Why I don’t write mysteries

As you’ll recall from English class—or, as they like to call it now, at least until high school, “Language Arts” class—fiction has two major elements: character and plot (yes, style and point-of-view matter also, but today I’m talking about the two biggies).

What lurks beneath?

My major shortcoming as a writer, which also could be thought of as my major strength, is that I adore language—the power words have to evoke a feeling, to transport readers to another state of being and connect with the mysteries of the deep—while I detest plotting. Note that I did not say I detest “plot,” for I love a good yarn, a well-plotted tale, one that keeps you going from page to page until the end. What I hate is wrestling with plot in my own work.

Consequently, my plots arise organically. I know it’s ideal for plot to develop directly as a direct result of who the characters are. This method, however, can be tedious for the writer, involving many false starts and often requiring excision of great swaths of well-written prose that take the book nowhere.

At this point in my new novel I find myself at the uncomfortable juncture of not being able to write any more. It’s not that I have writer’s block. The problem is that I don’t have the details on which to hang my words. I sit down to write and a passage find myself stuck asking “When exactly did he live in New York City? What does he do every day? What were the big cultural changes going on when she was growing up?”

So for now, instead of devoting my daily writing time to writing, I am devoting it to research and plotting.

It’s frustrating, since all I want to do is pour out the words, connect with that cosmic energy that seems to fuel the best writing sessions. Instead I’m reading (currently Sisterhood Interrupted, by Deborah Siegel, for background on the women’s movement in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s) and trying to find a doctor who will talk with me for a little while about what it’s like to be an anesthesiologist. (Any anesthesiologists out there reading this, please get in touch.)

Thankfully I’ve been through this before and have learned some patience. I know eventually I’ll return to the fun part: putting the words down. I’m thankful, too, that I have chosen a genre that is compatible with my work style. I can’t imagine the torment of having to figure out each twist and turn of the plot in advance of actually doing any writing. For me, the most satisfying mystery is not “whodunit?” but “what lurks beneath?”

Ruth Rendell* and Robert Parker*, your careers are safe.

*Two of my favorite mystery writers.

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