Saturday, August 22, 2009

Peggy Webb on Switching Genres

by Peggy Webb (guest blogger)

When writers gather, we always end up talking about writing. The liveliest discussion I’ve had on the topic occurred at Malice Domestic (2009) when I shared a banquet table with Sandy Parshall. Both of us are published novelists. The difference is that Sandy’s background is mystery, and I came to mystery from a background of romance (more than sixty romance novels).

I think I surprised the unflappable Sandy when I said, “Writing mystery is easier for me than writing romance.” She wanted to know more, and so this guest blog was born.

For me, the foundation of any good story, no matter what the genre, is believable, well-developed characters. I fell in love with all my heroes and heroines in romance, and I fell in love with the zany Valentine gang in my Southern Cousins Mystery Series. It was easy to switch from romance to mystery with the same lovable characters who could be your next door neighbors.

The same was true of pacing, voice, conflict, story arc, and resolution. All those elements I had used with such ease in romance followed me like obedient children into mystery.

So what’s the major difference between writing mystery and romance, and why is mystery easier for me? Romance novels are character driven and mysteries are plot driven.

In a strict category romance (this does not include romantic suspense, romantic thrillers, block-buster women’s fiction, etc.) the focus must be kept tightly on the developing relationship between the two major protagonists. Secondary characters and secondary plot lines must be kept to a minimum. It’s up to the author to write a page-turning story built on the slender premise of two people meeting, falling in love, getting ripped apart because of internal and external conflicts, and eventually finding their way back together again. Creating a story that won’t veer away from the central theme while holding readers’ attention as the romance plays out is a very tricky business.

On the other hand, a good mystery requires a dense, complex plot. After I had plotted my first mystery – Elvis and the Dearly Departed – I was astonished to discover that instead of working from a three-page synopsis as I had in romance, I would be working from an eighteen-page, carefully plotted story line. Before I wrote the first word, I knew the victim(s), the major suspects, the identity of the killer, motives and back-story of everybody involved, and how the murder tied into the lives of the Valentine gang (my series characters). All I
had to do was hang the meat of my story on my lovely skeleton, who didn’t have a single bone missing. What fun! At all times during the mystery writing process, I knew what was going to happen next. In romance, I didn’t always know. Because I wrote from such brief synopses, I trusted my characters to inspire and surprise me along the way.

And they did!

Does the Valentine gang, plus Elvis, do the same thing? You bet! I’m having so much fun writing about them I can’t possibly call it work.

Writing in any genre requires talent, commitment and discipline. My experience in two genres is simply one writer’s journey.

How about you? What are your writing experiences? Your reading habits? Are you strictly a mystery buff or do you like to read other genres such as romance, romantic suspense, paranormal? I’d love to know!

The second book in Peggy's Southern Cousins mystery series, Elvis and the Grateful Dead, will be published in September. Visit her web site at


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Hi, Peggy! Welcome to Poe's Deadly Daughters. :) For me, the best mysteries are character driven. Sure, the plot's crucial--your "skeleton" is what I usually call a sturdy coat hanger--but the mysteries I love and remember are those with the lovable characters who, as you say, could be the next door neighbors.

Sandra Parshall said...

Peggy was on the panel I moderated at Malice Domestic (Taking a Bite Out of Crime: Animals in Mysteries), and my husband and I had the pleasure of her company at the Agatha Awards dinner. She was delightful on both occasions. The droll basset hound in her mystery series is priceless -- about as lovable a character as anyone could ask for.

Peggy Webb said...

Hey, Elizabeth. You are so right about the best stories having characters who could be your next door neighbors. I want readers to fall in love with my Valentine gang. I'm delighted to get your perspective. You're quite simply a terrific writer!

Peggy Webb said...

Hey, Sandy. Wow! Thank you for those accolades. I'll try to sit at your table more often. Believe me, the pleasure was mutual. :) Also, thank you for inviting me to this great blog spot. I'm proud to be in the company of wonderful writers such as you.

Colleen Collins said...

Really enjoyed your blog, Peggy. I've had 20 romance novels published, and I agree with your assessment of switching genres. A romance editor once told me I wrote "plot heavy" so it's no surprise I gravitated to writing mysteries.

Love your series premise, btw.


Great post: it gives me lots to think about. Especially re: plot, which I find more difficult than characterizing.

Peggy Webb said...

Thanks, Colleen. The next time you're going to a conference (either mystery or romance) drop me a line through and let me know. I'd love to chat with another writer who made the same switch. Believe it or not, my dog inspired the premise. And I love writing these mysteries!

Peggy Webb said...

Thank you, Linda. I've done my stint of teaching, so I'm really glad I could help. I once heard John Grisham and Stephen King on the same stage discussing how they plot novels. John described his process as similar to building with Legos: each level was another layer of plot. King described his process as finding a red thread in a baseboard, catching hold to pull and hoping it didn't break till he got to the end.

If you have any specific questions, let me know. I'm here, off and on, all weekend.

Sandra Parshall said...

By the way, I think I should tell everyone that Pat Conroy says Peggy is the woman who taught him everything he knows about sex. I think he means *writing* sex... :-)

Peggy Webb said...

Ah, Sandy. The joke between Pat Conroy and me (and Pat's lovely wife Cassandra King) is one of the longest running in history. He definitely meant sex of the writerly kind. If anybody wants to know "the rest of the story," catch me in a talkative mood (not hard to do) at a conference and we'll spend thirty or forty minutes laughing together.

Anonymous said...

Hello Peggy.
Enjoyed your thoughts on how to plot different types of novels...I value any advice as I am attempting to write my first. Love to hear insight from "old" pros(meant as a compliment) since you guys have encountered so much in your careers.
Love the new series. I am looking forward to "Elvis and the Greatful Dead". I'll see you at your signing in Pensacola on the 17th of October.
Keep the great stories coming.

Peggy Webb said...

Hello, Anonymous. I'm delighted you love the series and that you'll be coming to my Pensacola signing. Yipee!

"Old pro" fits me well. I've been writing for twenty-five years. I hope I never stop learning and growing as a writer.

Any time you have a question about writing or a comment, do stop by my website ( I'd love to hear from you again.