Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day

Interesting, isn't it, that we choose to commemorate someone's death by giving each other Hallmark cards and boxes of chocolates?

It's true. Saints' days are celebrated on the dates of their deaths--not their births, as we so often do for modern heroes from Washington to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Elvis. But it gets even more complicated.

Apparently there were several saints named Valentine. The one whose death was recorded to have occurred on February 14 was, according to Wikipedia, "martyred in Africa with a number of companions, but nothing more is known about him."  He and two others, Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni, share the saints' day established about 500 A.D. While all of the Valentines were doubtless ardent believers and died in the faith, none of them seems to have been particularly romantic so far as we know.

So why do we consider Valentine's Day a day of romance and love? Ask Chaucer. Apparently it was in the 14th century when he wrote, "For this was Saint Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate."  And from there we get to the Hallmark holiday we know today.

I have known people who hate Valentine's Day, in part because the world pairs off, and if one is without a mate, the celebrations of the day only accentuate that state. Others feel that the day is an artificial excuse for florists, chocolatiers, and greeting card companies to dip into our wallets. And still others revere it as a chance to focus on their significant others, and tell them, in words they might not often say, that they are important and loved. Whatever the origin or exploitation of the day, that can't be all bad.

What do you think? Do love Valentine's Day? Hate it? Or are you somewhere in between?

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Cozy by Any Other Name . . .

For a while now, I have been happily telling people that I am writing a cozy mystery. My story meets all the usual criteria: a puzzle to solve, an amateur detective (i.e. not a police officer, private detective, medical examiner, or other professional), a small town setting, a lack of gore and violence, no explicit sex, and an emphasis on plot and character instead of action. I thought I was pretty safe with declaring "cozy" to be my subgenre.

But recently I have been in touch with other authors who have set me straight. "Cozy," they tell me, is no longer the word-of-choice to describe what I am writing. Cozies get a bad rap for being simplistic fluff. Writers of other mystery genres quietly look down on cozies, I'm told, while writers of literary novels look down on mysteries. In order to retain a more respectable position in the hierarchy, cozy writers, they tell me, should claim to write "traditional" mysteries.

Traditional vs. Cozy. What's the difference?

At a recent writers conference, an editor said that her house publishes traditional mysteries, but not cozies. Where, I asked her, does she draw the line between the two? She wasn't able to articulate it. So I have made an effort to compile a list of criteria most often cited as distinguishing one from the other.
  • I have heard that a cozy is almost always a part of a series, while a traditional mystery may be, but might not. (Isn't that the same thing?)
  • Some say that a cozy must include a craft, recipes, talking animals or the like, while others say that while such books are definitely cozy, those elements are not required for a book to fall into the cozy category. (Dame Agatha did not include any of the above, yet she is considered the mother of the genre.)
  • A cozy, some argue, has a female protagonist, while a tradition mystery can have either a male or female protagonist. (Is it me, or is that just sexist?)
  • It is said that the protagonist in a cozy must be likable, whereas the protagonist in a traditional mystery might be more damaged. (Don't all protagonists need flaws?)
  • The mood in a cozy, some suggest, is more apt to be light-hearted than in a traditional mystery. (Simplistic fluff? Hardly true of the cozies I've read.)
I seems that most of these distinctions are in shades of grey, rather than real differences. Perhaps there is no real line between the two, and this labeling has little to do with what we write. Both involve amateur detectives working on a puzzle, usually in a closed community. Both have to play fair with the reader, avoiding the deus ex machina ending. Both are supposed to have Good win against Evil in the end. So why call them by different names?

I am told, one must be very careful about how one describes one's work. For instance, a writer told me that "amateur detective" is no longer the favored term; I should call my protagonist an "accidental sleuth." I guess that sounds more traditional.

My work has no recipes, crafts, or talking pets (but I read those that do). My non-professional female protagonist is curious, intelligent, and a bit damaged. It is set in a small town with, I hope, a cast of interesting characters. I don't write humor, but it has its lighter moments. I hope it will be a series.

So what am I writing?

A traditional cozy.

What do you think? Is there a difference between a "traditional" and a "cozy" mystery, or are these distinctions without a difference?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

An Interview with Jessie Crockett

The title of Jessie Crockett's debut novel with Mainly Murder Press, Live Free or Die, is the state motto of New Hampshire, and her book embodies all that we've come to expect of a good New England cozy mystery. The protagonist is the widowed postmistress of tiny Winslow Falls, NH. In her day job, she hears all the town's gossip, which helps her solve a mystery in her other life--as a volunteer firefighter suddenly in charge of an investigation of a spate of unexplained fires. In the ashes of the latest, she found the body of one of the town's most beloved citizens. When a tall, red-bearded, state fire investigator arrives to help unravel the mystery, sparks of another sort fly. 
Her book is available at AmazonSmashwordsBarnes & Noble, and IndieBound, among other outlets.  I'm happy to welcome Jessie to my blog today.

CLW: Hi Jessie. Having grown up in New England, and having spent a lot of time in New Hampshire, I really enjoyed the setting for your book. How did you make it seem so believable?

JC: I've lived in New Hampshire since I was a young child. My parents and all my extended family are from Maine so my own experience is centered around New England. I think it also comes down to the fact that I was very shy until I became an adult.  Shy people tend to be hyper-aware of their surroundings. And they are natural observers because they are usually on the outside of what is happening.

CLW: Your protagonist, Gwen Fifield, is the town’s widowed postmistress and a member of the volunteer fire department. What a combination. Is she based on anyone you know?

JC: My husband and I bought a home in a very small New Hampshire village sixteen years ago. The first person I met in town was the postmistress.  She was kind, helpful and friendly. I came to value not only her friendship but the everyday things she did to grease the social wheels of our tiny community. The time finally arrived a few years ago for her to retire. The long string of temporary replacement postmistresses we were sent did not fill her shoes. I was heartbroken and decided the only way to get my beloved postmistress back was to make one up. Gwen's best qualities, those of wisdom and community-mindedness, are very much shared by the real life postmistress from my village. The rest of the story, faithless husbands, difficult sisters, and arguments with local law enforcement, are entirely from my imagination. 

CLW: You have a large cast of characters, all with a variety of motives that keep us guessing throughout the book. How did you keep them all straight as you plotted your mystery?

JC: I'm glad to hear I kept you guessing! Keeping my characters and their motives straight never gives me any trouble. When I am writing I feel like I am in the story. I can see and hear the characters. When things are going well, writing about them feels like transcribing a memory instead of like I am making things up. If I don't feel that way I stop because I realize I am off course. That being said, what I do have trouble with is the order of events. I know everyone and why they do what they do, I just don't always remember when they do it.  

I write in scenes and when I was writing Live Free or Die I used one sticky note for each scene. My office has a flat chair rail running all the way around it. I used it as a timeline for the scenes and would rearrange them on it until everything was finally in the right order. Some of the sticky notes completely lost their stick from being repositioned so many times. I would find myself with plot holes created by actions out of order and clues Gwen could not possibly have found when she did. I even had her live one day twice and then skip another by accident. Now I have a giant sheet of glass mounted to my office wall and I write on it with different colored markers which seems to be working at least as well as the sticky notes.

CLW: The romance between Gwen and the state fire investigator, Hugh Larsen, is especially endearing.  We’d love to see more of him, too. Are you planning a series?

JC: I am writing a series. The second is underway right now and I plan to have it completed by April 1. I don't have a release date yet, but I what I do know is the title: Body of Water. The community will face flooding as well as interest from a large corporation wanting to set up shop in Winslow Falls. Gwen and Hugh will be back along with Augusta, Clive, Winston, and Ray, as well as a bunch of new faces around the village.

CLW: What drew you to writing a traditional mystery? Have you written in other genres?

JC: The first chapter book I ever read was The Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore. I was so proud of reading a book that seemed so grown-up I think I automatically associated mysteries with pleasure. I love to read in many genres but at this point I prefer to write mysteries. I like the structure of it and the commitment to the reader to stay within the rules while misdirecting their attention. I also like that most mysteries can be counted on to provide a story with a satisfying ending. So much of day to day life remains undone. There is always more laundry to do, more meals to cook, more loose clapboards to nail back onto the house. Usually, in a mystery, at the end you feel it is complete.

CLW: What was the hardest part of writing your mystery?

JC:  First drafts are my biggest challenge. I've heard a lot of other writers talk about how much they hate editing and going through all the drafts necessary to polish work. I prefer rewriting. I feel like I can fix a mess. What is harder, for me, is to make one in the first place. The first one third to one half of the manuscript is the worst. Once I've gotten through that, I start to know what the story really is about and then I sail on through to the end. It's a lot like knitting. The first several rows of any project are hard to hold onto and don't look at all like what the piece will become. You stop and start and maybe even change needles as you get a feel for what works for this particular project and what doesn't. But before long you catch the rhythm and everything becomes a pleasure. 

CLW: Can you tell us how you found your publisher?

JC: I belong to The Guppies, which is the internet chapter of the Sisters in Crime. The Guppies main function is to provide information and support for, as yet, unpublished mystery writers. Someone in the group sent out an email mentioning Mainly Murder Press being open to submissions. I sent in Live Free or Die and was published nine months later.

CLW: Was there anything about the publishing process that surprised you?

JC: Belonging to groups like The Guppies and Sisters in Crime really helped to prepare me for what the process of being published would actually entail so I wasn't really surprised by much other than my own reaction to the realization I was about to join the ranks of the published. I floated around on a cloud of pure joy for months. 

CLW: Now that your book is out, do you have any advice for emerging writers?  
JC: Have fun. Enjoy the process of discovering how you work best and the voice you like to use to tell your stories. If you want to move from being pre-published to professional you need to behave like a professional. This means understanding that professionals in the industry, such as agents and editors, know their markets and are not rejecting you personally if they are not interested in your work. If you want to succeed I suggest you limit feelings of bitterness and self pity to one fifteen-minute session weekly. I like Friday mornings between 6 and 6:15. I usually forget and then I have to stay in a positive frame of mind for another week. I also love the advice my husband gave me the day I had received my eighth rejections in seven days: Chin up, pen down.

CLW: Great advice. Thanks for joining us today, and best of luck with your writing career

If you enjoy a good New England cozy mystery, be sure to pick up a copy of Jessie's book Live Free or Die.