Murder Under the Oaks: Three Debut Authors Talk with Editor Art Taylor

Murder Under the Oaks, edited by Art Taylor

When MURDER UNDER THE OAKS: Bouchercon Anthology 2015 earned an Anthony Award nomination for Best Anthology or Collection, I couldn’t have been more thrilled — not just for myself but more importantly for the contributors and for the chance to turn the spotlight once more on their fine stories. The keen craftsmanship they brought to their writing made each of these authors a pleasure to work with on the editorial side, and the breadth and diversity of the stories overall — from cozy to noir, from amateur sleuth to police detective to criminal, and across an even broader range — hopefully gave readers a little something for all tastes, similar to the range of stories that fall under the larger oak canopy that we call “crime fiction.”

While some of the veteran authors in the collection certainly garner wider name recognition — Margaret Maron, Tom Franklin, Zoë Sharp, and others — one of the real delights for me as an editor was working with three writers making their debuts in the world of crime fiction: J.D. Allen, author of “Grasshoppers,” Kristin Kisska, author of “The Sevens,” and Karen E. Salyer, author of “Childhood’s Hour.”

To celebrate the Anthony nomination and as a preview of the collection itself, these writers agreed to a quick interview on their work, and I’m pleased to host them here.

Art Taylor: What was the genesis of your story?

J.D. Allen: “Grasshoppers” is a story of retribution. It was not intended to be a short story. A few years back, I was asked by a local filmmaker to write him a short script he could produce into about a ten-minute film. When I sat down to start the script from scratch I had no ideas in my head at all. As listed out a few ideas, a very famous murder case came to mind — one that left a particular celebrity not in jail when I was sure that was exactly where he belonged. And off I went.

J.D. Allen
Photo provided courtesy of J.D. Allen

“Grasshoppers” is not about that case at all, but it is about my desire to set the scales of justice to rights. When the filmmaker never got around to making the film, I re-wrote the script into the short story I submitted for the Bouchercon anthology. And I love the story much more than the script. I can get so much deeper into characters’ heads with a story.

Kristin Kisska: I was inspired to write “The Sevens” while reading The University of Virginia’s alumni magazine. The article described the traditions of our secret societies, a topic which always fascinated me. According to legend, in the early 1900s, eight students had planned to get together for a game of bridge, but when only seven showed up, they started the most secretive of all UVA’s secret societies — The Seven Society. After a little mystery-author-math (one missing person = murder), my short story was born.

Karen E. Salyer: I’ve loved Poe since I discovered his words at age ten in a kid’s book with delightfully lurid illustrations. J.W. Ocker’s Poe-Land: The Hallowed Haunts of Edgar Allan Poe caught my attention with its amazing cover art. I finished his Edgar-winning ghost walk around the time I heard about submissions for the Murder Under the Oaks anthology. Couldn’t resist attempting a story with a tree-climbing orphan curious about his parents’ theatrical past. “Childhood’s Hour” included references to my favorite works by Poe. Wink — I adore “Easter eggs” hidden in scenes.

Art Taylor: First impressions are important, of course. Given that this is your debut publication in the mystery genre, how does your story represent who you are — and who you want to be — as a writer?

J.D. Allen
Photo provided courtesy of Kristin Kisska

J.D. Allen: Like most things I’ve written, “Grasshoppers” delves into some of the darker aspects of the human personality. The raw instincts we all have but work to control, at least outwardly. Revenge. Self-preservation. Addiction. Desperation. Hate. Fear. Emotions that nag at the psyche like a hangnail. We can try to ignore them, tuck it deep inside, but we end up picking at it, worrying it until it’s a throbbing open sore that needs attention. That’s the place I like to take my characters, right to the edges of self-balance and then see how they react to the situations I put them in. Of course, they do all this in a way that makes the reader pull for them, want them to find a way out the dark, and get the bad guys in the process.

Kristin Kisska: “The Sevens” incorporated elements found in all my fiction writing, both my short stories and novels: actual historical events, locations, and people. Thomas Jefferson has made his way into everything I’ve written, though not yet as a character. Also, both “The Sevens” and my novel Purple Shadows feature one of my favorite hooks — secret societies.

I strive to craft a story so rooted in reality readers can barely separate fact from fiction. I’ll know I’ve succeeded when I’ve inspired a reader to research the most intriguing details woven through one of my stories … they’ll be amazed how much is true. For example, while researching UVA’s student newspaper archives from 1905 for “The Sevens,” I learned that during Dr. Alderman’s inaugural celebrations as president of UVA, fireworks were launched in the shape of both Thomas Jefferson’s and Dr. Alderman’s profiles. Even my editor — Art Taylor — was skeptical of this detail until I proved otherwise!

Karen E. Salyer: Uh oh, writing about an icon sets the short story bar high. I write the kinds of stories I like to read. Place and people are important, the “crime” not exactly secondary but inevitable.

J.D. Allen
Photo provided courtesy of Karen E. Salyer

Art Taylor: What have you been working on — or published even! — since this story appeared?

J.D. Allen: I have a new agent, Mark Gotlieb. He’s shopping my Hard Boiled PI series set in Vegas at the moment. I just finished the first draft of book one in another series with a female Vet as the protagonist. Both main characters in these series follow the same theme of exploring the hard part of being human — finding themselves in the dark with their demons and learning to fight their way into the light.

Kristin Kisska: Since publishing “The Sevens” in Murder Under the Oaks, I published another short mystery story, “A Colonial Grave” in the anthology Virginia Is For Mysteries: Volume II. I’m currently polishing my first novel, a contemporary suspense, which is named after another of UVA’s secret societies — Purple Shadows.

Karen E. Salyer: I’m revising a second installment focused on Poe’s 1828 military posting on Sullivan’s Island. Historical fiction requires research. Reading, of course, and since time travel (except in my head) isn’t an option, visits to Fort Moultrie and a similar coastal fort on Amelia Island. What I learned brought a darker slant to the story. Poe worthy, I hope. Meanwhile I’m juggling another WIP whose protagonist is a pedicab driver in present-day Charleston.

Read these stories — and more! — in full in MURDER UNDER THE OAKS.