Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Cozy Chicks versus Hard-Boiled Dicks

Sharon Wildwind (more the compiler here than the writer today)

This is the first of several blogs that I have planned with material from the Bloody Words convention in Victoria, British Columbia.

We begin with a favorite debate: Which represents the mystery genre more faithfully, the cozy mystery or the hard-boiled detective?

The moderate was Don Hauka from New Westminister, British Columbia. A journalist by profession, he’s the author of the newspaper mysteries featuring Mr. Jinnah. As moderator, he kept his comments to a minimum. He ran a great panel and I’m looking forward to reading his series.

Catherine Astolfo, writes the Emily Taylor series. She is the outgoing president of Crime Writers of Canada.

Cozies faithfully represent the mystery drama because they focus on the impact of the death and extraordinary events on ordinary people. Things go on around us in the world all the time, but people are often unaware of them. We tend to focus on what is in our immediate lives. As far as publishing goes, Canadian publishers are more open to wider experiences and different styles of writing, while American publishers are less willing to bend the boundaries. When I write I make a contract with the reader. that my books will contain no rape scenes and no violence to children. If I have an emotional problem with material, I don't write it.

Mary Jane Maffani describes herself as a lapsed librarian. She writes three mystery series (Charlotte Adams, Camilla MacPhee, and Fiona Silk) and is co-authoring a fourth series with her daughter.

The cozy is about setting the world right, not about the autopsies. It deals with ordinary people stepping up to the plate in a way that we all hope we would step up if the situation called for it. The myth is that women read cozies and men read hard-boiled stories. Writers don’t write according to that myth nor do readers read that way. Every reader chooses the percentage of the pie that he or she wants to make up the total reading list. Yes, there are some readers who are 99% or 100% at one end of the spectrum, but the majority of readers pick books all along the way. Most often we sell a set of expectations based on the size and appearance of the book. Readers get very angry if a sub-genre is packaged to look like something else.

Grant McKenzie is the Editor in Chief of Monday Magazine. His two thrillers are Switch and No Cry for Help.

Hard-boiled stories are about using your power within, the stuff you may not have realized you had in you, against very high odds. This kind of book shines a light on what’s really going on in the world. I like to focus on tension rather than body count because tension decreases as deaths increase. Each time you kill someone, you kill some of the tension. One of the problems that all writers encounter is that once you’re published, the publishing world has slotted you into a narrow readership. You break out of that narrow confine at your peril. The economics of writing often dictates what kind of book you write.

Richard A. Thompson—not to be confused with the musician with the same name (minus the A.)—lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. His debut novel, Fiddle Game, was short-listed for a Crime Writers of Amera Debut Dagger Award. He’s written two more books, Frag Box and Big Wheat.

Hard-boiled stories are hyper-reality: the world has become a scarier and sexier place to be and people want a literature that reflects the times. I see the darker stories as a heart of darkness versus happy valley where the cozy characters live. That having been said, I think that both forms have left a legacy to the mystery community: the puzzle story comes out of cozies and the examination of underlying emotional issues comes out of hard-boiled detective stories.

Any horrible thing you can think of, someone has done it in real life. There is a threshold to violence, no matter what the sub-genre. My problem with cozies is the trivilization of murder by having it off-stage. Yes, my books have a lot of violence: one has seven killings, all up-close-and personal-deaths. I believe that violence must advance the plot and say something about the character. Historically all genre fiction started out with no character development, but that has changed across the board. The problem is that we lack an adequare vocabulary: cozies is no longer cozy, and hard-boiled are no longer just hard-boiled. As writers we know the nuiances of how things have changed, but we don't have the words to articulate those changes to non-writers.

As for publishing, there comes a point in an author’s career where they are on the threshold of being a best seller. At this point, the publisher is likely to demand certain required elements in the next book in order for that author to cross over into the best-seller list. to cross into best-seller list. Some authors say no. They would rather be true to their style of writing than be forced into writing something that goes against their principles. I would never write a rape scene.

Quote for the week:

Random House employes about 19,000 people in its warehouses just to move stock around. When you have that kind of an investment in books, you can't afford to take chances. Their publishers admit that they want the next "the Nabisco cookie," something familiar, produced in large quantities, but just enough different to pique the reader’s interest.
~Richard Thompson, Bloody Words 2011, Victoria, B.C.


Sandra Parshall said...

The beauty of our genre is its inclusiveness. We truly do have something for every taste. Sometimes publishers seem to forget that, as they push writers to produce a carbon copy of what's hot at the moment, but most authors are in touch with their readers and know what they want and love to read.

I'm in awe of writers like Mary Jane, who can write three -- no, four! -- series at once. I would be roadkill on the publishing highway if I attempted such a feat.

Anonymous said...

Oh, man, so would I. It's all I can do to keep one set of characters afloat at the time.

That thing about authors knowing what readers want was mentioned several times during the convention. There was general agreement that big publishers are way, way out of touch with what the avid mystery reader wants.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I hit a speed bump at "the examination of underlying emotional issues comes out of hard-boiled detective stories." In my world, the examination of underlying emotional issues started with Dorothy L. Sayers, and the genuine emotions of women are way underrepresented in the classic hard-boiled detective stories. I agree the lines are blurring. Carolyn Hougan wrote thrillers with wonderful female protagonists, and so does Zoe Sharp.

Diane said...

History of the mystery genre is mixed with successful series/writers of both forms. Christie, Sayers, de Biggers, James Anderson and (a special favorite who only did a few)Norbert Davis who wrote the Doan & Carstairs series, were all 'cozies'. Then there was Mike Hammer and other early 'hard boiled' writers. While I tend toward what we call 'cozies', I do occasionally enjoy a hard boiled version. A lot depends on my mood at the time or what's going on around me.

For example, when the Iraq invasion not only happening, but being televised, I - a military brat - felt if our kids were going through it, I had to watch. I finally stressed out, turned everything off and read the (at the time) newest Carolyn Hart book. That's all I did all day, and it helped a great deal.

Publishers need to get a grip. Many are already losing writers to direct ebook publishing. I resent writers being told what they have to write. Would they have told Shakespeare that? Don't think so.

Anonymous said...

Liz, that "emotions" quote is, of course, one person's opinion.

Diane, likely they did tell Shakespeare all the time. "Will, a play about a rotten old man and his three dysfunctional daughters is too depressing. Can't you add a little comedy here?" Fortunately, he never listened.