Saturday, June 18, 2011

How I Found HappinessTrading My Ray Gun for a Gat

JULIA: I have a confession to make. I'm not really a mystery author. I'm a failed science fiction author.

I'll spare you the details of my first attempt at a novel—it was set on a space station, and there were a lot of laser-gun battles and menacing aliens—except to say it was derivative. Hack. It read like the unwanted offspring of Robert Heinlein and Marion Zimmer Bradley. And the professionals who read it in a workshop told me so.

Years later, teaching in the USM Creative Writing program, I would learn from my students that creative regurgitation afflicts most beginning novelists. If you read Raymond Chandler, your heroes will be tough-talking PIs who speak in short, sardonic sentences. But at the time, I didn't know I had to get other writers out of my head in order to find my real voice. Or my real genre. I slumped home from the conference clutching my manuscript to my chest, my dreams of winning the Hugo award in tatters.

I put the thing away for a few weeks and then brought it out again to see if there was anything I could recycle for my next crack at science fictional greatness. That's when I noticed something. The story began with the discover of a body. Literally began - the body appeared on page three. The hero was the attractive but cynical station chief of security. The heroine was a former military officer-turned-social worker who let nothing get in the way of her do-gooding. (If you've read my books, some of this will sound very familiar. Except for the early appearance of the decedent. I'm more likely to unveil the murder victim on page 300 these days.) The chief interviewed suspects. The social worker tracked down clues. Together, they figured out—dare I say?--whodunnit.

I had written a mystery!

It was a shock. I had read Nancy Drew and The Bobbsey Twins as a kid, but I was not a mystery reader. It must have been a fluke. I started over. I outlined a contemporary romance. It became the story of two FBI agents and a militia-related killing in Wyoming. Heartwarming multi-generational family drama: one of the adult daughters was bumped off and her cop husband had to prove he didn't do it.

I began to detect a pattern. The muse of mystery, with her pince-nez and sensible English shoes, had me in her grip. What could I do? I went to the library. I started reading. I took notes on Margaret Maron and Archer Mayor. I studied John Dunning and Deborah Crombie (Yes, our very own.) I analyzed Mary Willis Walker and George Dawes Green. And then I sat down to write my own story. In my own voice. In my own genre.

Sometimes, I'm asked if I'll ever leave crime fiction. (Sometimes I'm asked if I'm going to write a serious novel, but that's another rant.) I always say no. I can't imagine—literally!--working without a dead body or two.

Today, my mystery collection takes up two large bookcases, the top of the parlour credenza, and most of the floor space around my bed. It comprises everything from Golden Age classics to advance copies of books that won't be out until next year. Yes, I still love to read science fiction. It just isn't the field I was meant to plow.

On the other hand...genre blending is all the rage. I wonder if I could interest my agent in Murder on the Space Station?


  1. My first novel was called, "The Hunter of Fishes," a science fiction re-telling of Moby Dick set in the Oort Cloud. It was a deeply awful as you might imagine a novel called "The Hunter of Fishes" to be.

  2. As a mystery lover, may I just say that science fiction's loss is my gain. Glad you made the jump.

  3. So tired when I first read this that when I first saw the headline, I thought, "Huh? Stargate? Here on JRW??"

    Waiting for my sistah geeks :) :) ... and now, the translation.

    Alien sidearms of the Ga'ould on "Stargate: SG-1" are called "zats."

    Yes, I'm so geeky, I thought that was funny.

  4. Julia -

    I'm with Annette. We're grateful you found your real voice and your real genre!

  5. And I know exactly what your agent would say to that proposal!

  6. Rhys, she'd say "Toss in a romance and I can sell that for you!"

  7. Julia, I was a huge sci-fi fan, too!! I thought I would write a sci-fi fantasy novel, but never came up with a plot.

    I'm glad we both found what we liked to write, and I'm VERY flattered to have been used as model:-)

  8. Sometimes ya never know. Just have to start writing and find out! I, too, tried a scifi. The jury's still out on it. Being ex-NASA, it seemed logical.
    Oh, and tell Bill Cameron I'm proud of him for knowing about Oort clouds.

  9. Just home from th Wisconsin Book Festival--HIGHLY recomended, absolutely terific.

    And yes, I love scence ficton, too. Totally love it, and often grok it, too.

    Gorgeous blog, Julia!