Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Different Drummer

by Ellen Larsen

They say you should write what you know. They say you should write what the publishers want. They say publishers want books just like yesterday’s best sellers.

Paranormal is in. Drop the body on the first page. Study the market. Avoid the prologue. Series sell. Stick to your genre to build up your audience. Don’t set a mystery at Oxford, it’s been done. First person is best for mysteries. Paranormal is out.

A girl can go crazy listening to all the voices.

Here’s my secret (not the “secret to success” type of secret, the other kind): I can’t do it. I don’t really understand how other writers follow such advice. I listen to their stories of constructing their novels and I feel like I have landed in Bizarro World. I don’t fit in. I never have.

It’s not that I haven’t tried. I work up an idea using all the recommended criteria, something that is genre-specific, cutting edge, exactly what the publishers and the book stores crave. But the minute I start writing it’s like entering a world of great beauty, with alluring pathways that lead to magical wonders. I feel that I am using the same judgment to make my literary choices that I exercised when I laid out my plans. But when I have finished writing, and come back to my senses, I inevitably find that I have gone totally off the rails of my original perception of what all those publishers actually want. I end up with complex structures, unsympathetic characters, and a mish-mash of genres that are guaranteed to drive any publicist crazy.

When I sat down to write In Retrospect, I thought I was on solid ground. I planned to write a simple whodunit about a woman who felt her identity was as a member of the group. When faced with an impossible choice—whether or not to investigate the murder of an old enemy she would gladly have killed herself—she turns first to her law enforcement colleagues, next to her academic connections, and lastly to her family for guidance . All three fail her, leaving her alone to decide what to do.

Nothing off the beaten trail there, right? Detective arc and personal journey arc, nicely intertwined. All the makings of a solid psychological murder mystery. 

So about that detective arc. Need something good. I’d been toying with the idea of using time travel as a tool for investigation. This would be the perfect time, because I needed a strong academic group for my protag to be rejected by, and a Science Conservatory that trained…attuned…time travelers would be perfect. Better set the story far enough in the future to allow for that.

So where to set the story? My seventeen years in Egypt are a constant source of material and inspiration. The Middle East, then. The social conventions of our time have always depressed me and inhibited me as a writer; I don’t want to write about them or even take them into account. I long ago turned to science fiction, or speculative fiction, as a way to design societies that did not have a built-in set of social barricades and locked doors. So why not blow up the western hemisphere while I’m at it? So then, post-apocalyptic psychological murder mystery.

I always enjoy writing about heroic women, and I’d pretty much known from the start that my protag would be female. And I knew that I wanted her to be not like me. (NB: I’ve always enjoyed writing, but I had no idea how much fun it could be until I discovered the joys of protagonists who are Nothing Like Me.) For plot purposes, I needed my protag to be a small woman, so I established that the only people who were physically capable of time travel are women. Small women, who must undergo years of chemical attunement to survive the rigors of the Continuum.

Thus appeared Merit, born to simple folk, selected in her youth for the great honor of traveling through time; of becoming a leader among her people. Add some original language for time travel. Retrospection. Historical Retrospection. Forensic Retrospection. Word by word, the world is built. Merit Rafi, Select, Forensic Retrospector. A bit arrogant despite, or because of, her humble beginnings, but very idealistic. Quick witted Merit. Generous Merit. Until—what?

Until the day her city state is invaded by Rasaka, a neighboring nation. Invaded and occupied. The Conservatory destroyed. The Retrospection program shattered. Then we get Merit, militia member, and then, when her beloved General Zane surrenders to the Rasakans, we get Merit the resistance operative, standing by her group till the end, when they are captured and sentenced to death. Until—the Rasakans discover who she is. And how useful she might be to them. If they can break her will. And so she alone lives when all her comrades die. Just in time to investigate the murder of—General Zane.

Which is how you end up writing a time-traveling, post-apocalyptic, psychological murder mystery—with female sleuth. Not exactly a well-known sub-genre on

Of course Five Star, the intrepid mystery publisher that actually bought the book, just calls it a dystopian mystery. I love you, Five Star!

When she isn't writing fiction, Ellen is helping others shape their work as a freelance editor and as editor of The Poisoned Pencil, a children's/YA mystery imprint of Poisoned Pen Press. Learn more about Ellen's writing at


Sheila Connolly said...

Welcome, Ellen. You've presented an intriguing description of the evolution of your story, and sometimes you just have the follow where the story leads you.

I agree about the never-ending, ever-changing list of rules for writing. I think a lot of writers grasp at any idea that holds even a small promise of success. But I harbor a niggling desire to feed all these rules into a smart computer and see what the machine spits out.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Ellen, the bottom line is you've written a book that sounds well worth reading. And remember that "write something fresh and original" is one of those contradictory dicta, along with "write something like the last bestseller." You and your publisher have both covered--you wrote from the heart, they labeled it as if it's the next Hunger Games. :)

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Ellen,
I've eschewed the dictum "Write what you know." I've also decided that traditional publishing, by preferring the sure bet (what they imply by "write something like the last bestseller"), is always going to be six months to years behind the market anyway.
My modus operandi has always been "write what I like to read." The first criterion, then, is to write one helluva story, irrespective of the genre. Because I like sci-fi, mysteries, and thrillers, I tend to combine those in my writing. I don't sell many books because I don't write paranormal romances or paranormal erotica, but I don't care. Unless I write what I want to write, I'd go crazy, because my writing makes all the PR and marketing crap tolerable.
In other words, I think we have to be different drummers to stay sane (if writers can ever be called sane).

Sandra Parshall said...

Thanks so much for visiting this weekend, Ellen. You construct a story pretty much the way I do -- by pulling together various strings as you go along. I'm always amazed by the end at the complex weave my original idea has turned into.