Haunted by High School

Today Hank Phillippi Ryan is hosting me on Jungle Reds. I am talking about how sometimes events haunt us for a long time. In my case it was high school.

Are you haunted by high school? Perhaps there were other events in your life that stick with you. Leave a comment and you may win a free copy of A Short Time to Die.


Susan Alice Bickford

My New Short Story in A Fish Out of Water

Writing short stories is a struggle for me. I prefer to write things that are long and complicated, so working on short pieces feels like I’m riding the brakes all the time. I am very envious of writers who can turn these out regularly.

That’s why I am extra thrilled to announce that my short story, Doppelgangers, is included in a short story anthology from the Sisters in Crime Guppies (Great Under / Unpublished) chapter, FISH OUT OF WATER.

The challenge was simple enough: each story needed to feature a character who is in some matter a fish out of water. Speaking for myself, writing it was anything but simple.

The other stories are all terrific. Hats off to my fellow contributors, including the introduction from Guppy President, James M. Jackson and our wonderful editor, Ramona DeFelice Long. Authors include Beth Green, P. A. De Voe, Anita DeVito, Mo Walsh, Susan Alice Bickford (me!), Liz Milliron, Bern Sy Moss, Rita A. Popp, Cori Lynn Arnold, Chelle Martin, Su Kopil Steve Shrott, Kate Fellowes, Rhonda Lane, Claire Ortalda, KM Rockwood, Melinda B. Pierce, C. C. Guthrie, LD Masterson, Alison McMahan, and Teresa Leigh Judd.

The anthology is available through the publisher Wildside Press

It is also listed on Amazon and Barnes & Noble but availability may vary since the copies are POD (print on demand).

Here is the opening section from my story, Doppelgangers:

The day Robbie Dawson’s father punched out Mr. Wallis in the school bus loading zone, students clustered by the front door let out a cheer. Mr. Wallis taught biology. He was just out of college and not much older than us. And he was cute. But he was a teacher, right?

I had to jump out of the way for Mr. Dawson, who was striding toward Mr. Wallis. Mr. Dawson’s head was thrust out. He walked fast and stiff like his legs wouldn’t bend.

Mr. Dawson grabbed Mr. Wallis by the arm and said something about chins before he smacked Mr. Wallis square on the jaw. When Mr. Wallis didn’t get up, Mr. Dawson stalked back to his car and drove away.

After first period, I went to the principal’s office and said I had lost my field trip form. While I waited I happened to overhear what had set off Mr. Dawson. Mission accomplished.

In our biology class the day before, Mr. Wallis had pointed out that some of us had cleft chins. Thanks to the inheritance of a dominant gene, we lucky few had at least one parent with a cleft chin.

I pressed my index finger into the dent in my chin and a light went on in my brain. I turned and looked at Tessa. She stared back at me, the color drained from her face.

Mr. Wallis had handed Tessa and me the last piece of our shared puzzle. Finally, we had the key for figuring out who our real father was and how to prove we were sisters.

I could have sworn Tessa and I were the only students paying attention in biology that day. Big surprise. It turned out Mr. D-minus, Robbie Dawson, was intellectually on deck for a change and he went home to discuss his cleft chin with his smooth-chinned parents.

That was last spring. Mr. Dawson got arrested. Robbie had to repeat biology in summer school. Mr. Wallis quit.

Tessa and I love you, Mr. Wallis, wherever you are.

January 31 – An Extra Special Day

Today is the launch date for A SHORT TIME TO DIE, my debut novel.

Of course this date will be very special to me for a very long time, but it was already a major date in my life because January 31 is the birthday of both my mother and my father, born two years apart.

My mother died thirty years ago. My father recently died in June at 93.5 years of what can only be described as old age. His eyes were old, his ears were old, his brain was old.

Dad’s vascular dementia was unrelenting. In the last months he couldn’t remember where he was (a nursing home in his home town), where he had been living the past four years (a wonderful assisted living facility nearby), or what he had for lunch, but he always remembered me, my sister, and my brother. From time to time he would look at me and say, “And you have a book coming out.” Somehow he could remember this little thing.

I didn’t plan for January 31st as my release date. I wouldn’t have even known how to ask. Without even knowing, Kensington picked the  date for me.

I am often asked how I can write dark fiction or how many people I have killed today. I laugh and make up a number.

Giving this more thought, I realized that knowing that I was loved and valued has given me the courage to try many different careers and artistic endeavors. Even when I write about dark material, I can feel the love of my family and know that I am safe.

My parents were realists and did not hesitate to give me advice. But they also encouraged me to take risks and told me when they were proud and happy. I miss them every day but I carry them with me.

Here’s to my wonderful family.

I hope readers will enjoy A SHORT TIME TO DIE.

Where My Ideas Come From

The most common question I am asked is, “Where do you get your ideas?”

They come from many places. Often a news story will catch my attention and my imagination is off and running. Sometimes those burn out quickly but some turn into stories I capture quickly, doing bursts of free writing. A small number of those evolve into full-fledged tales and manuscripts.

Over time, patterns emerge. Underlying many of my tales is a longing for justice and escape for the victims.

I date this back to when my safe, secure childhood was shaken when two girls from my freshman homeroom class were killed.

I grew up in very safe, rural suburbs in Central New York, outside cities like Syracuse and Rochester. We left our cars unlocked and our doors were usually unlocked as well. And yet, as I grew older I began to see a current of violence and disquiet around the edges.

At the end of our freshman year at Wheatland Chili High School, two girls from my homeroom, Kathy Bernhard and George-Ann Formicola, didn’t show up for the last day of school. I heard whispers that they had run away.

They hadn’t run away. Their bodies were found later that summer, not far from their homes. They had been brutally murdered. Their murderer has never been identified or charged.

If I had been an adult, I might have been more aware of the efforts by the police to find the killer or killers. Since I wasn’t close to them outside of homeroom, I didn’t hear much about their families.

As it was, what I perceived was a sense of dismissal. These girls were from a less desirable neighborhood that was further from the main town of Scottsville. George-Ann had been pregnant during our freshman year. She had to leave for a while and came back, full of laughter and no sign of shame. Kathy struggled academically and socially. No one from the school talked about what had happened to them. I felt that they had been blamed for what happened to them and their deaths were not pursued as seriously as others.

This unsolved crime continued to haunt me and eventually became a touchstone for my country noir thrillers.

After a series of wonderful careers, I realized that I needed to write. And I needed to write about girls who struggle to get away.

A SHORT TIME TO DIE, will be dedicated to my classmates, Kathy and George Ann.

If you are interested in finding out more about their case, check out The Devil at Genesee Junction: the Murders of Kathy Bernhard and George-Ann Formicola, 6/66, by Michael Benson, a young neighbor of theirs at the time who went on to become a true crime writer.