Monday, November 8, 2010

Author Interview: Short Story Writer, Barb Goffman

Murder to Mil-Spec

As many of you know, I am a huge fan of the short story. As a writer, they are a challenge to produce and as a reader . . well, it's like having a little piece of fiction for dessert. :-)

That's why I'm very excited to be sharing an interview today with two-time Agatha-nominated mystery short story writer, Barb Goffman:

K: Welcome to Fiction for Dessert, Barb. I appreciate you taking the time to do this interview.

B: Thanks, Karen! It’s always fun to talk about short mystery fiction.

K: Your website says you are a mystery writer focusing on the short story medium. When did you first start writing short stories?

B: It was in the spring of 2004. I had recently attended the Sleuthfest mystery conference, where my beautiful diamond and sapphire ring was lost (stolen!). I’d stupidly left it beside a public bathroom sink at the conference hotel, and by the time I realized it fifteen minutes later, the ring was gone. My public pleas for the ring’s return went unanswered. When I heard a call for short stories for Chesapeake Crimes II, I realized this was my chance at catharsis – I wrote a story in which I killed the thief!

K: What, specifically attracts you to short story writing?

B: I used to be a daily newspaper reporter, and starting and finishing writing projects in short order is in my blood. Writing a novel could take months or longer (especially if you work full time, as I do). With short stories, I can get an idea and sit down and in a few hours, or a few days, have a good first draft of the story completed. That’s very appealing. With shorts, I also get to spend time with different characters and different settings. I enjoy the variety.

K: Where do you find inspiration for your stories?

B: I’m often motivated by revenge. When you have a bad guy that you feel really deserved his (or her) just desserts in real life and didn’t get them, it can be so satisfying to make it happen on paper. My second short story published, “Compulsive Bubba,” was inspired by a woman I knew growing up. Her husband cheated on her. She deserved better. While “Bubba” is fictional, I feel I got some justice for her in the story.

I also like a good challenge. If you ask me to simply write a short story, I might come up with something. But if you ask me to write a short story with a particular theme (like murder at the holidays), my creative juices are quickly off and running. I have a friend who once bet me I couldn’t kill someone with jelly. I can’t pass that up. So you can be sure that at some point, you’ll see a story from me with jelly as the murder weapon.

K: You’re a two time Agatha nominee! Can you tell my readers about the Agatha Award and the nomination process?

B: The Agatha Awards, named after Agatha Christie, are fan-based awards given out each spring at the Malice Domestic mystery convention. Being nominated is an incredible honor because it means that readers in the mystery community really appreciated your work.

Anyone who registers for the Malice Domestic convention before the end of a calendar year is eligible to submit their choices for Agatha nominees. (Best novel, best first novel, best short story, best non-fiction book, and best children’s novel of the year that just ended – all mysteries, of course.) The Agatha committee tallies up all the submissions, ensures they meet the Agatha Award guidelines, and then the five (usually) submissions with the most nominations are officially nominated in February of each year. (It’s actually a little more complicated than this, but that’s the gist.) The winners are announced at the Malice convention, which is held at the end of April/early May. Anyone who attends the convention is eligible to vote for the winners.

K: Do you have a favorite story or possibly a favorite character?

B: It’s hard to pick among your babies, but I think I actually do. My newest story out is “Biscuits, Carats, and Gravy,” from the anthology The Killer Wore Cranberry. In this story, my main character, Dotty, is hosting Thanksgiving, as usual. But this year, she learns that an airhead will be joining the family, and that airhead will be getting her deceased mother’s engagement ring. That’s simply unacceptable to Dotty, so she comes up with a plan to stop it that involves some horrible gravy. I love Dotty because she’s smart and snarky and devious and funny. When the call for this anthology came out, the publisher said it wanted humorous stories involving Thanksgiving foods. I love writing humor, and I think it really worked in this story.

Here’s a little excerpt:

We have three big Thanksgiving traditions in my family. Everyone gathers at my house. We all hold hands when we give thanks. And we all avoid my big sister Agnes’s gravy like the plague.
Unfortunately, I can never dodge it entirely.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Dotty,” Agnes said, click-clacking into my kitchen, holding out her gravy container as if it held gold. More like mold, if this year’s version resembled last year’s. And every year’s before that.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Agnes.” I pecked her on the cheek as she handed off her creation. I set it down next to my silver gravy boat. My poor boat that everyone passed around the table each year, never actually pouring anything from it. Not that you could. Agnes used so much flour, the gravy practically stood up on its own.

“You want me to use the lower oven again this year, Dotty?” asked my brother-in-law, Fred, carrying in Agnes’s turkey.

Someone should have told that man years ago that just because it’s Thanksgiving, he doesn’t have to wear a bright orange sweater with a turkey on it. Nonetheless the same sweater. Every year.

K: I like that! Do any of your characters appear in more than one story?

B: All of my stories have been stand-alones, but I enjoyed writing about Dotty and her family so much, I might try to come up with some more stories about them.

K: At the end, I will list the anthologies in which you appear and where readers can purchase them, but would you mind talking about one of the most recent – Murder to Mil-Spec and the charity it benefits?

B: Thanks for asking about Murder to Mil-Spec. It’s especially timely because Veterans Day is later this week, and the publisher is donating all of its profits from the anthology to veterans’ charity Homes For Our Troops. HFOT helps severely disabled veterans who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, these veterans sometimes need their homes retrofitted so they can use them (with an elevator, wider doors, etc.) Or they need an entirely new home built. HFOT does that for them. It’s a wonderful organization.

Murder to Mil-Spec contains 12 short stories all involving the military – the characters are either veterans or current soldiers. My story, “An Officer and a Gentleman’s Agreement,” involves a veteran with a deadly secret who threatens a powerful general’s career. The story spans from West Point in 1972 to northern Virginia today. Anyone who enjoys reading about the military should like my story (I hope!) as well as all the others in this book.

Everyone who lives in the Washington, D.C. area has the opportunity to meet three of the authors in this book. On the evening of December 7th (Pearl Harbor Day), I’ll be appearing at the Reston Regional Library with my fellow authors Charles Schaeffer and Elizabeth Zelvin, talking about this anthology.

K: What advice would you give new writers looking to break into the world of short story writing?

B: Read, read, read. Write, write, write. The more I read, the more I learn from other authors. Simply reading different types of writing helps an author because good writing seeps into the soul and influences you. And then, of course, you need to practice your craft. Come up with an idea, write the very best story you can, then revise and revise. Write on a regular basis (daily is best) because it keeps your skills sharpened. Join a writing group you trust – other authors who will give you honest and helpful comments on your work. Keep your eyes out for markets, and remember that this is a hard industry. If you get a rejection, buck up and submit that story somewhere else. My story that was nominated for the Agatha earlier this year, “The Worst Noel,” was rejected by the first two places I submitted it. After each rejection, I embarked on major revisions. The third version worked out pretty well.

K: Thank you so much for stopping by my blog and talking about your work!

B: Thank you, Karen, for this opportunity. I’ve really enjoyed it.

These are a few of the collections where you can find Barb's stories. For more on Barb Goffman and her writing, check out her website at Barb

Also, remember that proceeds from Murder to Mil-Spec go to an AMAZING cause to support our veterans, so if you want to remember them in a VERY special way this week, consider purchasing the collection. For every book sold from this site over the next week, I will personally donate another $5.00 to Homes For Our Troops.

As always, thank you for stopping by and for following my blog!


Susan B said...

Inspiring interview! And after reading that excerpt, I have to know the end of that story ....

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Lovely interview, Karen and Barb. And what a generous offer to match sales of Murder to Mil-Spec. I didn't even know Charles Schaeffer will join Barb and me at the Reston Library on December 7--great news. :)

Barb Goffman said...

Thanks, Susan! The beauty with e-books like The Killer Wore Cranberry is that can have the book in your hands in a matter of minutes and can start reading write away. Perhaps you already have! : )

And Elizabeth, thanks for stopping by. Can't wait to see you next month at the library event!

Kathleen A. Ryan said...

Thanks, Karen, for a lovely interview with Barb ~ I enjoyed it very much.
I will blog about Murder to Mil Spec on my "From Cop to Mom" blog (I also blog at Women of Mystery, where my blogmate, Terrie Farley Moran, is also a contributor to this fine anthology). I will mention your generous matching offer to readers to encourage them to order through your site. I'll post it on Veteran's Day. You can find it via http;//
Thanks for your generosity towards a good cause ~ and congratulations to Barb on her success! So sorry that her ring was kept by a thief...but the silver lining was a great story!

Janel said...

Great interview! As far as short stories go I find the mystery genre is one of the most difficult for me to write.

Congratulations, Barb, on your success!

Karen Cantwell said...

I'm glad you stopped by and enjoyed the interview Susan and Elizabeth.

Kathleen - thank you and I plan to check out your blogs!

Barb Goffman said...

Thanks for stopping by today, Kathleen. It was so great meeting you at Bouchercon!

And thanks for your kind words, Janel. Your dog is adorable!

Tony Burton said...


Thanks for the great interview! I didn't know about your ring misadventure. I understand how you could be upset about such a thing! One holiday season, many, many years ago, I was a sailor returning home for Christmas leave, and my pocket was picked, removing all my money for family presents and celebration. Took the wind out of my sails, and had I been a writer at the time, I'm sure I would have taken the same route: killing the perpetrator in a story!

Tony Burton

L.C. Evans said...

Barb, thanks for the nice interview. I love short mystery stories, especially the humorous ones. You are so right about learning from reading.

Barb Goffman said...

Oh, Tony, that's horrible. Robbed at Christmas. You know, it's not too late to pay back that robber. Something about a cold dish...

And, L.C. Thanks for stopping by. You never do know when or from where inspiration will come. I was reading a book by Craig Johnson recently, and he used such a lovely turn of phrase to describe something - I never would have thought to use those words, but as soon as I read it, it was just perfect. I love when those little unexpected moments happen!

Kathleen A. Ryan said...

Today I am promoting Murder to Mil Spec and your generous offer:

My blog mate and Murder to Mil Spec contributor, Terrie Farley Moran, also has a Vets Day post re: Murder to Mil Spec:

Karen Cantwell said...

Thank you for spreading the word, Kathleen. I'm so proud to say we have had sales, and that I will gladly be writing a check to Homes for Our Troops! Maybe that check can get bigger if more people buy . . .???