Saturday, February 25, 2023

Too Long? James R. Benn Goes Short

LUCY BURDETTE: We always love having Jim (aka James R.) Benn visiting to talk about his Billy Boyle series, but I promise you'll love this blog about short stories. It may even bring a tear to your eye, so read on...

JIM BENN: I never thought I’d be a short story writer. As an author, I tend to write long. I don’t mind taking my characters in the Billy Boyle series off on a tangential hunt, as long as I return them safely to the story line. In a world where a “standard” novel runs to eighty thousand words, mine routinely exceed one hundred thousand. I’ve always said I like to give my readers a good bang for their buck, but in truth I do blather on.

And it’s nothing new. In 1963, when I was a freshman in high school, Mr. Gillan — fifth-period English class — thought so too. I recently unearthed a folder of short stories I wrote in his memorable course. What was the first comment I saw, a full sixty years later?


The saving grace was his next comment: “good description” accompanied by a check. I don’t recall if that was the best mark or if I missed a double check, but I certainly learned the lesson that a good description can overcome excessive length. I also learned a good bit, at the age of fourteen, about movie tie-ins. The Great Escape, the classic WWII prison break film, had premiered that summer. I enjoyed it, and I figured Mr. Gillan would, therefore, enjoy my POW escape story.

Dodging the searchlight, he clambered over the wall . . .


In red pencil. I was on to something.

Grabbing inspirations as they fell into my lap, my next piece was Story of a Spy. Snappy titles were still, obviously, in my future. I’d seen The Longest Day the year before, and that film about the D-Day invasion had stayed with me. My version concerned an American soldier sent ashore in advance of the invading troops. Take that, Darryl F. Zanuck.

On the morning of June 6, 1944, Normandy was invaded by Allied Forces. But on the night of June 1, five days earlier, it was invaded by Sergeant William Lane.


Yes! Mr. Gillan was impressed! This story was for a full grade, not just a measly check mark. Looking back after six decades, it isn’t a bad read. I should have edited out “five days earlier,” though. Unnecessary. People can count, after all.

I read on, drinking in his positive comments as the story continued. Our hero scores some vital intelligence about German defenses, and he hooks up with the airborne forces who radio his information to headquarters. He’s a hero, and I thought I was too. Then I turned to the back page.


B+? Not having been the most studious of high school freshmen, I normally would have been happy with anything above a C. But I was disappointed, except for the fact he had written “but interesting” at the end. However, I have benefitted more from that comment than I could ever have imagined.

I never forgot it. Actually, I’d misremembered it, recalling instead that he’d written “Next time make it harder for the sergeant.” Perhaps that was how I internalized the lesson. There would be a next time, and when that came, it would have to be harder for the sergeant. Obstacles. It was a lesson in obstacles.

The fact that I hadn’t grasped the concept was evident in the outline we’d been assigned to create prior to writing the story. Under Complications, I’d written “How not to get caught.” Brilliant. This is the first and only outline I’ve ever written. After that fiasco, I was going seat of the pants all the way.

The constant flow of stories required by Mr. Gillan demanded creative measures. The Twilight Zone television series was widely popular at the time, and one haunting episode features three astronauts who crash-land on a desert-like asteroid. Short of water, the three fall to fighting over scarce resources. One man murders the other two and takes off with their water. Hiking to the top of a hill, he finds they are still on Earth. Outside of Reno, no less.

Well, if it was good enough for Rod Serling, it was good enough for me. Swap out the spaceship for a B-17, and the story wrote itself. In my version, one of the three survivors of the bomber’s crash gives up hope after wandering in the scorching desert and shoots himself. His comrades climb the next ridge and see their own airbase in the distance.


Whew. Mr. Gillan hadn’t seen that episode.

It was a long time until I took up writing fiction again, but I remembered the lessons from fifth-period English. I began my first novel in 1999, but it wasn’t until 2018 that I submitted my first short story. After being intimidated by the short form, I finally had found a way into that style of storytelling. This time around, the ideas are my own, and I wish Mr. Gillan was still here to thank.


As have you, Mr. Gillan. As have you.

Question: Tell us, is there a favorite teacher who influenced your life?
Give them a shout-out here!

James R. Benn is the Dilys, Barry, and Sue Federer Historical
Mystery-award nominated author of the popular Billy Boyle WWII mystery series and three stand-alone works. His novel The Blind Goddess was long listed for the 2015 Dublin IMPAC Literary Award. Benn is a graduate of the University of Connecticut and has an MLS degree from Southern Connecticut State University. He worked in the library and information technology fields for over thirty-five years before leaving to write full-time. Benn and his wife Deborah Mandel live on the Gulf Coast of Florida.


  1. I really enjoyed your fifth grade reminiscences, Jim . . . what a wonderful teacher your Mr. Gillan was!

    Favorite teacher? That’s tough . . . perhaps my second grade teacher, Mrs. Sutherland, who let me read all the books I wanted to read? So many wonderful teachers influencing my life that I decided the only thing I could possibly do was to become a teacher myself . . . .

  2. Mr. Gillam sounds like a terrific teacher. I probably have two favorite teachers from elementary grades: My fifth grade teacher in Reno who was an artist on the side (and I love art); and my 6th grade teacher, Mr. Chubb, who gave such creative assignments for social studies. The class had three grades - 4th/5th/6th, but many assignments could be shared across grade levels. He made social studies come alive with groups putting on skits, puppet shows, working in clay; he brought in movies. He just was super.

  3. What fun to see you here today, Jim! It's amazing that you still have those stories and even the outline from Mr. Gillan's freshman English course. It seems to me that you were destined to tell the stories you tell now from the topics you chose then.

    I am a huge fan of your Billy Boyle, WWII Mystery series. A wise cracking, former Boston Police detective now special investigator for General Eisenhower, Billy is one of my favorite characters of all time. His assignments throughout the war, have brought that period of history to life for me. The Refusal Camp is pre-ordered, too;>)

    One of my favorite teachers was my senior year English teacher, Mr. Glendening. The class was interesting and engaging. We read Hamlet and Greek tragedies and acted out scenes. Everything we studied came alive in that room. It's one of the very few courses that I still remember 58 years later.
    Judy Singer

  4. Lucky you, for having a teacher like that. I wrote tons of stories as a child and won a children's short story contest at age nine - the Pasadena Star News paid me two dollars and published "The Viking Girl" in the paper. But I don't remember any teachers encouraging or even requiring creative writing.

    When I started writing a mystery decades later in the mid-1990s (knowing less than nothing about the genre except that I loved to read it), I joined a weekly critique group led by author Susan Oleksiw in her north-of-Boston living room. Her guidance was gentle but firm, and praise didn't come easily - but when you got a "That's really very nice," you knew you'd earned it.

  5. Creative writing in high school? Wow! I couldn't even find a course in college. Barnard had only one writing course when I was there, expository prose, and the professor didn't get fiction. But there was a research-paper-a-week course required for English majors. Every Tuesday night, I sat up all night, banging out a first-and-final draft of that week's paper on my tiny, pale green Hermes war correspondent's typewriter. It was the size of a ream of paper, and I would write my first real short story on it 14 years later while house sitting for friends of my parents in the San Fernando Valley.

    But because of the paper-a-week course, I had no doubt that I could research and write a 65,000 word book on the US Constitution in three and a half months. And did. Thanks, Barry Ulanov!

    1. P.S. It's "The Everything U.S. Constitution Book" from Adams Media, and it came out a dozen years ago, if anyone is interested. Amazing what you can do when a contract requires it!

    2. There was a creative writing course at my University that was very hard to get into. People had to submit a sample before they could be accepted into class. Only ten percent of the applicants got into the class. Several friends submitted their stories and were rejected. I forgot the name of the teacher.

  6. Jim, What a lovely story - and that you *saved* the papers w your teacher’s comments! My memory is of Mr. Corrigan who taught English at my high school who let me bail out of honors English where I floundered w the readings. Pressure off, the high point was getting an A+ on an essay about the play Hedda Gabler. I also was an ace at diagramming sentences. And btw I find the short form brutally difficult … feels like writing backwards in high heels … to mix up a metaphore

  7. It's lovely to read these comments about teachers who helped shape lives! I wonder if teachers know how important even the briefest of supportive comments are. We do remember them, don't we?

  8. I love this blog Jim! Mrs. Covey in my 5th grade class was a favorite, and also in high school, Mr. Dorhout (music) and Mr. Schneider (drama)--they were all kind but absolutely expected the best from us!

  9. Jim, how wonderful to still have those school essays with the teacher's comments; that's precious memorabilia, indeed. I had many influential teachers in grade school, but maybe the most effective comment I received was from Monsieur Caillé, my French teacher: "Amanda would excel at French if only she would apply herself." That woke me up and got me to buckle down; I loooooved M. Caillé and wanted to impress him. His comment got me to take myself and my ability as a student seriously.

  10. Jim, I’ll have to look for your Billy Boyle series because I love historical mysteries .
    My love for history comes from Mr. Aubin who was my Latin teacher during the four years of my classical courses. He didn’t just teach the langage. He revived for us the whole life of Rome and all the Roman Empire.
    It opened my thirst for the discovery of the world and his history.

  11. JIM: It's wonderful that you had Mr. Gillam as your creative writing teacher.

    I had many influential teachers in junior high and high school. Mrs. Shields was my English teacher for grades 7-9. She let us read anything we wanted. I remember giving my oral book report about P.D. James' Curtain for a Nightingale. The class gasped when I read an excerpt with the chilling and unique death scene.

    I knew from age 10 that I wanted to be a geographer. Mr. Haddow (geography) and Mr. McCammon (geology) further encouraged me to explore the physical and human world in unique ways. They were chuffed when I told them I was going to study geography at the University of Waterloo on a full scholarship.

  12. Jim: Love Billy Boyle and I can see why--what a sustained fascination with that period of time! Favorite teachers? Mrs. Hill, 6th grade, who let me write poems and plays and encouraged me to learn French (she had books on her shelf--not anything offered in school!). Mr. Kile, freshman English, Dr. Smith, my undergrad advisor and English professor, Dr. Rudinger, freshman undergrad English professor, Drs. Scuilli, Sumner, and Dancey in my grad program. I could go on-- so many great teachers/mentors in my life.

  13. A few years back my wife had a chance to make amends to a high school history teacher. She recalled having questioned in class why we bother about history. After we got together, she willingly came along with me on many research trips and battlefield visits. She encountered him one day (working in a liquor store) and told him how much she now enjoyed learning about the past and seeing places firsthand. You could see how visibly happy that made him.

  14. This is incredibly sweet and so touching—and what a treasure of a teacher ! Plus wow, this is absolutely impressive. So mature and thematic and thoughtful. What a pivotal time of your life, and I know he must have hoped that you would continue writing. Which you have done with so much fabulous success! Yes, I had a teacher like that, Mr. Thornburg, who I think of every day. He was tough and smart, and had a rubber stamp that said “GUG” which he would stamp on our papers. GUG meant something along the lines of “are you kidding me? This is so bad I can’t even correct it. You can do better.” We lived in fear of the GUG, and sometimes, to this day, I say it to myself when I’m writing ,

  15. Mrs. Young, second grade (looked like a movie star); Miss Mary, third grade--who I saw a few years ago and she swore she remembered me, 60+ years later, also very attractive. In second grade I was allowed to spend as much time in the library as I wanted, reading. Miss Mary took me to the fifth grade class and sat me on the desk to read to the class. Upside down, like a party trick.

    Mrs. Fenning, in sixth grade, and her daughter, Mrs. Adams who taught seventh grade, both praised my writing, although no evidence still exists.

    Kind lay women, in a sea of strict Catholic nuns.

    A teacher can make so much difference, in both positive and negative ways.

  16. James, welcome to JRW and I am so glad your wife had a chance to make amends. Before the pandemic, I used to go to the public library and borrow many physical books. I recall they had ALL of your Billy Boyle novels and I discovered a new author (you) while browsing the shelves there. The name Boyle made me think of Foyle's War.

    That's a tough question! I feel blessed to have many wonderful teachers! I had a French language teacher in high school who encouraged us to think in the French language and that helped me when learning a new language. I already knew a few words from the fifth grade when a teacher from France visited our class. Our teacher asked us if we could guess which country the teacher was from. I asked ? France ? And my teacher was surprised! She asked me how I knew and I said the teacher looked like Mona Lisa from the Louvre in France. I thought women from France looked like Mona Lisa then I learned that Mona Lisa was actually Italian! LOL. Still learned something, right?

    In regards to my writing, I would have to say there were several influences : my Mom, who taught high school English AND my sixth grade teacher.

    When I was in the sixth grade, our teacher encouraged us to write a journal and I thought my life was so boring that I made up many stories. I wrote many stories. I discovered that there was a talent for writing stories and that it was fun! In my stories, good triumphed over evil. I remember writing "pivot" when I meant to write "prevent" and "Invent" when I meant to write "investigate" and my teacher explained in Sign Language the differences between these words.

    However, I did have a college professor who commented on my writing and said "Leave it to Herb Caen (SF columnist in 1990s) to write with dots...."

    Loved to read books then I decided that I wanted to create stories. Currently writing my historical cozy novel.


  17. I loved this story today. And as I'm in the midst of my Billy Boyle catch up reading (currently on Death's Door, the book not a health declaration), it was great to see a spotlight on James R. Benn.

    As for today's question, while there were teachers I liked I wouldn't suggest that any of them influenced my life. Aside from my parents, the only person who that could be said about is someone I have written about here in the past.

    That would be coach Tony Dias. Now, he wasn't ever my coach but when I was a kid playing in the youth basketball league, I would tell any coach that would listen that I was going to coach in the league when I was old enough. Given the fact that my skills as a player tended towards being a great person sitting on the bench, you won't be surprised that all the coaches tended to respond with some form of "Yeah, sure kid" with a dismissive tone.

    But not Tony. He was the coach of the best team in the league and as time went by, he was the dean of the local basketball community. He was sought after as an assistant on the high school level and coached in the youth league as both a head coach and an assistant as he got older for a number of teams. When I told him that I wanted to be a coach, he encouraged me to go for it. The ONLY one to do it.

    And though it was just as an assistant, I started coaching when I was 14. But when I turned 18, I got my chance to be a head coach. Three years later, my team made the championship game. Tony was there in the stands watching and I got to go over to him and thank him for encouraging me when I was younger. A few years later, we were both working for another coach as assistants and then when he decided to step down as a head coach, Tony paid me pretty much the biggest compliment of my life when he agreed to be my assistant and we went on to win the title that first year together.

    When Tony passed away after a 2nd bout with cancer, I wrote a piece about what he meant to me. When I sent it to the guy running the basketball league, he said I'd made him cry and asked if he could send it to Tony's family. You can imagine my shock when I was told that his family said it was better than the eulogy given at his funeral by his son. It was even printed in the local paper as a letter to the editor.

    It's been more than 12 years since I coached in the basketball league and at least 18 years since Tony died. But I haven't forgotten what he did for me so long ago and other than my parents, Tony Dias was the most influential teacher I've ever known.

    1. Jay, I love to read your reminiscences of Tony Dias. It just warms my heart to know of someone so kind and encouraging. I am also delighted to see that you are reading the Billy Boyle mysteries. Death's Door is a really good one. If you review them, I'd love to read your reviews!

    2. Judy, I've done reviews of the books I've read over on Goodreads.

  18. Great story, Jay, about a decent guy. As evidenced by yours and all the other mentions here, kindness is remembered, sometimes for a lifetime.

  19. I bet he recognized your source material for your stories, but he appreciated that you'd tried to make it your own. The point, back then, was to get the class writing.

  20. Thanks, Jim, for introducing us to Mr. Gillan, who sounds like a great teacher, and for introducing me to the Billy Boyle novels. As for beloved teachers, I had many (as well as a few lemons), but the one that stands out was Paul Thomas. He was a graduate student (later professor) who graded the six ten-page papers I wrote for a very demanding, two-semester freshman history class. When I got up my courage to ask Paul why I only got a B- on my first paper for the course, he told me that it wasn't enough to summarize all the reading. I had to come up with my own thesis for the paper and use the course reading as evidence for my ideas. I was flabbergasted. Up until then, I had never heard of a student paper having its own idea! Paul told me he'd meet with me to discuss each paper after he'd graded it and explain how I could have made it better, and, by the sixth paper, I had my own ideas and an A. This was an extraordinary helpful thing to learn in my freshman year of college, and Paul's advice then has influenced my writing ever since then.

  21. Terrific stuff, everyone! Thanks for taking the time to read this piece. Looking at the images once again made me nostalgic for cursive writing. Cheers!

  22. I never thought of myself as a writer, but a reader. There are times I am sorry I didn't take Sr. Antoinette's advice in one of my English courses in college. She really liked a short story I wrote about my dog and encouraged me to submit it to a dog magazine. I declined. Maybe I should have. I still think of her with fondness. I am still a happy reader.