Thursday, October 20, 2011

Who wants to write a mystery?

Elizabeth Zelvin

Who wants to write a mystery? Just about everyone, judging by the occupations listed in the newsletter of Mystery Writers of America for new affiliate, ie, unpublished members. I get a kick out of reading these monthly lists. In July 2011, for example, a forensic scientist, a chef, a mental health professional, a photo journalist, an executive assistant, a physician, an entrepreneur, a retired teacher, a bond trader, two college professors, and three lawyers signed up (among others). The newbie roster in April 2011 included a veterinarian, a retired police officer, an environmental scientist, three teachers, and two more lawyers. In February 2010 we got a clinical psychologist, a retired travel agent, an interpreter, a Chief of Police, and a forensic accountant. In October 2010, one woman listed “mining.” Could she possibly be a miner? Accompanying her were a mortgage banker, another attorney, and several retirees. In January 2010, we got a film editor/composer, a writer/producer of on-air promotions, an ob/gyn physician, a journalist, an artist, a physicist, a forensic psychologist, and a historian at a famous cemetery.

I could go on. I find the sheer variety as well as the intriguing possibilities fascinating. The funny thing is that every one of these occupations suggests a fresh slant that, assuming competent plotting and writing, could make each of these aspiring writers’ work unique. At a recent MWA chapter meeting, I met a guy whose first book is just coming out. He was a bit hesitant about naming his publisher, a small press he rightly assumed I wouldn’t have heard of. But when he said that both he and his protagonist are forensic dentists, I was immediately open to reading his work. There’s nothing like expert knowledge—as long as it’s processed into entertaining form and intertwined with character, action, and plot, and not merely dumped—to make fiction believable. As our guest blogger Leslie Budewitz said recently, the magic is in the details.

I just went back to the archives of the MWA newsletter to see if I could find how I listed myself when I first joined. The records fall short by a couple of years, but I would have said “psychotherapist” or “online therapist,” maybe even “alcoholism treatment specialist.” I certainly used my expert knowledge to “write what you know.” In fact, I spent years running around the treatment program on the Bowery that I directed saying, “One of these days, I’m gonna write a mystery called Death Will Get You Sober!” I said it so often that it’s a miracle I actually did it—and it took giving up the day job to make it happen.

I did find some more good ones. December 2004: psychologist, web design, wildlife biologist, fine artist/art therapist, acting/unit publicist (an actor? not clear, but I know MWA has got some), retired military officer/state investigator, software developer. September 2005: CEO of a state medical society, real estate salesperson, architectural draftsman, student/bail bondsman, school principal, math teacher, retired journalist, accountant, social worker, scientist, video producer, and—my favorite—chocolatier.

I say they’re all delicious.


Leslie Budewitz said...

Liz, what riches -- and richness! Not sure I've seen a mystery with a teacher or principal as a protagonist -- that would be fun! Closest I can think of is Laura Alden's Murder at the PTA.

So many lawyers! Maybe that's why my new series will store the manager of a specialty grocery!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Gillian Roberts's Amanda Pepper was a teacher in Philadelphia. Mark Zubro has a series with two protagonists, one of whom is I think a math teacher. And I'm sure there are others. But the ones that made me want to write the blog were the more far-out occupations. I didn't even get them all--only the issues of the newsletter that I could find.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Oh, I loved Amanda Pepper -- totally forgot about her! I'll be reading that section of The Third Degree with a new eye!

jenny milchman said...

It's true--all of these feed the pursuit (and dream) of mystery writing. And could certainly feed a whole book.