Posted on December 5, 2015 - by

Anatomy of a Short Story: Last Mango in Paradise

Every once in a great while, an idea for a short story pops into my head. I don’t find these easy to write, and of course the idea has to be a perfect jewel—something that can draw the readers in quickly, not overwhelm them with characters and backstory, and get wrapped up in a short time. Ha, nothing to it! But I do have one that came out in November in the Level Best Books’ anthology, RED DAWN.

Here’s a little about how it came to be…

A couple of years ago, a friend Jack Getze, had an idea about a cat in a story. He said I could have it, as it was cozy by nature, something he would never use. I filed this away. (I know, I’m being coy but I don’t want to spoil the ending.)

And then I saw a group of women in Key West playing mah-jongg by the pool. This was already an activity that Miss Gloria loved. I could imagine that in between hands, the women would gossip about unusual events on the island. I joined the real players one morning to watch them play, to learn a bit about the game, and to take notes on the exchanges between the ladies, and the setting. Into the file went those pages.

Next, John and I went to Utah for a wedding a year and a half ago, and returned via Las Vegas. The fellow sitting next to John on the plane turned out to be a professional gambler. It was so interesting to hear him describe how he studied his competition—what he noticed and then how he used these observations in his betting. I took furious notes. And then filed them away.

And then the wonderful editors of LEVEL BEST BOOKS, who publish an anthology of crime fiction by New England writers every year, announced that this November’s issue would be their swan song. I sure wanted to get a story in that collection!

I thought of a title that I’d pitched more than once for one of the Key West mysteries: LAST MANGO IN PARADISE. Neither my editor nor the rest of the staff liked it. So now I had motive, characters, action, setting, and a title. All I had to do was write and submit. Ha!

I’m thrilled that the story was accepted and published. It features Hayley Snow, my series protagonist, and her senior citizen roommate, Miss Gloria. And here’s how it begins:

Last Mango in Paradise by Lucy Burdette

Even after Mrs. Silpat was poisoned to death in her Key West conch cottage, the mah-jongg players would not eschew refreshments. Or so insisted my geriatric houseboat-mate, Miss Gloria. If anything, she added, the shock was likely to render the ladies ravenous.

The tragedy had unfolded the week before when Miss Gloria went to pick up her friend for their regular game. Mrs. Silpat had not been her favorite friend–she wasn’t loyal. She put herself first in any situation. And anything she baked ended up tasting like sawdust or old chicken fat. All that aside, years of clacking tiles together, chatting about families scattered to the winds, and exchanging recipes, meant something important in Miss Gloria’s book.

Miss Gloria had knocked loudly several times on Mrs. Silpat’s door and finally went in without an invitation. When she found the woman collapsed in her kitchen, by all appearances dead, her first call was to me–a food critic, not a cop.

“I’m too shook up to think,” she’d said.

“Hang up and call 911 right away. I’m not in the police department, remember?” I told her gently. “I’ll take a cab over ASAP so I can drive you home.”

By the time the pink cab dropped me off in the narrow one-way street in front of Mrs. Silpat’s eyebrow-style house with gingerbread trim, two police cars with their lights flashing flanked Miss Gloria’s old Buick. A fire department EMT van had nosed into her driveway. I hurried onto the porch but was instantly repelled by a cop in polyester blue.

“My roommate’s inside,” I said. “She found her friend–”

He held up a paw the size of an oven mitt. “You need to wait out here.”

As I settled into a wood rocker, an enormous fluffy cat the color of salted caramel leaped onto the porch and wound in figure eights around my legs. Miss Gloria burst out of the house; the screen door slammed behind her.

“I’m sprung, at least for the time being. Let’s scram before they change their minds.”

The words sounded tough from an old lady who’d just lost a friend, but I could see the tremble in her lower lip. The big cat approached Miss Gloria and meowed.

“Oh, Mango,” said Miss Gloria, tears filling her eyes. She leaned over to ruffle the tufts of fur behind his ears. “I’ll have to let Miriam know he’s here. She lives nearby and she loves cats and I bet she’ll want to take him in, poor guy. And oh lordy, the other girls will be wondering if I up and croaked. Anytime I’m a little late, they think I’ve been called to the great Beyond.” She whipped out her cell phone and began texting the news of the cancellation of the game and more importantly, Mrs. Silpat’s death.

And you can buy this fabulous collection of stories on Amazon or at the Level Best Books website.

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