This Wednesday at the Mid-Manhattan Library, I attended the MWA presentation on paranormal mysteries. Meredith Anthony (MA) was the moderator and Lee Barwood (LB) and E.F. Watkins (EW) were on the panel. Being that I my first book is a paranormal mystery, I found this presentation very useful. They talked about how paranormal is hot right now, but has been around for hundreds of years. They commented on the changing lines in mystery. How genre fiction has been much more open to cross overs (even mystery which traditionally was pure mystery). Now the market has Charlaine Harris whose books are labeled mystery/ fantasy but also contain elements of humor and romance.
EW mentioned her new series about a psychic who sees ghosts. She tends to writer paranormal thrillers with paranormal villains, though occasionally creates the paranormal hero.
LB talked about her haunted Ozarks series (which I picked up a copy of cause it sounded so good). She has otherwordly people walking among us. She has amateur detectives rely on the supernatural for the solution to crimes with elements of love interest.
How do you define a paranormal mystery?
- EW said there has to be the uncanny. Until recently, mystery lovers were not looking for that. Historically, they preferred a ghost mystery with a reasonable explanation, not a real ghost and felt cheated if the supernatural was the cause. This has changed. She liked to write paranormal mystery. Before her books were categorized as horror because of the paranormal element, but it was more a thriller /mystery with paranormal elements. She has a psychic sleuth with an event going on that cannot be explained that makes the sleuth leap further than the normal mystery.
- LB has writtern a paranormal sleuth in the past. She loved Sherlock Holmes but wanted something spookier. She wrote a cross over which couldn’t be pigeon-holed into one genre. She has supernatural circumstances that people have to resolve in everyday life. She writes a story where anything can happen.
- MA noted that it’s important to establish rules at the beginning of what can and can’t be done and stick to them like in a normal world.
- EW seconded that pointing out that to prevent chaos or the reader feeling cheated, the writer must establish rules. For a supernatural entity you must develop it and explain abilities. If you are writing a creature for which there is no template (not a vampire or werewolf), you must clearly articulate the ground rules. It’s very similar to gaming in that the protagonist has to have a fighting chance while trying to figure out the rules (how it works).
- LB talked about how the Ozarks have cool superstitions that she drew upon. Her main character, April, is from a family of women with talents. Some see spirits, others heal by touch. April can see the past and future. If she takes a picture, others can see it too. There are lots of ground rules–based on locale, character, or kind of supernatural being you’re writing about. She said if you use the traditional type and go beyond the normal lore, you must have a good explanation. If the bad guy has different rules than good guy, there has to be a way for the good guy to stop him.
MA asked about the use of current events/problems in their stories
- EW used the background of Washington, DC and politics. A psychic helps a senator get his kidnapped daughter back from a cult, which is headed by vampires. Interesting twist because cult leaders are very charismatic (as are vampires). Another book she wrote had a heavy ecological message about how the earth will get you.This was set in a Pennsylvania former mining town. In her opinion, contemporary things ground the story more and make the supernatural fun with a twist. They have a message but it’s still entertaining.
- LB lived in the Ozarks when she wrote her book. She saw the sins against the earth happening around her. The area she lived in was extremely poor with few decent jobs. A good job was considered barely minimum wage. People had to have vegetable gardens to survive the year without starving. Some people lived in school buses. Some people went back to land but it was so hard to farm and the soil was so poor, but it was all they knew. She saw the factories closing and jobs moving overseas. The bad guy in her story grew up in this setting, he saw the poverty and how politics kept out jobs. He decided to bring prosperity to area. Except it has to be his way or the highway. The things he does are destroying the very thing he holds dear. The heroine uses her supernatural abilities against him. There are forces in the earth and things happen at his worksites and to his workmen to catch his attention.
MA asked about if sex and the supernatural is better
- EW said it depends on the plot of the book. Some require a strong romantic element, some just a relationship element. She wrote a relationship novel without a happily ever after.Her book Dance with the Dragon has an unusual couple and reader interest pushed her to write the prequel so that they could see how the relationship got started.
- LB has started books with a murder suicide. She’s had two ghosts fight over the heroine.
MA asked if the genre is strong because booksellers have categories that can function as barriers.
- LB felt it was a very strong genre that will continue to morph. She is fascinated with the unknown–by what makes us hesitate and not go into an abandoned house. She mentioned a plus of print of demand or ebooks is that the web does not have shelves so book can be put in 5 places electronically.
- EW has less problems with electronic and smaller bookstores because there is so much cross over. She thinks the industry is bending a little
Q: Which thread did the author focus on in cross genre books?
- EW–suspense element is her focus because it is what she is most attracted to. None of her books have a romantic focus, but there is usually a romantic thread/subplot.
- LB–paranormal element is her favorite. Although it always works out that the guy and girl end up in a romance. But the supernatural element is what throws the guy and girl together.
MA mentioned how Ken Foley has romance in his thrillers because it is easier for the reader to identify with
- EW has heroines fall for very very wrong guy. Heroines are smart women but fall for opposite of self.
- LB the hero didn’t know he represented the bad guy. He was a good person but fell in with wrong person. Then hero falls for girl…
Q: Did the writers select the genre based on real life experience?
- EW–virtually nonee. Nothing happens when she’s visited haunted places. She was raised catholic so there is the concept of things changing from one thing into another and the rising from the dead.
- LB–in the Ozarks lots of people claim to see things. She never did, but she believes anything is possible and we may not understand reason behind it. Phenomenon exists whether or not we understand why.
Q: How important is the old mythology vs my vampire=my rules?
- EW–legends do differ with few common threads. When using an established supernatural character, you research the original legends and then adapt it as needed. Ultimately, you write the book to express a concept. At times you massage it a little. Just make sure you explain why and how.
- LB–base what happens on known mythology. If you need to change it, explain it. Make sure it works. Every rule has an exception.
Q: How do you keep the momentum going to finish a novel?
- EW–trouble is she starts chapter writing before outline. The outline definitely helps when you get to middle sag. When she is done with full time day job, writing is the ice cream at the end of the day. If you fall in love with idea you will keep going.
- LB has no outline. She just writes and keeps going. Makes notes in manuscript. If gets stuck she works on on another story.
- MA mentioned her hubby has a ship and chair to keep her going.
Q: With e-publishing how much promotion must the writer do?
- All of it unless you are a big name with a big company. You do signing at bookstores, you do blogs, you do presentations, etc.
- With cyber publishing, the book is out faster and you can do more stuff online to promote it.
- EW mentioned doing a radio guest blog.