Thursday, January 24, 2019

Premise envy

"What crime writer are you insanely jealous of and why?"

by Catriona

Well, for one thing - any jealousy really would be insane. With apologies (because I've said this before), we're not in competition with one another. A writer writes one, maybe two, at most three books a year and many crime-fiction aficionados read three novels a week. Our fellows writers are allies, keeping readers hooked on mysteries until our next one comes out.

Of course, sometimes we really are in competition with one another - for bestseller spots, marketing spends, panel invitations at conferences, guest of honour places, shortlistings and awards. But none of those things - beguiling as they are (and they are!) - are at the core of what it is we love. Writing.

Mind you, I'm a wee bit jealous of anyone who's up for an Edgar this year because you know who's being honoured with a Raven award at the Edgars banquet? Only Marilyn Stasio, the legendary and famously reclusive NYT crime fiction reviewer. Assuming she goes to the ceremony, a whole load of lucky crime writers are going to get to say hello and thank her. (Or stare daggers from across the room and murmur threateningly through barely parted lips.)

But getting down to writing: I'm not jealous of whole careers or oeuvres - books are immensely personal and any writer's books could only have come out of her or him. But there are some ideas, characters, scenes and individual lines that make me want to stamp and pout because I didn't think of them, when I was trying to.

Idea:  DE Ireland's Higgins and Doolittle mysteries.
Waaaahhhh! No fair! [stamps and pouts]
When I was busy thinking up a series idea, I tried hard to see if my area of expert knowledge - linguistics - could be turned to account. I failed. Then along came Meg Mims and Sharon Pisacreta (collectively D.E. Ireland) with a series of mysteries featuring Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle as a crime-fighting double-act. Henry Higgins! The second most famous linguist ever. After Noam Chomsky, who - let's face it - would be a stretch in a cozy. I was gutted! I'm British, I write historicals and I'm a linguist. That historical, London-set series with a linguist in it should have been my brainchild. Mine! [cue maniacal cackling]. The upside is I got to read an ARC of book 1 and became a fan instead.

Character: Alexander McCall Smith's Isabel Dalhousie.
Waaaaaahhh! Theft! Cultural appropriation! [holds breath until changes colour]
If only I'd thought of writing a whimsical Edinburgh sleuth who solves low-stakes puzzles and drinks a lot of coffee in independent delis, I could have written off some pret-ty sweet days against tax: mooching round the art galleries in Edinburgh's new town; tootling off to the Borders to gawp at houses; identifying my favourite scone flavour in any one of many tea-shops.  Bawcht! Mind you, I don't travel in the same exalted Edinburgh circles as Alexander McCall Smith, so the cameos and walk-ons that are a big bit of the joy of Dalhousie novels would be missing.

Scene: Ellen Crosby's halfway catch-up
[I'm not sulking about this because, shamelessly, I sorta kinda stole it.]
I can't remember which of Ellen Crosby's Wine Country mysteries it was - maybe The Merlot Murders? - but there's a scene in one of her books where two people sit down on a wooden bridge, look at the scenery, and discuss where they've got to with their sleuthing. It's a calming, restorative pit-stop of a scene for them and for the reader. It frees up all the brain space you were using to keep hold of the threads of the story so far, so you can spend  it on the story to come. At the same time it's light and unclunky. I admired it then and I've used it more than once since. Thanks, Ellen!

Line: Laurie King's simple description of a complex idea.
Waaaaaaahhhh! Mine! All  mine! [throws toys out of pram then cries harder because toys are gone]
Now this one really hurt. I had been trying to write a scene where a group of people are gathered in a social setting and someone - out of ignorance, not malice - drops a brick, reminding everyone else of a matter they'd all rather forget. I wrote and deleted and wrote and deleted, then I re-read the first Kate Martinelli A Grave Talent, in advance of interviewing Laurie. At one point there's a social gathering, someone drops a brick and the ensuing shared feeling in the group is referenced with the line "A memory swept across the room." Perfect! So absolutely perfect and in six words too. Curses.


Paul D. Marks said...

We can always be jealous or envious someone or some-thing. But what's the point? That just detracts from our goal, our writing. As you say, Catriona, "But none of those things - beguiling as they are (and they are!) - are at the core of what it is we love. Writing."

Susan C Shea said...

Several times in my writing career, I have been stopped in my tracks when I realize that a plot idea of mine was the plot idea of someone who published five years before it dawned on me. So the next thing is, if I love the idea, what can I do differently to make it mine, to make the core of the plot fresh and surprising. Sometimes I think I have succeeded, sometimes it's left to wither in an old computer file.

Ellen Crosby said...

The things you learn when your friends blog! I'm honored, Catriona--plus you validate the T.S. Eliot philosophy that good writers borrow, but great writers steal!! I love your wonderful way with language and your voice. xo

jurassicpork said...

The only way to get around the useless hamster wheel of jelousy and envy is to create a series and/or character that will make others envy you. I'm a big fan of crime fiction as well as the author of several such books. I've come to admire and even love some characters. Ruth Downey's Ruso, Troy Soos' Marshall Webb and Mickey Rawlings and Caleb Carr's Laszlo Kreitzler, to name a few examples. But I wouldn't trade any of them for the characters I've created.