review. No one told, asked, or paid me to say I like the book. No one told, asked, or paid me to like it. No one offered me tickets to Rio or a week’s lodging in Venice, more’s the pity. I decided to read the book, to like it, and to write this review all by myself, at the invitation of Story Circle Book Review Challenge. Nobody paid them either. Amen.

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Review of Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own

I like Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own: Words About Writing, Housecleaning & Life so much that it’s taken me over two months and two missed deadlines to untangle my thoughts and write this four-sentence review, an irony Peacock, author of two critically acclaimed novels, would no doubt address were I in one of her writing classes.

She would probably tell me that there is no perfect writing life; that her job as a part-time house cleaner, begun when full-time writing wouldn’t pay the bills, afforded time, solitude, and the “foundation of regular work” she needed;  that engaging in physical labor allowed her unconscious mind to “kick into gear,” so she became not the writer but the “receiver” of her stories.

She’d probably say that writing is hard; that sitting at a desk doesn’t automatically bring brilliance; that writers have to work with what they have; that “if I don’t have the pages I hate I will never have the pages I love”; that there are a million “saner” things to do and a “million good reasons to quit” and that the only good reason to continue is, “This is what I want.”

So, having composed at least two dozen subordinated, coordinated, appositived, participial-phrase-stuffed first sentences and discarding them before completion; having practically memorized the text searching for the perfect quotation to end with; and having once again stayed awake into the night, racing another deadline well past the due date, I am completing this review—because I value Nancy Peacock’s advice; and because I love A Broom of One’s Own; and because I consider it the equal of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird; and because I want other readers to know about it; and because this is what I want.

*

I’ve posted this review before both here and elsewhere. I consider the reposting a service to writers. The book is absolutely invaluable, and all writers need to know about it.

***

I blog at Telling the Truth, Mainly. I write crime fiction–have published short stories and am working on a novel. My blog, however, doesn’t have much to do with crime. There I write about anything that comes along. I like to think it’s eclectic, but it’s really just a jumble.

Getting Texas Wrong in Fiction- Details Matter Y’all

Anyone who lives in Texas knows that Hollywood’s version of Texas and the actual Texas are very different places. Mostly, we Texans roll our eyes and dismiss the errors, but it’s difficult to ignore errors when they yank us out of whatever story we are trying to enjoy. Recently I watched a movie set in Texas and read several stories that were set in Texas or that featured Texan characters. However, as a Texan, I could tell the director of the movie didn’t care about getting the setting details right, and I could tell the authors of the stories didn’t understand Texan speech patterns. Errors distracted me from the plots in both the movie and the stories.

From Pixabay

On someone’s recommendation, I watched the Tom Hanks movie News of the World. I learned quickly that the director favored filming sweeping vistas and that the background and environment were essential to the plot. The director, unlike the author of the book on which the movie is based, clearly didn’t care about getting the setting details right. The movie got Texas disappointingly wrong, which distracted me from the story line several times.

The same standard holds true for literature as it does for movies. If you don’t get the details right, no matter how great your plot is, you can lose the reader. For example, in some stories I read recently featuring characters from Texas, the author used regional speech incorrectly. Specifically, the authors used the word “y’all” wrong.

A Word on the Meaning of “Y’all”

Lots of people are aware that Texans, and a lot of Southerners, say “y’all” as a term for the second person plural. And we do. “Y’all” is a contraction of “you all” which means “all of you people.” No Texan would ever call a single individual “y’all.” Not ever. It’s a reference to a group, not an individual.

Word Cloud

Now, I may walk up to my brother and say “Y’all should come to lunch tomorrow.” He may be the only one standing there, but he will know from my usage of the word “y’all” that I’m including his wife and kids in the invitation. If I wanted him to come alone, I would say, “You should come to lunch tomorrow.”

Or one college student may say to another, “Y’all should come hang out at my place with us.” This translates to “you and your friends should come and hang out with me and my friends at my residence.” Only two people may be in the conversation, but the usage of the word “y’all” tells anyone listening that more people are involved than are present.

To reiterate: when a Texan says the word “y’all” to a single individual, they are referencing some group to which that individual belongs, and the individual being addressed will understand that group reference because the speaker used the word “y’all” instead of “you.”

Getting “Y’all” Wrong

Back to those stories I read that got things wrong: if a law enforcement officer in a story set in Texas walks up to a single suspect and says to that individual, “Y’all are under arrest,” then the author has failed miserably at using the word. That error will pull the Texan (and probably any Southern) reader completely out of the story.

From Pixabay

Or if a mystery author writes a story featuring a character who is supposed to be the only Texan in the story and has that character call an individual “y’all,” that author just created confusion. When I read the above instance in a story, I hoped the misusage of “y’all” was a clue that the character might be lying about her background. Alas, it wasn’t a plot point. It was an error by the author.

Details matter in story telling. When we get them wrong, we pull the reader out of the story, and, depending how egregious the error is, the reader may not come back.

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter and is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.

Submitting Short Stories: It’s Like Baseball

By N. M. Cedeño

Many of the stories I write aren’t accepted the first time I submit them for publication. The majority have to be submitted over and over again to find a publication home. The process made me think of a batter stepping up to the plate in baseball because I may strike out repeatedly before scoring a run.

Most of the time, I write stories with no specific publisher in mind. I write the story because I want to or because the only way to get it out of my head- and make it stop bothering me- is to put it down on paper. Then, after the story is written, I begin the process of looking for a place to submit it. “It Came Upon a Midnight Ice Storm” is one of these stories. I wrote it for myself because I like light-hearted mysteries stories set at Christmas.

I first submitted this Christmas story for publication in mid-2018. It was rejected, struck out, eventually a total of eight times. I put it through workouts, strengthening it several times between ‘at bats’. Then, I saw a call for submissions that I thought it might fit, a call for cozy mysteries. On my ninth submission, the story was accepted. It will appear in Black Cat Mystery Magazine in a couple months.

from Murderous Ink Press, 2022

Sometimes, I’ll write a story based on requirements for a specific call for submissions, and it’s not accepted. I strike out. If the call was general enough, I can turn around and resubmit the story elsewhere with no changes. It’s ready for its next ‘at bat.’ That was the case for my story, “Reaching for the Moon.” After being initially rejected, and then rejected again, I submitted it to Murderous Ink Press, where editor John Connor accepted it for inclusion in the Crimeucopia: Say What Now? Anthology.

In other cases, the call for submissions may be in such a specific niche that I need to change the story in order to submit it elsewhere. Continuing the baseball analogy, I prepped the story to face a specific pitcher and have to make changes to face a new pitcher for the next ‘at bat.’

For example, my story “Serenity, Courage, Wisdom” was written for a very specific call for submissions for stories inspired by the music of a particular group and was rejected. In order to resubmit it elsewhere, I changed the title, which was originally a song title, and stripped out the details related to the song. Stripping those details left a hole, so instead of referencing a song, I settled on referencing a prayer that hung in my parents’ kitchen my entire childhood and that I have a copy of in my own kitchen.

After making these changes, I submitted the story to Black Cat Weekly, where the editor said the story needed a little work before he’d publish it and gave me some suggestions. In this case, I made a base hit, which requires more work on my part to make it to home plate. To get to home plate, I have to listen to the coach, aka the editor. I have to review the editor’s suggestions and work on the story with those suggestions in mind. If I don’t do the work, I get left on base and never make it home. If I do the work and send the story back to the editor, and he’s pleased and accepts the story, then I’ve rounded the bases to home plate and scored a run.

In this case, I did the work to earn the run. “Serenity, Courage, Wisdom” will be published in Black Cat Weekly #37 coming out in May 2022.

from Down & Out Books, 2022

Only one of my stories so far has been accepted on its first submission, which is the equivalent of hitting a home run. That story, “Nice Girls Don’t,” was written specifically for the anthology, Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties edited by Michael Bracken. I saw the call for submissions months ahead of the deadline and went to work researching material and writing the story. The anthology was published last week, debuting on April 11, 2022.

I have yet to retire any stories from the line-up. Eventually, I may have to set one aside, waiting to come out for the right call for submissions.

A Note: I’ll be participating in a panel discussion on mysteries, talking about my short mysteries, on Friday, May 13, at Hearth & Soul in Austin. Check the “Gather” tab on their website for time and location. Additional information will be posted soon.

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter and is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.

Why I Go to Critique Group

by Kathy Waller

I said to my critique partner this morning, The whole project is stinky it stinks it’s fatally flawed just nothing no hope.

She said, But Chapter 13 is so good so funny Molly is so funny it’s not stinky.

I said, Yes, the first part of chapter 13 and the last part of chapter 13 are funny and very very good but there’s still no middle of chapter 13 and what there is stinks and anyway the other 47,000 words stink except for a few hundred here and there.

And she said, But the middle could be revised and edited it has promise.

I said, But it won’t work because I have written myself into a hole and can’t get out so I have to trash that part and anyway the whole concept stinks.

And she said, NO you can fix it just keep going because I like Molly she’s so funny.

And that is why I go to critique group every blessed week.

*****

Writing is a solitary activity, but most of writing isn’t writing. It’s rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting. And then it’s revising and revising. And editing editing editing. And rewriting again. And . . .

Sometimes it’s whingeing and complaining and eating peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon and buying larger clothes and telling Molly she’s a heartless ***** who doesn’t deserve one paragraph of her own, much less a whole book.

And it’s feeling like a fraud when you tell people you’re a writer and deciding you’d be happier if you gave up and dedicated yourself to French cookery or tatting or riding a unicycle.

But if you’re lucky, it’s also going to critique group and then going home and writing and writing and writing and . . .

Here’s the way Austin Mystery Writers work: We email first drafts, revised drafts, or final (almost) drafts, depending on where we are in the process.

We read all the week’s submissions, then sit around a table–or on one side of a table in front of a monitor displaying partners in little Zoom squares–and talk about what each member has written.

Criticism here doesn’t mean trashing. It means that each member points out what the writer has done well and what she might have done better. Sometimes we suggest examples of better–the “experts” say that’s not proper, but it works for us–and sometimes we simply say what we think doesn’t work so well without elaborating. Sometimes we disagree; one person doesn’t like a word or sentence or paragraph, while another thinks it’s fine. Sometimes we all chime in and discuss ideas.

Then we say, “Thank you.”

Because we’ve become friends during our association, we can say what we think and appreciate what the others say.

We encourage one another.

We also laugh a lot.

Because of AMW, I’ve published short stories and co-written one novella.

Because of AMW, I’ve become a better writer.

I posted “Why I Go to Critique Group” (one time I titled it “Why I Go to Critique Group and Can’t Afford Not To”) on my personal blog on July 9, 2010, when Gale Albright and I were members of the two-person Just for the Hell of It Writers, which was soon swallowed up by Austin Mystery Writers (a consummation devoutly to be wished).

I periodically pull the piece out and repost it.

Because it’s important.

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Has anyone noticed that the em dash (—) in my posts looks like an en dash (–)? I can’t help it. Sometimes I find an em dash on a grammar website (like now) and copy and paste into my post, but right now I’m just not in the mood. But I’d like picky readers, like myself, to know that I’m aware of the error and wish the platform would correct it,

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Kathy Waller posts on her personal blog, Telling the Truth, Mainly, http://kathywaller1.com. She’s published the anthologies pictured above, the first three with Wildside Press, the last a novel co-written with Manning Wolfe, with Starpath. She has finally decided the ancient pre-published book is not stinky and has hopes of finishing it one day. If her critique partners agree.

Writing “Reaching for the Moon” for Crimeucopia: Say What Now?

by N. M. Cedeño

Although I may veer off into other areas, my reading pile usually comprises two main categories of books: mysteries and histories. Sometimes when I’m writing, those two categories collide, and I write historical mysteries. Two of my historical mystery short stories will be published in March and April 2022.

Available March 2022 from Murderous Ink Press

The first story, “Reaching for the Moon,” is part of an anthology edited by John Connor entitled Crimeucopia: Say What Now? from Murderous Ink Press. The second story, entitled “Nice Girls Don’t,”  will be published by Down & Out Books in Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties edited by Michael Bracken. 

I wrote about the inspiration for “Nice Girls Don’t” in my last post. Today, I’ll review what inspired “Reaching for the Moon.”

Moon landing, NASA photo, from Pixabay.

I’m a fan of the history of space exploration. From Hidden Figures to Apollo 13, I’ve always been fascinated by the massive effort behind sending the first people into space and bringing them home safely. The space program’s tragedies – from Apollo 1 to Challenger and Columbia – and triumphs – from the Mercury Program to the International Space Station – are the stuff of legends.

Anyone who has read anything about the first US astronauts knows that the test pilot / astronaut lifestyle took a toll on marriages. Marital infidelity was common among the astronaut corps who were frequently away from home for training. Consequently, the divorce rate after leaving NASA was very high. But, NASA wanted to present a wholesome, clean-cut image of their astronauts that didn’t include divorce or infidelity. Life Magazine did full spreads on each of the first astronauts that presented the men as squeaky-clean Boy Scouts with perfect home-lives. This discrepancy between the public persona and private reality of the astronauts inspired ideas about the possibility of blackmail.

Because I live in Texas, I’ve toured the Apollo mission control center at Johnson Space Center in far south Houston several times. Anyone who has visited Space Center Houston knows that a mere thirty or so miles farther south down Interstate 45 is Galveston Island on the Gulf of Mexico.

Walking on a granite jetty, Galveston Island, Cedeño family photo 2021

Galveston Island has its own remarkable history. The barrier island was used as a pirate base before it became a major port city in the 1800s. Then, the 1900 Hurricane nearly obliterated the city, forcing port activity to move inland to Houston. The island became a vacation and pleasure spot infamous for ignoring the laws against drinking and gambling during the Prohibition era. Galveston enjoyed a lawless, mafia-run heyday between 1920 and 1950. Much of the illegal activity centered on the Balinese Room, a Maceo Family owned gambling joint and restaurant that perched on a pier over the Gulf and drew top talent from Hollywood, including Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope, to provide entertainment for guests.

The space center’s proximity to Galveston made me wonder: what if a 1960s astronaut wandered south to Galveston Island to see the places once made famous by Hollywood stars and mobsters and got himself into trouble? What if he had to seek the aid of a private detective to resolve the issue? And so, with a few name changes here and there to protect the innocent or the guilty, as the case may be, my story “Reaching for the Moon” was born.

I’m thrilled to have my story published with so many other great stories in Crimeucopia: Say What Now?, the 10th anthology in the Crimeucopia series from Murderous Ink Press and editor John Connor.

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For additional historical reading, I recommend Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, Moon Shot by Barbree, Slayton, and Shepard, Failure Is Not an Option by Gene Kranz, Light this Candle: the Life and Times of Alan Shepard by Neal Thompson, and Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson.

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter and is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.

Letters: A Velocity of Being

by Kathy Waller

The definition of reading readiness is the point
at which a child goes from not reading, to reading.
~ Sight and Sound Reading

But, Gwammy, I can’t wead.*
~ Jenny, five years old, after one week in kindergarten

When I was five, my Great-aunt Ethel gave me an ancient primer. She had found it in an old school building, abandoned when consolidation sent children in my hometown to a school two miles away, and then used only as a polling place. The primer had also been abandoned, and Aunt Ethel, election judge, liberated it and gave it to the youngest member of the family (youngest by about forty years; it was an old town).

My parents read to me almost from day one. The story goes that, as a toddler, I met my father at the door every evening when he got home from work, saying, “‘Ead a book, Daddy.” (Unlike Jenny, I had no pwoblem pwonouncing my ahs; I just dropped them.)

We didn’t have a library nearby, but I plenty of books: a Bumper Book, Little Golden Books, Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Andersen’s Fairy Tales, which I didn’t like, in part because they were dark (“The Little Match Girl”), but mostly because the end papers sported a hairy black thing with an ugly humanish face and enough long, winding legs to qualify it as a spider. Grimms’ tales were more pleasant.

When I received the primer, I already knew the alphabet. In fact, a year before, I’d written my name in red adhesive tape–the gooiest, stickiest adhesive I’ve ever come across–on the inside of the kitchen door. It stayed there for years.

Anyway, armed with the primer–a school book, for reading–I set about teaching myself. While my mother did housework, I trailed behind, spelling out words.

“T-h-e”

“The”

“m-a-n”

“man”

“s-a-i-d”

“said”

I don’t think I taught myself to read. But the next year, when I entered first grade–no kindergarten back then–I was ready. I took right off on the underwhelming adventures of Dick, Jane, and Sally (siblings who never had a decent disagreement) plus Spot and Puff, who came and ran a lot.

In second grade, I got a Little Big BookGunsmoke–that had one hundred pages. I read it on Saturday and reported the accomplishment in our Class News at school on Monday. Later I got a literary Little Big Book, Huckleberry Finn. One sentence confused me: a dead man’s leg was stuck out at a strange angel. I was about thirty when I realized angel was really angle. I was also surprised when, in high school, I learned that the Little Big Book had been severely abridged.

Then I discovered comic books. They were more educational than most people think. From Scrooge McDuck, I learned that emeralds come from South America. Unfamiliar with physics, I pronounced Atom Cat as A-Tomcat. Seemed reasonable.

The next year, thanks to a Christmas present from my grandmother, I discovered Nancy Drew. Nancy had a blue convertible and drove around wherever she wanted, and her father never grounded her. I envied Nancy her freedom. I didn’t like her, though; she had a tomboy friend, George, who said, “Hypers, you slay me,” which was fine, but her other friend, Bess, was plump, and Nancy often referred to how much Bess ate. I presume in later editions, Nancy behaved better. But her treatment of Bess didn’t stop me from reading about her. I wrote letters to Joske’s Department Store in San Antonio: “Please send me one copy of The Hidden Staircase and one copy of The Clue in the Jewel Box. Please charge my account.” They each cost two dollars. My mother kindly signed the letters. It was her account.

I soon outgrew Nancy, but, like many other mystery readers and writers, I credit her for getting me hooked. I read a couple of Trixie Beldens–Trixie was sickeningly enthusiastic when her mother made her dust the living room before going out to solve mysteries, but she did manage to sneak out at night. I read some Kathy Martins. Kathy, a nurse, often suspected her (nice guy) brother for whatever (minor) crime had been committed, which I thought strange, but she was more mature and more realistic than other characters. No convertible, no sneaking.

Young Adult novels didn’t exist as a genre until the late sixties, when increased federal money became available to schools, and authors found a new audience. Born too soon, I moved from children’s books into adult fare: Zane Grey, Thomas B. Costain, Charles Dickens, Aldous Huxley, Jane Austen, Harper Lee, Daphne DuMaurier, Rafael Sabatini (Scaramouche: “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”) Noticing that I read the classics, the bookmobile librarian, unasked, brought me a copy of the scandalous Madame Bovary. I was fifteen. He’s still my hero.

On the bookmobile, I rediscovered mysteries in the real thingSherlock Holmes. I cried and cried when he and Moriarty went over Reichenbach Falls. Nobody told me he would be back.

And another real thingAgatha Christie. Which led to Marjorie Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Robert Barnard, Josephine Tey, Donna Leon, Karin Fossum, Elizabeth George, and so many others.

But enough about me. The point is that reading was, and is, important to me.

And that this week I’ve been reading A Velocity of Being: Letters to Young Readers, edited by Maria Popova & Claudia Bedrick. The editors compiled 121 letters from “scientists, musicians, artists, philosophers, composers, poets, actors, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and many more remarkable humans whose splendor of spirit cannot be contained in the shorthand descriptors we often use to condense a person’s character and cultural contributions.” Each letter is paired with an illustration to “bring it to life visually.”

Many letters describe books as portals to the universe, to other worlds, to adventure, to curiosity and questions, to dreams, to logic and imagination; they’re boats and planes and magic carpets. Contributors write about hating book reports, and being hellions when they were little and refused to listen to Goodnight Moon at bedtime because they wanted dinosaurs, and being called antisocial when they preferred to read instead of play with friends.

But other contributors take the subject to a deeper level:

Author Alain de Botton writes, We wouldn’t need books quite so much if everyone around us understood us well. But they don’t. Even those who love us get us wrong. They claim to know what we need, but forget to ask us properly first. They can’t understand what we feel . . . That’s the moment to turn to books They are friends waiting for us, and they will always speak honestly to us. They are the perfect cure for loneliness. They can be our very closest friends.

Screenwriter Shonda Rhimes says, Reading saved me. When I was twelve, I spent most of my day trying to be invisible. The year before I’d been the new girl in school, and I’d spent a lot of time trying to be accepted. . . . The very desire to bend and twist to fit in–assures your rejection They did not like me. They hated me.
I spent a lot of time alone. I rode the bus alone. I spent weekends alone, I ate lunch alone. Except I was never alone. I always had a book in my hand. If you have a book, you don’t need to bend and twist to fit–you’re there. You are in. . . .
If you have a book in your hand, you can stop being invisible. Because you’re a little more invincible
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Venture capitalist Chris Sacca says that books are dangerous: If you keep reading, you might learn so much that you can take over for the adults and then you kids will be in charge! You all could be the journalists, entrepreneurs, artists, professors, authors, doctors, explorers, scientists, and even the leaders of our countries! Then what would the grown-ups do? Live in a world run by brilliant, interesting, innovative, and compassionate young people. Ugh. No, thank you.
So please stop reading before you become really smart, successful, and happy.

But seriously, books are dangerous. Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin writes about life in the World War II Polish ghetto, where being caught reading by the Nazis meant anything from hard labor to death. But books were smuggled in, read by each person for only one night, and then, for the sake of safety, passed on. She stayed up all one night reading Gone with the Wind. Then she decided the children she secretly taught needed not dry information, but stories. And for one hour each night, she told them the story of Scarlett and Melanie, Rhett and Ashley; and for that hour they “escaped a world of murder.” Then “a knock at the door shattered our dream world.” Years later, she met one of only four of the students who survived. The woman called her “the source of my hopes and my dreams in times of total deprivation and dehumanization.”

Composer Mohammad Fairouz shares a story that I cherish from my upbringing; . . . 1400 years ago in the deserts of Arabia, a meditative prophet named Mohammad had a vision of the Angel Gabriel who came to him with a message: “Read” . . . This was the first word of the Quran.
In the years following the prophet’s death, his followers built an empire where they contributed to every branch of knowledge, from algebra to optics and medicine to music. Countless things we have today would not exist without their contributions: that includes space stations, glasses, aspirin, your iPad.
They were able to do this because they were inspired to seek out the power that comes with being to read. You deserve the same power . . .

Years ago, I knew a young man who had never learned to read. I don’t know why; he just hadn’t. As an adult, he took a literacy class. He said that when he traveled for his work, he was always scared, because he couldn’t read road signs, and he was afraid he would get lost. At the most basic level, reading is power.

And consider: At one time in the American South, it was illegal to teach slaves to read. If they were literate, they might be able to read signs that would help them escape. They might also read some inconvenient truths: “. . .  that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness . . .” Inconvenient for their owners, that is.

Does reading fiction make better people? Research doesn’t give a definitive answer. But “at the Princeton Social Neuroscience Lab, psychologist Diana Tamir has demonstrated that people who often read fiction have better social cognition. In other words, they’re more skilled at working out what other people are thinking and feeling. . . .

“So the research shows that perhaps reading fiction does make people behave better. Certainly some institutions consider the effects of reading to be so significant that they now include modules on literature. At the University of California Irvine, for example, Johanna Shapiro from the Department of Family Medicine firmly believes that reading fiction results in better doctors and has led the establishment of a humanities programme to train medical students.

“It sounds as though it’s time to lose the stereotype of the shy bookworm whose nose is always in a book because they find it difficult to deal with real people. In fact, these bookworms might be better than everyone else at understanding human beings.”

Philosopher and professor Martha Nussbaum gives an example: The great African-American novelist Ralph Ellison said that a novel like his Invisible Man could be “a raft of hope, perception, and entertainment” on which America could “negotiate the snags and whirlpools” that stand between us and the democratic ideal. He’s referring here to Huck Finn and Jim, who got to know one another as full human beings, rather than just as a white man and a black man, when they traveled down the river on a raft together. On the raft, they had to look at one another, listen to one another’s stories. In our divided society, such encounters happen all too seldom in real life, and are fraught with mistrust when they do. Reading can create such encounters in the head, so that the ones that happen in the world are a little less crude, a little less deformed by fear and anger.

Huckleberry Finn has for years made the American Library Association’s list of most often challenged, banned, or restricted books–a novel that can teach us to be better people.

Design writer and educator Steven Heller extends the idea that reading is power and issues a challenge: Books are weapons in humankind’s battle against ignorance. I don’t mean like lasers and drones. I mean that knowledge is strength and the kind of knowledge you get from books is not the same as the quick fix that Googling gets you. What’s more, books can’t be hacked. But they can he censored, which means blocked or forbidden from being published. And this is why they are so valuable to us all. Often in fighting ignorance, the ignorant take books prisoner. If you don’t read books, then those that have been censored over the ages will be lost and forgotten. So kids, don’t let them down. Read them, savor them protect them. Don’t let others make books irrelevant.

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*Jenny soon learned to wead. And to pwonounce her ahs.

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I’ve gone on too long. If you’re still with me, thanks for sticking. And one more thing: Despite the title, A Velocity of Being isn’t just for young readers. It’s also for adults who need to be reminded to make reading part of their children’s lives.

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Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. Find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kathy.waller68. She’s published short stories and memoir and is working on a novel.

While writing this post, Kathy was watching/listening to an old TV series of Dorothy L. SayersLord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Bless Youtube and all who post on her. (Opinion: Ian Carmichael was the best Peter Wimsey by far.)

Writing “Nice Girls Don’t” for Groovy Gumshoes

So what if I wasn’t born in the 1960s? I can do research!

In 2020, I came across a call for submissions for mystery short stories to be included in an anthology. The anthology was to be called Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties. The editor, Michael Bracken, wanted stories set in the 1960s featuring private detectives, with bonus points given if the story included a major historical event.

The call caught my attention, but not having been born in the 1960s, I searched my brain for any specific event that I might use as starting point for a story. Two events for which I had a wealth of knowledge at my fingertips came to mind. One was the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. When you grow up in Dallas, this one comes to mind quickly. But I thought that event, given its extreme historical prominence, might be covered by too many other authors submitting stories.

So I selected the second event: the UT Tower Shooting.

The University of Texas Tower Shooting on August 1, 1966, is a dark shadow on Austin’s history. It was a mass shooting at a school that happened decades before such events became regular occurrences. The Tower Shooting, like the JFK assassination, is reviewed regularly by the local media on anniversaries of the event. And I am intimately familiar with the locale where the shooting occurred since I attended the University of Texas at Austin and walked in the shadow of the Tower daily for four years. Additionally, the shooting is well-documented. Video taken that day is even available online. I knew that finding background details for a short story set around the time of the shooting wouldn’t be hard.

However, none of that is why the Tower Shooting came immediately to mind.

It came to mind because I knew someone I could question about life in the 1960s in Austin, Texas, and about the Tower shooting in particular: my father.

My father, whose grandparents were all Czech immigrants who arrived in Texas after the Civil War, graduated from tiny Rogers High School in rural central Texas and set out be the first in his immediate family to graduate from college. He worked his way up: first attending a junior college, then transferring to a small private college, then transferring, finally, to the University of Texas at Austin. On the fateful morning of August 1, 1966, my father turned in the final paper for the final class he needed to graduate. He arrived on campus early in the morning and left to report to his job at an Austin grocery store.

My father- Dec. 1966

He had a lot on his mind that day. With his upcoming graduation at the end of the summer term, my father should have been considering his improved employment prospects. But he wasn’t looking for jobs. He knew that his draft number was coming up in October. He had to make a decision: volunteer for the draft or wait to be drafted into the military in the midst of the Vietnam War. He volunteered for the draft in September 1966.

Twenty-seven years later, on my first day living in the dorms at UT, my father showed me where people had died near the balustrade on the South Mall. He pointed out the bullet holes marking the stone. He recounted his memory of leaving campus and listening to the shooting on the radio while at work. His story of that day, woven into the story of his life, became a piece of family lore, embedded in my memory.

And so, after picking my father’s brain and doing a ton of research, my short story “Nice Girls Don’t” came into being. The story features a private detective hired in September 1966 to investigate the death of a young woman, a UT student who died the day of the Tower Shooting. The girl’s parents believe their daughter’s case was ignored because the police were too busy dealing with the Tower Shooting to give her death the attention it deserved. The parents want the detective to find out what really happened.

After completing my story, I submitted it to the editor, hoping it might be selected for inclusion in the anthology… And the editor, Michael Bracken, chose my story to be included in Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties, coming from Down & Out Books in April 2022!

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter and is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.