Crime Pays: The Fall Mystery & Thriller Author Panel Discussion discussion

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Genre -- What makes a mystery a mystery?

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message 1: by Patrick (new)

Patrick Brown | 8 comments Mod
I thought today we might talk about genre a little bit, since all of the authors are considered to write in either the mystery or thriller genre (and some of them branch out into other areas as well). How do you define the genre of mystery and what sets it apart from thrillers or suspense? Do you feel that the genre you're writing in is ever a restrictive force in your work? Also, what other writers working in your genre do you admire? And do you tend to read within the genre you're writing or do you try to avoid that?


message 2: by Laura (new)

Laura Lippman | 20 comments Mod
Actually, I don't use the term mystery or thriller. I like crime novel because it's the broadest term possible. Mysteries, by my lights, are whodunits. Thriller, to me, connotes "race against time" and I don't think I've ever written that. I have written conventional whodunits, but my recent books tend to be whydunits.

I don't feel that the genre has any restrictions at all. I might, but it doesn't!

I don't read books similar to what I'm working on when I'm writing. But the genre is so broad that's not really a problem.

I admire Kate Atkinson, George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Megan Abbott, Gillian Flynn, S.J. Rozan, Lee Child . . . I could list 50-60 names.


message 3: by Charles (new)

Charles Todd | 26 comments Mod
I tend to agree with Laura--we've got too many labels. I've seen books described as "thrillers" that are not page turners in the tradition sense--and sometimes not in any sense. The Charles Todd books are sometimes described as hisorical mysteries. Which they are. But to us they are psychological suspense, the WHYdunit that Laura mentioned, that happen to take place in 1919/1920 in the Rutledge series and 1917 so far in the Bess Crawford series. Perhaps it's a matter of how the reader judges these things. What's important is that as you write you stay with the focus that you want to write about, you don't mix messages. As for restrictions, a good plot with good characters is really all that matters, because that is what a great mystery is all about.
We try to stay away from other books on the period we're writing about. The human mind absorbs information, and an author isn't always aware that what seems to be a good idea may be an echo of something he's read.
As for people we enjoy reading in our spare time, Lee Child is one, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Nelson De Mille, James Lee Burke, and now his daughter is writing. Stuart Kaminsky and Tony HIllerman have been long time favorites, and we miss them. We tend to read what we like, but make a point to read outside the box as well.


message 4: by Laura (new)

Laura Lippman | 20 comments Mod
Alafair Burke is a terrific writer.


message 5: by Lisa S (new)

Lisa S (kasey_k_fan) I think it is so awesome that some of my favorite authors you read also. I think I have read everyone if Lee Childs. Some of Dennis LeHane and Michael Connelly.


message 6: by Sandra (new)

Sandra Brown (sandra_brown) | 29 comments Mod
I think my colleague Lee Child said it best when he said that every book should be a "thriller." In the strictest sense of the word, every novel whether it be horror, mystery, romance, western, sci fi, should thrill the reader.

But if we're talking specifics, I've always considered a mystery more of a who-done-it, where the villain, who's done something evil, isn't revealed until the end of the book. In a thriller, the villain is often identified early, and the conflict arises from trying to prevent him/her from doing something evil. The pacing is sometimes faster than the police procedural of a mystery.

Honestly, I never think about the genre when I'm writing. I write the story that's insisting it be written. Genres -- glorified pigeonholes -- can restrict creativity. That's why I stopped writing romances, per se. I wanted to introduce elements that weren't acceptable in that genre at the time. These days, the lines between genres are blurred and that's a good thing for writers as well as for readers.

When I'm plotting or writing my first draft, I try to read outside the genre which is why you see so many historical romances on my Goodreads shelf!

Sandra


message 7: by [deleted user] (new)

The whole idea of genre is the one discussion I get involved in over and over again on Goodreads, too. Sometimes it is good to be able to tell if you like a book because of a genre-based preference (I prefer mysteries to thrillers, for example). Sometimes it is bad to label a book with a specific genre. Case in point: some people won't ever read a romance novel, thinking they are all cut from the same predictable cloth, and these readers might miss a very good historical novel, that also happens to be a romance.


message 8: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 18 comments i generally only read a 'romance' by mistake. however. i did manage to get hooked on j. d. robb's futuristic police procedurals featuring eve dallas. imaghne my surprise when i found out the author was in actuality nora roberts! so maybe we put too much emphasis on genre classifications and sub-classifications.


message 9: by Charles (new)

Charles Todd | 26 comments Mod
We were mystery fans long before we became mystery writers, and I think that is a big help when you decide to write. It gives you certain standards to live up to, but it also teaches you how to get in and out of a scene, how plotting differs from plots, how characters and dialogue have to dovetail, and how to end or not end a mystery. And it's important to sample a lot of different genres, to see what the label means. Jeannette is right, you can miss a lot of great books if you take a label too seriously. As a general guideline, they can be useful, of course. A friend buys books by their jackets, and sometimes the blurb on the back. That's her test of a good book, rather than genre choice. How does she make out? I'd guess that for every ten books she buys there might be one she didn't care for. Not a bad average, over all.


message 10: by [deleted user] (new)

That is a dangerous thing, buying a book because it has a beautiful cover. I have done that more than once -- it's often a disappointment, especially in juvenile fiction.


message 11: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 18 comments i have bought by the cover, the title, the info on the back, on the inside, by the SRA method - 1st sentence and last paragraph. i have found winners and losers and there is no tried and true method. except possibly placing your trust in a given author.


message 12: by [deleted user] (new)

Jan wrote: "i have bought by the cover, the title, the info on the back, on the inside, by the SRA method - 1st sentence and last paragraph. i have found winners and losers and there is no tried and true metho..."

Wow, I try to never open the back of a book. I am enjoying having friend reviews on goodreads as an extra recommendation now.


message 13: by Patrick (new)

Patrick Brown | 8 comments Mod
I'm curious whether people think genre is becoming less of an issue as the internet plays a bigger and bigger role in book discussion, marketing, and sales? I tend to think that physical bookstores played a large role in determining how a book was labeled; after all, they had to shelve it somewhere. But online, a book can be on many "shelves" at once. It's my hope that we see less distinction between genres as the net plays an increasingly important role, but I suppose the opposite could end up being true, as well.


message 14: by Naomi (new)

Naomi (nblackburn) I still think genre is important. Yes, books can be on many "online bookshelves" at the same time, but that is the truth in brick and mortar bookstores, as well. I think genre is important as a classification for the book to "direct" the reader as to books one may enjoy. I know for me, I am a fan of several genres, but would have a difficult time with and would not enjoy other genres. If the classification system was lost, we would be left to our own devices to try to determine if we would like the book. I would also fear that too many books would "get lost in the shuffle" and because of profit, the most marketable authors would be pushed while those whose writing abilities may meet or exceed (but may be just starting out)would be lost to name recognition.


message 15: by Deanna (new)

Deanna | 8 comments Charles wrote: "We were mystery fans long before we became mystery writers, and I think that is a big help when you decide to write. It gives you certain standards to live up to, but it also teaches you how to get..."

I'm like your friend and buy books by their covers. If it is a new author I have not read, the picture is what grabs my interest, not the genre. Once I've read a book by that author, and decided I liked them, then I will search them out. By not sticking to looking for specific genres (and being shallow), I have read many great books that I would not have read otherwise.


message 16: by [deleted user] (new)

I think genre as a general guideline is very useful. I do like to see books cross-listed on many shelves (something library catalogs can do), because I find books further out of my normal sphere that I end up enjoying. Brick-and-mortar stores can't do this, and sometimes they have to compromise with broad categories anyway.

I do think there are books that get lost in the shuffle all the time, and I think this is one of the things that goodreads is helping to diminish. I am exposed all the time to authors and titles I have never heard of! One friend reviews a book and then I just happily traipse down a path, finding suggestions from friends-of-friends, or lists on discussion threads. People love sharing their favorite books!


message 17: by Deanna (new)

Deanna | 8 comments Jeannette wrote: "Jan wrote: "i have bought by the cover, the title, the info on the back, on the inside, by the SRA method - 1st sentence and last paragraph. i have found winners and losers and there is no tried an..."

I agree with Jeannette- I never open the back of the book, except to see how many pages it has, so I know where my end point is. I have made the mistake of glancing at the back pages in the past and then had a hard time getting through the book because I already knew parts of the end scene.


message 18: by [deleted user] (new)

In one of my favorite series, the detective gets shot in the last scene! I would not have wanted to read that. I think we all sent email to the author pleading for his life!!


message 19: by Deanna (new)

Deanna | 8 comments I like and dislike that bookstores label everything into genres, but I think they should be like the online stores and have books in several genres. In many cases, if you are looking for a paranormal romance, you have to look in the sci-fi section, not romance. And Borders has Dean Koontz as horror, which I would label as thriller, not horror. So many times I have to go to the computers there to see what section a book is in, if I am looking for a specific book (which is easier on my wallet). If I'm not looking for a specific book, I usually end up walking every aisle for books to 'jump out' at me, so I don't really care what genre they're in.


message 20: by Sandra (new)

Sandra Brown (sandra_brown) | 29 comments Mod
Jan wrote: "...so maybe we put too much emphasis on genre classifications and sub-classifications. "

Jan,

I definitely think getting too hung up on genres etc. can lead to missing some really great books! :D

Sandra


message 21: by Sandra (new)

Sandra Brown (sandra_brown) | 29 comments Mod
Deanna wrote: "I never open the back of the book..."

Deanna,

I don't either -- for me this is a big no-no!


Sandra


message 22: by Lisa S (last edited Sep 10, 2010 01:16PM) (new)

Lisa S (kasey_k_fan) I usually look at the title, then read the blurb on the back. Doesn't matter what genre they are. The picture on the front really doesn't count one way or the other for me. Then when I read a new author and like them I usually try to read everything from them.


message 23: by Meg (new)

Meg Mims (httpwwwgoodreadscommegmims) The only "genre" classification I believe in, coming out of two years at Seton Hill's Writing Popular Fiction program, is "literary" vs. "pop fiction." I'm forever being disappointed by a more literary book - not always, but most of the time. The various sub-genres of popular fiction, however, give me plenty of reader satisfaction - justice for traditional mystery, a thrill ride for thriller/suspense, HEA for romance, etc.

My question to Charles is about the "20th century historical mystery" - and marketability. It seems agents and editors balk at that aspect. What's your viewpoint, given your own success?


message 24: by Carol (new)

Carol | 2 comments I quite enjoy "judging a book by it's cover"! Not limiting myself by genre (or even sub-genre) has led to many a suprising discovery and kept my mind open to new discoveries.


message 25: by Charles (new)

Charles Todd | 26 comments Mod
Hi, Meg. I really don't know the answer. It seems to me that the problem may be overcrowding the field--suddenly there seems to be a number of mysteries working in that field. I remember hearing an editor once saying that there were so many Elizabethan mysteries there was no room for another. For us at least we have brand new contracts for both series. It can also be a problem of too much similarity in plot or character or period. Editors want "fresh" plots, and if there's an echo of someone else's book, they often shy away. Let's hope there's still room for more! Meanwhile, a personal note--we have to prepare for a library talk tomorrow morning, but we'll be back in the afternoon. See you then.


message 26: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 18 comments Deanna wrote: "Jeannette wrote: "Jan wrote: "i have bought by the cover, the title, the info on the back, on the inside, by the SRA method - 1st sentence and last paragraph. i have found winners and losers and th..."

Deanna and Jeannette - this is what happens when the Scientific Research Association (SRA), possibly a subsidiary of 3M, does their testing on impressionable school children. For possibly close to 20-30 years I was still looking at books that way.

I don't think I have done that now for a bunch of years.

It also depends on the type of book. Obviously it is not something that is done with a mystery. But a biography where we are not surprised if the guy dies in the end is a different story. A historical type of book I will look at the back to find what the author did about telling us his sources or footnoting.


message 27: by [deleted user] (new)

I can see the value in skimming through non-fiction books, just to get a feel for the writing style and whether or not I will find anything valuable in a book. But, there are many books I wouldn't want to read the ending of first.

(Is this the method you are referring to with your post here? I'm not sure I get the reference to school children. Is this how they tested marketability of books for schoolkids? I do think that these are the books with the best covers usually.)


message 28: by Deanna (last edited Sep 10, 2010 06:07PM) (new)

Deanna | 8 comments For non-fiction, I would want to look up the credibility of the author and make sure it is something that interests me. But generally I read to get out of the 'real' world, so I go to fiction. If a cover catches my attention and gets me reading a different author, I find nothing wrong with that. That is how I stumbled upon Sandra's and Laura's books at the library. I think I inherited the first book by Todd from family.


message 29: by Deanna (new)

Deanna | 8 comments Jan C- I get what you are saying now about SRA. I vaguely remember the librarian or my teacher or someone telling us to do that in grade-school. I started reading mysteries and romances early on and found that following SRA's 'suggestion' ruined the endings for me, so I chucked that method out the window.


message 30: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 18 comments We didn't get it from a librarian. They used the local elementary school system - possibly 10 elementary schools in the town (I live again in the town) - and they did reading comprehension testing every year. Not sure if they decided that we were an average town or if it had to do with it being a university town (Go Big Ten). I'm also not sure how widespread it was. This was in the late 50s-early 60s (there, I've dated myself). And I think a number of us paid the price. For a while.

As I recall, we were supposed to read the first sentence, the last paragrah and then we read the selection. There was probably a test, too - But I don't remember for sure.


message 31: by [deleted user] (new)

Jan C wrote: "We didn't get it from a librarian. They used the local elementary school system - possibly 10 elementary schools in the town (I live again in the town) - and they did reading comprehension testing ..."

I grew up in Detroit in the 60's and I am 6 years younger than you are Jan, but your description of this kind of reading test sounds so familiar to me. It might be something I experienced just before it went out of use as a teaching theory.

I'm glad that you remained a reader, in spite of these misguided ideas.


message 32: by [deleted user] (new)

Deanna wrote: "For non-fiction, I would want to look up the credibility of the author and make sure it is something that interests me. But generally I read to get out of the 'real' world, so I go to fiction. If..."

Deanna, my husband always says that non-fiction trumps fiction because no one could make up stories as good as some things that have actually happened! :) I agree with him that there are some very fascinating true stories out there. We especially like stories about the Arctic explorers like Shackleton.

(But, I do read mostly non-fiction myself.)


message 33: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 18 comments Jeannette wrote: "Jan C wrote: "We didn't get it from a librarian. They used the local elementary school system - possibly 10 elementary schools in the town (I live again in the town) - and they did reading comprehe..."

I'm from Evanston and we had student teachers from NU. I don't know if SRA was one of their programs or where it came from.

I think most of us became/stayed readers.

I came from a family of big readers ... except, possibly, my brother but his SO is a big reader so he's stuck.


message 34: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 18 comments Another good example of (successful) non-fiction is Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster. It turned me into an Everest nut for a while. I was reading everything.

Loved Caroline Alexander's Shackleton book. I have her The Bounty: the True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty book too, but haven't read it yet.

I read mostly history and biography, aside from mysteries which is the best to read on the commute.


message 35: by [deleted user] (new)

Let me add Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, an incredible book. Do not read the ending first. :)


message 36: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 18 comments i loved 'isaac's storm'. i'm a real sucker for 'disaster' books. another good one is 'sudden sea', i think. excellent book about the hurricane of 1938.


message 37: by [deleted user] (new)

I've added it to my list, Jan C. Thanks!


message 38: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 18 comments i'm not sure if i've got the title correct. i turned the computer off for the night. i can check the title tomorrow.


message 39: by [deleted user] (new)


message 40: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 18 comments i suddenly realized that i could look it up on the kindle!


message 41: by Charles (new)

Charles Todd | 26 comments Mod
I knew someone who lived through the 1938 hurricane, and remembers it well, even though he was a child then. A disaster like that leaves a mark. He remembered having to cook on the little grill his father had built in the yard for cookouts, and Martial Law, and the fact that no one knew if his father was alive or dead for days, because he was caught in Providence when the storm hit. I enjoy hearing about experiences like that, because while he didn't know what had happened at Watch Hill for a long time, he knew how it affected his life and his community. He watched a TV documentary on the storm a few years ago and was glued to the program, because it put all the pieces he knew into a whole picture.
Too bad we can't talk to someone like Shackleton. I've always wanted to go to Antarctica because of his story.


message 42: by [deleted user] (new)

And Shackleton had a fascinating story to tell, didn't he? I had never heard of the 1938 hurricane, but it must have been quite devastating to have prompted Martial Law. I always think of hurricanes affecting the SE US coast.

Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History reads like a thriller to me. The author deftly switches between the story of the people in Galveston and the story at the Weather Bureau. Like your friend, we don't know who survives until the very end. The book is a real page-turner.


message 43: by Charles (new)

Charles Todd | 26 comments Mod
What we have to remember about hurricanes in 38 and so on, is that there was no TV, no Doppler radar, no weather, and even radio wasn't into weather warnings. Even after the 38 hurricane devastated Long Island, no one in New England knew it. The first warning was when strange looking clouds rolled in and the barometer dropped. And this was seen as just another late season thunderstorm. There was no preparation, no evacuation route, and no immediate help.Food spoiled in the ice boxes,and you had no stores to go to. It was scary. And this is one of the things that we must consider when writing Rutledge and Bess Crawford, that the world was so different that we can take nothing for granted. How to prepare meals, where to find petrol, how to treat the sick, even when the post comes. Every detail has to be checked.


message 44: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 18 comments I asked my father what he remembered about that storm and he really didn't remember very much, he was in college in Tennessee at the time. He did tell me that one of the things that changed after the Hurricane of '38 was that people started asking "what is the weather today?" Apparently before that no one ever asked.

They felt backlashes of this storm all the way to Saskatchewan where it tore the roof of one of the buildings at my grandmother's place.


message 45: by [deleted user] (new)

Charles wrote: "...that the world was so different that we can take nothing for granted. How to prepare meals, where to find petrol, how to treat the sick, even when the post comes. Every detail has to be checked. "

Related to this: How are you able to ensure that your characters stay in the proper language of the time period? I have read more than one review where the reviewer complains that the characters used modern slang, or switch in and out of old-fashioned speech patterns. I imagine it is easy enough to research clothes, and technology, even manners, but how do you keep the language authentic?


message 46: by Laura (new)

Laura Lippman | 20 comments Mod
Nothing to add to this discussion, but I wanted to say it's fascinating.


message 47: by [deleted user] (new)

Laura wrote: "Nothing to add to this discussion, but I wanted to say it's fascinating."

We sort of high-jacked the topic. :)


message 48: by Deanna (new)

Deanna | 8 comments Yeah, we did kinda high-jack it. Didn't we?


message 49: by [deleted user] (new)

Deanna wrote: "Yeah, we did kinda high-jack it. Didn't we?"

The authors took the day off and we kept on going! :)


message 50: by Sandra (new)

Sandra Brown (sandra_brown) | 29 comments Mod
Jan C wrote: "Another good example of (successful) non-fiction is Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster. It turned me into an Everest nut for a while. I was reading everything..."

Jan...I, too, love history--fiction or non-fiction.

Sandra


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