Writer’s Corner: You Don’t Have to Pick Your Poison
There was a time when several of my peers had story ideas rejected by publishers for this marketing reason: “The bookstores will have too much difficulty deciding where to shelve this novel.”
In essence, the author submitted a fantasy cum la western, mystery, horror, etc. which the publisher feared might confuse the bookstores as to where to shelve it. There was a time when nothing drove fear into the hearts of publishers as much as confusing major book vendors. In more recent years, though, this problem appears to have vanished for the most part…
Many authors are now crossing genres to the point where even new (sub)genres are being created, such as “paranormal” romance. There are even new sections in bookstores and review magazines for this (sub)genre. So as authors, we now have greater freedom to crossover and cross between.
Of course no matter what you write, you’ll need to follow the basic plot structure of conflict, rising action, climax, and resolution. After that, the world is your oyster… up to a point.
Clearly, J.C. and I have played around with crossing genres since the 2003 release of Dhampir. Even back then, some bookstores struggled between shelving it in “horror” or “fantasy,” let alone such subgenres as “high fantasy” or “dark fantasy.” Dhampir ended up in all of these from one book chain or store to the next.
We preferred the fantasy section, but because the tale involves “vampires,” that first novel was initially sent off to the horror section. So beware this potential risk: your novel may be stocked in a less preferred section.
Two years ago, I decided to try my hand at a new genre, a murder mystery, but I love writing fantasy so much that I had no wish to abandon that either. I pitched the basic idea for The Mist-Torn Witches to my editor, knowing I was taking a risk, but she made an offer for a series. However, that meant it was time for me to do some research.
In a sense, I already had, because I’d been reading murder mysteries since high school. So, I began re-reading Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile and Then There Were None. I read a number of Brother Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters. I re-read some of the Thomas Pitt series by Anne Perry and re-watched the BBC Inspector Lewis episodes as well.
Instead of reading or watching for enjoyment, I was examining the structure of these mystery stories. Successful authors all seem to follow three basic rules:
- Provide a number of suspects with legitimate motives.
- Do not pull the killer out of a hat at the end of the story; he or she must be a character in the novel.
- The solution should be discoverable along the way if the reader is paying attention.
For that last one, you do not want the solution to be easy to spot; at the same time, the “unveiling” should make sense and be satisfying based on what was previously exposed in the story. This is no easy feat.
Upon making this list for myself, I realized that no author (playwright, screen writer, etc.) would ever be able to construct a murder mystery without an outline. Before starting chapter one, you need to know who did it, how, and why. Then you need to create a number of other possible suspects with legitimate motives.
I have known a few would-be authors who attempted to begin a mystery novel without an outline and sometimes without knowing who did the dirty deed. When I asked, “How is that possible?” the answer was often, “Oh, I want to be surprised along with the reader.”
This response led to repeated headaches as I banged my head slowly on my desk. It will come as no surprise that these novels were never completed let alone published. Make yourself an outline.
Of course, I was writing a fantasy/mystery set in a world of J.C. and my own creation, so I wanted interesting and unique “sleuths.” Back when we were writing Thief of Lives, we had a wonderful time presenting Leesil and Magiere as two people who knew nothing about solving a series of deaths they had been hired stop. In order to earn their payment, they had to pretend to be sleuths.
With my young witches, Celine and Amelie, I decided to play around with that element again and then give them each a specific supernatural ability.
Out of everything that I needed to accomplish, coming up with a list of suspects (with real motives) turned out to be the most difficult. But once I had my outline completed, writing the book went smoothly. I submitted the very first “who done it” murder mystery of my career.
My editor enjoyed it, and so I started book two, Witches in Red, with a bit more confidence that I could actually “do it.” This series is being stocked in the fantasy rather than the mystery section of bookstores. This may have more to do with my reputation as a fantasy author than anything else, so the result might not be the same for others.
Anyway, my point is that as authors, we are freer to cross genres than ever before. You should not hold back if you get an idea that grabs you which may beg to be shelved between shelves. Simply be sure that you do the research in the genre with which you are less familiar, and this will help ensure both your confidence and success with the project.