Thursday, April 7, 2011

Cozies and Thrillers and PIs, Oh My!

By Jaden Terrell

Tonight, two fellow Sisters in Crime and I spoke to the Nashville WNBA (Women's National Book Association) chapter. The topic was women who write crime fiction. My two cohorts were Bente Gallagher, who writes cozy mysteries, and JT Ellison, who writes psychological suspense. I was there to represent the private detective mystery/thriller contingent. After a brief, panicked, period of tugging at the locked doors of the wrong building and (who knew the library had moved since I'd last been there?!), Bente talked me in to the parking lot of the new Green Hills Library building, where I was met by a fellow Sister in Crime, who shepherded me to the meeting room where we met with a group of intelligent, engaged women with a shared passion for the written word.

It was a comfortable, conversational panels with a lot of give and take, a few nuggets of knowledge, and a few witty comments. Bente and JT are both talented writers and consummate professionals who write full time and know all the ins and outs of the publishing business; I brought to the table some knowledge of squeezing in writing around an often-demanding full-time job. Here are a few things that came up during the discussion.

Mysteries are primarily who-dunnits, while thrillers are how-dunnits. The mystery looks into the past; a murder has been committed, and the sleuth's challenge is to find out who did it. The thriller looks into the future. We may know from the beginning who the villain is and what his or her motivations are; the protagonist's challenge is to stop the villain before [insert terrible consequence here] occurs. (Suspense, Bente said, was in the present; something dangerous and mysterious is happening in the life of the protagonist, who is trying to figure out what is happening.) By these standards, Bente writes mysteries and JT writes thrillers. As for my books, Racing the Devil is more of a mystery--Jared is framed for murder and has to find out who committed the crime of which he's accused, but A Cup Full of Midnight has strong elements of both. It begins with a crime, which Jared strives to solve throughout the book, but the primary thrust of the story involves stopping a killer--known to the reader--who has targeted someone dear to Jared.

We each talked about the tropes and challenges of our chosen genres and how we each stretch those boundaries to make our books unique. Cozies have no graphic sex, no foul language, and no graphic violence, but Bente slips in clues about the intimate relationship her multidimensional protagonist, Avery, shares with her boyfriend, Derek. JT has a strong, capable heroine whose strength comes from her own character rather than as a response to a traumatic event in her past. This is a breath of fresh air in a genre where the "damaged heroine" is ubiquitous. My strong, lone-ranger PI has much in common with those who came before him, but his emotional life is more multifaceted than is common in the genre. He has a son with Down syndrome. He's still in love with his ex-wife, with whom he has a tender, respectful relationship. His best friend and housemate is a gay man with AIDS. He's the kind of man we send off to war, or off to keep our streets safe, or off to save innocents in jeopardy, often at a terrible cost,and who we then expect to come home unscathed and be good fathers and husbands and friends. And like most of those men, he does.

Bente and I talked about the challenges of finding believable ways for our protagonists to keep getting embroiled in murders, while JT, whose homicide detective protagonist has legitimate reasons for investigating murders, said one of her biggest challenges was overcoming the readers suspension of disbelief: "How many serial killers can there BE in Nashville?"

The last topic of the evening, broached in response to a question from the audience, was digital publishing and its implications for the current industry. We discussed the current upheavals, with successful. traditionally published authors going to a self-publishing model and successful self-published authors signing contracts with traditional publishers.

"What will publishing look like in five years?" someone asked. "In ten?"

No one could answer; the possibilities are limitless. As the Magic 8-ball says, "Answer hazy. Try again later."

No comments: