Friday, September 19, 2008

The Mysteries of Writing

by Jean Henry Mead

I wonder whether some of us are born with a compulsion to write. Many writers have created not only elaborate stories, while still in elementary school, but novels and three or four-act plays.

But why do we write?

Mignon G. Eberhart once said: “I write because I like to, sometimes hate to, but I have to write. I started when I was very young, almost as soon as I could put pencil to paper.”

Fellow mystery writer Lawrence Kamarck added: “I suppose I have a storyteller’s compulsion. I want to tell somebody what’s happening to all of us. I’m convinced nobody really knows but me. And because I want to keep the [reader’s] attention, I tell my story with as much force and drama as possible, within credible limits.”

Pulitzer winner A. B. Guthrie, Jr. told me during an interview that “the fun is having written well.” But he confessed that he didn’t enjoy the actual process of writing. “At the end of the day, I go back over it and say to myself, ‘By golly, that’s right, that’s right.’ And then I’m rewarded.”

So why do we write mysteries?

Ross MacDonald said: “Mystery stories have always interested me because they seem to correspond with life. They deal with the problems of causality and guilt that concern me.”

Loren D. Estleman wrote as an adolescent and sold his first novel at 23. He saw little of his parents because he spent so much time in his unheated, upstairs room, his only companion a typewriter. "I lived in my study and I didn’t have much of a private life,” he said. “It revolved around my writing . . .”

I like Estleman’s description of a mystery. “For me, a good mystery places story and character ahead of all else, yet never loses sight of the simple truth that in order to be a mystery, a question must be asked. It needn’t be a whodunit, and might be something as simple and maddening as why the murdered man had three left shoes in his closet and no mates. If the writer has done his job well, the reader will forget the question as the story draws him in. But there had damn well better be a mystery involved if he’s going to call it one.”

I pulled an aging copy of Mystery Writers Handbook from one of my book shelves and found the following quote from the editor, Lawrence Treat:. “Great ‘mysteries are great novels, like Crime and Punishment, A Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Pimpernel. And they’re clearly mysteries.”

I then asked my fellow blog team members why they write mysteries. Ben Small, during one of more serious moments, had this to say:

“I write mysteries and thrillers because I love the high stakes competition between good and evil, the uncertainty of justice, and the suspense of the ticking clock as the protagonist puzzles out a solution. Good stuff, escaping into a make-believe puzzle-world where I push the reader to beat me to the solution.”

Beth Terrell said that she loves the fact that the detective puts his own life at risk to protect others. She also loves the fact that “the good guy always wins--or almost always--even if it’s at a terrible cost. I feel like mysteries work on so many different levels. They are ripping good stories, thought-provoking puzzles, and wonderful vehicles to write about real human problems—things that matter. They’re a challenge to write; a good mystery or thriller has to do all the things a literary novel does and weave a gripping plot as well.”

Pat Browning concluded that a mystery is the oldest form of storytelling--with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Sometimes there's a moral, sometimes it's acautionary tale. It reassures us that good triumphs over evil. It satisfies our need to know that everything turns out all right in the end. Contemporary mysteries often have a romantic angle, and a humorous twist In short, the mystery offers something for every reader.

4 comments:

Beth Terrell said...

I love this post, Jean. It's interesting to read all the different perspectives on writing. But you didn't tell us why YOU write mysteries!

Jean Henry Mead said...

I write them because the genre has always been my favorite. :)

Mark W. Danielson said...

Sorry I was late, Jean. Good article and thoughts. It's a mystery why more people don't write. What better therapy than writing fiction? Who else gets to play God other than God himself?

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thank you, Mark. Sorry I was so late in asking. I agree that writing fiction is great therapy. :)