Strap in. You’re about to meet the master of the short mystery.
When John Floyd says he writes short mysteries, he’s not kidding! As you’ll hear during our conversation, some of John’s mysteries clock in at 800 words. That’s just a little more than one single-spaced page.
It takes some kind of amazing talent to not only write a story that short, but to make it a mystery and solve the puzzle. I am in awe of John’s experience and practice in this area, which is why I wanted to talk to him today.
I found John when I was looking for information about writing short mysteries, and found one of his blog posts on the subject. It is a thrill to have him on the show today to talk about his prolific output.
Since we’re talking about short mysteries today, this episode of It’s a Mystery Podcast is sponsored by my brand new short mystery, The Outside of a Horse. (This short mystery runs to about 94 pages.)
June 1889. When Pastor Thoreson’s sister-in-law arrives in the town called Horse she immediately becomes the victim of a crime. With Constable Jack Merrick deep in the early stages of grief over losing his wife, his good friend Walt is pressed into service to try to solve the mystery. With assistance from close friends, Walt must find a way to help the Thoresons before Merrick’s superiors discover his absence.
The Outside of a Horse is part of a new series of short historical mysteries from award-winning author Alexandra Amor. A cross between the gentle rhythms and supportive relationships of Call the Midwife and the historical charm of Little House on the Prairie, the Town Called Horse stories are perfect for readers who like their mysteries with well-drawn characters and a lot of heart.
Click here to get your copy today, for less than the price of your morning latte.
You can find out more about today’s guest, John Floyd, and all his books on his website JohnMFLoyd.com.
Links and resources mentioned in this episode
- Click on any of the book covers to go to John’s books on Amazon
- Dogwood Press, the publisher of many of John’s anthologies
- The Wikipedia page for Eudora Welty, the Pulitzer Prize winning author John mentions in our conversation
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcription of Interview with John Floyd
Alexandra: Hi, mystery readers, I’m Alexandra Amor. This is “It’s a Mystery Podcast,” and I’m here today with John Floyd. Hi, John. How are you today?
John: Hi, Alexandra. I’m fine.
Alexandra: Good, good. Well, let me introduce you to our listeners.
John Floyd’s work has appeared in more than 250 different publications, including “Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine,” “Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine,” “The Strand Magazine,” “The Saturday Evening Post,” and “The Best American Mystery Stories”.
A former Air Force captain and IBM systems engineer, John is also a three-time Derringer Award winner, an Editor Award finalist, and a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee.
His 7th collection of short mystery fiction, “The Barrens,” is scheduled for release in summer 2018. John’s work has been praised by James Patterson, Nevada Barr, Douglas Preston, Jan Burke, Tom Franklin, and many others.
That’s quite a list, John. I love it. So, we’re here today specifically to talk about short mystery fiction, and that was how I found you. I’m actually thinking of doing some short mysteries myself. And as you do, I went to Google and did a little search and found an article that you had written about writing short mystery stories.
Why don’t you tell us, how did you get started writing short mysteries?
John: I’m not sure how I got started. I grew up on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “Twilight Zone” and all those crazy little shows on TV. They were all told within, like, half an hour. They use different stories.
And so, I’ve read a lot of Alfred Hitchcock, Ellery Queen, that kind of thing. And a lot of times, that’s what came into play, and I just like that. I like that format a lot.
So I just started dreaming up stories, and I did that for a long time. And finally, my wife talked me into trying to submit a few of those, which was really scary to do that. And that’s how I got going with this.
Alexandra: Did you write the stories while you were working for IBM? Did you do it on the side, as it were?
John: I did. I probably did it more than I should have been. It was on my mind when other things should have been on my mind. But, yeah, I did. This was the ’90s, early ’90s, maybe late ’80s I started writing these stories.
I didn’t send them off ’til I think, 94. I think early ’94, I sent off my first story. And since then, I’ve been submitting stories pretty regularly.
But the whole process of sending an unsolicited manuscript to an editor was just kind of a scary thing. It took a while to get it around to doing it. I liked my stories and I wasn’t anxious for someone to tell me they didn’t like them.
Alexandra: Yes. Yeah, I hear that.
John: Rejection is a big thing.
Were they accepted right away or did it take some time?
John: I was very, very fortunate. I’m not really sure how this happened, but I picked five stories and I sent those five stories to five different editors. And four of those five were accepted and published.
It just was crazy. I thought, “This is great. This is easier than rolling off a log. I’ll just sell a zillion stories,” right? Well, I think about the next 13 or 14 in a row were rejected.
So, that was good, actually, because it taught me that this isn’t easy. In order for a story to be accepted by an editor, a particular editor has got to like your particular story on a particular day. It’s kind of a roll of a dice, you know?
But that early success showed me that it could be done. So I think I was awful lucky. I knew at least it could happen. And so, I’ve just kept at it. I hope I’ve gotten a little better at it. And my acceptance to rejection ratio is better, but I still get rejected. I think, “All right.” I still get stories rejected. But I think it’s at least the odds were a little better now than it used to be.
Alexandra: When they get rejected, do you try them with a different editor?
John: I do. I will send them to a different… And I always tell my students, I’ve taught writing for a long time, and I’ve said that what I do is I treat it as a double opportunity when I get a rejection because I’ll send another story to the place that rejected me, and I’ll send the story that got rejected someplace else. I honestly do and I still do that.
And there’s no rhyme or reason sometimes to this. The stories that you think will be snapped up, sometimes they’re kind of hard to sell. And one that you think… You try to make every one as perfect as it can be before you send it out, but even so sometimes, when you think, “Well, this isn’t perfect.” Maybe it’s not as good as some of the others and it gets bought right away. And so, there is honestly no rhyme or reason. It’s an inexact science.
Alexandra: I’m just so fascinated by this. And I once heard, I think it was Lawrence Block, who writes mystery novels, of course, and he said that writing short mysteries is actually harder than writing full-length ones.
What is it for you, about that form, the real shortness about it, that appeals to you?
John: I don’t know. I think one of the things is…we mentioned this. We talked about this earlier, is that you can finish in a matter of, certainly, a few days, maybe a few weeks, but mostly, a few days, and write, “The End.”
You finished it and it’s done, and you send it off then, and you just don’t think about it anymore. You think about another story. And that happens so often. I think that it’s fine to do it that way.
I’ve tried novels, too, and they’re fun in a different way. But you live with those characters day in and day out for months and maybe years. And with this, you can turn them over pretty fast. I like that. It’s just fun to do. And the puzzle aspect of it, too.
Some of these little short mysteries are…they can almost be puzzles. And that’s fun. And I guess there’s a manipulation aspect to all this that kind of appeals to me, too. But it really is fun.
And I’ve always heard that not only should you read like a writer, like, when you read something, you should think, “How is this good? Why am I liking this or why am I not?” But you should write like a reader, too, and try to put yourself in the mind of the reader and think, “What do I want to reveal and when, you know, and how?” This goes back to point of view and all those other things. But it’s fun to do.
Alexandra: And following on from that, so you do have some characters that repeat. So you have the Angela and Chunky series that you’ve done for “Women’s World.”
Tell us a little bit about Angela and Chunky.
John: Oh, well, I’m not sure why I started doing this, but I had sold several stories to this magazine called “Woman’s World.” It comes out weekly at Kroger and Target and Walmart, that kinda thing.
I sold them some stories and so I thought a series might be fun. And I picked a retired, bossy school teacher and a guy that she taught in the fifth grade, who’s the sheriff of her little town. And so, she kinda helps him solve mysteries, whether he wants her to or not, and corrects his grammar in front of the deputies and all those kinds of things.
It was an opportunity to be able to put a lot of humor into something. You know, having the interaction between these two. The biggest deal was, I realized early on that if I could get a series going, especially for a “Woman’s World” story that’s very short, just, like, 800 words max, 700 words maximum for these little mysteries.
If you can have characters that the readers know and that you know pretty well, you know what? You don’t have to waste a lot of time with set up and those kinds of things. You can go into the plot quicker.
You just can’t waste words in those little stories. You just run out of them that fast. It’s fun to do the series. I have four series going now, and that one at “Woman’s World” has lasted a long time. It’s been a lot of fun.
Alexandra: Tell us a little bit about the other ones that are ongoing.
John: I have one with another retired school teacher and she has a daughter who’s a Sheriff. And she’s trying to get her daughter married all the time, that kind of thing. And so, it’s this kind of conflict there, fun that could happen there. Her name is Fran Valentine and her daughter is Lucy Valentine. I call that the “Law and Daughter” series. It’s appeared In a bunch of different places and I’ve still got that ongoing.
And then I have a series that just started with “Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine” and they bought the 2nd story in that series. It’s supposed to come out I think next month. And then I sent them the 3rd story in that series, which kind of presents a problem.
If they happen not to take the 3rd, where are you going to send it, right? But that’s just something to do. And then another one is a private eye who is back in the old west because I’m just crazy about western. I love westerns, like Robert Parker’s westerns, Appaloosa. I just love those things.
Alexandra: Me, too.
John: So I put a private eye back in that time, and a couple of those had been published. And those are a lot of fun to do. So the series are fun. They’re limited, but they’re fun.
Alexandra: 700 words; my mind just boggles at how short that is and how much you have to pack into that little space.
Do you find that you write it a little longer and then cut it back, or how does that work?
John: Yeah. These days, my drafts will go about 1000 words or so, and then I cut them back. Because you know that we all write too much. I mean, we all overwrite. You can go back and take things out. You can even have folks sit instead of sitting down, you know, and stand, instead of stand up. I mean, you can take words out all the time.
Shrug your shoulders, what are you gonna shrug besides your shoulders, right, so just shrug, not shrug your shoulder. So there’s a bunch of different ways you can go back and weed out words and phrases and ideas and those kinds of things.
But no kidding, all my drafts, even for longer stories…and I’ve sold a bunch of stories that are, like, 10,000 to 15,000 words, those kinds of things. Even so, my drafts always run longer. First drafts always run longer than second. Second one, always longer than the third. It always does.
So I try to shoot for just a little more and then cut it back a little bit. Somebody told me once when I send in a story and their guidelines said, like, 2,000 words and it was 2,500, but that’s gonna be okay because it’s a great story.
The deal is, they won’t read it if it’s more than their guidelines. So they’ll never get to discover that it’s a great story. So you do have to pay attention to those.
And with the “Woman’s World” stories, I just sold them… I can’t even believe this myself, but my 95th story for “Woman’s World” was published last week. It’s hard to believe that I’ve come up with 95 of those little stories. And most of them are mysteries. A couple of them are romances, but 93 of them are mysteries. And I think that just comes easier to me. I think the puzzle part of it comes easier. The structure is kind of fun to make.
Alexandra: Well, that actually does bring up another question that I had.
Where do you think your ideas come from?
I always tell my writing students…because some of them really worry about that. One lady who had just written a story, and she says, “One, it was fun to write, but I don’t think I’ll ever get another idea.”
I think the thing to do is to say, “What if such and such…” Come up with any situation with your friends or your family or whatever, and just come up with a situation. “What if such and such happened?” And then after that, “What if the next thing happened? ” And pretty soon you’ve got a story.
And I told one lady that the best way, very honestly, the best way to come up with ideas is to eat a bowl of chili just before you go to bed at night. And then you wake up at 3:00 in the morning dreaming in technicolor and cinemascope, which probably is not good advice as you can get. But the thing is to be observant, I think. Don’t you? And then just say, “What if such and such happened?” That’s the way it works.
Alexandra: Is that something that you teach your students in your writing classes?
John: I’m not sure. You know what? It’s truly funny, I don’ t think you can really teach anybody to write. I am not sure you can teach.
What I do teach, what I do try to do is plan out the things that I think can make it easier and that can make it work better, some of the style things that you just have to know.
I don’t care if you pay attention in high school or not. There are things that you will have forgotten and you just gotta know that. Because in the old days, you could send in a story or a novel, too, to editors or publishers and they’d say, “Hey, this has got promise. We’ll put it into shape.”
These days, they won’t. It’s got to be as good as it can be because they know they’ve got so many submissions coming in, they don’t have to worry about it.
I try to teach the kinds of things that maybe I wish I’d known when I started, show them where the holes are that you might fall into, you know.
Alexandra: One of the things we should mention, too, is that you collect your short stories and then publish them as books.
How many stories would you say your average writing each year?
John: Well, this past year…I only know this because I looked this morning. So far this year, I’ve sold 34 stories this year to all kinds of different places. And I have… Gosh, I think it’s… I have 12 stories that have been accepted but not yet published at this moment.
And then I’ve got…I can’t believe it, I’ve got 20-something stories floating around out there right now that I haven’t heard anything back from. So I just keep a lot of stories going on all the time. And, honestly, I don’t know where they come from, but they just do. And I’m always thinking about, I’m always thinking about this stuff, which, honestly, is kind of worrisome, probably.
If I have to drive somewhere… Tomorrow I’m going to a book signing a hundred miles south of here. And I’ll think of a story, probably, on the way down there, on the way back. I mean, there’s no such thing as wasted time when you do this kind of thing, right?
John: The process itself is just a lot of fun. So I do write a lot of stories.
Alexandra: Do you have a specific writing practice or do you just do it when the idea occurs to you?
John: Pretty much when it occurs to me because I have so many writer friends who say, “Well, you gotta have a quota. I mean, you gotta set a page count or a word count or something. You gotta have a regimen. You need to get up at a certain time. You need to write at a certain time. You need to write at a certain place.” I’ve never done any of that.
You don’t have to, okay? Now, hey, I might be better if I did. It might work better if I did. But I don’t. I’m just usually thinking about all this stuff, or at least the lot.
And I think if it helps you do it, whatever keeps you in the zone, whatever gets you in that comfort place, you know, that you need to be to create this stuff, that’s what you need to do. But I’ve never had anything like that that’ll kick it off for me. I think it would be great if you did, you know.
One guy told me that he gets a manuscript box. He gets a manuscript box and it’s kind of like a box full of copy paper, you know, a ream of copy paper. And every day, he’ll put a page. He’ll finish a page and he’ll put it in that box. And he says when the box is full, he says that’s…his book is done, which is a lie.
But everybody does have little ways of doing this kind of thing. Eudora Welty, who’s from here in Jackson, Mississippi, she had to sit at her desk…this is almost superstitious. She had to sit at her desk in her home, the second floor, looking across the street to the north of the campus at Belhaven College. She had to be doing that in order to finish a story. She might start it in Paris or wherever she is traveling, but she had to finish a story sitting there. It was just the way she had to do it. It’s like wearing, you know, certain socks for athletes in a game. Isn’t it crazy?
John: Deal is, if it works, if you’re lucky enough to find out what works, do that.
Alexandra: Exactly, yes. Yeah.
John: Do you have some of those that you have… Do you…
Alexandra: Yes, I have a regular practice. So every morning, the creativity comes first. That’s how I do it. And try to hit a word count every day.
John: You try to hit the word count every…
John: I admire you. I think that’s a good thing.
Alexandra: Thank you.
John: I probably should do that.
Alexandra: Well, it may not be necessary. Why try to fix what’s not broken?
John: I guess so. I guess so.
Alexandra: The subject of magazines is interesting to me. I have a few questions about this.
With the changes that are going on in the world and the changes to the press and the way that we receive our news and everything, have you noticed that there are fewer magazines around to submit your work to?
John: There are fewer magazines. Oh, there are fewer magazines to submit your work to. Back in, I think, the ’40s and ’50s, the golden age of short stories, a writer could support himself or herself just on short stories.
Lawrence Block, Louis L’Amour, those folks. But you can’t now. And you have to look for markets and you have to use the internet, like you were talking about doing. You have to use the internet to find markets to send to.
And when you’re fortunate to get into a market with one exceptional work, then you try to keep that relationship going and you get to know the editor and he or she gets to know…mostly she, mostly ladies these days, get to know what you write. That, of course, helps. But there are fewer markets out there. There are.
Alexandra: Yup. And then the question of ownership comes to me. So you submit the article, let’s say “Women’s World” picks it up, pays you for it.
Are you still the owner of that piece of intellectual property?
John: You usually are. The only time you are not is if the contract says they’re buying all rights.
John: All right. In that way, you would give up the ownership of that piece, okay? But otherwise, and almost every place these days will acquire first rights, First North American Serial Rights. And then you then retain those rights once the story is published.
Or, sometimes the contract will say you need to wait 90 days after publication, but then you can sell it again. And some of my stories, I’ve sold eight or nine times. So you can certainly do that. It’s one of the few advantages of short stories over novels, is that you can recycle.
Alexandra: I suppose that’s why you can then collect them into a book and have it published.
John: You can, that’s true. And what happened with me is a publisher here in Mississippi happened to see some of my stories. His name is Joe Lee. He works for Dogwood Press. And he had seen some of my stores in “Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.” And he was thinking about setting up a little publishing company.
And so he said, “What about if we take some of your stories and we see if it works?” So it was a very lucky thing for me to do that. And then now, we’ll have our…seventh book will come out next summer. The last one was last fall. And they are a lot of fun.
They’re usually previously published stories. Very honestly, I think it’s easier to collect stories like that, that have been previously published. Because if you do traditional publishing, even if it’s a small publishing, you go with a traditional publisher, he or she might want to see maybe a story that’s been vetted once before that at least someone has wanted to publish before in order to invest in doing that, you know, the project, that kind of thing
Alexandra: Yeah. And just a couple more questions before we go then.
Did you say you have tried writing a novel or you have written novels?
John: I have. I’ve written three. I have two novels out with an agent right now and he’s excited about them, but they haven’t sold. I’m hopeful, of course. I’m hopeful. But that is just a totally different process. Really, it really is.
For me, ideas for those kinds of things come less often than for the little short stories that you can almost see. You can almost see them totally developed in your head before you put them on the page. And I just really kind of like that more than the novel process. I really do. I read novels all the time, but I think that the short stories are just fun to create.
Alexandra: What was it about the novel ideas that convinced you that they were a novel and not a short story?
John: They were too long.
Alexandra: Okay. Too big of an idea?
John: It’s too big of an idea. And in fact, someone told me…I think it was…maybe it was Hemingway who said he never set out to write a novel. He started writing short stories and sometimes they got too long. It might have been Faulkner.
I do know Faulkner said once that he tried writing poems and he couldn’t write poems so he wrote short stories. Then he tried to write short stories, and he couldn’t write his so he wrote novels. Honestly, sometimes it’s hard to put everything into a little compact package. It’s a lot of fun when you do.
Alexandra: Well, I really admire that you do that, especially because I think writing a short story that’s not a mystery is one thing. That’s one level of difficulty. And when then you add the whole puzzle aspect in and get it in there in 800 words, that’s just incredible to me.
John: Well, you know, a lot of short stories don’t…not a lot, but some short stories don’t actually have to have a plot. I mean, you can have almost…I mean, a vignette, a slice of life. A character study can qualify as a short story.
It’s just a series of related events, is a story. So you can have short stories, and very good short stories that don’t really have detailed plots.
One of Hemingway’s was called “Big Two-Hearted River,” and it was just about a guy who went out in the woods and he caught a fish, and he cooked the fish for his supper. And that was it. I mean, nothing happened, right? But it was a story.
But when you do have a plot, it’s just what makes it. It’s just what makes it interesting, what makes it fun. So I think in mysteries, you have to have something happening. Doesn’t have to be who-done-it, doesn’t have to be who-done-it. It can be a how-done-it or a how-catch-him or whatever. But something has to be happening, and something has to get resolved. You need to have a problem and a complication, and then a solution.
John: And you just have to do it in not too many words.
Alexandra: Right. That’s the tricky part.
Alexandra: Yes. Well, this has been amazing, John. Thank you so much for chatting with me today. It’s been a delight.
So as I mentioned, in the show notes, I’m going to put links to your website and your books so that people know where they can find you. And then people can always pick up a “Woman’s World” or one of the other magazines that are around.
Why don’t you let everybody know a little bit more about where they can find your books?
John: Okay. My books are available at Amazon, and they’re also available via my publisher’s website. It’s dogwoodpress.com, one word, dogwoodpress.com, and in bookstores as well.
Other places for my stories are “Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine,” I have one coming up in “Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.” I’ve published several in “Strand Magazine”, “Saturday Evening Post”. And “Woman’s World,” I’ve been fortunate. I’ve had 13 stories there so far this year, so just about one a month. So you have one chance in four. So if you go in to pick up a “Woman’s World,” you’ll find my mysteries in there. They’re a lot of fun, too.
Alexandra: Excellent. Well, thank you so much again for being here with me today, John. Take care.
John: Thank you, Alexandra.
Alexandra: My pleasure. Bye-bye.