I’m a mystery writer with my fiction falling into the cozy/cosy crime niche. I’ve now published seven books in one series with an eighth on the way. Cosy mysteries and the majority of detective novels fall into the category of writing known as genre fiction and on the whole, follow a defined set of conventions.
These conventions/rules developed out of the Golden Age of Crime novels. Authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Margery Allingham, Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie created the widely recognised genre. The cosy mystery has evolved over the past few decades as new writers attempt to stretch boundaries, although many still adhere to the Decalogue or ten commandments described by Knox in 1929.
I admit to being challenged by proponents of literary fiction and literary debate such as Albert Camus, but I prefer to write books to enable people to escape from the reality of life. This is one of the reasons I write books where the criminal is always found and justice is served. The popularity of genre fiction could highlight the need for people to feel safe while – at least in terms of crime fiction – being given the opportunity to experience vicarious excitement. The excitement comes through readers exercising their brains to solve the puzzle, working alongside the sleuth.
As a former nurse, I studied Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs in great detail. He described the need to feel safe in the hierarchy. He postulated human beings needed to satisfy certain needs in order to grow, mentally and physically. Maslow’s definition of safety was more about protection from external elements. Such safety requires a person to have shelter and security of body and mind; order in the world outside; laws that reinforced safety; stability in work and finance and freedom from fear.
Escapist literature does help people to remove themselves from the harsh realities of the world for a time.
Writing within Genre Conventions
A major challenge with formula writing is that of staying within genre constraints while adding enough variation to make the work unique and interesting. Lethem, (2007) argues that no work is completely original and Eliot (1920) stated that ‘mature poets steal’. King Solomon complains even in Biblical times that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
When a reader sits down to read a book based on a formula they are familiar with such as a crime novel. They and the writer will have been influenced by previous books. Julia Kristeva called such a relationship within the academic world, intertextuality but the same applies to reading and writing formula fiction. The reader expects to find new layers within each novel, without which, they will feel dissatisfied.
Genre, or formula writing doesn’t claim complete originality but there still needs to be something different about each work to keep it interesting. Bloom (1997) suggests that authors can be original although his text spends a lot of space arguing why it might not be.
Opponents of Formula Fiction
Stories falling within formulaic modes are commonly defined by those who oppose such literature as ‘sub-literate (as opposed to literature), entertainment (as opposed to serious literature), popular art (as opposed to fine art), lowbrow culture (as opposed to highbrow)…’ (Cawelti).
Describing formula writing in this way denigrates its artistic ability to fulfil a need within the human being to find pleasure through reading such works, and denies its own purpose and justification.
One of the main issues authors have with writing genre fiction – or any fiction for that matter – is pacing.
Cosy mysteries tend to be written at a meandering pace where the plot unfolds gradually in an enclosed space, for example an English country village or, in my case, on board a cruise ship.
Some crime fiction is written in this style but suspense thrillers generally require more tension. Writing the first Carlos Jacobi mystery has involved a change of pacing for me as a writer. I’ve had to think about phrasing and creating hooks at the beginning of the work. On reflection, this applies to all fiction and all writers improve over time.
New Series: Carlos Jacobi PI
For me, opting to remain true to crime fiction, but attempting to write a grittier series has been a new experience. Many people believe that the original detective fiction novel formula began with Edgar Allen Poe.
In Body in the Woods, there is one character (brother-in-law of protagonist) who is deliberately long-winded as he is the sort of person who goes into the minutiae of detail even in normal conversation. He is a scientist and a bit of an anorak. My challenge was, how to incorporate these characteristics into the story so that the reader understands his long-windedness is deliberate. I wanted the reader to be able to relate to this person as someone they might know in real-life.
Valuing Genre Fiction
With my new series – although more gritty than the Rachel Prince Mysteries – I’ve remained true to my ethical stance as a writer that not all crime fiction needs to be gory. Neither does it have to include bad language nor explicit sex. I believe the challenge for me as an author is to create page-turning work without the use of sensationalist shock value. There is as much room in the market for clean crime today as there was when the forerunners of cozy crime penned their works.
Cawelti’s work has had the most profound influence on me as a writer in that it has reinforced my belief that writing genre fiction is just as valuable as writing literary fiction. He argues that formula literature (which crime fiction fits into) has a cultural value and I believe such literature fulfils an important function in human psychology.
What about you?