Thursday, March 2, 2023

Seven Pillars of Writing Wisdom, by Catriona

Besides manuals, which books do you think make good masterclasses for crime-writers?

I write this simmering with annoyance, after hearing a guest on a radio book programme say he was grateful to have been given an excuse to read a mystery thriller. Which turned out to be so much more than a mystery thriller. Because it was good.

The reason I'm simmering with annoyance rather than boiling with rage is that his snobbish dismissal of our beloved genre was accomplanied by that admission that he's the poodle of his own arrogance and can't freely choose what to read. Pitiful.

So I'm picking only crime novels to answer this question. Take that, book snob. (voiceover: he wouldn't be able to take it)

On the understanding that no one writer can do absolutely everything better than everyone else (coughRaymondChandler'splottingcough, sneezeAgathaChristiesminorchracterssneeze), I reckon this reading list would stand a fair few beginning mystery authors in good stead, one way or another.

Joy Fielding is first up for me still, when it comes to characters and psychological conflict. KISS MOMMY GOODBYE or SEE JANE RUN or any other example of Fielding's celebrations of believable nastiness will give any writer at all something to shoot for next time the laptop gets switched on. 

But then contrast Dan Brown - and why not go for THE DA VINCI CODE? - where it's something quite different that's being mastered. Dan Brown absolutely nailed "high stakes" and "plotting chutzpah" with this one, didn't he? It's still the highwater mark for what we can get away with if we just do it. (If we just do it first. It was delicious to see the sour grapes from other crimewriters who hadn't thought of this plot!)

Another thing Dan Brown does is switch points of view. But for a masterclass in how to do this boldly and cleanly - so no one ever skips a chapter to stay with the story you want them to step aside from, and no one ever forgets who any of the many narrators are - I'd advise looking at any of the late and loved Mary Higgins Clark's many novels. She was also a ninja at titles so MHC-ish they were practically a declaration of her brand. I'VE GOT YOU UNDER MY SKIN is no exception.

Harlan Coben says he learned plotting from Mary Higgins Clark. But I think DARKEST FEAR or any of his other Myron Bolitar series are a masterclass-in-waiting for authors of themed cozies. Hear me out! He weaves (present tense because I really hope there'll be another one one day) the small-business details into the puzzle plot in just the right mixture, and nails the lovely cozy day-to-day of colleagues working together. Okay yeah one of Myron's colleagues is a sociopath. My point stands.

More specifically regarding the culinary cozy, I recommend Leslie Karst's Sally Solari series (the latest is THE FRAGRANCE OF DEATH) for how to pepper the story with plenty of food, all of which earns its place in the plot, without the meals or even the recipes at the end feeling like one course too many.

And speaking of avoiding the literary equivalent of a seven-course tasting menu where every course comes with mashed potato, Naomi Hirahara in CLARK AND DIVISION offers a masterclass close to my own heart. C&D is a historical novel about a sobering period in US history - the internment and displacement of Japanese Americans in WWII - written by someone with a journalist's background, who knows a forty-foot-shipping-container-load of stuff about the subject . . . but spares us! The history is detailed, authentic, convincing, satisfying and balanced just right. I understand the feelings of any historical writer thinking "I took a year to learn this; I'm damn well going to pass it on" but a "Further Reading" section, as given here, is the way to go.

I lied about sticking to crimewriters. My last masterclass suggestion is RECITATIF by Toni Morrison. And I want to recommend it without exactly saying why, because if anyone isn't familiar with this little jewel, I don't want to be the one who spoils it for you. I heard it read on NPR, knowing nothing about the unsolved and unsolvable puzzle at its heart. Confirming everything Morrison was suggesting when she wrote it, I didn't even know I'd missed anything! Then I read it, with an introduction by Zadie Smith, and marveled. If there's a better, neater, more unsettling, lighter, more sly, more irresistible way to hold up a mirror to your readership, I don't know where to find it. And it's only 40 pages long too.



Susan C Shea said...

Catriona, your recommendations are always so juicy and often surprising, and I trust you implicitly. So thank for adding to my TBR pile today, and for showing me how to use "poodle" for snark.

Ann said...

Well, as usual, reading recommendations from Catriona results in an expensive browsing in the bookstore.