Wow. Over a year since my last post. In my defence, it’s been pretty hectic. I’ve been to a dozen countries, taken about forty flights and finally finished editing work on a two-year book project. I’ve barely had time to read any mysteries, let alone write about them.
Then a few weeks ago I received a slightly depressing popup from WordPress. I’ve apparently had this domain registered for over 7 years! That’s a really long time. Despite some occasional flurries of activity, I’ve never really managed to keep to an organised blogging schedule. Attempts to fix this have either been too regimented and ambitious (so I inevitably fall behind and give up) or too casual (so I spend weeks drafting a post and then it’s never quite right or stops being relevant and I give up).
But despite the incredibly sparse offerings, I still get a steady stream of visitors. I still get regular comments (even discounting the weekly requests for me to identify the teapot in Father Brown!). I talk to several very engaging readers over email, who are very patient about my infuriatingly sporadic replies. I even get developmental editing work (my day job) from people who’ve found their way to me via the blog rather than the usual channels.
And I think there’s definitely still a yawning opening for what I planned to create when I set this up all those years ago: a site with criticism, analysis and discussion about mystery writing, rather than just reviews.
Crime and mystery fiction are as popular as ever, and self-publishing has shrugged off its embarrassing connotations and become a force to be reckoned with, with dozens of mysteries by indie authors being added to Amazon each day. But there’s still almost zero resources for people who want to learn and discuss how to write them better.
And that’s because everyone’s terrified of spoilers. Even plot points in books which are over 100 years old are still tiptoed round with hushed reverence.
Which is not to say that people should be subjected to spoilers without warning. But there needs to be a place for people who are happy to forego a few surprises (almost always relating to stories they’ve already read or were never going to read anyway) in exchange for getting to discuss all the fascinating tricks and techniques that makes mysteries so interesting, popular and unique.
Because this is important theory. One crucial thing that I’ve learned from my work as a developmental editor is that mystery writing techniques aren’t unique to mystery fiction. Many of them are a fundamental part of ALL storytelling, but they are often overlooked because they work in the background. All stories, regardless of genre, length and medium have to handle things like plot structure, plot pacing, revelation of new information and managing and directing readers’ knowledge and expectations. Mysteries are a perfect place to learn about these things.
Studying mystery fiction, especially the more mechanical fair play puzzle plots of the Golden and Silver Ages, is a great way to learn about these aspects of storytelling in a laboratory setting, as it were. Some people lambaste classic mystery fiction for having weak characters, thinly drawn settings and indeed for lacking much of anything that isn’t related to the central business of finding out whodunit and unmasking them in the drawing room. And while that’s true in some cases, if you want to learn about how mysteries work so you can use the tricks in a more rounded novel, it’s actually very helpful to have a pared down story where are the cogs are exposed as study material. And of course in most cases it isn’t true at all. Most people’s idea of classic mysteries as creaky automata draped with 30s snobbery is based on parodies of the genre, not the genre itself. Many of the era’s best authors were able to weave together plot, character and social commentary very artfully, often in 50,000 words or less. Most modern crime fiction is far less incisive and twice as bloated.
Anyway, now that my workload is a bit less hectic, it’s time to give it another go. I think a light but regular schedule is best. And people do like reviews, especially of current or unusual works. So starting next week, here’s how things are going to go:
On Mondays there’ll be a review. I’ll try to keep these spoiler-free, with spoilers either reserved until the end or omitted entirely.
On Thursdays there’ll be a more technical article about writing technique, usually related to the Monday review. This will be full spoiler territory, with the exception of the paragraph that appears on the front page – there will never be spoilers there.
Every other Saturday there’ll be something a bit longer. This might be a continuation of the Thursday post, discussion about a topic that needs to run a bit longer or some of my own mystery short stories.
I hope you’ll join me!