Mysterious Writers: The Many Facets of Mystery Writing

Mysterious Writers: The Many Facets of Mystery Writing

Mystery novels are published in a number of subgenres to satisfy the tastes of every reader. Not only do we have the traditional mystery—also known as the cozy—there are historicals, ...

About The Author

Jean Henry Mead

Jean Henry Mead is a mystery/suspense and western historical novelist. She's also an award-winning photojournalist. One of her fortes is ...

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Chapter I: Cozies/Senior Sleuths

“Mysteries are about the messes people make of their lives and how they cope.”

~ Carolyn Hart

Carolyn Hart

More than three million copies of Carolyn Hart’s mystery novels have sold and she’s best known for her Henrie O and Death on Demand series. Her most recent series features red-haired ghost Bailey Ruth Raeburn of Adelaide, Oklahoma, Carolyn’s home town.

Carolyn, when did your Death on Demand mystery series originate?

In 1985, I attended a meeting of the Southwest chapter of Mystery Writers of America in Houston and visited Murder by the Book. I had never been to a mystery bookstore and I was enchanted. I had just started a new mystery set in a bookstore. I immediately decided to have a mystery bookstore named Death on Demand.

Tell Us About Dare to Die.

Dare to Die is the nineteenth title in the Death on Demand, series which is set on an idyllic South Carolina sea island. My protagonists are Annie Darling, who owns the Death on Demand mystery bookstore, and her husband Max Darling, who runs Confidential Commissions, a small business devoted to helping people solve problems. Annie and Max’s move into a refurbished antebellum home is on hold after water damage, and they are staying at Nightingale Courts, the resort cabins managed by Ingrid Webb, Annie’s clerk, and Ingrid’s husband Duane. Annie and Max agree to take care of the Courts when Ingrid and Duane are called away by a family emergency. As they are leaving, Duane asks Annie to keep an eye on the young woman who checked in yesterday. “She came in the rain. Alone. On a bicycle.” Annie befriends the young woman. When she is murdered, Annie and Max are plunged into fear and danger.

How much of your series is autobiographical?

Henrietta O’Dwyer Collins, a retired newspaper reporter, is the protagonist of the Henrie O series. Henrie O is taller, thinner, smarter, and braver than I but she reflects the author’s attitudes.

I’m intrigued with Bailey Ruth Raeburn, your impetuous red-haired ghost of Adelaide, Oklahoma. How did the series come about?

I loved the Topper books and films when I was growing up. I see ghosts as reflections of the person who lived. I always wanted to write about a fun-loving, energetic, impetuous ghost returning to earth to help someone in trouble, and Bailey Ruth answered the call.

You’ve received an amazing number of awards, including

the Malice Domestic Lifetime Achievement Award. Has the recognition resulted in increased book sales and reader awareness of your work?

I hope that the awards, which I very much appreciate, help to attract readers. It’s hard to know whether such awards increase sales, but any mention of a book or books is helpful to an author.

What’s your writing schedule like, and do you aim for a certain number of words each day, no matter how long it takes?

I try to write five pages a day (approx. 1,500 words) when working on a book. Some days I meet that goal. Some days I don’t. When I am stuck, I take a long walk and usually something will occur to me.

Tell us about your writing background.

I worked on school newspapers and majored in journalism at the University of Oklahoma. When we started a family, I didn’t return to reporting but decided to try fiction. I wrote juvenile fiction, then YA, and in the 1970s began writing adult suspense and mystery.

How much research do you conduct before you begin a novel and do you always visit the locale?

The novel dictates the amount of research. I wrote several early novels, preceding the Death on Demand books, which had World War II backgrounds and required extensive research. I’ve visited the locales of all the books written since Death on Demand. Once I set a book partly in the Philippines, which I have never visited, and when a woman who grew up there asked me how many years I’d spent in the islands, I knew my library research had been successful.

What lies ahead for your well-known character Henrie O?

How did her character evolve?

My original ambition was to be a foreign correspondent. Henrie O enjoyed the career I didn’t have. One of the joys of writing fiction is living out lives that appeal to you. I am currently committed to write one Death on Demand and one ghost book each year, so Henrie O is currently “resting,” as they say in Hollywood.

Advice for novice writers?

Care passionately about what you write. If you care, somewhere an editor will care.

The Writing Life by Carolyn Hart

When I was eleven, I decided to be a reporter when I grew up. I had no idea I would end up devoting my life to murder.

I worked on school newspapers and majored in journalism at the University of Oklahoma, back in the days of hot type, pica poles, and Speed Graphics. In j-school, I wore a trench coat, smoked Chesterfields (successfully discarded many years ago) and was sure I would be the next Maggie Higgins. But, as the adage informs, Man proposes, God disposes.

I met a young law student, we married, and I worked on a local newspaper, then for public information at the university. After we started our family, I quit work and stayed home. This was before the days when young women were expected to work full time, have a family, and bake cookies for the school sale and climb the Matterhorn in their leisure moments.

I missed writing. I didn’t want to go back to reporting because of the long hours. That’s when I first thought about writing fiction. In The Writer magazine, I saw an announcement of a contest for a mystery for girls aged 8 to 12. I adored Nancy Drew and I decided to give it a try. The Secrets of the Cellars won the contest and was published in 1964. I am now writing my 42nd novel, Dare to Die, the nineteenth in the Death on Demand series, published during the spring of 2008.

I’ve written two children’s mysteries, three young adult suspense novels, and thirty-six adult mystery or suspense novels. The year 2008 also saw publication of the first book in a new series, Ghost at Work. The late Bailey Ruth Raeburn, an impetuous red-headed ghost, returns to earth to help someone in trouble. She moves a body, investigates a murder, saves a marriage, prevents a suicide, and—in a fiery finale—rescues a child who knows too much. I have never had more fun writing a book.

When asked these questions at a book talk, I know immediately that the questioners don’t read mysteries. Murder is never the point of the mystery. Mysteries are about the messes people make of their lives and how they cope.

Mysteries captured my heart when I read my first Nancy Drew. I was thrilled by the challenges posed for Nancy Drew and for Frank and Joe Hardy, absorbed by the puzzles, and inspired by their courage and devotion to justice. Nancy’s snazzy roadster, amazing independence, and handsome Ned were also a plus. As for serious Frank and fun-loving Joe, who wouldn’t want to spend time with them? I always think of Max Darling, Annie’s handsome blond husband, as Joe Hardy all grown up and sexy as hell.

Suspense, a puzzle, and courage: these are the hallmarks of the mystery. However, the mystery offers even more to adult readers.

There are two kinds of mysteries, the crime novel and the traditional mystery.

The crime novel features Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski. The crime novel is the story of an honorable man or woman who tries to remain uncorrupted in a corrupt world. It is the story of the protagonist and not of the murders that are solved. These books are about the quest for honor. My own particular love is the traditional mystery. These books are sometimes dismissed by devotees of the crime novel as unrealistic, “cozy”  little stories of drawing room crimes in little villages.

Agatha Christie, whose books have now sold in excess of two billion, understood reality. There may not be a body in the drawing room, but there will always be pain and passion, heartbreak and violence, despair and fury, whether in a village or a metropolis. Christie knew life as most readers live it, ordinary, unremarkable, and fraught with emotion.

Christie once compared the mystery to the medieval morality play. In the play, trades fair audiences saw graphic representations of what happens to lives dominated by lust, gluttony, sloth, and all the deadly sins. This is what today’s mysteries offer in a more sophisticated guise.

The sleuth in the traditional mystery explores the relationships between the victim and those around the victim. In trying to solve the crime, Annie Darling or my new sleuth, the late Bailey Ruth Raeburn, search out the reasons for murder by exploring the relationships between the victim and those around the victim. The detective wants to know what caused the turmoil in these lives. Readers extrapolate the lessons observed in fiction for their own use, for their own lives. If this, Dear Reader, is how you treat others…

Thankfully, everyday dramas do not usually end in murder, but violent emotions caused by fractured relationships corrode the lives of all involved, often forever. This is what the traditional mystery is all about. The traditional mystery focuses on the intimate, destructive, frightening secrets hidden beneath the seemingly placid surface. Readers know the jealous mother, the miserly uncle, the impossible boss, the belittling friend, the woman who confuses sex with love, the selfish sister.

What could be more humdrum than everyday life as most of us live it? Aren’t those seemingly lighthearted, civilized tales of murder nonsense?

No. They probe personal passions. Nothing can be more powerful than jealousy, anger, hatred, lust, and fear.

It is how these emotions destroy lives that fascinates the readers and writers of traditional mysteries. The crime of murder is a dramatic exaggeration of the misery created by lives that succumb to sin.

I’ve spent a lifetime with murder, even though I can never read accounts of true crime. I find them too harrowing because behind the violent acts I always see the heartbreak of failed humans. In the books, I am trying to understand what created the passions that destroy and offering homage to the detective who wants to bring peace and understanding.

Even though by now the body count in my many books is horrific, I am grateful for my life with murder. It has put me in the best of company. Mystery readers are good people. Every time they read a mystery they are reaffirming their commitment to goodness. They believe in justice, decency, and goodness.

Every day we see proof that evil often triumphs. Yet we yearn to live in a good, just, and decent world. There is a world where goodness triumphs, where justice is served, where decency is celebrated, the world of the mystery.

(This updated article was originally published in the Washington  Post.)

Nancy Pickard

Winner of the Agatha, Anthony, Barry, Shamus, and Macavity awards and four-time Edgar finalist, Nancy Pickard’s latest novel, Virgin of the Plains was the Kansas Reads selection for 2009.

Nancy, what happened to your first novel?

It was, thank the publishing gods, rejected by nine wise publishers. It got me an agent, though, so I love it anyway. It was my apprentice novel and no longer exists in any form. Heh.

What was the turning point in your career?

Funny, I’ve never thought about it like that in terms of my novels, only my short stories. I’m thinking of three turning points:

  1. When I moved from original paperback at Avon to hard- cover at Scribner, with the wonderful Susanne Kirk as my
  2. When Linda Marrow became my editor, first at Pocket and now at Ballantine. We’re writing and editing soul mates. I’m very
  3. And for short stories, when I heard a writer say that every short story needs an epiphany. Having not been classically trained as a fiction writer, I’d never heard that After that, my stories sold.

Sue Grafton said your nonfiction book, Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path, written with psychologist Lynn Lott, is “fresh, insightful, candid, funny, supportive, encouraging and wise.” How did the book come about?

I had met many writers—especially new ones—who seemed lost and alone, sad and confused, bewildered and overwhelmed by the highs and lows of the writer’s life. I felt for them, and   I wanted to talk to them and let them know we all feel crazy sometimes, and then give them some ideas about how to cope with the emotional roller-coaster.

Why have you written such a variety of mystery subgenres, from cozies to private eye stories, humorous mysteries to psychological suspense?

Two reasons. One, I get bored if I do the same exact thing over and over. Two, in my life I have loved all kinds of books in the mystery world, so I am influenced by all of those kinds of novels and I like to play around with their tropes and charms and quirks.

Tell us about The Virgin of Small Plaines, your multi-award winning novel. Why did you set it in Kansas?

I set it here because one day I was hit with the need to write about Kansas forever and always. It’s as simple and was as career- altering as that. I was born on the Missouri side of Kansas City and moved to this side when I married a Kansas cattle rancher. (Hence, my two books set in the Flint Hills cattle country—Bum Steer and Virgin.) I’m still here and feel completely Kansan now. I love this state, political warts, and all.

Your work has won or been nominated for nearly every

existing mystery award. Which means the most to you, and have the awards translated into higher book sales?

The awards have helped a lot, I think. As for which awards mean the most, they’re the ones that reinforce me after I’ve tried something new, as for The Whole Truth and for The Virgin of Small Plains. When you disappear for a while to take some chances with your writing, it’s reassuring to come back and find that readers appreciate it. The same is true for awards for short stories. For instance, when the first and only fable I’ve ever written was picked for a Year’s Best anthology of Fantasy and Horror stories, I was thrilled by the confirmation—from people who really know the genres—that I’d done an okay job of it.

How important are organizations such as Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America to a writer’s career?

I think they’re wonderful and I encourage participation. They make you feel part of something larger. They let you give back to the genre that supports you. They’re not for everybody, I suppose, but for writers who like to hang out with other writers, they’re pretty great.

How did the Jenny Cain series come about?

One day I was in the Asian section of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and I saw an antique Chinese bed with gauzy curtains and a little alcove with seats in it. I thought, “What a great place to find a dead body.” Seriously. That’s how it started. Not exactly profound, lol.

Tell us about your soon-to-be released novel.

My new “Kansas novel,” released in April, 2010 is called The Scent of Rain and Lightning. For this book, a different kind of landscape called to me. Instead of the rolling ranch land of the Flint Hills of east and central Kansas, where Virgin is set, now we have a flat land with astonishing stone monuments rising out of it like a natural Stonehenge, only much taller and bigger even than those formations.

On a violently stormy night, in this land of dramatic contrasts, the favorite son of the county’s wealthiest landowners is shot and killed and his young wife disappears. They leave behind a three-year-old daughter to be raised by her grandparents and uncles. The obvious suspect is quickly caught, convicted, and sent to prison, leaving behind a wife and seven-year-old son. Twenty-three years later, the presumed murderer is released pending a new trial, and returns to the scene of the crimes he may not have committed. The secrets about that night of dramatic change for a family, a town, and a county, are revealed both to his son and to the daughter of the victims, as these two children of tragedy struggle to uncover dangerous truths about their families.

What is your writing schedule like?

I’m a binge writer. When I’m really going at it, it’s all I do. I ignore everything else. At other times, I may do nothing writerly at all. Or I may catch up with all of the things I’ve neglected. Like interviews.

Advice to today’s novice writers?

One, be patient with yourself and your writing. Doctors aren’t built in a day; neither are lawyers, neither are plumbers, neither are teachers or truck drivers, and neither are writers. It takes a long time to get good enough to be published. Give yourself that time and try to enjoy it! Two, please please please give your- self time before you start worrying about getting an agent, etc. Write first. Write second. Write third. Finish the manuscript. Rewrite it. Rewrite it. Rewrite it. Maybe send it out, or maybe start the next one. Time. It takes time. Give yourself that time and please don’t be so hard on yourself if things don’t happen fast for you. Third, care first and always about the writing. The writing. The writing. ::steps off soapbox:: Oh, and read Annie Lamott’s fabulous book about writing, Bird By Bird.

Websites are: www.sweetmysteryoflife.blogspot.com/ and www.nancypickard.com

Letting Go

by Nancy Pickard

How is it that we can sit down to write knowing only where our scene is set and who is supposed to be in it, and then before we know it characters say things we didn’t even know they thought, and they do things we didn’t know they could do, and things happen that totally surprise us?

How can that be?

There’s no logical explanation for it that I know of, or for the sense we get of being in a trance when it happens. There we are, sitting down at our computer or notebook, and suddenly we look up and our senses come flooding back on us, and we realize we’ve been writing for two hours without even thinking about it. When writers talk about things like this, other people find it eerie. It is eerie, but it’s wonderful to experience.

I think it happens because we have given ourselves over completely to our writing, a phenomenon that can’t happen unless we let go.

But let go of what?

Of our inhibitions, our fears, our need to control every syllable that goes on the page, and of such mundane things as telephone calls, email, and all the other distractions that take us out of the zone and pull us back into the world.

By practicing a lot of small acts of letting go, a writer can build up her muscles for bigger ones. Every time she lets go in her writing, to whatever degree she can do it, the rewards can range from nice to incredible. I started practicing it from the very beginning of my fiction career, when I did “free writing” every day for ten minutes, setting a timer and writing nonstop, without editing or censoring, about any subject that popped into my mind.

Writer Cecil Murphey tells what happens when he lets go—“I was working on a book, and I must have gone into the zone, because the ringing telephone startled me. I felt as if I had been working in another dimension. At least an hour had elapsed and yet it seemed like minutes. When that happens—and it’s not an everyday occurrence—the writing feels effortless, and words easily fill the screen.”

Letting go comes with risk and sacrifice.

It may be “just” the risk of sacrificing old habits of writing, or maybe it means sacrificing your fear of getting more “out there” in what you write, or letting yourself write a scene of violence or sex, or sweetness, or whatever it is that scares you to do. There are endless ways of letting go.

In my opinion, writers need to develop some tolerance for free falling, because that’s how letting go feels—like Tarzan or Jane letting go of one vine without knowing for sure they can reach the next one. When—if—they do, there’s a rush of exhilaration and pride, along with the knowledge that they’ve got to keep doing it in order to get better at it so they can fly through the jungle with confidence.

Publishing—it’s a jungle out there, right?

Writers who can let go and allow themselves to become the high flyers they have the talent to be are more likely to navigate it successfully.

(Adapted from 7 Steps on the Writer’s Path by Nancy Pickard and Lynn Lott.)

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