Saturday, January 14, 2012

Why We Write What We Write

Marilyn Levinson (Guest Blogger)

A psychologist would have a field day analyzing why we mystery writers write the books that we do. "Why mysteries?" we're often asked. And often answer, "I love mysteries!

I read Nancy Drew as a child." Of course our early reading choices influence us, along with the fact that we read mysteries for their puzzle element: who committed the crime and why? There's nothing like a mystery's ending for bringing matters full circle. The murderer's exposed, the puzzle's solved, and, in most cases, justice has prevailed.

But it goes deeper than that. Homicide's for real, and writing a mystery means dealing with the shadow side of human nature. After all, we create our murderers and our victims as well as our sleuths. Murderers kill for a variety of reasons. They're driven by lust, hatred, jealousy, and revenge. They knock off blackmailers; they're intent on protecting themselves from prison or public exposure. They kill because they like it. We law-abiding writers would never dream of actually murdering someone. But in our books we get the chance to off as many victims as we like. Amazing how some of them strongly resemble people who have seriously ticked us off. Besides, writing about murder and mayhem gives us a vicarious thrill. More satisfying than watching a fast-moving sport or playing an electronic game.

Then there's our sleuth. My sleuths have a good part of me in their personalities. They're curious. Persistent. They like eating ethnic food and watching foreign movies. Of course, they're bolder, braver, and more aggressive than me. They often respond to an insult with a snappy comeback when the real Marilyn thinks up a retort hours after the fact. Our sleuths go over the top to uncover a murderer. They sneak into buildings, lie to get into offices, break into houses, hide in people's cellars. They collect information and proof any way they can. Often at great risk to life and limb.

We mystery writers have the freedom to choose our settings, subplots, hooks, and themes. As a lover of mystery series, I find the books' setting is as important as the cast of characters. The setting is a character, one that permeates the novel. Right now I'm reading one of Earlene Fowler's Benni Harper Mysteries. What fun it is for a New York gal who's never been on a horse to read about ranch life in California.

I generally set my mysteries on Long Island because that's where I live. You won't find the towns my characters inhabit on any map, but I've an actual village or town in mind as I write. I also love to explore social issues.

A Murderer Among Us takes place in an upscale senior gated community in Suffolk County.

While the gated community I live in isn't only for seniors or especially upscale, I sure know how heated a board meeting can get. How news spreads among residents like wildfire. My sleuth, Lydia Krause, is an attractive, vibrant 58-year-old woman who has recently sold her company and home to embark on a new life. Lydia's actively involved in her daughters' and granddaughters' lives and problems. At the same time, she solves murders, forges new friendships, and falls in love. I've chosen an older sleuth because I'm older and know that we senior citizens lead full and active lives.

The setting for my mystery, Giving Up the Ghost, which comes out in April, is a sleepy village above Long Island Sound.

Gabbie Meyerson has come to Chrissom Harbor in midwinter to teach English at the local high school. She discovers she's sharing a cottage with the ghost of Cameron Leeds--the sexy, wheeler-dealer romeo who used to live there. Cam implores Gabbie to find his murderer. She soon discovers that while the villagers love to gossip about Cam's various affairs, they don't take kindly to her insinuations that his death was no accident.

I made Gabbie an English teacher because many years ago I taught high school Spanish. Gabbie has to contend with two bullies who torment one of her students. I've always been concerned about the problem of bullies in school. So many of their victims are afraid to speak up, especially if the administration is weak. The bullies in my mystery are taken care of. It’s one of the perks we mystery writers have when dealing with unsavory characters.

Marilyn Levinson is a former Spanish teacher and the author of several books for children. Suspense Magazine awarded her first mystery, A Murderer Among Us, a Best Indie of 2011. Her website is at


Lauryn Christopher said...

Your books sound like just the thing to cozy up with on a winter evening. I'm looking forward to reading them!

Thank you for a thoughtful, insightful post. While our stories may incorporate elements of people/places we know, it's important to remember that we also have to populate them with a fully developed cast of characters - including some individuals we might not want to spend quality time with if we met them in real life - if we're going to tell a full, satisfying story.

(I have to admit, I smiled at your opening paragraph here - I actually started off my Amazon Author page "bio" with the "I grew up reading Nancy Drew" line!)

Julia Buckley said...

These sound like interesting reads! Thanks for sharing.

Jolyse Barnett said...

Great post, Marilyn! I think about this topic a lot. As a long-time reader but newbie writer, I'm still feeling out different genres to see where my true love lies. I've written a few paranormal short stories, children's poetry, and one full-length contemporary romance. My goal this year is to complete my second romance book and take notes for a memoir.

Of these, I only read contemporary romance. I love reading historical romance as well, but couldn't picture myself writing it.

Mysteries are a great read. I read all the Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Encyclopedia Brown stories I could get my hands on as a little girl. I don't like much scary or gory stuff, though, as an adult. Maybe that's why I stick to the more "ordinary life" writing--for now.

Palmaltas said...

You've written a very thought provoking article on why we read and write mysteries. In fact, for the most part, mysteries are what I read most often.

JoAnn Bassett said...

Hi Marilyn, I found this link on allmysterynewsletter and I'm glad I did. Your books sound great and I'm always looking for a fun cozy. I write about mayhem in Hawaii, so I'm a big fan of making setting an important character in the story. Many people think of Hawaii as a "pretend place"--like Disneyland--(perhaps that's why some people contend Obama wasn't actually born in the US) but it has a full measure of crime and crazies.

Earl Staggs said...

Marilyn, your thoughts on why we write mysteries sounded like my own. I love mystery and can't seriously think about writing anything else. Let me amend that. Sometimes I write humorous pieces just for fun, but I always return to the good guys catching the bad guys and making them pay. Best wishes to you.

Marilyn Levinson said...

I think we ALL read Nancy Drew as children. And last year I was lucky enough to catch the Nancy Drew films on TV.

Many of us write in various genres. I wrote books for kids for many years. I've a romantic suspense coming out in September, and a short romantic story coming out soon. Good luck finishing your romance this year.

Thanks for your good wishes! Like you, I love writing mysteries best of all!

Jo Ann--I think my books are fun reads. I think Hawaii is a wonderful setting. I love watching "Hawaii 5-O" on TV.

Thanks for your comment.

I read mainstream fiction, but, like you, I'm also always reading a mystery.