Friday, January 31, 2020

Around the World in a Day

The crime and mystery fiction we tend to read can be very US and Europe centric. Where else in the world would you like to see a crime fiction novel set and why?

by Paul D. Marks

There’s mysteries and thrillers set pretty much everywhere, though maybe some places get more attention than others. But here’s some places I’d like to see more of:

There’s a movie with Jack Nicholson called The Passenger that, if I remember correctly, opens in Chad. We see the haunting desert environment. And there’s something about that desert landscape that appeals to me in some larger romantic way. It also reminds me of Camus’ The Stranger, something about that North African scenery that intrigues me. I’m sure it’s very difficult to live there and I’m not sure I’d want to, but one of the things I remember best from The Stranger is the environment. The hot sun. The light. And my favorite movie, Casablanca, is also set in the North African desert. So I’m thinking that might be a place ripe for some (more) mysteries and thrillers.

Another place that sounds interesting is India. My wife’s father was in the diplomatic service and she spent several of her childhood years there. My uncle was also an American consul there. So I’ve heard lots of stories about India from both of them over the years. I know Abir has this covered, but with its vast territory and rich cultural background it would make a good candidate for more crime stories.
Amy (in pink) and her sister at the Rashtrapati Bhavan — in New Delhi, India

Japan is another place that would make for a good mystery story. It has an interesting history. And it’s such a homogenous society, that is trying to stay that way, that I think there might be some opportunities for stories to explore that aspect in the context of a mystery or crime thriller.

Istanbul or is it Constantinople? Well, I’ll leave that for the song to decide (see video).


Istanbul is one of the top places on my bucket list (a term I really don’t like). It’s sort of a crossroads of that part of the world. I’m also really into Roman history, and Istanbul, as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) definitely has that. It was also the last stop on the Orient Express—hard to beat that for mystery and intrigue. And according to Peter Kenyon on NPR, “Turkey's golden age of espionage was World War II, a period that continues to serves as a muse for writers of historical thrillers,” so maybe it’s a mine that hasn’t been played out yet.

Okay, now for an odd one. Odd only because instead of a trip to a foreign land it’s a trip to the past. So I guess we’ll need a time machine to get there. That place is Los Angeles in the 1940s. I love that era, the music, the movies, the city, though I know there were some major issues happening. And, oh wait. I did (or do) take a trip to that era in my upcoming novel The Blues Don’t Care—my time machine. I really enjoyed that trip to the past, the jazz clubs, old L.A. and intrigue. More on this in future posts.

And here’s an article at CrimeReads about just this thing that lists some good choices for crime and thriller novels in places other than the US and Europe:

And now for a little BSP:  I’m running a free promotion for people who subscribe to my newsletter. You can get a FREE e-copy of my novel Vortex. Just subscribe. And if you’re already a subscriber and want the novel contact me via my website or e-mail and I’ll send you the link for the download.

I'm also excited to announce that I've got a new book coming out in 2020: The Blues Don't Care. It's a little different for me. It's set in 1940s Los Angeles jazz scene during World War II. I hope you'll keep checking in for more news on this exciting new release.


Please join me on Facebook: and check out my website

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Close to Home

The crime and mystery fiction we tend to read can be very US and Europe centric. Where else in the world would you like to see a crime fiction novel set and why?

By Catriona

It's true of my reading, certainly. I hoovered up Mma Ramotswe's early cases, set in Botswana, but I was always aware that this Setswana woman was being written by a British man, from afar. With knowledge and affection, but still from afar. I'd love to read African crime fiction by African voices.  (Ugh, a quick Google of "African crime fiction" coughed up a top ten with Agatha Christie and John Le Carre both getting a spot.) If I could have three wishes, my first would be an #ownvoices sleuth in Uganda. If you know of one, please tell me in the comments.

I do adore Vaseem Khan's Baby Ganesh series, set in contemporary Mumbai and Sujata Massey's Parveen Mistry series, set in 1920s Bombay, and I love that they're such rewarding companion reads with different lights on the same city.

Ovidia Yu is another terrific writer bringing a new-to-me location richly to life. Her "Tree" series, set in 1930s Singapore, introduces Chen Su Lin - the most beguiling heroine since Flavia de Luce. Wish number two would be for Ovidia to write more quickly. 

But the foreign country I'd most like to be able to read more crime fiction about is much closer to home than Singapore or the sub-continent. 

When I moved to California, I was homesick for various things: savoury pies; Corontation Street (this is no longer a problem, thanks to Britbox); and, most of all, old stuff. I pined for old stuff - mould, woodworm, dry rot, a castle or two . . .

It's hard to find. But I managed it. I took to visiting the grinding rock up in the foothills, where the Miwok people used to gather in autumn to prepare acorns for cooking, and - inevitably since they were all together - celebrate weddings, births and the general shared joy of being Miwok. While there - I'm not proud of this - I'd talk to the long-dead makers of the pictographs on the rock, saying things like "Why didn't you build stuff out of stone, so's it would last? I know you were here; I'm lonely!" 

One time I was up there happened to be the day before one of these celebrations (called, in English, "Big Time") and the usually deserted rock and nearby round house were alive with people preparing bells for dancing, masses of food, and dust in the round house. Yes, dust. Some of the guys were scraping patterns into the dry earth floor ready for the ceremonies the next day. They asked if I'd like to go in and, when I said yes, told me to walk in the footprints there already and back out again, making no new marks.

It was the most at home I'd felt since immigrating, there with people who still lived where their ancestors lived, doing the things their ancestors did, because they always had, not really caring why. It felt like Burry Man's Day.

Now, that I'm happily settled here, I don't go up to the grinding rock to pine anymore, but I'm still fascinated (rather a chilly word, actually) by the fact of other nations so close to this one, with a long history whose brutal disruption is largely forgotten, ignored or re-written by the immigrants. For instance, I live on the ancestral lands of the Patwin people, here north of San Francisco, but the Patwin people themselves number only in the very low thousands now, if that, and have only three small rancherias in the state.

And since I'm a writer of crime fiction and a voracious reader of it, any fascination is always going to play out as a search for mysteries. Luckily for me, there are Native American mystery writers. Two fantastic ones that I know of: Linda Rodriguez and Sara Sue Hoklotubbe. But the Hillermans, Dana Stabenow and Craig Johnson dominate. They're splendid tellers of tales, and as a reader and fellow writer I've got nothing but admiration, just as I had nothing but delight in Barbara Kingsolver's debut The Bean Trees, which I read long before I ever contemplated living in the west.

But then there's publishing. I know from working on the SinC Diverse Writers' Project that Sara Sue had to argue her corner with editors when her depiction of her lived Cherokee life contradicted Tony Hillerman's depiction of his researched Navajo life! That is bonkers on so many levels: like me saying "Scottish people visit each other at midnight on the 31st of December," and an editor saying "Cara Black never mentions French people doing any such thing."

So what I'd really love to see, my third wish of three, my only wish if I'm getting just the one, is more crime fiction set in the contemporary sovereign nations of the first Americans, written by people who've lived there. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Excuse me...Canada calling! by Cathy Ace

The crime and mystery fiction we tend to read can be very US and Europe centric. Where else in the world would you like to see a crime fiction novel set and why?

Good question…but, rather than saying where I’d like to see crime fiction set, I’m going to focus on some places that aren’t the USA or Europe where it’s already set – and hope you find my choices appealing.

Let’s start with me noting that I’m the only Canadian blogger here at 7CM who gets to answer this question (our two other Canadian fellow-bloggers, Brenda Chapman and Dietrich Kalteis, blog on next week’s rotation, where they’ll be addressing a different topic). 

So, I get to fly the flag, and blow the trumpet, for Canadian crime writing…and you already know three Canadian crime writers “intimately” via this blog…so you could do worse than start out by reading our books. Canadian alumni of this blog include Robin Harlick, RM Greenaway and Sam Wiebe…so there are three more – just like that! 😊

(FULL DISCLOSURE: I was chair of Crime Writers of Canada [CWC] for two years from 2016-2018 and did the best I could during that period to promote and support crime writers in Canada, as well as promoting Canadian crime writers’ work both within and beyond Canada…so this could turn into a loooooog blog post! LOL!)

My hope is that you take at least this one key thing away from this post: there is a WEALTH of fabulous crime writing available by Canadian authors, much set in Canada, some set elsewhere. 

Now I understand you might think you want to read the “purest” form of Canadian crime writing (ie: a Canadian writing stories set in Canada), but don’t forget that:

a) not every Canadian author sets every book they write in Canada, and...

b) Canada is a land enriched by its immigrants, so please don’t discount the Canadians who (like me, an immigrant) set their books in places other than where they now live.

The next thing I’ll do is tell/remind you that each year there are awards given for the best in Canadian crime writing (which is defined as being written by a Canadian-born author wherever in the world they live, or by an author now living in Canada, wherever in the world they might have been born – there are no caveats about where the book is set). 

These awards are The Arthur Ellis Awards. They are run by the Crime Writers of Canada, but the entries are not restricted to those who are able to/choose to pay to be members of that association…which I think is just as it should be. So, the judges are able to read entries from as wide a range of Canadian writers as possible. 

If you visit the CWC website you can access the shortlists and winners of these prizes since they began 36 years ago: click here to access the CWC Arthur Ellis Awards.

This alone provides a veritable treasure trove of fabulous authors’ names. Some you’ll know (for example: Louise Penny, Linwood Barclay, Peter Robinson, Maureen Jennings, Vicki Delany, Gail Bowen…who rank amongst the Canada’s “star” authors…many of whom have also been past-chairs or board members of CWC, supporting fellow Canadian crime writers) but there are so many other authors who are writing good books – quite literally – to suit all tastes, that’s it’s well worth your time noodling around the website to find a few who write the sort of books you enjoy reading.

The CWC website is set up to help you in this search: you can search by region, by type of book, by author etc. It really is a great resource! Please, check it out?

You can find just the sort of book you're looking for at the CWC website!

And, when you’ve found some new Canadian authors whose work tickles your fancy, dive in…and enjoy a fresh take on crime fiction, courtesy of a Canadian 😊

If you'd like to find out more about this Canadian's books you can click here to access my website. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Where Else?

The crime and mystery fiction we tend to read can be very US and Europe centric. Where else in the world would you like to see a crime fiction novel set and why?

-from Frank

This is an interesting question, and a fair one when it comes to pointing out the tendency of mysteries to be US and Euro-centric. As a 50-something year old white man from the US, it's certainly in my comfort zone. I mean, for a while, I thought I was getting edgy by reading a some Irish or Scottish crime fiction. In the context of this question, that's like saying I went crazy and switched from a Pinot Grigio to a Sauvignon Blanc. So bold! So experimental! So dangerous!

When I considered a more measured answer to this question, I realized it wasn't so much a where as it was a when. I think that my next reading adventure in crime fiction is going to focus on finding books written in a more distant historical past -- as in pre-American Revolution at the most recent end of the spectrum, and ancient history at the furthest.

So first off, I'll ask all of you -- what are your favorite crime fiction novels set in the distant past? Hit me in the comments, please!

My undergraduate degree was in History (useful Bachelor's Degree for a cop, you might snarkily say, but it actually was. What is history but the micro and macro study of human behavior over time? The application of that knowledge to police work, should be self evident...and to a writer, even more so). I love history, and the bulk of my non-fiction reading is in this genre. So the idea of a good crime novel smack dab in the middle of a cool historical setting? Well, that is two great tastes that go great together. Why have I not explored this before?

Now, I could go be a Google detective and I bet I'd come away happy with this bit of research. But I'm going to wait and see what the crowd offers up first. However, here are some times and places for crime novels I'd love to read...

* Ancient Rome. I'm sure these exist. But Roman history is one of my areas of concentration, and I there is such great human drama in what really happened that fictional drama would have to be fun.

* Feudal Japan. A samuari private detective. Damn, that might be so much fun I'll have to try to write it.

* U.S. First Nations. I use the Canadian term here because I think it is more apt, though in the US we say 'Native Americans' in common parlance. But this is such a gold mine of possibilities, with all of the various cultures, from the Iriquois Confederation to the Plains or the Southwest. So many compelling characters a protagonist could brush up against - Tecumseh, Osceola, Sacajawea...the list is long. The potential time periods are fascinating, too. Pre-colonial and colonial times are both fraught with opportunities and interesting possibilities (I left out post-colonial and modern, because I know that's been done and is being done well).

*Ancient Near East. How cool would a murder mystery be set in Persia during the height of its powers? Or Assyria? Or, of course, Egypt? Maybe during the anomaly that was the reign of Akhenaton? Nothing like a religous movement to create conflict...

*Or let's go crazy -- how about a mystery needing solved during our truly ancient past? When both Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens likely shared the world for a brief time? 

I've only skimmed the surface of possibilities here, touching on things that I'd find interesting. There's so much more. But I think it goes to show that Abir has asked a great question here, one that demonstrates how flexible our beloved genre truly is.

Blatant Self Promotion Brought To You By Me

My new novel, In the Cut, was just released yesterday by Down and Out Books!
This novel is the second in my SpoCompton series, which focuses on telling stories from the perspective of those on the wrong side of the thin blue line -- the criminals. 

Boone has been prospecting with the Iron Brotherhood outlaw motorcycle gang for almost a year, trying to earn his patch with the club. When a simple muscle job goes terribly wrong, his world changes forever. He is quickly plunged deeper into a world of drug and intimidation, and the lines between right and wrong blur. The bonds of brotherhood that he forges with other members clash with the dark actions they take. His girlfriend, Faith, represents a danger of another kind, but Boone can’t stop himself where she is concerned, either.

When someone closest to him dies, and rampant rumors of a rat in the clubhouse puts everyone in danger, Boone comes to learn what it really means to live his life…in the cut. 

Monday, January 27, 2020

Where In the World is Susan?

Q: The crime and mystery fiction we tend to read can be very US and Europe centric. Where else in the world would you like to see a crime fiction novel set and why?
-from Susan

I read a lot of crime fiction books set elsewhere: Laos, Bali, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, China, India, Botswana, El Salvador, Thailand, and Ghana* among the countries the crime novels I’ve read recently have been set in. 

I’m not sure how much US/Euro centric crime fiction is any more, which is wonderful because there is such richness in the settings and the story lines other cultures provide.  And it seems to me there are plenty of publishers who are open to taking on authors with different perspectives. 

Where else would I like to see a crime story set? I have an interest in Ethiopia, both historical and current, so I’d be intrigued by a work that deals with its complicated, often warring history, the tension between nomadic peoples and those who want grazing and farming land, the time of Haile Selassie…so much to draw on, especially if it’s written by someone who has lived their all or for a significant portion of her or his life.  

How about deep in South America? Has anyone written a crime fiction novel (at least one translated into English) set in Peru? I’d like to understand more about that country, its natural history, and its people, which a good story would give me.

There’s always more and I hope we are embracing as diverse a genre experience as possible going forward. The more, the better!

*Laos, Colin Cotterill; Bali, Nancy Tingley; Hong Kong, Michael Connelly; Taiwan, Ed Lin; Japan, Naomi Hirahara; China, Lisa Brackmann; India, Abir Mukherjee; Botswana, Alexander McCall Smith; El Salvador, David Corbett; Thailand, Tim Hallinan; Ghana, Kwei Quartey.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Sliding Doors

What made you decide to write crime & mystery fiction? And if you hadn’t been an author, what would you have been doing?

By Abir

I came to writing relatively late. Indeed, I guess it was a bit of a mid-life crisis. I was a thirty-nine-year-old accountant, hurtling towards forty and I had the hope that maybe there might be more to life than accounting.

I’d always wanted to write books but never had the confidence. It’s true that on several occasions over the years I’d actually come up with a few ideas, sometimes even put pen to paper, but then, after about five thousand words or so, I’d make the mistake of reading what I’d written, think it was rubbish, lose all confidence and shove it in a drawer. 

Then I saw an interview with Lee Child where he talked about how, at the age of forty, he started writing, and I thought why don’t I give it a shot? And anyway, as mid-life crises went, it seemed a safer outlet than buying a motorbike.

I’d never read any of Lee Child’s books till then, but I went out that day and bought a copy of his first book, Killing Floor, and devoured it within forty-eight hours. I was amazed at how simply written and well plotted it was. I’d recently had an idea for a story centered on a British detective who travels to India after the First World War, and reading Killing Floor gave me the motivation to put pen to paper.

Nevertheless, I’d have probably given up after about ten thousand words if it weren’t for a piece of good fortune. I’d been doing some research online and came across details of a writing competition in a national newspaper, looking for new and unpublished crime writers. The entry requirements were simple: the first five thousand words of a novel, together with a two-page synopsis of the rest of the book. There was only one stipulation – that the entry contained some international element. I tidied up the first chapter, wrote the synopsis and sent them away. 

Having never submitted anything before, I didn’t expect to win, so it was a complete surprise when, a few months later, I was contacted by the organizer of the competition and told that my book was going to be published. The problem was at that point I didn’t have a book, just half a first draft of fifty thousand words that didn’t always fit together. Thankfully my editor and the whole team at the publishers took me under their wing and helped me turn those fifty thousand words into a fully-fledged novel. The rest, as they say, is history – or historical fiction at least.

If I hadn’t had that lucky break, I suppose the chances are I’d still be an accountant, which is a bit upsetting because I don’t think I was ever really cut out for it. I’d probably be a lot richer, but I’d be miserable too.

If I could have my choice of careers, though, I’d probably want to be an astronomer or a particle physicist. I’m fascinated by space and time and quantum theory (I watch podcast lectures on these subjects in my spare time – yes, I really am that sad), but the problem is I’m pretty crap at maths and both astronomy and particle physics is more about algebra than planets and cool lasers. (Yes, I know maths is pretty fundamental to accountancy too, but I never said I was a particularly good accountant.

Maybe it’s just as well I became a writer.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

On Second Thought, Let Me Change That... from James W. Ziskin

What made you decide to write crime & mystery fiction? And if you hadn’t been an author, what would you have been doing?

From Jim

That was supposed to be my topic today. But since three cool things happened to the 7 Criminal Minds this week, I’ve decided to go rogue and write about something else.

First, huge congratulations to our own Catriona McPherson. Her Scot & Soda was named a finalist for the Lefty for Best Humorous Novel, and her Strangers at the Gate was nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award.

Second, our Abir Mukherjee’s Smoke and Ashes is a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Novel. Congratulations to both of you! You make us very proud.

Third, the other news this week involves me. And since it’s my turn, I’m jolly well going to crow about it. It’s not all that often that you have a book come out, after all. For me, it’s usually about once a year. In the case of my seventh Ellie Stone mystery, Turn to Stone, it took about eighteen months. So its book birthday this past Tuesday is cause to celebrate. (My lovely wife organized this tableau for me.)

It’s September 1963. Ellie is in Florence to attend an academic symposium honoring her late father. Just as she arrives on the banks of the Arno, however, she learns that her host, Professor Alberto Bondinelli, has been fished out of the river, quite dead. Then a suspected rubella outbreak leaves ten of the symposium participants quarantined in villa outside the city with little to do but tell stories to entertain themselves. Making the best of their confinement, the men and women spin tales and gorge themselves on fine Tuscan food and wine. And as they do, long-buried secrets about Bondinelli rise to the surface, and Ellie must figure out if one or more of her companions is capable of murder.

This book was different from my others in several ways. Location for one, and plot elements for another. I won’t go into those because I don’t want to provide any spoilers. The greatest difference, however, is that I wrote it without an outline. I’ve always plotted out my books before writing them, but this time I didn’t. And I paid the price. There was a lot of fixing on the back end instead of the front. The result was good, I hope, but it was difficult and stressful. I vowed never to “pants it” again.

The arduous process of revision came back to me when I was thinking about this post, and I realized it would be instructive to look at my earliest drafts of the book. I save my versions, numbered sequentially, every two days or so. It’s a good practice for avoiding lost data. With regular version-ups, I protect myself from losing any more than a day or two of work at most. And, if I change my mind about a passage I’ve deleted, I can go back and recover it. Or, if I want to write a blog post on my writing process, I can do so easily.

This is the opening of the book as I first wrote it two years ago.

Note the highlighted words in gray. That indicates that I’ve attached notes to these words. The first note, for Turn to Stone, merely states that this is Ellie Stone #7. I inserted this information for the benefit of the editor, who may or may not have been familiar with the other books in the series. An overabundance of caution. The second highlighted term—polizia municipale—was for me. I wrote this paragraph on an airplane and had no Internet access for research. I wanted to be sure that this was the appropriate police division to handle a drowning in Florence. Good thing I flagged this, as the municipal police in Italy was the wrong arm of the law. Had Bondinelli parked his car in the wrong place, the polizia municipale would have been the ticket. But in cases of murder or death, it’s the polizia di stato who’s on the case. Of course I changed this.

I quite liked the the idea of leading with the first nights, and I regretted having to delete it. From a rhetorical point of view, it was catchy. And a little sexy. But, having started without an outline, I ran into trouble immediately. As the next paragraph indicates, I had to go backward in time to tell how Ellie had come to be in Italy in the first place. It was awkward. And I didn’t want to lead with buzzing mosquitoes anyway. Somewhat off-putting. There was always time for that later. I also realized that August was not right for the story. Italians go on vacation in August. No one would schedule an academic symposium in August. So I postponed the action of the story to late September when school was back in session. Despite these changes, I managed to salvage much of this passage, but I put it later in the book.

And here is the opening as it appears in the final version of the book.

I decided to start with Ellie boarding the plane for Italy. This afforded me the opportunity to inject some period details—Pan Am, 707s, smoking on planes—and make clear that she was heading to Italy. No need to to jump backward and forward in time. Ellie’s characteristic preamble, the short bit that introduces the theme of the book, is a meditation on language and names. It replaced the “first three nights” paragraph. Here it is, if you’re interested.

I’ve included these preambles starting with book 4, Heart of Stone, and they’ve become a staple for me. And, by the way, if the reader is paying attention, they usually provide a clue to the resolution of the mystery...

So for this book birthday week, I’ve enjoyed looking in the rearview mirror at the creative process of Turn to Stone. There were countless other revisions of the book, but I thought it would be interesting to look at the earliest version. It’s always good to take stock and consider where you went wrong and how things might be better handled next time. Still I fear—despite my resolutions to the contrary—that I might again work without a net and “pants it” on some future book. The results for Turn to Stone, after all, worked out well.

By the way, happy ninetieth birthday, Dad.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Writing crime: easy money the hard way

What made you decide to write crime & mystery fiction? And if you hadn’t been an author, what would you have been doing?

by Dietrich

When I started writing fiction, I wrote short stories and dabbled in different genres, and by the time I found a steady rhythm to my words, I was writing stories inhabited by marginal characters that often ended hip-deep in committing some crime or other. I think my lean toward dark humor had a lot to do with it too, something that I think goes hand in glove with good crime fiction. There’s nothing funny about crime or violence, but there is a certain levity that humor brings to the tension found in that kind of story. And I like writing my characters, some who are desperate, some living by their wits, some lacking wits altogether, but all of them just wanting to make easy money the hard way.

The first three novels were set in present time and close to home on the west coast, surroundings I’m familiar with. Then I tried a period piece because the timeframe suited the story I was working on. At first I wondered about all the research that would be needed to pull it off, writing about a time and place that I hadn’t experienced. But, once I got into it, I found that I really enjoyed doing the digging and sifting. After that novel, I let my settings land in whatever period in time that best suited the story, some in present time, some back in time.

Writing dialogue sure isn’t exclusive to crime fiction, but I enjoy letting the characters tell their story through their own words. The characters that live in my novels always seem to be working some kind of angle, and what they’re not saying often conveys more than the words that they are saying.

When I get a fresh idea for a story, I just start cranking out the pages, letting the first draft take its course. I don’t plan much. I just type away, trying to stay out of the way of the characters, letting them steer their own course and tell their story. 

And I don’t try to guess what readers will be buying. Sure, I’d love to nail a million-seller as much as the next writer, but I don’t believe I’ll get there by guessing what’s going to sell. I just try to stick to what works best for me.

Over the years I read a lot of fiction: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Orwell, Salinger, Thompson, Bukowski, Burroughs, and so on, and I guess the best of it kept that dream alive inside me, inspiring me long before I started writing. And I still read a lot and still draw inspiration by some of the greats writing today.

The second part of the question, about what I’d be if I hadn’t become an author … Well, I had a career in commercial art, and that came long before I finally started writing. Writing was that something that I just always wanted to do going back to when I was in my teens. Yeah, it took a long time before I started doing what I always wanted to do. But, once I finally did make the jump and got serious about it, I’ve never looked back, and I’ve been loving every minute of it. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Why Write Mysteries?

Why write mysteries?

Terry Shames here, answering our burning question of the week: What made you decide to write crime & mystery fiction? And if you hadn’t been an author, what would you have been doing?
I’d love to say I had a burning desire to write mysteries for some exalted reason having to do with making order out of a chaotic universe, or a desire to see justice done, or the delight in writing a puzzle, but the truth is I intended to write mainstream novels. This was a long time ago, and I had heard it was easier to get mysteries published, so I decided that’s what I’d do. When I had one mystery book published I could then write my brilliant mainstream novel.

Before I could even get started, though, I had a hot idea for a sci-fi novel. This was the first time I found out that an idea might be “fun” and “interesting” but that without a sense of what I wanted to convey to readers, what I would come up with would be a mess. I can’t even remember why, but in the middle of writing it I decided what I really wanted to do was write a screenplay. I went to some screenwriting workshops, had a great time, and finished the screenplay. I sent it off to a screenwriting contest, which I didn’t win. And proceeded to let it  die a natural death. Instead, I went back and finished the novel. Then I sent off queries to a couple of publishers, who politely rejected it. And I never tried to get it published again.

Keep in mind, I still thought I really wanted to write a “real” novel. Not one of those genre things. So in order to hone my writing chops I decided to get a master’s degree in creative writing. Again, great fun. During the couple of years it took me to get the degree, I started a mystery novel. I liked it, thought it was pretty good, and managed to get an agent with it. After the novel didn’t sell, I decided to write another mystery—still stubbornly thinking it would be my gateway to writing a real novel.

The only thing I can say is that apparently I’m a really slow learner. I wrote six mystery novels and was unable to sell any of them. But somewhere along the line I began to realize a couple of things: First, that mystery novels are “real” novels. And second, that writing a good one wasn’t easy. Writing those six novels taught me to write. They taught me about plot and character, about setting and voice, and tone, and pace. But the most important thing I learned was that at the heart of every great novel there is a mystery. Without a mystery, even the deepest novel would be nothing more than a recounting of a series of events, or a character study, or travelogue.

When I settled in to write what I determined was finally going to be a successful mystery novel, I went back to a setting I knew and that I had a deep understanding of, small-town Texas. I chose characters drawn from people I knew intimately. I chose stories that often had their antecedents in real life and that I felt had a resonance in issues of the heart or in social justice. Somehow along the line I had learned about pacing and tone and that elusive element, voice.

One of the most satisfying moments of my writing life came when one of my first reviews said, “The poetic, literary quality of the writing draws you in…” I realized then that quite by accident I had found my literary course— “mainstream” mystery novels. Oddly, when my first book came out, at the bookstore book launch, a member of the audience asked me, “Do you write mysteries because you don’t think you’re good enough to write mainstream novels?” I had my answer ready. “I write them because they are a challenge. After all, at the heart of every literary novel is a mystery.” He replied, “Good answer.”

In answer to the second part of the question, I have had other jobs, like everyone else needing to make a living while I became a rich and famous author, but no matter what else I was doing, I always wrote—usually during lunch, or at night after work. I would often got to my car if it was parked nearby and write while I ate lunch. Or I’d find a quiet spot in the building to do it. But there was never any question that writing was what really drove me…while I worked as: a babysitter, secretary, a maid, a waitress, switchboard operator, a computer programmer/analyst, and a real estate agent.

Being a writer is a calling. It isn’t a job, it’s something that settles in and won’t let go. I maybe never be rich or famous, but I am doing what I want to do in life.