“I Am a Genre Writer” (by Margaret Maron)

Margaret Maron’s achievements as a mystery and crime writer have been recognized by all of our field’s major organizations. She is a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, a recipient of the Malice Domestic Convention’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and the most recently named Lifetime Achievement Award winner for the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention. The many other honors her fiction has earned include the Edgar, Anthony, Agatha, and Macavity awards. Margaret began her writing career with short stories, and she has always continued to find time for the short form despite producing nearly three dozen critically acclaimed novels. Her most recent story for EQMM is May 2015’s “We on the Train!”; her most recent novel, Long Upon the Land, in the Judge Deborah Knott series, will be released by Grand Central Publishing this August. In the 1940s, when EQMM was launched, founding editor Frederic Dannay explained that one of his goals for the magazine was to show that the mystery was a genuine literary form. He’d have been pleased, I think, to feature Margaret Maron’s work, for it exemplifies the high literary standards that can be attained in the genre.—Janet Hutchings

I am a genre writer. I write murder mysteries. This means that I am often asked why I write mysteries instead of “literature”—as if one were slightly disreputable and the other stamped with the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

Why should that be? After all, doesn’t all fictional writing fall into one genre or another?

If you find a horse, dusty trails, and handguns, then it’s a “Western.” If there are bug-eyed aliens, space ships, or alternate universes, then it’s “Science Fiction.” If it’s witty, funny, and everyone goes shopping, then it’s “Chick Lit.” Ghosts and vampires and spooky woo-woo? “Supernatural” or “Paranormal.” Ghosts and spooky woo-woo and heroines running around in wispy nightgowns? “Gothic.”

Other genres are Romance, Fantasy, Historical . . . the breakdown into subsets goes on and on. Only if it doesn’t fall squarely in one of those easy categories is it called “Literature,” which is neither more nor less important than any other genre and usually co-opts aspects of the others. There is excellent writing in this category; there is also pretentious navel-gazing.

It’s the same for all fiction. Every subset has its classics that have stood the test of time as well as the duds that were remaindered two weeks after their pub date.

I myself have always loved mysteries. Things happen in them. Conflicts are presented and then resolved. There is a crime (usually a murder), there is someone to solve that crime, and, in the end, justice must seem to have been done. The guilty are not always punished, the innocent do not always triumph, but one usually closes a mystery novel feeling satisfied with the outcome.

“But isn’t that formulaic?” I am asked.

“No more formulaic than a sonnet,” I reply. The sonnet form, fourteen lines divided into an octave and a sestet, dates from the thirteenth century. Dante and Shakespeare wrote sonnets, so did Seamus Heaney, so does Billy Collins.

It’s what a writer does with a form that keeps it fresh.

Edna St. Vincent Millay said it perfectly in a sonnet that begins “I will put Chaos into fourteen lines.”

Chaos, then order.

I grew up reading Nancy Drew, but I also read all the classics of the Golden Age: Christie, Sayers, Rinehart, as well as Rex Stout, Erle Stanley Gardner, Charlotte Armstrong, and any other mysteries my mother borrowed from the bookmobile that came out to the farm every month. The first mystery I ever owned though was Home Sweet Homicide by Craig Rice, which Mother bought at a used-book sale when I was ten or eleven.

Dinah, April, and Archie Carstairs, aged 14, 12, and 10 respectively, are the children of Marian Carstairs, a pulp writer who churns out a new murder mystery every two or three months, much like Craig Rice herself. When the next-door neighbor is murdered and a handsome bachelor police lieutenant comes to question them, the smart-alecky kids immediately think he would make a great husband for their mother. So of course, they decide to solve the murder themselves and give her the credit.

I loved that book and reread it at least twice a year for the next four or five years. It took me that long to realize that I wasn’t rereading it for the scenes with the kids, but for the scenes with the mother, who spent most of the book up in her room, pounding away on her manual typewriter. The whole idea of being a writer seized my imagination.

When I first began to write, I read lots of how-to books and tried several different forms before I found my voice. The usual advice is to write what you know, but I had a horror of taking off my clothes in public, which immediately precluded the coming-of-age novel that is often a novelist’s first book. I did not want to cannibalize my childhood nor smear my parents and relatives nor exaggerate any hardships I might have experienced.

It is a terrible burden to want to write and realize you have nothing to say . . . at least nothing you want to say in public. Yet, nowhere in all those how-to books did I ever see “Write what you like to read.”

Eventually it dawned on me that the mystery form would best fit all my needs. Even if I had nothing profound to say, I could write a story and perhaps earn a living if enough people found it entertaining. Over the years, I have gone from thinking I had nothing to say to realizing that there is nothing I can not say in this form. And because mystery novels are perceived by and large as entertainment only, this means mystery writers can fly beneath the radar and slip in social commentary, political ideas, and maybe even a little educational propaganda.

My books are set here in my native North Carolina, which used to be rural and agrarian, where landowners could do what they liked with their land because of the sparse population. As our population soars, it’s been hard for some of my fellow citizens to realize that new rules and regulations aren’t all bad.

In Shooting at Loons, I let my Judge Deborah Knott ask her friend Chet why his coastal community doesn’t have zoning laws to protect homes from having a fish factory built next door:

Chet shook his head. “People here are so adamantly opposed to any kind of government interference that they won’t allow zoning of any kind.”

“That’s crazy,” Deborah said. “Zoning’s the only way a community can control growth and have a say in what’s built.”

“Well, why don’t you just run on over and tell them that if you get a few minutes off from court?” Chet said with asperity. “You think people haven’t tried? Every time the county planners try to hold a hearing on the subject and explain how zoning would protect us, they’re lucky to get away with their lives.”

Here in NC, where tobacco is slowly being phased out, some farmers would love to grow industrial hemp, so in Hard Row, I had Deborah ponder why they aren’t allowed to:

“Hemp is a wonderful source material of paper and cloth and our soil and climate would make it a perfect alternative to tobacco. If it had first been called the paper weed or something equally innocuous, North Carolina would be a huge producer. With a name like hemp, though, our legislators are scared to death to promote it even though you’d have to smoke a ton of the stuff to get a decent buzz.”

Only three sentences tucked in between arguments for raising ostriches or shiitake mushrooms, but if enough readers get used to the idea that not all hemp is created equal, farmers may eventually be allowed to raise the industrial variety.

This is why I don’t mind being dismissed as a “genre writer.” As long as my books are published and read, I’m going to keep writing them, no matter what they’re called.

I will put Chaos in fourteen lines . . .

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