I first met award-winning author B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens at Bouchercon Raleigh, when a large contingent of authors from the Short Mystery Fiction Society met for lunch. It was a huge thrill for me, because I have enjoyed many of her stories in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. For those of you just getting to know Bonnie, here’s her official bio:
B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens wrote Interpretation of Murder (Black Opal Books), a traditional whodunit offering insights into deaf culture, and Fighting Chance (Poisoned Pen), a young adult martial arts mystery. She’s also published over 50 short stories, most in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Eleven of those stories are included in Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime (Wildside Press). B.K. has won a Derringer and has been nominated for Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards.
Judy: You’re visiting today to talk about writing short vs. long. Tell us a bit about your process, and how it differs (if it differs) based on the length of the story.
Bonnie: Once I get started on a project, I follow the same basic writing process, whether I’m working on stories or novels. I take many pages of not-quite-freewriting notes as I develop characters, work through plot problems, explore themes, and so on. Then I write the first draft quickly, revise and edit endlessly, proofread carefully.
So the stages in the process don’t vary much, but the amount of time I devote to stages might. If I’m working on a mini-mystery for Woman’s World, for example, I don’t take detailed notes about characters. Since a 700-word limit doesn’t allow much time for character development, I rely on types—kindly old aunt, greedy nephew, savvy police detective. For novels or longer stories, I write biographical sketches of major characters, packed with background information that may never make it into print but helps me understand the characters.
Before the writing process starts, there’s a crucial decision: Is this idea right for a mini-mystery, a longer story, or a novel? If the plot hinges on a single twist, a mini-mystery might be the best choice. A highly eccentric protagonist might amuse readers in a longer story but start getting on their nerves in a novel. A theme that requires characters to undergo gradual changes might work better in a novel than a story.
Judy: You’ve had over 50 short stories published. Do you have a favorite, and if so, why?
Bonnie: If I may, I’ll mention two favorites. Both first appeared in Hitchcock’s and are included in Her Infinite Variety. “Thea’s First Husband,” a dark suspense story, focuses on a troubled marriage that comes to a crisis when a scheming private detective exploits the husband’s suspicions and the wife’s resentment. “Death in Rehab” is a humorous whodunit set at a center for people with unusual addictions—a Jeopardy! fanatic who always speaks in the form of a question, a compulsive proofreader who can’t stop correcting other people’s grammar, and so on. The two stories differ in tone, in theme, in almost everything. But I hope both have endings that leave readers saying, “I should have seen that coming—but I didn’t.” That’s something I always try to achieve in mysteries, to be absolutely fair with readers but still give them twists they didn’t expect.
Judy: What or who inspired you to become a writer?
Bonnie: My father was an English professor and a fiction writer. It’s probably no coincidence I became an English professor and a fiction writer. I have warm memories of sitting on the floor of his study, doing my homework while he wrote novels on his manual typewriter. He never achieved much success, but he loved writing, he worked hard at it, and I loved everything he wrote.
Judy: Do you have a favorite book of all time?
Bonnie: Naming my favorite book of all time is difficult—the books I admire most aren’t necessarily the ones I return to most often. Naming my favorite mystery is easy: Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers. It was the first mystery I read as an adult—first since my Nancy Drew days—and it surprised me. I’d never imagined a mystery could have such an engaging plot, so much humor, or such complex, delightful characters; I’d never guessed it could portray relationships with such subtlety or explore themes with such insight. And at the end, when plot and theme came together beautifully, when clues fell into place in a way that had never occurred to me but instantly made perfect sense, it took my breath away.
Thank you, Bonnie (and by the way, Thea’s First Husband is one of my all-time favorite short stories by any author).