In what is almost certainly a vain attempt to kick myself into gear, I set myself the challenge of writing in the mode of the most published genres, figuring that if I could catch the right tenor, the right vibe, I might be able to settle into my remaining years as a celebrated author of Romance, or Mystery, or Science Fiction, or even Young Adult Romance Science Fiction. Turns out that the strata are even more differentiated genre-by-genre than I had assumed. A few seconds into researching Romance, for example, and I knew I would have to start with something less daunting, something more familiar, and by familiar, I mean almost overwhelmingly complex.
Crime. Seems simple enough. Bad person does bad thing and is discovered or not and punished or not.
Here’s a short list of types of crime fiction: The whodunnit, the historical whodunnit, detective fiction, the cozy, the locked room mystery, the psychological thriller, the legal thriller, the police procedural, the caper story, the spy thriller, the forensic crime, the hardboiled (Noir) crime, roman a clef crime,and parodies of each of those subsets.
Tossing aside the more subtly gradated types of crime fiction, I took comfort in knowing that there is considerable distance between the grimly evidential detail of the police procedural, dragging readers as they do into the morgue and across the autopsy table, and the benignly murderous, humorously affectionate world of mysteries known as cozies.
I prefer reading procedurals but am probably most at home writing a cozy. The rules of writing cozily, such as there are, are broadly these: Eccentric or amusing characters are more important than mystery. Crimes are solved by clever and intuitive amateurs, many of whom have an uncommon ability to see the true nature of the characters she (usually) meets. Gentle humor abounds, often at the expense of the amateur sleuth. Rough language is generally avoided. “Hellish” and “Damnation” are about as gritty as dialogue gets; an unbidden “Oh, Dear!” or “Mercy!” is more common. Finally, murders are rarely thrust in the reader’s face or presented in gruesome detail. Body parts, heads in jars, severed limbs rarely have a place in a cozy mystery.
The hardest part for me then is in finding a sleuthing name appropriate to the almost accidental untangling of crime in a cozy setting. The setting is easy – the country inn, the village bakery, the college campus. But the name! I read almost all of the John Dickson Carr “Locked Room” mysteries because the cerebral, almost entirely incapacitated by bulk, Dr. Gideon Fell had such an impressive name. Rex Stout’s detective, Nero Wolfe, a man of mystery, born in Montenegro and even less capable of movement than Gideon Fell, was literally an armchair detective. These novels were not cozies; humor was secondary to clever detection. But the names!
Here are my first attempts at naming a cozy female sleuth:
Helga Von Swiggart (psychic and healer, cat named Hecate), Trixie Sunshine (perky private investigator on retainer with MGM, puggles named Debby and Reynolds), Miss Amanda Tennyson (British dowager permanently on cruise around the world, collects exotic weapons), Tammy Nelson (recently divorced pastry chef newly settled in Bozeman, Montana, goofy mutt named Bourdain), Carla Montez (veterinarian, practice birds and fish, cocatille named Laura Esquivel), Calliope Turner (yoga instructor, cats named Huey, Dewey, and Louie), Madame Olga Rostapovich (Parisian, claims to be last of the Romanovs, speaks twelve languages).
Now, to plot, remembering that narrative drive is the least of my capacities:
Let’s set this in Bozeman, a small city of about 45,000, home to Montana State University, the Siebel Dinosaur complex with the largest collection of Tyrannosaurus Rex skeletons, and to superb hiking and fly fishing. Once something of a cowboy town, Bozeman is thoroughly boutiqued with an emphasis on expensive outdoor recreation. A pastry shop would do well there, especially one that features healthy, outdoorsy pastries, such as Tammy’s Sesame Trout Bagel.
A successful fly fishing enterprise, Rainbow Wranglers, has been plagued by a series of unfortunate mishaps on the MacKenzie River. Two guests and a guide have gone missing. The Wrangler’s owner is in Bozeman on business, stops at Tammy’s cafe, and shares the story with her. Having fished that stretch when married to her husband, a former river guide for Rainbow Wranglers, Tammy turns the pastry shop over to her former mother-in-law, her best friend, Kitty Hyde. Shoving Bordian into the back of her Subaru, Tammy sets out for Whitefish to begin nosing around.
My thought is that Tammy has to meet some eccentrics, maybe a Native guide who senses dark forces on the river, a crusty female homesteader, the feckless son of the tech billionaire angling to open up public lands for vacation estates, rough and ready environmentalist/eco terrorist ready to serve the techie as a main course, the slick agent of the huge corporation looking for rights to bottle spring water, and, of course, the ex-husband, still smarting from Tammy’s depiction of him as a caveman with fish on the brain.
All of that now neatly in place, a little research on the area, fly fishing, water rights, Native lore, geopolitical commercial investment, and pastry, and I’m ready to tear off the first in a series on Montana based thrilling (but cozy) adventures which allow Tammy (and Bourdain) the opportunity to solve crime, punish the guilty, and find love in all the right places.
The Title? Something Fishy in Bozeman? A Fly in the Bagel? A River Runs Through Him? Face Down In the MacKenzie? Pick one.
But … then, I can’t imagine spending ten minutes more in this scenario. I just have to walk away, readying myself for immersion in the next genre.
Next in the lineup of challenges is a Children’s book, the most frequently published genre. About 30% of all books published are kids books, but apparently as a group, they generate the lowest financial return, so are of no interest to agents, who are looking for Young Adult Romance Science Fiction. I can’t do Young Adult yet; I’ll need a personality transplant. But let’s see what I have in the tank after I finish Bobby Wants A Girlfriend and a Flamebot.