Welcome to BEYOND THE SHELF on
BEYOND THE SHELF is general commentary about the blog or the mystery and crime writing business by author and site administrator Shannon Muir that doesn’t fall in the scope of a regular column. From now through the month of October, BEYOND THE SHELF will appear on Saturdays and Sundays. The topic today looks back on a series of specials featured in the past called THURSDAY THOUGHTS.
Before moving BEYOND THE SHELF to weekends, and opening up the weekdays for more features of mystery books, THURSDAY THOUGHTS was the place for author Shannon Muir to share her insights. Take a look at some of the best of what THURSDAY THOUGHTS had to offer, and maybe some expanded reflections will be revisited in the near future!
These largely appear largely as they originally were offered, except time-sensitive information has been omitted as much as possible to show what is evergreen about the content.
# # #
“DISCOVERING WOMEN SUSPENSE WRITERS”
Original Commentary Date: September 7, 2017
A couple years back, in pursuit of a little research for a short story project, I visited several used bookstores. I hoped to discover stories featuring female leads written in the pulp era. Didn’t find a lot of that, but learned to my amazement that there were women suspense writers in the early part of the 20th century (as in, as early as 1910 for some titles, though what I found were reprints in the 1950s). I bought several of them and brought them home to check out, and really enjoyed what I read.
# # #
“DISCOVERING MY GENRE”
Original Commentary Date: June 22, 2017
You’ve probably noticed that in the standard interview here at The Pulp and Mystery Shelf that authors are asked about the genres they write in. I admit I admire those who answer, because I’m still struggling with figuring out where my genre – or genres – are.
For example, I would not see myself as a suspense writer. However, I recently had someone liken my story in EXPLORER PULP, “Hidden History” (available now for Kindle, Smashwords, and in print at Amazon and Barnes and Noble) to something they’d see as a fit in Alfred Hitchock’s Mystery Magazine. In the past, I’d perceived my style of writing mysteries and crime fiction more appropriate for the Ellery Queen vein and therefore only have submitted there instead of its sister magazine.
Now here is an online reader – someone I don’t know – defining me as a suspense writer in a way I did not see myself. Re-reading the story, I can see how that comparison would be made. What I learned from the experience is that I might just have a wider range than I think; what I need most right now is a better sense of what my range is.
# # #
“THE DARK SIDE”
Original Commentary Date: July 27, 2017
Quite a few mysteries, suspense, thrillers, and even some science fiction and fantasy tread into dark places. Sometimes it is literally dark and gloomy locations. Other times, the topics and themes are far less than bright and cheery. Yet, it’s very much a part of storytelling to look at all aspects of existence (usually the human condition, but in the cases of science fiction and fantasy, possibly a non-human society is being explored).
As a writer, it’s tough to look at this and not be concerned about how readers are affected. After all, a big part of effective writing is how one connects with someone taking in the world created on the pages. Today, there’s lots of talks of how topics can be “triggers” for people, and I certainly don’t disrespect that in any way. Yet, I struggle with self-censoring so as not to offend anyone… but also aware that too much writing around things may not tell a story genuine enough to be connected with.
It’s a tough call, and a difficult decision, especially knowing how the creative arts – not just words, but painted art and music and all sorts of other things – can affect people. There’s no easy answers. After some struggling, I’ve come to decide that I ultimately have to do what’s best for the story to come out as strong as it can, and hope whatever I do can make a positive difference if I end up exploring dark themes or situations.
# # #
“WHAT DEFINES AN AMATEUR SLEUTH?”
Original Commentary Date: August 24, 2017
When I wrote my early stories about news reporters uncovering crimes, I never made the connection that they were amateur sleuths. In my mind, I’d relegated the amateur sleuth to the stereotypical baker or someone in a knitting or book club. However, the more I thought about it, the reporters are doing similar things. Having a job that requires the finding of clues, doesn’t necessarily make one a professional sleuth, at least in the sense of being licensed.
The licensing aspect – such as a police officer or private investigator – is the distinction I personally make. It also allows for the casting of a pretty wide net for what an amateur sleuth can be. I’ve done one story, for example, where the daughter of a murdered private investigator wants to solve her father’s murder; though her father was licensed, she isn’t simply by virtue of being his daughter, so that would still be an amateur sleuth story.
I wonder how many people don’t cast nearly as wide a net when they think of an amateur sleuth, and if so, how they perceive these types of characters.
# # #
“BUILDING A MYSTERY”
Original Commentary Date: August 10, 2017
I’ve often said that for me, finding the story begins with discovering what character I want to write about. While this is definitely true, when it comes to wanting to tell a tale where mystery (or even suspense), is crucial, I need to make sure that the central question or reveal of the story also works out to be well-developed. Otherwise, I can run into some real problems.
I’ve done some stories where I decided to try and let the mystery reveal itself as it went along, and work with just a bare bones outline. However, the more I wrote, the more I wrote myself into a corner. The type of character I wanted to explore, and the type of mystery I thought would be appropriate for that character, turned out to be at odds instead of complementing.
Part of the writing is exploration though. If I didn’t try things, I wouldn’t be able to see if they worked or not. The issue is not usually a matter of whether the mystery doesn’t work or the character development is bad, but that often they are not meant to go with one another. The mystery to solve is that which plot and which story are meant to go together.
# # #
“DISCOVERING THE CLUES”
Original Commentary Date: August 17, 2017
Once I’ve discovered where what character serves a premise I want to tell, it becomes time to unpack the story and figure out the path it will take. That means digging down to the key details that create the twists and turns that form the backbone of the stories. In the case of writing a mystery, those consist of the clues that are discovered along the way that will uncover the guilty party.
With a mystery, though, I get some added challenges. If the clues are clear and easy to follow, it makes the mystery too easy to guess and runs the risk of the audience figuring it out and not finishing the story, no matter how compelling the characters. So, in the case of a mystery, red herrings must be interjected that muddy the waters, but yet appear credible enough to keep readers guessing. They must appear to be credible alternative options, and not make themselves apparent.
That is where the challenge of the craft comes in, and I admire those who do it well. For me, I enjoy not only working the clues out but figuring out how to craft better ones each time. Growing is the journey.
# # #
“HEARING OTHER AUTHORS”
Original Commentary Date: September 28, 2017
One thing I really like is the chance to hear other authors speak, whether to a large group or in a more intimate setting. Each person’s path to how they got to doing what he or she writes is unique; no one can copy another’s path exactly. Yet, knowing other writers struggle and succeed, and what they face, reminds me as a fellow writer I am not alone.
I also personally believe that people who just read books and don’t write can benefit from listening to authors. They can come to better understand how the authors create the works they enjoy. It gives a chance to see that authors are often people just like they are, with other interests and activities besides just creating words. It also provides authors a way to learn more about the people that enjoy their works as well.
I’m trying to learn to do more of this myself, and taking advantage of the opportunities when they come. However, I’m still rather nervous in larger situations. I believe what I need is practice and time, and the more I do, the better I get.
Hope to maybe meet some of you someday.
# # #
“GEARING UP TO SPEAK”
Original Commentary Date: October 19, 2017
Next week, I’m the guest speaker scheduled for the October 2017 meeting of the Orange County Science Fiction Club, gathering at the Marie Callender’s in Santa Ana. It’s at 7pm on October 25, 2017, for anyone local that might be interested in attending, an invite I am passing on with permission of my contacts at the Club. Though I’ve done panel discussions as recently as last year’s LOSCON, and solo workshops at Long Beach Comic Expo, this is my first talk in a smaller venue.
I’m very excited to get an opportunity like this, though it will be also a challenge for me. In a group, I feel like I can bounce off other people, and to be honest more often than not I’m the moderator anyway in those cases. For a workshop at a convention, I’m far more in control of the clock because people have come to something where they don’t know what to expect and I’m leading them.
In a situation like this, I am the guest and need to fit in with the routine of the group that invited me. During the talk, I will need to more fluidly gauge their interests and customize my talk to them as I go, as there will be more of a sense of questions throughout versus all the interaction towards the end as with con panels.
# # #
“THE SUPER HERO”
Original Commentary Date: August 3, 2017
Recently, I spent time at San Diego Comic-Con 2017, which has exploded over my twenty years of attendance to a larger celebration of the popular arts as the “super hero” began to take a prominent role in other art forms – movies, television and video games, just to name a couple. Even though there will also be SF and fantasy comics, movies, television video games and other media that do not involve a super hero, it still seems the concept of a person on Earth with powers the rest of us do not possess remains the most prominent concept at Con. Even then, not all “super heroes” are from other worlds or have super-human powers; Batman and Green Arrow come to mind as a few who are heroes by virtue of very acute skills possessed by human beings, and yet they are classified in the same group.
I got to wondering why that would be. Is that because these “super heroes” exist in a world that we as readers otherwise can strongly relate to, versus having to work to immerse ourselves in a whole new culture? That’s not to say people don’t find these far away places of SF and fantasy interesting; in fact, I’d definitely say that their prominence is on the rise more than ever before in terms of cosplay at conventions. Yet, the “super hero” refuses to completely be eclipsed by this.
# # #
Original Commentary Date: July 13, 2017
I just got back from some travels as I write this. It’s challenging to me to decide what books to take along with me to read when I’m waiting for plane connections, or winding down for an evening away from home. Granted, having smartphones and tablets with multiple books on them helps by allowing a wider selection range to be carried more conveniently – but then, the struggle still remains exactly what content to have on a device.
For me, I generally prefer lighter reading. For these instances, you would more likely find me reading cozy mysteries, space opera, or urban fantasy; since I never know how much time I will have to read, or how busy I will be, I don’t want to concentrate on trying to remember where I left off in a more complicated plot. Generally in my experiences, trying to read a suspense or thriller, hard science fiction, or epic fantasy just becomes more challenging in these situations.