Wednesday, April 6, 2016

What Would Mary Write: 2016 Mary Higgins Clark Award nominees

 HALLIE EPHRON: Ive been surprised to discover that authors, myself included, often don't know what kind of book they're writing. It came as a surprise to me that mine were in the spirit of novels by Mary Higgins Clark, Queen of Suspense. But after my first totally unexpected nomination for the Mary Higgins Clark Award, Ive embraced MHC and consciously evaluate every 4-letter word that tries to sneak into my book, asking myself What Would Mary Write?

NIGHT NIGHT, SLEEP TIGHT is my fourth suspense novel nominated for the award (which btw Hank's THE OTHER WOMAN won), and I am in awe of the nominating committee because I have read the other four nominated books and it's stiff competition.

Here are the criteria for the award, supposedly spelled out by Mary herself:
  • The protagonist is a nice young woman whose life is suddenly invaded.
  • She’s self-made and independent, with primarily good family relationships.
  • She has an interesting job.
  • She is not looking for trouble–she is doing exactly what she should be doing and something cuts across her bow.
  • She solves her problem by her own courage and intelligence.
  • The story has no on-scene violence.
  • The story has no strong four-letter words or explicit sex scenes.

Today Ive invited my fellow nominees, a spectacular group of like-minded writers of creepy (but not icky, per MHC) suspense novels to share with you their own feelings about the nomination.

CATRIONA McPHERSON: You could have fanned me flat with a flapjack when I saw THE CHILD GARDEN short-listed for the Mary Higgins Clark award. As well as the unbelievable honour of it, the book has quite a few f-bombs and – I thought – fell way short of the “primarily good family relationships” that Mary’s books celebrate (and are hard to write well).

I think I worked it out, though. While Stig swears like a squaddie, Gloria, the heroine, hates it and nags him. So the reader gets to nod along with her. Also, while Glo’s relationships with her mum and sister are atrocious, she adores her son and is a wonderful mother to him. So her primary family relationship is great one. That’s my theory anyway. When the judges reveal their identities at the Edgars I’m going to ask. Until then, I’m just beaming.

SUSANNA CALKINS:  When I first began to write my Lucy Campion mysteries—historical mysteries set in 17th century England—I had to make a decision about how dark or violent I was willing to go. After all, my stories are set in a period where people’s lives were—according to philosopher Thomas Hobbes—“nasty, brutish and short.” But I deliberately put my protagonist Lucy Campion, a chambermaid turned printer’s-apprentice, in households where she was protected and even educated, as women of her station often were not.

While I frequently allude to the violence around her—death, misfortune and of course murder—I’m more interested in the impact of violence on the community, not the violence itself. So, while I did not consciously seek to follow the criteria for the Mary Higgins Clark award, I’m honored that THE MASQUE OF A MURDERER is included among this year’s nominees. 

FRANCES BRODY: Now that you mention it, Hallie, I see connections. Mary Higgins Clark develops the classic theme of a woman in distress: a likable young woman whose life is turned upside down. In A WOMAN UNKNOWN, Deirdre Fitzpatrick needs to earn money to care for her sick mother. Philippa Runcie wants to escape her faithless marriage. Kate Shackleton, widowed detective, seeks truth and rights wrongs. MHC takes inspiration from real life events. The title for A Woman Unknown jumped at me from a social commentary on the period between the two world wars, a time when women’s lives changed dramatically.

LORI RADER-DAY: Just before my first novel THE BLACK HOUR was published, I went through the full manuscript and checked every f-bomb like a loose tooth. Could it be pulled? I imagined my parents reading it; my dad had already announced my forthcoming book to his church group. I was prepared to leave the words in—I enjoy a fine word bomb in real life as much as anyone—but I found that none of them were essential.

They came out. And then when that book was nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award, I felt vindicated. LITTLE PRETTY THINGS got the same treatment. I’m not anti-That Word, even now, but like every other word in a manuscript, it has to pull its own weight. Mary Higgins Clark is the better angel of my editing process, helping me watch my saucy mouth.

HALLIE: My favorite criterion: She solves her problem by her own courage and intelligence. I'm 100% onboard. Not so much on good family relationships. My protagonist's are often complicated by things like alcoholism. Explicit sex and graphic violence are easy for me to leave out, and four-letter words have always felt like lazy witing. Unless (BIG exception) it’s in dialogue. Then if there’s a character who cusses, and that’s just who she is, I need to put her on the page and let her cuss. Sorry. Mary.

Reds and readers, where do you draw the line with sex and violence and 4-letter words? Extra points to anyone who knows what squaddie means.


  1. Congratulations to all the nominees . . . .
    I must agree, the "solves her problem by her own courage and intelligence" criterion is my favorite, mostly because that's one of the things that makes the story so interesting.
    As for the rest, I am so not a fan of graphic sex [please leave something for my imagination to ponder]; constant swearing [unless you're a squaddie, although I think it is more myth/convention than fact that soldiers can't speak without swearing] is annoying.
    Like Lori, I am not "anti-That Word" but I definitely prefer it be completely essential and seldom used.

  2. I love reading those criteria spelled out, Hallie, and hearing from each candidate. Fascinating. My two contemporary cozies by definition meet the criteria (except occasionally in dialog for a particularly gritty character), and since I write an historical Quaker protagonist, she does, too.

    Squaddie - somebody you're on a squad with, so someone in the military or police? (Sorry, Catriona, I read the Child Garden, of course, but it was a while ago.)

    Now I have Frances and Susanna's books to catch up on - am off to order them. Have read the other three and ... how could a judge possibly decide?!

  3. Ah, squaddie - Thanks, Edith. (We call State Police Staties.)

    I do think it's wise to write the kind of book you love to read, and I'm not a huge fan of books with distressed damsels who need to be saved. So "saving herself" is a basic for me, too, Joan.

  4. Wonderful list of books, Hallie, and yours is deservedly nominated! I don't think damsels in distress are popular at all these days, unless maybe hard-boiled men are rescuing them (and those I would skip!)

    I keep Mary's same advice in the back of my head, not because I think my books should be nominated but because using a lot of cussing seems, as Hallie says, lazy and offputting.

  5. If I read a book by an author who is new to me, and there's lots of graphic violence/sex/profane language, that'll be the last book I'll ever read by that author, even if I liked the story itself. Of course, I don't expect gang members or hardened criminals to speak like Sunday School teachers. I mainly object to supposedly intelligent people using language that makes one wonder how the person managed to graduate from high school or college with such a limited vocabulary. AS to the graphic sex and violence, it sometimes makes me wonder if the authors think their readers have no imagination.

    I have read Hallie's and Hank's books, and have begun reading Catriona's in the past couple of years. Now I will make it a priority to get caught up on books by all the other authors and work on keeping current with Hallie, Hank, and Catriona!

    Congratulations to all the nominees!

    Deb Romano

  6. Catriona always increases my vocabulary! Just yesterday I learned the word "lych-gate" from her.

    What a great line up of authors and their books. How on earth to choose? I could never be a judge, for that reason, especially when the options are all so juicy. Good luck and congratulations to all the nominees!

    Sex and violence both have their place, but I'm more sensitive to gratuitous violence than I used to be. Swearing doesn't put me off, but then my own father could have taught swearing lessons to squaddies; I learned an amazing number of startling terms in grade school. Unless the swearing is out of place or over the top in volume, it barely registers, at least in print.

  7. Congrats Hallie and all the nominees! I have no problem with salty language (used in character) but hate most sex scenes. Not a prude, but cutting to black is fine -- we get it. Sometimes, in some thrillers, the sex scenes are so awful I just skip them. (Of course a very few are well done and show character, etc. so props there.)

  8. I've often taught workshops on writing suspense for romance writers, and many of them express an interest in writing a crime novel. And often we talk about how much sex can you get away with without turning OFF crime fiction readers. Because in a crime novel, unlike in a romance, the personal relationships between the characters isn't what's driving the story.

    And I agree with Susan having read some laugh-out-loud sex scenes in thriller novels. Esp when a man tries to write from a woman's viewpoint. A very few can do it well.

    I'm happy to see movies now where the woman isn't just there for the moment when she gets tied to the table with an oncoming buzz saw... and rescued.

  9. Congratulations to all your wonderfuls! I am writhing in envy.

    I struggle with the language thing-not for Jane or Charlie--they're reporters and even though the cliche is that reporters are foul-mouthed, it's difficult for TV reporters to "swear" in real life--you might slip and do it on live TV. So I for one, am very careful about what I say--I don't want the "f-word" synapse to get comfortable.

    If I am remembering correctly--am I?--there are not a lot of four letter words in Lee Child's books. Isn't that..surprising? Am I wrong?

    And any explicit sex scene--I skip. I am sorry to be a--well, I'm not a prude. They're often either boring or laughable, but rarely critical to the story. YOu know who did it well, though, Chris Pavone in The Travelers. But it was not so--body parts as it was emotion. ANd in that crime novel, DID drive the story. But personal relationships--yes, I embrace that.

    YAY again for you MHC'ers!

  10. I asked Lee Child if he thinks twice before putting a swear-word in his novels, and he said I TRY NOT TO USE THEM. PERIOD. Stunned me. He said they can be offensive to some readers and as a writer there's usually a better way to convey what you're going for than throw in a 4-letter word. So interesting, given how hard-edged his books feel. And of course he cuts away before getting to any graphic sex, too. Still, I don't think he'll be up for the Mary Higgins Clark Award any time soon.

  11. MHC is one of the reasons I write mysteries, although not suspense. I read STILLWATCH in eighth grade and was blown away. I still remember getting to shake her hand at Bouchercon 2012 and my total fangirl moment.

    I've written characters who could make a squaddie blush--but that's who those characters are. I can't help it. Who was it who said you can't blame the author for what the characters say? But my "educated" characters don't use that particular style of speaking. The book I'm working on now has exactly one of THAT word and I hope it's strategically placed to actually show the character's emotions (I'm sure my critique group will tell me).

    Gratuitous sex and violence - no. If it's essential to character development or story, I'm okay with it, but I'll probably try to skim (I just don't find it that interesting).

    Congratulations to all the nominees!

  12. Thanks so much for hosting us, Hallie! I really like seeing what the other nominees are thinking. I suspect that Mary is a huge influence on the kind of books I write because I read her at a very formative time—12! Too young! But I loved her!

    I agree that the woman character saving herself is key to the story but I might disagree that personal relationships don't drive a crime story, especially in psychological suspense/amateur sleuth, the two kinds of mystery I write. Personal relationship between the amateur and the victim often drive the amateur's involvement in solving the crime.

    I DO agree on sex scenes. *ick*

  13. I have one f-bomb in my current manuscript and I haven't figured out a way to get rid of it yet. It might be necessary.

    And some of my characters finally get to get it on...but not on screen.

  14. Lori, I agree - personal relationships DO drive the plot in any good crime novel. Otherwise why would the sleuth bother to investigate? And a will-they or won't-they romance adds spice and another form of suspense.

  15. I just wrote a long and carefully thought out post on the above. And then I nuked it. So here it comes again.

    First, please leave in the sex and F words when they advance the plot. Think James Joyce.

    Far more than a little prurience, I get annoyed at the overuse of the same modifier.

    For example:

    1. The peppery odor of sun on tomato leaves in the courtyard
    2. The peppery odor of sun on the asters
    3. The peppery odor of sun on the petunias

    These all were from a bewk, otherwise frabjous, that I just finished. I won't leak the title nor author, but it is set in Rye the summer of 1914 and mirrors Mapp and Lucia in many ways (nod to E. F. Benson)

    I once threw an Andrew Greeley across the room for using "arguably" 47 times and all before half time. Never picked up another one.

    This, my darlings, is the opinion of a reader who has sex and drops F bombs.

    Mind the modifiers and fornicate away.

  16. Congratulations to all the nominees--from my point of view, y'all are already winners--careful, thoughtful, intelligent writers who don't do gratuitous scenes just to pump up a word count!

  17. Oh, and I've read some fun historical suspense novels--complete with sex scenes--but the sex scenes grabbed me because of the emotional imagery and intensity--not a catalogue of writhing body parts. Ditto violence--the aftermath of a violent act and its effect on the people who must deal with it--can create a sense of horror more effectively that a description of the actual act of violence. In my humble opinion.

  18. Such an interesting post, Hallie. Love those self-reliant heroines with family support.

    Oh yes, the F word where it belongs. I once had a character, a righteous, uptight woman, use the F word in calm anger, surprising herself at how satsifying it felt, since she'd never used it before in her life.

  19. Congrats to ALL the nominees! I've been a judge on the MHC committee and I know how difficult it is to find books that fit the MHC criteria and are fabulous reads. Personally, I love the MHC criteria. I'm not offended by swearing (especially in dialog, if that's what the character would say,) and I'm not offended by graphic sex scenes although I usually skip them because more often than not they are boring and badly written. I am a HUGE fan of sexual/emotional tension, and of "the heroine who finds herself in a situation not of her own making and must resolve it WITHOUT BEING RESCUED (by a man!)

    You might guess I grew up reading Mary Stewart. And I adored Elizabeth Peters Vicky Bliss novels.

  20. Here comes the west coast, at the cow's tail as ever! As the peppery sun starts hitting the hollyhocks.

    Hallie, thanks for having us come round!

    Isn't it interesting that everyone agrees about sex scenes? I've written two in my life (17 books). One about bad sex, which is easy to write well, and one about unbad sex, which was one of the hardest things I ever wrote - even though there was no anatomical detail.

  21. Five of my favorite authors nominated for the same award? Thank goodness I am not on that judging committee. I'd call it a three-way tie.

  22. Oh and a squaddie is an enlisted soldier in the army!

  23. What a wonderful set of guidelines. I've read 4 of the 5 nominees -- hope to read the 5th soon -- and congrats to all!!! Such wonderful books, all squirmy and real, the kind that make you take a flashlight to bed so you can read and show up to breakfast late. The best kind.

    Last year at Left Coast Crime, Bob Dugoni said he'd been deliberately cutting back the swearing in his books because he'd finally realized how many readers didn't like it, and that it wasn't necessary. I suspect for a while it felt freeing to be able to swear in print, but leaving it out gives the author another opportunity to dig a little deeper into character and emotion. Which is what we read for, yes?

  24. Yay, I got squaddie right! What was my prize, Hallie? I love what Susan D said about the uptight upright woman using the obscenity and surprising herself. Leslie, when I started working full time at the gas station at age 21 (with my fresh BA in linguistics) is when I started swearing liberally. I fit right in with the guys and it felt very freeing. Later as a mom and now a "woman of a certain age" - it's much easier to moderate my language and find more creative ways to express strong feeling. Thanks for the memory.

  25. What an absolute delight to see so many of my favorite authors here today and nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. I've read Hallie's, Catriona's, and Lori's, and each one of those books deserves to win. I know each time I pick up a book by these three authors that it's going to be a favorite read. And, of course, I could listen to Catriona talk all day with her animated Scottish jive (hahaha, just had to use that word, Catriona). I actually love Susanna's Lucy Campion, but I am behind in the series, which I am rectifying before Bouchercon, Susanna. I already have the books sitting on my short list table. And, I now have a new (to me) author and series to read, with Frances Brody and the Kate Shackleton books. Frances, please forgive my egregious oversight here. I'll be making up for it. Good luck to all the nominees!

  26. Congratulations, ladies! I'm already a fan of Catriona, Frances, and Hallie. Now I get to find out about Lori and Susanna. Cussing is acceptable if it fits the situation or the character. Sex? Depends. It is fine as an emotional connection. It is not fine if presented as a how to. That gets old fast. At least "peppery" hasn't popped up yet in a sex scene!

  27. One more comment. Soldiers adopt foul language so easily. It must be universal. I knew vets in college. One embarrassed himself by asking his mom to pass the
    f***ing eggs. My son has been out of the army for about ten years now and he still resorts to some colorful language when aggravated.

  28. Love all the comments and advice today! (And I have a lot of reading to catch up on with the MHC award nominees.)

    I have both sex and F-bombs in my books, although I try to use both judiciously. When writing sex, I try to focus on the feelings and emotions - I don't like to read Part-A-Into-Slot-B and I don't want to write it either. As for the bad language, my mother has often been an early reader of my mss, and she will circle certain curse words with the note: Is this really necessary? Often, it wasn't. (Thanks, mom!)

    Hallie, I had that same conversation with Lee, and was amazed to go back and realize how very little swearing there is in his books - and what there is would easily pass on an 8pm TV show. A great lesson in how carefully chosen vocabulary can be just as dark, menacing, and hard-edged as common curse words.

  29. Does anybody remember (or know) the scene in the last Harry Potter book where Molly Weasley faces off against Bellatrix Lestrange? Molly, throughout the entire series, has never even come close to swearing. She's a fluffy, warm-hearted, slightly fussy mother. But when she faces Bellatrix, all her fear/anger/emotion of the moment is poured into that one line: "Not my daughter you b!tch." It isn't even a particularly strong cuss word. But priceless.

    And so descriptive.

  30. Hallie, thanks for this. Lovely to be in such good company! It's a relief to know that none of us is in danger of being nominated for the Literary Review Bad Sex Award. Good luck everyone.

  31. It has come to my attention that I wrote "a three-way tie," when what I really meant was a five-way tie. Which is really irrelevant, as I don't think this award has ever had ANY tie. ;)

    Basically, this amounts to: READ ALL THESE BOOKS.

  32. I'm always learning new words from you, Catriona.

  33. Fascinating and -- oh my goodness, so many more books I MUST READ -- I tend to avoid books (and people) who use "language."

  34. Mary Sutton - oh boy do I remember that. GO MOLLY WEASLEY! And so satisfying for her to dispatch Bellatrix.

    "Mind the modifiers and fornicate anyway!" Makes me wonder, Ann in R - what DID you have for breakfast?!

  35. Edith: You get to be right. Again! ;-)

  36. First, congrats to all nominees! I know that writing action scenes of any type is walking a fine line. Must say I agree with Karen in Ohio, Ann in Rochester and Pat D. I read in a wide variety of genres. As for sex, does anyone recall Nancy Martin's ( of the Blackbird Sisters series) wonderfully written (and HOT) sex in the telephone booth scene? I sure do! And some men, like John Sanford and David Corbett, among others, write very believable sex scenes, and good stories! So, I guess what turns me off is bad,sloppy writing, redundancy and gratuitous, brutal violence. Otherwise, I'm game!

  37. Thanks Hallie for inviting us to do this post with you! I'm really enjoying the responses here about the criteria. One other thing that occurred to me: One of my favorite books of all time was Louisa May Alcott's An Old-fashioned Girl. And I remember after great tensions and misunderstanding, the hero and heroine finally get together at the end (with a kiss). And LMA interjects with one of those "Dear Readers" kind of breaking the wall kind of lines: She says something like, "Dear reader, I will leave it to your imagination to decide what happens next. For those who have been fortunate to experience love scenes, any description will seem tame. For those who have never had this experience, any description will surely seem wild and overwhelm the senses, or seem implausible." So I probably always just rely on the reader's imagination to fill in the blanks :-)

  38. This was so great to read--clearly a productive topic, and it made me happy to learn we all love all the nominees and appreciate a squaddie or two.