The first step in deciding what kind of book you want to write is to consider what kind of book you like to read.
If you love romances, that might be a good genre for you to start with. If you despise romance novels but think you could just dash one off and make a bushel of money because they sell like hotcakes, maybe you should consider another genre. It’s almost impossible to write well in a genre for which you feel contempt; readers who love the genre will sense your disdain and resent it.
There are no bad genres. The best of any genre is just as literary as the best literary novel–or darn close to it. (Think Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Godfather, and The Lord of the Rings.) For the purposes of this workshop, let’s consider the mystery.
Do you like hardboiled detective novels? Cozies? Something in between? Psychological suspense? Mysteries with a hint of the supernatural? Period mysteries (such as those set in Victorian England or ancient Rome)? Maybe that’s the kind of book you should consider writing.
You may already know exactly what kind of book you plan to write. Maybe you won’t know fully until you know your protagonist (main character). When I started Too Close to Evil, I knew I was writing a private detective novel, but not what the tone would be. It wasn’t until I knew who Jared was that I knew what kind of story he needed to be in.
But what if you’re not even sure if you’re writing a detective novel, a police procedural, or a novel with an amateur sleuth? What if you’re not sure what kind of book you’re most drawn to? Or what if you’re an eclectic reader (as I am), and you love all sorts of books?
Let’s try an exercise.
Write down the titles of your ten favorite mysteries (or mystery writers). Ask yourself what you like about each one and what they have in common. Then decide what you can (and can’t) learn from each one.
Let’s say you have on your list: Janet Evanovich, Elaine Vietz, Nancy Cohen, Susan McBride, Parnell Hall, Tamar Myers, Patricia Sprinkle, Donna Andrews, Sarah R. Shaber, and Agatha Christie. You might be more comfortable writing a cozy mystery, possibly humorous with little graphic sex or violence, because those are the kinds of books you like to read.
But imagine you have on your list: Jonathan Kellerman, Dennis Lehane, John Sandford, David Wiltse, John Connelly, Thomas Harris, James Lee Burke, Joseph Wambaugh, Ed McBain, and Philip Margolin. There’s a good chance you are going to want to write a darker, grittier story.
What if you have an equal mix of both? Then you might feel comfortable writing several different kinds of books, and other concerns, such as characters and theme, will help you decide what kind of book you should write now.
My list included writers from both of the above lists, but more from the second. I noticed that my favorite books were those with rich, complex characters that I would want to re-visit: Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware, Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone. I may not remember the plot of A is for Alibi, but I do remember that Kinsey was orphaned at a young age and was raised by her aunt, that she likes small, enclosed spaces, and that she was once married to a gorgeous but irresponsible musician with whom things most definitely did not work out. I read Sue Grafton’s books because I like Kinsey. I read Janet Evanovich’s books because I like Stephanie Plum. (Joe Morelli and Ranger have nothing to do with it. No, really… )
Anyway, what this tells me about my own writing is that I am likely to be most interested in writing books with multi-dimensional characters with real relationships. Not necessarily romantic relationships, but deep connections. This is what I would expect, based on the kind of books I enjoy, and if I look at the book I ended up writing, it turned out to be true. Jared has complex relationships with his brother, his ex-wife, his ex-wife’s new husband, and his roommate (a gay man with AIDS). It is these relationships that drive the story and will (I hope) provide a unifying thread through future books in the series.
It’s also sometimes useful to consider what you don’t want. For example, I like police procedurals and courtroom-based mysteries, but I don’t write either. Someday, if I have an idea I’m passionate about, maybe I’ll do the necessary research, but for now, I just don’t have the expertise, and I don’t have the drive (or the time) to go out and get it. Sometimes the amount (or kind) of research you’re able to do influences your decision about what book to write. When I was brainstorming for the first Jared McKean mystery, my initial idea was for a mystery (perhaps a series) set in the Florida Everglades. To do it justice, I would have had to spend months, if not years, in the Everglades learning about the plants and animals, how to survive in the swamps, and about the lives, traditions, and beliefs of the Seminoles. I had neither the time nor the money to carry out such extensive research, so that story went on the back burner. Every now and then, it raises its head and lets me know it’s still there, but now is not the time for me to write it.
What about you?
Maybe you like books set in ancient Egypt, but you know nothing about ancient Egypt and don’t particularly want to do the intensive study it would take to find out. Then by all means, keep reading mysteries set in ancient Egypt, but choose something different to write about.
The book you write should be the kind you like to read, but it should also be one that you can write knowledgeably about, or one that you can (and want to) research well enough to write knowledgeably about.
Another decision you need to make (or at least consider) is whether you envision your novel as a series or a stand-alone. Obviously, if you plan to kill off your protagonist, you’re probably not writing a series.
A stand-alone novel has a story arc, in which the protagonist changes or grows in some way over the course of the story. A series character should also undergo changes, but within a single book, these changes may be relatively small. Instead, there is a greater story arc that covers the entire series. Think of Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder. While Scudder reacts to the events of each book, the major changes of his life take place over the course of the series. He acknowledges his alcoholism, joins AA, and learns to control his urge to drink. He dates a series of women, falls in love with a former prostitute, marries her, and begins to reconcile (after a fashion) with the adult sons of his first marriage.
If you envision a series, your main character needs to be a multi-faceted character with enough complications and entanglements to sustain a reader’s interest for the long haul. If your series contains twenty-six novels (A is for Alibi toZ is for…Ziggurat?), your character had better be up to the task.
It’s especially important that you like your protagonist and be willing to invest a heft chunk of time with him (or her). If you don’t enjoy his company, how can you expect anyone else to? And what if you should be fortunate enough, and talented enough, to write a best-seller? When a million readers are clamoring for more, will you like this character enough to live with her for a decade or more?
Again, look to your reading habits. Do you like to follow a favorite character through a series of books? Or do you prefer a stand-alone novel, where you meet a character for the first and last time in a single, self-contained story?
Think about it.
Make your list. It doesn’t have to be ten writers. It could be two. It could be twenty. As long as it helps you understand something about what draws you to a story–and what keeps you coming back for more–it’s fine.
See you next time, for Lesson 2: Your Protagonist 1