Whether you’re writing a mystery series or fantasy, so-called “literary fiction” or romances, the common view is that writers must brand themselves as one thing or another to market their books. While there’s a certain amount of truth to this–you don’t want to search the cereal aisle when you’re looking for canned tomatoes, right?–the best fiction pushes those genre boundaries. Stop worrying about your brand long enough to write the best damn book possible.
For instance, my publisher, New American Library, a division of Penguin Random House, markets my novels as women’s fiction. That’s a fairly wide catch-all phrase. Some writers and book sellers love it because it’s a convenient tag line. Basically, if you like reading about contemporary women in conflicts that are about more than just their romantic relationships, this label probably applies to the books you read. However, as a writer who’s always striving to grow, my goal is to keep testing and pushing the genre stereotypes that seem to be popping up all around us as more and more authors are playing a bigger role in marketing their own work, whether they’re indie published or with traditional houses.
I have gobbled down mystery novels like chocolate-drenched pretzels since I was a child, when my grandfather would bring home stacks of paperbacks from the library to read while he smoked his pipe after dinner. He had a pile of “already read” mysteries on one side of his chair, and on the other were the “don’t you dare touch them until I read them first” books. I stole from both piles.
Because of my grandfather, I grew up with a hefty appetite for plots featuring stabbings, shootings, kidnappings, burglaries, rapes, criminal syndicates, and terrorist attacks. I learned to especially love noir books—Raymond Chandler novels were my favorite—and anything with a savvy female sleuth, from Nancy Drew to Miss Marple, or the more contemporary Lisbeth Salander and Barbara Havers.
After getting a biology degree, I discovered that writing fiction was more fun than dissecting frogs, and earned an MFA in creative writing. That degree required me to not only read the literary greats—James Joyce, Henry James, Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf, among others—but to analyze them. As I did, I discovered something about myself: I actually prefer fiction that not only has a tensely-paced plot, but characters with emotional depth. I also love lush settings and sentences with enough imagery to make them sing.
Where did that leave me? As a reader, I stopped having the patience to read mystery novels without at least a modicum of character development. Robert Parker’s crime series featuring Spenser, for instance, bores me silly. I admire his wit but hate how Spenser never lets up on his bad boy quips and his girlfriend Susan rarely eats more than a lettuce leaf. I don’t really care about what happens to any of the characters, because I’m not emotionally invested in them. And if I can’t bring myself to care, what’s the point of reading the books?
On the other hand, literary tomes that are all about the language, with introspective characters but little to no action or plot tension, try my patience. That’s why I was so delighted when I discovered Toby Neal’s LEI CRIME SERIES, where we have a dandy female sleuth with a dark past, lots of emotional tension, romance galore, and a setting that makes me want to get on a plane to Hawaii right now.
I tried writing a detective novel once, I confess, and I was bad at it. Really bad. I also tried writing literary novels, exercising my chops on characters who were so emotionally complex that even I, their creator, couldn’t understand them.
Then I hit my stride: I began writing what I call “dysfunctional family mysteries.” By this, I mean books with the same tense narrative pace as a page-turning mystery, but the plot line isn’t about an unsolved murder or a crime mob. The question to be answered must be about something that happened in the main character’s family before the book opens and has been kept secret. The main characters must confront new challenges as they unravel the clues leading them to answers they never could have imagined before this crisis in their lives. Along the way, they learn and grow and form new emotional relationships, romantic and otherwise.
One example of this is BEACH PLUM ISLAND, my newest novel, which opens with a daughter whose dying father has just told her that she must find her brother and tell him the truth. There’s just one problem: She never knew she had a brother, so where is he? And what’s the truth?
This deathbed confession necessarily sparks a series of complicated events and emotional interactions between family members—some of whom have been estranged from each other–as they unravel clues to discover their father’s secret and why it was guarded so closely.
Is my novel a mystery? Is it literary fiction? Yes, and yes. But it’s still considered women’s fiction in the marketplace.
I’m not alone in thinking I’m writing this new crossover fiction that straddles the line between “domestic” women’s fiction and mysteries, and I’m glad, since this category is my absolute favorite new find. Check out THE HUSBAND’S SECRET, the runaway bestseller by Liane Moriarty; the smash hit GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn; and BEFORE WE MET by Lucie Whitehouse. These are all about relationships gone wrong–in a thrilling way–and involve mysteries that the reader must uncover along the way, giving these books depth of character but tense, breathless pacing. Brava!
The more I read and write, the more I think genres were made to be busted wide open. As readers and writers, we owe it to ourselves to explore the infinite possibilities in how good stories are told.