Genre is important. So important that publishers market to genre expectations and authors write to genre expectations. Not because they are selling out, but because they want people to know–in a moment–what type of story they’re getting. If it’s a mystery, there needs to be a crime or puzzle to be solved. If it’s a thriller, there needs to be a fast, page-turning pace and high stakes. If it’s a suspense, there needs to be high, page-turning tension. If it’s a romance, there needs to be a happily ever after. If it’s a paranormal, there needs to be fantastical elements–be them grounded in the “real world” like Kay Hooper’s psychic FBI series or urban fantasy like Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake vampire huntress or true fantasy like Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings.
Genre blending is popular with both authors and readers because we like to take common, accessible story elements and twist them a bit to make something just a little bit different. Romantic suspense is a blended genre that has become it’s own separate genre from which other genres can be blended.
In romantic suspense (or romantic thrillers–same thing, just romantic thrillers, IMO, focuses more on the thrill than the romance and romantic suspense tends to be more romance driven. But that’s just my personal definition.) Anyway, my knee-jerk definition of romantic suspense is, “A thriller with a hero and a heroine who both live and are together at the end of the book.” But the truth is, there is a broad range of romantic thrillers, with very light on the suspense (my very good and talented friend Roxanne St. Claire writes the incredible Bullet Catchers series which has a suspense subplot, but the romance–with hot guys–take center stage) to very light on the romance (such as one of my all-time favorites–even before she gave me a quote for my FBI Trilogy–Lisa Gardner who writes thrillers with relationship subplots, such as her Quincy/Rainey series or Kim/Mac.) Some authors are very well balanced, such as the incomparable Linda Howard.
With the wide range of romantic thrillers, it’s no surprise that those of us who are writing them start incorporating other elements.
JD Robb’s futuristic romantic suspense novels, her IN DEATH series, is one of the strongest out there. Set in 2059, she has a compelling mystery, strong characters, and a constantly developing and growing relationship between the richest man in the universe (Roarke) and New York City’s top cop (Eve Dallas.) I remember Kay Hooper as one of the first to write a back-to-back-to-back trilogy, in 2002 I believe, with her SHADOW books, introducing psychic FBI agents. Real life crimes solved by real life FBI agents–who had a six sense. It added an interesting twist on an established genre.
In 2003, before I sold, I had sent out a bunch of queries for what ended up being my debut novel, and while I was waiting for responses, I came up with an idea I really loved. While it was still vague in my head, I wrote a few chapters. What if an evil coven releases the seven deadly sins into the world? What if the seven deadly sins were demons? Who could stop them? How?
I ended up selling my romantic suspense, and I put the seven deadly sins series on the back burner. Partly because I knew, in my heart, that I didn’t have the skill to write the story I could picture in my head. Nor did I have the discipline to write it. This isn’t to say that romantic suspense is easy or formulaic, but there is a comfort in writing genre fiction. I KNOW that my hero and heroine are going to live. I KNOW that the crime is going to be solved. I may not know anything else about the story, but the two musts of the genre keep me focused toward the goal. And I’ll admit it’s really fun to throw lots of danger in the mix and figure out how on earth these characters are going to survive.
Twelve romantic thrillers later, and I am on the verge of completing the first of my Seven Deadly Sins series. ORIGINAL SIN will be released on January 26, 2010. I’m excited and scared to death at the same time.
Genre is like comfort food. You always go back to it because it makes you feel good. It’s there when you need it, it’s satisfying, it’s rich and full and thoroughly delicious. You know what to expect. This is good.
As Alex said yesterday (and no, we didn’t plan to blog on similar topics!):
The challenge of genre is delivering something unique and compelling within a proscribed form.
Now, I happen to be grateful for a proscribed form, because it gives a shape to a story from the very beginning, and let’s face it, when you first embark on a project, story is a vast and amorphous mass, or maybe that’s mess. Any signposts in that chaos are lifesaving.
Amen. This is why I love forensics. When I get stuck in a book, I focus on the evidence. What do my characters know? What is my villain doing? What does the evidence show? It’s a signpost that keeps me focused on the GOAL which is solving the crime in (hopefully) a “unique and compelling” way.
In all fiction, but paranormal in particular, worldbuilding is crucial. One definition:
Worldbuilding is the process of constructing an imaginary world, usually associated with a fictional universe.
Okay, I see that . . . but is the world completely imaginary? According to the continuing article it is, including:
It describes a key role in the task of a fantasy writer: that of developing an imaginary setting that is coherent and possesses a history, geography, ecology, and so forth. The process usually involves the creation of maps, listing the back-story of the world and the people of the world, amongst other features.
This is where I diverge. Worldbuilding does not necessarily mean a completely new world. What if we like the one we have? I do. I don’t have to create a map, for example, or an entire history. There’s enough in our own several thousands of years that will do nicely. I’ll just pick and choose what I want, and then adhere to those rules.
So I’m worldbuilding . . . but I’m not.
I created a fictitious town in Central California between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara. I call it Santa Louisa and it’s home of the Lost Mission of California, or Santa Louisa de Los Padres Mission, which was “lost” because it was built too far off the mission trail.
I’ve always been fascinated by a noble group of people who band together for the common good, battling evil to protect the many from violent death. Isn’t that what crime fiction is all about, anyway? Cops, prosecutors, and others battling personal demons while saving innocent people from violence, solving a crime, and catching the bad guy.
Really, my seven deadly sins series is the same thing. Just not cops, and their battling inhuman evil, not only human evil (though they battle that, too.)
And in worldbuilding, according to several articles, you have to answer a bunch of questions about your world and the people who populate it. Hmm, that sounds a bit too much like plotting, so I skipped it.
But as I wrote the first book, I needed some basic rules. I couldn’t just make them up as I went. (okay, okay, I admit it. I made it all up as I went. That’s what revisions are for, to clean up the messy beginning.) I grounded everything in the real world. I have a sheriff as a main character, for example, who investigates the crimes as any cop would. But she knows there’s something supernatural at work as well. Her theory and focus is that if she can stop the HUMANS responsible for summoning demons, she can beat them. She’s grounded in law and order; right and wrong.
The hardest part of creating this world (read: writing the book) was figuring out the rules the villains had to follow. I couldn’t have magicians ala Harry Potter flying around on broomsticks, but in truth, the occult is essentially the practice of magic–controlling physical and supernatural forces.
When in doubt, I fall back to research books. Over the last two years I’ve lined my shelves with a wide-variety of religious and supernatural and occult books. In my crime novels, I get inside the head of the villains; I had to do it with the coven as well. And I learned a tremendous amount of information about what true witches–magicians–aspire to. It’s not about making a deal with the devil–in fact, one author commented that it was the weak magicians who resorted to pacts with demons–it was about amassing enough power and knowledge to gain control over supernatural forces.
That gave me exactly what I needed. Real-life beliefs and mythology (for lack of a better world) that I could build into a fictional occult group. They have immense power because they have honed their skills, but there are physical and emotional limits to their power. This isn’t Samantha Stevens twitching her nose, or the Charmed sisters casting spells.
As I finish up book one, I noticed something about how I wrote it. When I got stuck, I fell back into my comfort zone: forensics. The investigation. Trying to figure out how someone died when there is no physical evidence. When I didn’t know where the story was going, I went over to the sheriff, my comfort character, to see what she was doing. She’s the cop, the real-world foundation. Once, she was interviewing a suspect in his best friend’s murder. Oh, an interrogation! I can write that.
And his answers gave my the big break I needed for my characters to figure out what was going on. Wow. I love it when a story comes together.
All this is leading me back to one of Alex’s main points: that genre provides a signpost in chaos. And I so needed to hear that right now.
Toni and I have often talked about what happens when you write a book that doesn’t fit neatly into the mold. Toni’s BOBBIE FAYE series (book two: GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE GUNS is out as of last week!) doesn’t neatly fit the mold of thriller or romantic suspense–it’s sort of an combo. And when you already have one established “blended” genre (romantic suspense) it’s hard to tack on another genre to “re-blend.”
But the book is incredible. One of the most fun series I have ever read. But when you blend too many genres, you sometimes get stuck in the middle of the Dead Zone–also known as the “general fiction” aisle. These are where the out-of-genre books go to (usually) die. At least, commercially die because most commercial readers browse the genre sections first.
I have written twelve romantic thrillers. They are in the romance section of the bookstore. (And there’s a reason for that, some good, some not-so-good, but that’s a blog for another day.) I’m happy in romance. I have a happily ever after in all my books and the bad guy ALWAYS gets what’s coming to him. (If I killed off the heroine and the bad guy sometimes got away, I’d be in suspense, but I’d be depressed and wouldn’t write anymore, so that’s that.) But it’s true that my books tend to lean a little heavier on the suspense side.
Now add on another tag: paranormal. My series is a paranormal romantic suspense.
But there’s no genre tag for that.
Which really screws me.
My base is in romantic suspense. Thus, my book is listed as a “paranormal romance.” Which really doesn’t fit. There IS a romance, but it’s a multi-book relationship arc. And there is paranormal, but it’s grounded in real-world mythology and physics. For example, one plot point in either book two or three (I’m not that far yet!) is the reality that in America, witchcraft isn’t illegal and summoning demons from hell isn’t illegal, so if you kill a witch who summons a demon from hell, and you get caught, you’re going to stand trial for murder.
I feel like I’m in genre limbo. I’m not trying to write outside of genre, because I love genre fiction. 97% of my fiction shelves are genre. But I’m neither “paranormal romance” or “supernatural thriller”–I’m both. I’m a “supernatural romantic thriller” . . . but there’s no code for that in the system.
Sometimes, the system needs fixing. Because creative people can and will mix and match genre to entertain readers. It’s what we do.
So, I was thinking about some of my favorite “paranormal” stories. THE MATRIX and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK; SUPERNATURAL and FRINGE; and THE STAND by Stephen King. They all have one thing in common: real, ordinary (or extraordinary) people in the real world with a paranormal twist.
Hmm, is it any surprise that’s what I’m writing now?
Do you like the supernatural? What are some of your favorite paranormal movies, tv shows, books? Comment and you get a two-fer . . . two books for the price of one comment. Bawahaha — you’ll get CHARMED AND DANGEROUS by Toni McGee Causey (Bobbie Faye book one) and SUDDEN DEATH by me (FBI Trilogy book one.)
And a winner! The winner of last week’s contest hosted by Toni and open to everyone who commented on the “Dear Summer” entry is Marisa. She did not register an email with us, so Marisa, please contact Toni at toni [dot] causey [at]gmail.com. Thanks for playing!