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.


Frank Zafiro said...

Great points, Terry!

Btw, I'm reading (one of several at a time so it's slow going) your first book now - enjoying it! Thanks for coming on the podcast.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

I agree, Terry, it's a calling, not a job. And why can't a mystery have literary qualities?

Terry said...

Thanks Frank, hope you enjoy the book. And Dietrich, I read mysteries all the time with serious literary chops.

Susan C Shea said...

And I told you you'd hit exactly the right story when you shared the first Samuel Craddock manuscript. It was clear you had a winner!