Never assume you can’t learn something new, even when it’s about something you’ve been doing for years and think you know inside and out.
This past weekend I attended a group signing at a local independent bookstore. Since I live in an area with plenty of outstanding writers, it was a great bunch of authors, but the event was not heavily attended (could it have been that football game down the highway a piece?). On the plus side, those readers who did attend were serious about books and happy to talk to us. From our side it was nice to have time to get into some serious discussion with our readers, when they didn’t feel that they had to hustle along and let the person behind get a signature.
To my surprise, I learned a couple of things. First I spent some time talking with a local mystery buff, who has done a lot of personal research into the murder of Lizzie Borden’s parents, which took place not far from where we were. She’s not a ghoul, but she’s been intrigued by the legal case, to the extent that she’s actually read the trial transcripts. Her take: based on the evidence presented, there’s no way Lizzie could have done the deeds, but there’s no way anyone else could have either. I’d like to know more, if I can find the time.
But that wasn’t what struck me. We got to talking about genre fiction versus what is loosely defined as “literature” and how they differ. In a broad sense there is much overlap: there is a protagonist, and there are other people surrounding the protagonist, in one or another supporting role. In mysteries, you add a murder to the mix, which generates a puzzle to be solved.
What was most interesting to me was how she saw the role of those secondary characters in a story. In literature, they are there as figures who interact with the protagonist, and in doing so tell us something about that protagonist or stand on their own as interesting individuals, which tells us something different. In genre, particularly in mysteries, and more particularly in cozy mysteries, these secondary characters take a more active part in the story. They are there as part of the local scene, but they have to earn the right to be there in the story by contributing a piece of information, whether it is an eye-witness account or a physical piece of evidence or an alibi for someone else. They are players in the small drama.
In a different conversation I found myself discussing the place for “issues” in a cozy mystery. The woman was talking about the time in her life when she was a nurse and had an extremely busy and stressful life, and when she got home at the end of the day all she wanted was entertainment, so she watched a lot of television sitcoms.
I can’t speak for all cozy writers, but I’m going to guess that many of us get frustrated now and then when we’re supposed to write “cute.’ You know what I mean: nice professional young woman returns to her hometown to start or take over a small business, makes a lot of nice friends, flirts with the nice local detective, and solves a murder or two. The conventions say we can’t include any sex, violence, or profanity. Certainly we can’t insert anything like a cause or politics or religion.
But this woman in front of me was saying: I come home and I don’t want to think. I want to turn on the TV and be entertained. She mentioned one example when by accident or design one network with a solid lineup of sitcoms scheduled issue-driven episodes back to back. This made the woman angry (to the extent that she still remembers the event, you’ll note). She saw “real” problems all day, and she didn’t want to see them onscreen when she got home. She wanted to forget them. And she buys cozies for the same reason.
Maybe people should stop looking down on cozies (come on, I know some of you do). They fill a niche; they entertain and amuse people, and take them out of their own lives, just for a while. And maybe it’s enough of a cause that we insure that whatever crime occurs is solved by the end of the book, and order is restored in the quaint village with all those lovable quirky people. We cozy writers aren’t going to change the world, but we do make people happy. Isn’t that enough?