MWA: Is it Romance or Is it Mystery?

Tuesday night, I ventured out into the cloudy humid air for the MWA Mid Manhattan Library presentation on mixed genres with romance and mystery. Oddly enough, as I sat there waiting for the talk to begin, I realized every time I come to one of these events it’s raining or overcast with the threat of rain. Although a dark and stormy night does make for a good mystery, I suppose. 🙂

Onto the discussion. Sheila York (SY) moderated with Cordelia Frances Biddle (CFB), Shelley Freydont (SF) and Pearl Wolf (PW) participated in the panel. As a fun side note: they handed out tickets and at the end would pick who was the lucky winner of a free book with the author signing it! Pretty awesome and a definite reason to attend future events. 🙂

SY mentioned that combining romance with other genres is not new, but blending it with mystery is relatively new. This talk was about blending flirtation and felony.

A brief background was given for each author before they delved into the challenges and pleasures of writing a mixed genre novel. PW talked about her first novel being informed by research on her own family. She pointed out how in the 1800s there were no spy organizations in England, instead each peer/duke had their own spy system. She decided to organize it and have a well-born woman want to be a spy.

SF was a retiring dancer who read voraciously while on tour. She gobbled up mysteries and thrillers and tried her hand at writing a mystery.

CFB wrote a literary novel but loved romance.

Then they moved on to writers who influenced them. For CFB it was the Brontes and Dickens. SF mentioned Agatha Christie.

The question came up about if they started off by imitating their idols.

Their responses:

  • CFB talked about reading someone she likes and picking up their language. Then she goes back and makes it hers.
  • SF talked about how everyone has their own voice and you have to find yours.
  • PW mentioned how she’ll be typing away and a phrase she read elsewhere will creep in. She removes it. But in the end writers do borrow from each other.
  • SY tried to write richly imagined descriptions, but she just can’t do it.

What drew them to the place and time they write about?

  • CFB grew up in Philly and was researching her ancestors (Biddle and Drexel). She discovered that the 1840s were a cusp time with the Civil War looming.
  • SF loves small towns–everyone sees each other’s clean laundry and knows their dirty laundry. For her, the town is like another character in the book. She makes up small towns but draws her own maps.
  • PW’s setting was research driven. She visited England and was amazed by how much they loved their antiquities–so much so that they built a detour around a 500-year-old building that sat in the middle of the road rather than tear down the building. This Jane Austen time period was a  cusp of great change. Hydraulics were being discovered. Women were beginning to question morals and manners of the day.
  • SY was fascinated by late 1940s. She saw pictures of her parents young years and the 1940s seemed like such a romantic time. She loves movies from that era. The 1940s were a time of change in the movie industry tooo. TV became widespread.  She also decided to write her story from the POV of the female client to the male detective.

How do the authors deal with the limitations on women in their specific time periods?

  • PW has two sisters as the heroines, one of which is gutsy and wants to be a spy (she noted that there were very few female spies in history). She talked about the change in romance literature from “bodice rippers” to “pants rippers.” Her current novel’s heroine is not gutsy until she must fight for the man she loves.
  • CFB said that Martha was led into the mystery in her first book. There was an evolution of her recognition of responsibilities that come with the money she had inherited. She had a strong social justice bent. A heiress can break some rules. (CFB mentioned how she likes to read Tennyson before she starts writing)
  • SF writes in the modern day, but Katie (her protagonist) is a puzzle geek who must deal with the attitude the small town puts on women in certain positions.

Most of the authors writes series and they talked how difficult it is to keep the tension alive. The center of a romance is: I love that person more than myself and do everything in my power to make that person happy. For CFB with her second book there was more action but nothing beyond canoodling.

SF said that she maintains romantic tension but not having the characters know they are attracted to each other. She mentioned that it is so easy to not keep sexual tension going in this age. Katie (her protagonist) is in a small town in NH and the male lead is a southern guy who became the chief of  police. So you’ve got a cultural clash ripe for misunderstandings. To make matters worse, Katie has a spinster aunt trying to marry her off to a nice local guy with job security, which means Katie lives in a fish bowl.

PW- talked about establishing the rake. She has him live at a whorehouse in France and his reputation follows him back to England.

How do they let the heroine solve the crime without the male lead looking like an idiot?

  • CFB thinks the female mind works differently and may look at issues more intuitively. The male lead is focused on how criminals act. The female asks questions about different aspects.
  • SF had the male lead hit by a car. Also he’s an outsider in the small town so the townspeople feed all their info to Katie who talks to him.

It is interesting to note that most mysteries have one POV, especially amateur sleuth mysteries. So how much do the writers consider the male POV in the relationship?

  • CFB has 2 POV for Martha and Thomas–tries to get inside both minds. Thomas is desperately in love with this woman. He wants her to be happy. But there are lots of misunderstandings.
  • SY’s heroine drives the story. Peter comes from nothing and is the male lead.
  • SF–writes romance and has 2 POV.

However, if you write 1POV you can still show the actions and reactions and tenseness. Show his POV filtered through her POV.

Marketing today is at least 50% of the author’s job. They have websites, bookmarks, signings, etc.

SY feels that genre blending is encouraged, but SF reminded us that the bottom line is that the marketing group needs to know where to shelve it.

During the Q&A, someone asked about consulting experts to understand the human psyche w/r/t romances.

PW–mentioned asking her ex husband who was a psychologist to understand the ramification of why people do something. She thinks that we write to discover why people do what they do.

It was a free, fun event put on by the NYC Chapter of the MWA, which is a highly organized and active group. If you write mysteries in the NYC area, I recommend you join.

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4 Responses to MWA: Is it Romance or Is it Mystery?

  1. berry says:

    How do you find the time to write such a Detailed Summary of the meeting. They should hire you as pr person. Felt like I was at meeting.great job.

    • Thanks Berry! It takes a bit of time, but luckily these events are only 1/month. 🙂 I wanted to share because so many people can’t make it to the event and I feel really lucky to be able to attend. 🙂

  2. Emma says:

    Yeah, I am totally with Berry. Didn’t you mention that you were looking for a new job? Maybe that would be an opportunity. If you need a letter of recommendation to apply for a PR position just let me know… 🙂

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