Thursday, February 8, 2007

Who Writes Mysteries?

Elizabeth Zelvin

Mystery Writers of America issues a national newsletter, The 3rd Degree, ten times a year. I usually read all of it from front to back (no covers), searching for tips about the craft and business of writing and the names of people I know in the chapter and conference news. Until recently, I scanned the fine print for the names of publishers big and small that might be open to first-novel submissions. But my favorite feature, catchily titled Fresh Blood, is the list of new members, and more particularly, not the active members--published crime fiction writers who have just joined MWA--but the affiliate members—writers whose work has yet to click with that elusive editor (one is all you need!) but who dream of becoming published mystery writers and, in many cases, have reams of well-worked manuscript to prove it.

Writing a mystery, like opening a restaurant or winning the lottery, is one of those great dreams that flourish perennially in the collective unconscious. MWA identifies affiliates by chapter (NY, SOCAL etc.) and occupation as stated, presumably, on the membership application. The most recent issue listed the usual suspects—journalist, technical editor, English professor, copywriter, retired police officer, attorney, screenwriter. A few other professions—including mine, psychotherapist, and marketing consultant—crop up regularly. In addition, this month a caterer, a truck driver, a retired airline pilot, and a yoga instructor were knocking on the gates of crime fiction authorship. Last month’s batch included a musician, a beadmaker, a flight attendant, a race car rental entrepreneur, the COO of a hedge fund, and a licensed evangelist missionary.

Why do I write? I only know I’ve been a writer since I first read Emily of New Moon by Canadian author L.M. Montgomery, better known for Anne of Green Gables, at the age of 7 or 8. Emily wrote because she had to, as did Jo in Little Women, whose acquaintance I made a few years later. It was a drive, not a choice, for them and I suppose for me. Why mysteries? Because that’s the reading I most enjoy. A good mystery satisfies my sense of structure, plot, and character and allows the writer (me or the authors whose books I read) enormous freedom to mount any hobby we fancy and, in Stephen Leacock’s great phrase, gallop away in all directions. My psychotherapist “hat” suggests the themes of recovery and personal growth that I’ve woven into my forthcoming Death Will Get You Sober and its projected sequels. The musician may write about music, the beadmaker about beads—or not. I think the bottom line is that the writer’s life experience enriches what is written. I certainly didn’t plan to publish my first novel in my 60s—my 20s was more what I had in mind. But I am absolutely certain that I couldn’t have written the work that will appear next year—of which I’m very proud—without having first been all those other things: not only therapist, in my case, but teacher and poet and performer and daughter and mother and friend and wife and lover and traveler—a first-time mystery author, but a well-seasoned storyteller and human being.


Sandra Parshall said...

Who writes mysteries? Just about everybody, or so it seems these days. More and more mainbstream and literary novelists are venturing into mystery and suspense. Could it be they're tired of plotless stories about relatively minor life events and yearn for a solid structure and a tale with life-or-death stakes?

Carol said...

Ah, Liz, another Stephen Leacock fan. Has there ever been a funnier essay on mystery novels than his MURDER AT $2.50 A CRIME?

BTW I'm still posting by just my first name since I haven't a clue where the dashboard is. Can you, um, give me a clue?

Judy Clemens said...

I absolutely agree, Liz. It takes life's experiences to bring out the deeper part of writing. I remember YEARS ago reading that in Writer's Digest as an encouragement to young writers who weren't yet "making it" in the business. The writer of the article said to go out and live -- break your arm, get married, have kids, work a job... THEN you'll have things to share. That's not to say young people don't have something to share -- many of them do. But there is something to be said for "older and wiser."

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Carol, I wouldn't swear to this, but I think if you go to your Google account and select Edit Services you can "manage" your Blogger account.