Sunday, February 21, 2021

All Genre Fiction Has Common Elements...Which One Gets Made Fun Of?

Fiction is whatever the author chooses to create, in terms of characters, setting, and plot. Many of the most well known books would be called liteary fiction -- To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Water for Elephants, Middlesex.

These books may tell grand stories or focus on the thoughts and actions of ordinary people. What they have in common is their distinctive nature. They are not as easily categorized as mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, or horror. 

Each of these modalities -- genres -- have typical features, and authors who want to keep their audiences should meet the expectations for the genres. 

Fantasy creates an alternate world -- it could be similar to "ours" (as with the Harry Potter series) or could be totally, well, fancifal. Think Peter Pan or the Lord of the Rings. trilogy. These novels are very different from one another, of course, and often have a strong adventure element. And the reader knows they will be transported to a mythical place.

Though mythical, the stories have to make sense for the world they inhabit. A creature (or human) can't suddently develop the ability to fly simply because he or she needs to cross a wide ravine. 

As a mystery writer, I need  to present a puzzle, whether it's to be solved by someone in law enforcement, an amateur sleuth, or the wise analyst who doggedly pursues evil doers. The antagonist should be a worthy opponent for the detective, and there have to be enough clues or sufficient foreshadowing that the revealed bad guy makes sense. It's great if a a reader thinks, "I never saw that coming," but not good if they say, "That doesn't make sense," or "The ending came out of left field."

Readers of romance expect a meaningful setting and a story that focuses most on the relationship between the two leads, be they opposite or same sex. They want a happily-ever-after ending, shorthanded as an HAE. That doesn't necessarily mean a lifelong commitment.  Romances have many other components-- depending on the sub-genre and whether the author injects elements of -- for example -- mystery or family saga.

For some reason, I've heard a number of authors imply (or outright say) that romance is a 'simple' genre, one perhaps not worthy of their skills. These opinions may come from some early category romances, in which communication problems between the woman and man got in the way of romantic progress. Even thirty or forty years ago, books that relied only on that theme didn't hold up well, and those authors vanished from bookshelves.

For a romance author to succeed, she (sometimes he) has to tell a complex story with strong characters. I dare someone to say Nora Roberts or Nicholas Sparks writes simple books. 

I have to reign in my temper when I hear someone put down the romance genre. If it's so simple, why haven't the critics written a few and sold tens of millions of copies?

My impatience comes from disliking nonspecific criticism of any genre, but especially because I find adding romantic elements to a story to be very hard. It requires consistent suspense that's quite different from the mounting danger sleuths face in a mystery.

Writers of romance are supportive of one another, as reflected in Romance Writers of American being the largest organization of writers in the world. I joined for a while, in large part because RWA has chapters throughout the nation and it's neat to be with other writers. I've migrated to another chapter-based organization, Sisters in Crime, which is comprised of sisters and misters.

That brings my final thought, which I express reluctantly. Are people more willing to denigrate a genre whose authors are primarily women? Horror writers are largely men. I've not heard anyone make fun of constant blood and guts or question why vampires can only be killed with a silver spike through the heart. At least, if there is disdain, it isn't volunteered among groups of writers.

Okay, that's my pet peeve. The next time I hear someone express their prejudice against romance fiction, I can hand them a copy of this blog post. I'll tell the critic I look forward to their next bestseller.

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To learn more about Elaine, go to or subscribe to her newsletter.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Women of Mystery

I'm fortunate to be able to attend, via Zoom, a book club I reluctantly left when I moved from Indiana to Illinois -- the Women of Mystery Book Club (WOMB). As with most book clubs, I often would not have read a book had others not suggested it. Once I started writing, there's so little time to  read.

This month I suggested we  read a book by Tess Gerritsen. I've heard her work praised, but had never gotten to it. We ended up with The Bone Garden, an intricately plotted book set in the 1830s and present time. Since I'm looking to history for part of my newest series, I was delighted with the choice.

I learned Gerritsen's work can be spell-binding. Also grittier than I generally read, so a woman who had had/plans to have children might not want to listen to the audio version. I did. I can't say I enjoyed the details, but I never wanted to turn off the CD.

What I especially liked was her reference to the work of a Hungarian physician, Ignaz Semmelweiss. He played an important role in advancing hygiene in medicine, especially obstetrics, and I saw a play about him, by Harold Sackler, in Washington, DC, in the 1980s.

The play was en route to Broadway and needed fine-tuning, and I always thought Sackler would do that. He died a few years later, so perhaps that was why the play seemed to, too. I was so touched by the play that I visited the library in the Kennedy Center to read it. I believe it's one of the few playbills I've kept.

The fact that Gerritsen drew Semmelweis's work into her book says a lot about her research. I plan to read more!

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To learn more about Elaine, go to or subscribe to her newsletter.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

What We Writers Try to Achieve

Recently, someone asked me why I work so hard to produce books. I inferred that the question also implied "at your age." 

We authors write for varied reasons -- to get ideas from our brains to paper because we simply have to, to entertain ourselves and others, to make a living.

I wrote 'stuff' for decades before I decided to get serious about getting books to readers. Thankfully, I have an obsessive comopulsive nature, so once I started writing books I wanted to finish them.

I don't write much beyond genre fiction, but I read, and learn from, a lot of literary fiction. There is no precise definition of a good book, but I think Ernest Hemminway nailed it.

"All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.  If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer." 
     Ernest Hemingway, "Old Newsman Writes," From Esquire, December 1934

One can always aspire.

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To learn more about Elaine, go to or subscribe to her newsletter.

Friday, January 29, 2021

History and Mystery Intertwined

When I decided to merge my love of writing with  that of digging into family and local history, I wanted to be sure I didn't delve too deeply into the "how to" aspect of exploring family history. 

It didn't take long to figure out there is only so much license to take when exploring the history of a real place, in my case Garrett County, Maryland. I love riding through the Appalachian Mountains in a train. Or the Allegheny Mountains, if you prefer. While the town of Mountain Grove is fictional any references to the county's history has to be largely accurate. If not, why set it there?

With the Family History Mystery Series, I also faced the challenge of learning more during the COVID pandemic. A planned trip to tour some towns and conduct research fizzled, and I felt fortunate to find publications through the Garrett County Historical Society.

As always, the characters made their preferences known. I had planned for the protagonist, Digger -- you'll never guess how she got her name -- to spend more time plowing through old records and such, but she decided that would be boring. 

She also wanted more friends, so the Unscheduled Murder Trip gives them a bigger role. Book Three, tentatively titled Mountain Rails of Old, will feature the family of Digger's business partner, Holly. She's descended from one of the first free Black families in Garrett County, which will give me a chance to explore more aspects of the county's history.

In my wildest dreams, I never planned to insert a ghost, but one of the key characters was too good to let rest in peace. Writing does take authors down unexpected paths. 

Today marks the releas of the Unscheduled Murder Trip, which was fun to write and let me stretch my writing wings, probably an odd term, given that it relates to the ghost.

I do need that research trip, if only to take a walk around Deep Creek Lake.

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To learn more about Elaine, go to or subscribe to her newsletter.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Are You a Closet Outliner?

Other than fully outlining one book in 2006, I generally start with an idea, make some notes, and start writing what I think will be opening scenes. Then I pause and make more notes, eventually creating a chapter summaries document. As the name implies, I use it to track what I've done and plan future developments.

It might be better if I fully outlined at least the murder and how it is solved. I simply have trouble keeping my fingers off the keyboard.

As I finish one project I thumb through notebooks to see what else has been in my brain. I lose thoughts unless I write on a card and staple it to a notebook page or write thoughts directly in the book. Usually I can decipher what I meant. Sometimes not.

As I shipped the Unscheduled Murder Trip to the proofeader, I began the note review. What I look for are the half-baked (excuse me, half-developed) ideas that I jotted so I didn't lose them. Because I also make notes on books underway, I see I'm more of an outliner than I think I am.

It's About the Villain

Four basic points are always in my lists.

  • Who would have a reason to kill the victim?
  • How did they get to him/her?
  • What are the consequences if the killer is not caught?
  • Who besides the murderer comes under suspicion and isn't the culprit? (The red herring thought process.)

What's most striking (even to me) is none of these points relates to the protagonists and how they solve the crime. Of course I have notes about this, but they are not in the core list. Why? Because any mystery starts with the killer/kidnapper/ embezzler's motive.

In a thriller, readers may know the motive up front because the author puts readers in the minds of the perpetrator and the hero (who sometimes seems to have almost superhero talents). Much in these books deals with how close the villain comes to blowing up a damn (or whatever) before s/he is stopped. I read many thrillers and love them. 

However, my own writing tends toward solving the puzzle -- it's only possible when the sleuth can unravel the culprit's motives. But that comes near the end. In one memorable (to me) thought process, I changed the killer after I finished the first draft. The new murderer had a stronger motive. It's one of my best books, but I don't recommend the process.

The Full List Questions

The combined sleuth/killer list is, in my mind, the order of the action (though not usually the order of the book).

  • Who would have a reason to kill the victim?
  • How did they get to him/her?
  • How is the sleuth drawn into the crime-solving?
  • Why is it so important to the sleuth to identify the killer/kidnapper, etc.?
  • What are the consequences if the killer is not caught?
  • Who besides the murderer comes under suspicion and how are they absolved? 
  • What resources or assets does the sleuth have that others (perhaps law enforcement) does not have?
  • How is the sleuth's life changed by having been involved?

The crime and its resolution have to matter to amateur crime-solvers. Otherwise, they're simply busybodies or folks with too much time on their hands.

There has to be a reason the sleuths can solve the crimes when professionals can't. The killer may discount their abilities and thus reveal something that sends the sleuth down a path. Maybe they have tremendous resources and can buy a $1,200 airline ticket and hop on a plane to keep an eye on the bad guys.

Another option is to do something illegal (hack a computer, bug a phone) that police can't do without a warrant -- or at all. However, the reader has to feel sympathy with the sleuth's methods. I stopped reading one series because I thought the sleuth's actions (in the last book I read) were as unacceptable as the criminal's.

Your Questions May be Different

All the ads for fad diets say something like "results may differ for individual participants." Same goes for how you develop a book. Any approach works, as long as it's a conscious endeavor.

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To learn more about Elaine, go to or subscribe to her newsletter.