Nancy Pickard is a winner of multiple Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards; a Shamus and Barry award recipient; a four-time Edgar nominee, and an author whose work has made many best-of-the-year and notable-books lists. EQMM is proud to be able to say that her stellar career began in our pages. Her first published fiction, “A Man Around the House,” appeared in December 1981, in our Department of First Stories. Nancy is a writer many other writers could (and no doubt do) learn from—and that’s not just EQMM’s opinion; the New York Times says she “has the storytelling gift,” and The Boston Globe says “Pickard writes richly textured fiction about families and relationships, about hatred and lust and love, about loyalty and betrayal, and most of all about the corrosive power of secrets.” But in this post the Kansas author’s focus is on what she has learned, and is continuing to learn, from other writers. It’s eye-opening.—Janet Hutchings
The other day I was talking via email to that exemplary mystery writer and human being Ed Gorman, and I told him that I was tired of killing people. This, as you may imagine, was not a happy revelation for a woman who has made her living doing just that for nearly thirty-five years. But it turns out that even a hit woman, a.k.a. mystery writer, can get her fill of homicide.
That didn’t mean that I wanted to stop writing about murder altogether, perish the thought and pardon the pun.
What it meant was . . .
I didn’t know what it meant.
That’s why I contacted Sir Edward the Wise.
“I still want to write mysteries,” I e’ed him, “but I find myself more interested in investigating forgiveness than punishment. I want to write deep-feeling, generous-hearted books that might be, for lack of a better way to say it, a positive companion to their readers.”
I told him that when I’m entering new writing territory I like to study how other writers do it, so that I won’t reinvent a wheel and so that I can learn from my betters. I whined to Ed that I was having a hard time finding stories that dwell on life and death and yet resolve themselves with something closer to wisdom and mercy than to punishment and revenge.
“You might want to read some Ray Bradbury,” he wrote back. “If ever there was somebody who wrote big-hearted books, he was the guy.”
So I went to the library and picked up some Bradbury because Ed said so, and of course he was right. In writing and life, Bradbury was a force of positive nature. His stories are, indeed, loving, big-hearted, and boon companions. From the first page of this reading assignment I began to feel happier and more hopeful that new kinds of stories wait for me to write them.
When Ed sent me off to science fiction for inspiration, I started wondering if other mystery authors learn how to write, in part, by wandering outside the aisles of our genre to pluck books from other shelves. I thought, well, of course they must, but I suddenly wanted to know exactly what they have learned and from whom.
So I asked a few crime writers if they’ve ever been kicked in the head—otherwise known as having an epiphany—by authors who will never show up at Bouchercon, Malice Domestic, or Edgar Week, but would more likely attend a science-fiction convention, or fantasy, or romance, or Western, or a literary conclave.
First, I asked a couple of Edgar Award winners, “Have writers in other genres taught you how to be a better mystery writer? And if so, how?”
Margaret Maron (Bootlegger’s Daughter) said that the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay taught her the value of the specific over the generic.
“With Millay,” Margaret said, “it’s not just a ‘blue flower.’ It’s an iris, a forget-me-not. It’s not a vague herb garden. With her, you smell the tansy, the rosemary, and the lavender. If my writing has a sense of place, I learned it from her.”
Anyone who has read Margaret’s short stories and novels knows that Maron learned well from Millay.
Margaret also told me that it was a science-fiction writer—Robert Heinlein, she thinks—who taught her to appeal to the senses on every page.
“Every page?” I asked her, in a tone close to flabbergasted horror. “Good God, Margaret. I think I’m doing well if I can get all five of them at least once into every scene!”
“Yep. EVERY page,” she affirmed, but emphasized that she didn’t mean a writer should try to cram all five senses on every page. (Whew.) “I try to evoke at least one of the other four senses (other than sight) on each page. It’s easy to show what the character’s seeing, but what is he hearing, smelling, tasting, touching? I don’t always succeed but I do always try.”
Which made me think I could test if that might improve my pages, too.
Next, I asked T.J. MacGregor (Out of Sight), who told me that she also learned from a poet. “The poet Anne Sexton taught me that even taboos work when they are emotionally charged.”
“What do you mean?” I asked her, my ears all a’perk.
“I mean that Sexton wrote about abortion, incest, adultery, masturbation, menstruation, drug addiction,” Trish said. “These days, it’s the stuff of TV talk shows, but back then people didn’t talk about this stuff in polite conversation. Sexton showed that if you write from an authentic emotional place, readers will flock.”
Trish also said that it was from reading Stephen King that she began to understand that “regardless of genre, all terror is first conjured in your head, your heart, and in your body’s reactions to what you imagine you hear, see, feel, taste, smell.”
Of course, I asked Ed Gorman, too. (His latest mystery novel, Riders on the Storm, is getting wonderful reviews.) In addition to writing mysteries, Ed also writes out-of-genre—Westerns and horror, among others—so I’m guessing his own books cross-pollinate each other. But he said his most valuable lesson came from F. Scott Fitzgerald over in the literary aisle: “What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story.”
Gillian Roberts, (Anthony Award winner for her Amanda Pepper mystery series) also took inspiration from a master.
“I was most influenced—or would love to think I was—by Charles Dickens, in his enjoyment of his characters, his love of them no matter how strange or even despicable they are. He was in love with and sympathetic to the human condition. I so hope some of that rubbed off on me.”
There was a time, though, when Gillian wrote general fiction (Mendocino) under her real name, Judith Greber. And where did she find out-of-genre inspiration then? In the Mystery aisle! “Susan Isaac’s first book hit me over the head like a mallet with the idea that you were allowed to be funny (or try to be) in a book, even in a mystery.”
By now maybe you have a mental image like the one I’m getting of writers of all literary persuasions roaming bookstore aisles and magazine racks to learn from any writer who has something to teach them.
It’s a process of feeding, seeding, and cross-pollination.
Did I get cross-pollinated, so to speak, by reading Ray Bradbury’s classic novel The Martian Chronicles for the first time? Well, I guess I did, since I now am nearly finished with the first science-fiction story I’ve ever written! I got so much pleasure out of doing it. No character got murdered, either, no crime was investigated, and nobody went to jail.
Oh, I’ll go back to mowing people down. In fact, I’ve already killed a couple of characters since writing that story. But the ending of this new story is not the same as it would have been before I read Bradbury.
Can reading authors out of my own specialty really make me a better mystery writer? I think it just did.
So, thank you, Ed Gorman, Sage of Iowa.
My spaceship, traveling through mysterious time, feels steadier now.