Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a winner not only of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s Readers Award but of the comparable award given by our sister publication Asimov’s Science Fiction. Mystery and science fiction are not the only genres in which she excels, however. She also writes fantasy and romance and, as she says, whatever else catches her fancy. Her next science-fiction novel, The Falls, to be released in October, could also be classified as a mystery, and she has a new mystery novel, A Gym of Her Own, due out in March of 2017, just a couple of months after her next EQMM story is scheduled to appear. Kris’s versatility is evident in the editorial realm as well. She is a past editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and she recently coedited Kobo Presents the Best Mystery and Crime Fiction of 2016. In this post she shares her thoughts about the classification of fiction according to genres. We can’t think of anyone better placed to consider that topic than she.—Janet Hutchings
Let me tell you a secret:
I have never understood genre. In fact, I had no idea what a genre was until my friend, science-fiction writer Kevin J. Anderson, explained genre to me when we were in college.
Even after that, I didn’t entirely understand genre. As a human being, I’m rather anti-classification. When I go to a bookstore, I go to a book store, not a genre store. Sometimes I go to a genre store, such The Mysterious Bookshop in New York or Mysterious Galaxy in California. But mostly, I go to a store. If it happens to have books, I look at the books.
All of the books. Every last one of them.
I’m more interested in the story, not the trappings that make it easily identifiable to someone who wants to classify that story to, say, put it on a bookshelf so that customers can find it.
Which, I suppose, explains my entire writing career. My mind militantly refuses to stay in one genre. In February, I turned to my Diving Universe series—a science-fiction series that the fans like, and which has won numerous readers awards from EQMM’s sister magazine, Asimov’s. I needed some world-building questions answered, so I decided to write a novella to explain things to myself. (Yes, my process is that weird.) When I finished it, I figured, I would send it to Sheila Williams at Asimov’s and see what she thought.
So . . . I started the story with the image that came to mind. (I do that a lot.) I could see two pairs of shoes getting wet on a high overlook above a roaring waterfall, and a dead body in the pool of water below.
Mystery opening, not an sf opening.
In fact, for weeks, I fought that opening hard, looking for the robot or the spaceship or the computer that would make the story science fiction. My brain kept telling me I was writing science fiction, but my training—my genre training—told me I was writing a mystery.
Finally, a month in, I gave up and started a second novella, on an alien planet, with a character in a base deep underground. And my rebellious mind relaxed. There it is, Fool, my brain said to me. See? I told you that this project was science fiction.
I hadn’t known until that moment that Novella 1, at the waterfall, was related to Novella 2, taking place deep underground.
What my brain hadn’t told me was that it had decided to write an unrelated novel in the Diving universe—unrelated to all the series characters, and focused on a mystery, with a coroner and detectives and security officers and murder most foul.
I called that book The Falls, but the cover image for the October release has a waterfall and a spaceship.
Yes, I have an unruly mind. And worse, my mind loves puzzles. Which means that half my writing time is spent in quandaries like the one above. I plan something, my brain throws me a curveball, and I have learned over the years to go with the curveball, not the project I planned.
I write like I read—with no rhyme or reason to it. I look at libraries and bookstores like gigantic smorgasbords, and I become the glutton who must put everything on her plate in case I might want to taste it later on. Sure, I go to the familiar stuff first, the bread, pizza, and cakes of my reading experience, but I do try the other stuff, and sometimes I love it.
Sometimes I hate it, but I never blame the genre. I blame me. I figure the book wasn’t to my taste or I was too critical when I read it or I wasn’t in the mood . . .
You get the idea.
Writers write what they read, and if you look for a thread in all the diverse genres I write, you’ll find (more often than not) a mystery or a secret at the center of it. If you really pressed me, I’d have to say that mystery is my favorite genre.
But by that I mean mystery, not crime fiction (which I also love). Mystery as in something mysterious, unknown, strange and secretive. Put the word “secret” or “hidden” or “lost” in the title, and my hand is reaching for the book before I even realize I’ve seen the cover.
Hmmm. Come to think of it that explains why I ended up with the book I’m reading today—The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett by Nathan Ward. I read a lot about the early writers of mystery, but I’ve been wanting to read The Lost Detective ever since I bought it (mumble mumble) months ago. When I was searching for my next nonfiction read, I grabbed the one with the word “lost” on the cover.
Oh, so predictable.
And yet unpredictable.
When I was a young writer, someone told me or I read somewhere that mystery and science fiction were the hardest genres to write. Only Isaac Asimov was a good enough writer to successfully combine them. Egotist that I am (and that most writers are. Don’t let us tell you otherwise), I decided to prove that statement wrong. I could combine mystery and sf too.
Little did I know that writers from the dawn of time (the dawn of genre?) combined both mystery and science fiction with great success. My determination to prove an incorrect statement wrong showed the depth of my ignorance of the history of genre and both fields, but it ended up being serendipity for me. The first short story I ever sold, “Skin Deep,” started with what looked like a dead body . . . in a pool of water . . . and the story ended up as science fiction.
Hmmm. I see a pattern here.
For those of you new to my work, I don’t just write science-fiction mysteries, or you wouldn’t see my byline in EQMM (although I’ve managed to sneak an sf story or two past Janet—or rather, she decided the mystery element outweighed the sf element). I write historical mysteries and contemporary mysteries too.
I used to rebel at the idea that my Smokey Dalton series, written under the name Kris Nelscott, was a historical mystery series. I started the first book in 1995, and 1968 seemed not that far away. Think about it: The majority of us still used pay phones, not cell phones, and only weird geeky people like me binge-watched TV shows thanks to this weird device called a VCR. Most of us still watched TV live, and didn’t have internet accounts, and drove to the store to get things rather than having things delivered to our doorstep.
Now, 1968 does feel like the very distant past, so distant that when I write a Smokey Dalton novel or a short story about one of the side characters, I sometimes find myself wondering how we handled emergency situations when 9-1-1 didn’t exist. Heck, in 1968, as my research told me, there were no such things as paramedics, so when an ambulance arrived at the scene of a shooting, the drivers pretty much did what Hemingway and his ambulance company did in World War I—they would load the wounded onto makeshift beds and drive like bats out of hell.
I see historical mystery and science-fiction mystery as similar genres, if not the same genre. (See? Told you I have genre issues.) As the writer of both kinds of stories, I have to make you understand the world before you can understand what has gone wrong inside of it. Modern novels set in cultures other than America or Great Britain have the same mandate: We have to understand before we can see the problems. (Even if the problem is a homicide.)
I love that challenge. I also like world-building and getting the details right. I love figuring out how something as small as two wet pairs of shoes (The Falls) or as large as a teenage girl getting raped in a community afraid to call the police (the most recent Smokey Dalton novel, Street Justice) fit into the entire storytelling package.
The best part about writing stories like that isn’t the idea or the research or even those moments of revelation when I figure out who dun what. The best part is writing myself into a corner that wouldn’t exist without the world building in that book, figuring out what went wrong and how my merry little band of characters can believably fix it.
That’s one reason I love writing short stories as well. Short stories always surprise me. First, that I can squeeze an entire crime and its solution into just a few pages, and second, that something that small can be satisfying.
I find short mystery fiction to be more satisfying than many mystery novels. I recently coedited Kobo Presents The Year’s Best Mystery and Crime Stories 2016 alongside John Helfers. My biggest fear, editing a book like that, was that I would soon tire of the short-mystery form—especially considering we hadn’t finalized our contract until the summer, so we had to cram a year’s worth of reading into three months.
My fear was unnecessary. The breadth and strength of the short-mystery market was amazing. I went to my reading chair with anticipation, not dread. The stories were so varied that I didn’t even feel like I had been trapped in a narrowly defined genre—because mystery isn’t narrow.
That’s why I can write romance novels with mystery overtones or mystery novels with romance overtones. Why I can have a classic murder mystery in a far-future sf novel or why I can have hints of an sf solution to my classic murder mystery short story.
I love playing with genre.
And I suppose I lied just a little. (That’s what we writers do: We lie as we search for the truth.) I do understand genre. I understand it well enough to see the lines, and then color inside, outside, and around them.
Just like I see the signs in a bookstore that show me where the mystery section is or the science-fiction section or the romance section. I look at the signs, and then I ignore them.
Reading—and writing—are a lot more fun that way.
I guess it’s really not a secret, if you look at my work.
But I hooked you, didn’t I, when I promised to tell you a secret? I gave this piece just an air of mystery. And I lied.
All great starts to a mystery.
Which is why mysteries are so fun.