Saturday, August 4, 2012

"But you can't do that!"

By Donna Andrews
Author of Some Like It Hawk

Sometimes I miss Leo.

Leo was a member of the first critique group I joined after getting serious about my writing. It was an open group--meaning anyone who heard about it and wanted to show up was welcome. I went on to form a smaller, closed critique group with some of the writers I met in the open group. Some of them are friends to this day. Others . . . well, a few I was just as happy not to see every week when I moved on to the new group.

And then there was Leo. He was elderly, and had taken up writing after he retired. Not the best writer in the group, but not the worst, either. But we didn't write or read the any of the same genres, and he was always having to break it to me, gently, that I just couldn't do what I'd done in the piece I'd brought for the group to critique.

For example, when I read an excerpt from a humorous fantasy story that featured dwarves and dragons, his face took on an all-too-familiar pained look. After hemming and hawing a bit, he finally spoke up.

"You can't do that," he said. "You're going to have to change it. They don't want to be called dwarves any more--they prefer the term 'little people.'"

Bless his heart--I don't think he ever understood my explanation, because he didn't read Tolkien or listen to Wagner. Somewhere in that great critique group in the sky where he's reading these days, Leo is still shaking his head over my faux pas.

After I read the group the first few chapters of what eventually became Murder with Peacocks, Leo's face again took on that pained look. I could tell he was trying to bring himself to break some bad news to me.

"This is funny!" he said--at long last, and to my immense relief.

"Thank you!" I said.

"But you can't make it funny," he said. "It's a murder mystery."

By this time, I didn't even try to explain. Didn't mention Robert Barnard or Donald Westlake or Charlotte MacLeod or Elizabeth Peters or Joan Hess or Anne George or . . . well, you get the idea.
"I'll think about that," I told Leo.

I'm always running up against the stuff you can't do in a mystery. Or in a cozy. Or in a humorous mystery. My agent once told me that I couldn't use pornography as a possible plot twist in one of my Turing Hopper mysteries.

"Why not?" I said. "I used it in a Meg book, and the Turing books are a lot darker."

Took me a while to convince her I wasn't hallucinating--I think I had to read her the passage from Crouching Buzzard, Leaping Loon:
My screen went black. Had my battery suddenly given out? No; it was the website's background. Suddenly, the words, "HOT! HORNY! XXXXXXXX!!!" began flashing in red on my screen, accompanied by several grainy pictures of women doing things better left undescribed. . . . I finally had to turn the laptop off to end the barrage, and sat there looking at it, fighting an irrational urge to spray the keys of my laptop with disinfectant before I touched them again.

My agent, considerably more savvy than Leo, agreed that yes, apparently I was capable of using pornography in a humorous cozy.

It's not that I go out looking for unsuitable topics to feature in each book, but quite often I stumble over them. While I was writing Some Like It Hawk, for example, I originally described a group called Molly in Chains as doing Morris dancing "dressed in fetish gear." Can't remember if it was my critique partners, my agent, or my editor who expressed concern that this might be unsuitable for a PG rated book. So in the final it reads, "They do Morris dancing in red stiletto heels and skin-tight black leather body suits decorated with a lot of chains and spikes." It's actually a lot more descriptive, and anyone who wants to can figure out what's going on, but it seemed to solve the PG problem.

Some of the early books in the Meg series were set in my hometown of Yorktown, Virginia. But I realized early on that if I kept setting them there, I'd have a lot of tough decisions to make about real places and people. Many mystery writers use real towns or neighborhoods, but invent any locations in which bad things happen. I decided to follow the even more drastic course of inventing a whole town. (Drastic, but far from uncommon--think Metropolis, Bayport, Isola, Arkham, and Santa Teresa.) I've decided it's a good thing I created my fictitious Virginia town of Caerphilly, since lately a lot of my plots seem to include real or suspected malfeasance by government officials and other public figures. If I wrote too many books featuring political or economic corruption in a real place, it might be my publisher's legal department, not Leo, saying, "You can't do that."

I contend that there's no subject matter that's untouchable, even in a humorous cozy. But there are quite a few things I haven't yet figured out how to handle within Meg's world. For example, I would love to do a book that highlights the excellent work done by equine rescue groups. It would fit in with the animal welfare work that Meg's grandfather and father do. But I'm just not sure how to work starving and abused horses into a comedy. And while I usually try to put Meg in mortal peril in the grand finale of each book, I'm not sure I'd ever have one of my villains threaten her twin sons. Not sure the reader wants to see that, and I'm pretty sure the reader doesn't want to see Meg tear said villain limb from limb, which is what she'd want to do as soon as she got the upper hand.

Besides--what would Leo think?
Any thoughts on subjects I should avoid to keep my fictional world cozy enough? Or any subjects I should get over my squeamishness about and tackle?

Donna Andrews is the award-winning author of the Meg Langslow mysteries and the Turing Hopper series. The latest Meg book, Some Like It Hawk, is in stores now.
You can find Donna at her website:
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Sheila Connolly said...

Great to see you here, Donna! I love the way you manage to incorporate pesky realities in your books, like having to shop for food or clean house in the midst of chaos and murder, and having poor Meg crave a little peace and time to take a nap.

You make a good point about humor. Sometimes the only way to deal with traumatic situations such as murder is to find some humor--it helps keep your protagonist sane, even if the other characters look at her oddly. As for taboos? I'm sticking insects in my next book--that's an automatic "ick" factor, even when they're not crawling on the corpse.

Julia Buckley said...

Oh my gosh! I think I had Leo in MY critique group!! This was a group I was in more than ten years ago, and the man was the only male in the group. He didn't like anyone's writing and never wanted to share his with anyone but our leader.

When I set the first scene of my mystery in a beauty parlor, he shook his head and said (most condescendingly), "You see, this is the same thing as if I set my book in an auto mechanics' garage. You don't want to read about that, do you?"

Needless to say, he was not popular in the group, and I moved on to greener pastures shortly after.

Donna Andrews said...

Hmmm...I've been so busy with birds I haven't tackled insects much. I've got corpse-detecting buzzards in Some Like It Hawk . . . maybe some dermestid beetles next?

Katreader said...

I love humor in mysteries-and adore Meg. I also love your idea about promoting equine rescue. Instead of focusing on abuse and neglect cases, why don't you look at those groups that retrain off track thoroughbreds for new careers. I live near the Finger Lakes Thoroughbred Adoption Program which is the first in the country to be located right at a race track. Then there are all the CANTER groups. Having an OTTB of my own, I know I'd love to read about these groups.

The Cat Bastet said...

I agree with Sheila (re pesky realities in your books) and Julia (re Leo).

I love your books: great plots, characters AND humor, what a concept!. I just finished Some Like it Hawk and really enjoyed it.

Thank you for never putting critters or Meg's kids in mortal peril. I couldn't handle that. Guess I'm a typical cozy reader.

Cathy AJ

Sandra Parshall said...

I've encountered so many versions of Leo that I've lost count. If I'd listened to any of them, I would have given up long ago.

As for icky insects... Somehow Grissom on CSI managed to make a fascination with bugs *almost* sexy. Insects offer endless possibilities for humor, Donna. And pretty much anytime you have land birds, you're going to have insects too. You should ask for a behind-the-scenes visit to the bird food prep facilities at the National Zoo or the conservation center at Front Royal, where they breed grubs, crickets, worms, etc., by the millions. (I have photos. Want to see?) Think large-scale bird rescue (wouldn't Meg's father be into that?), necessitating in-house production of icky living food for the rescuees... You may thank me in the acknowledgments.

Jeri Westerson said...

I think we've all had Leos in our bygone critique groups. Could he have cloned himself? Thanks for the post, Donna.

Donna Andrews said...

Julia, I think everyone has to encounter a Leo occasionally. At least mine was a pretty nice guy.

And Kat, I like the idea of retired racehorses.

Cathy, I confess that I like to practice serial Spike jeop. I like putting the Small Evil One in peril. But even if he weren't based on a small dog I knew and loved (in spite of his evilness), I didn't need the words one early reader scrawled across the manuscript: "Don't hurt the dog!!!!!" (At the end of the scene, she wrote. "Okay. Whew!")

Donna Andrews said...

Sandy, I never thought of using bugs that way. Hmmm.

If only it were the Leos who cloned themselves, Jeri! There are also the name-withhelds. The ones who love tearing others to bits but don't ever see a reason to change a single comma in their own writing. I could tell stories! Everyone who's ever been a critique group could.