Like Agatha Christie, I’ve published more than six dozen mysteries.
The most glaring difference between me and our foremost mystery writer, however, is that all of my stories–save one–are but 100 words long.
Stories this long (or short) are called flash fiction and the genre is usually defined by length. Anything under 1,500 words qualifies and some flash fiction stories are as short as six words. Although the concept of telling a complete story in a handful of words is as old as Aesop, the name for the genre is scarcely more than 20 years old, and this literature in miniature has now become mainstream. Lydia Davis and Margaret Atwood are among many well-known practitioners.
An instructor friend introduced me to flash fiction when he was using 100-word stories as an assignment for a writing class. I was intrigued. I tried it. It was much more difficult than I imagined, but I loved the challenge and kept at it. Here’s one 100-word example:
Just an Accident
Tim flipped a dashboard switch and a red light blinked. When Larry got in the car, Tim pulled out.
“So,” Larry growled, “whadda want now?”
“You’re abusing her. First, cuts and bruises. Now broken bones?”
“Just an accident. She wants to leave, it’s her choice.”
“She won’t. She’s terrified.”
“Then stay out of it.”
Tim’s speedometer said 45 mph. He glanced in the mirror, saw no one, then swerved into a concrete wall.
Minutes later, aching but otherwise unhurt, Tim looked down. “He was my son in law. Didn’t believe in seat belts.”
The policeman nodded. “And his airbag malfunctioned.”
After I’d filled two small books with this and other stories, I turned to a mystery novel. My new book, Death in Nostalgia City, takes place in a re-creation of an entire small town from the early 1970s. This baby boomer theme park is complete with period cars, clothes, music, shops, restaurants, hotels, fads and social issues. The book is about 87,900 words longer than my flash fiction, but it incorporates several things I learned creating the tiny dramas:
Revisions I’ve never once written a story in only 100 words, the first time. Writing flash fiction reinforces the value of revision, a necessity in all genres.
Fewer modifiers There’s not a lot of room for adverbs or adjectives in a 100-word story, so you make do by using verbs and other constructions to be succinct and colorful at the same time. I certainly can’t say I didn’t use modifiers in my novel, but I tried to avoid them when possible. For example, my protagonist drives a large taxicab from the 1970s. Rather than saying the heavy vehicle moved slowly, I said, “The sedan lumbered past an appliance store.”
Short chapters Flash fiction appeals, in part, because of our shrinking attention spans; therefore, most of the chapters in my novel take up but a few pages. Each one is not self-contained, but it has something unique and it moves the story along. The 308 pages of the book are divided into 74 chapters.
Truncated dialog In flash fiction, one of the first things I cut and condense is dialog. People don’t speak in complete sentences, they don’t use precise grammar, and contractions (even ones I invent) are the norm.
Swift action I prefer mysteries that move apace, but I want to be challenged with puzzles along the way. I like to get emotionally involved in a story, but I also look for an intellectual connection that requires me to sort through clues. That’s what I tried to do in Death in Nostalgia City. Writing 100-word stories obviously teaches you to get the action moving immediately, but when possible, I still like to give the reader a clue or two, the red light in the story above, for example.
Whether it has 100 words or 90,000, mysteries should be lean, involving prose with a few surprises along the way.
Mark will be giving away one copy of Death in Nostalgia City in print or ebook to a resident of the U.S. or Canada who leaves a comment on this blog post before midnight Mountain Time Friday, October 10th.The winner will be announced here on Saturday.
Mark S. Bacon drew some of the inspiration for his new suspense novel from early in his career. He covered the police beat for a southern California newspaper and later wrote ads and commercials as a copywriter for Knott’s Berry Farm, a large theme park.
He’s written for radio, TV, the web, magazines and for newspapers, most recently as a correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle. He has an MA in mass media criticism from UNLV and taught journalism as an adjunct university professor.
He is the author of several business books, one of which was selected as a best business book of the year by the Library Journal and printed in four languages. Before tackling his debut mystery novel, he published two collections of mystery flash fiction stories, including Cops, Crooks and Other Stories in 100 Words.