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Switching Genres

About three years ago, I was ready for a change. I wanted to write something different. I didn’t know what, exactly; I just knew it had to be anything but romance. 

This presented a challenge, since I’d written nine romance/romantic comedies. 

No problem there. Who doesn’t love a good rom com? But writing another book with a “she hates him, she likes him, she really hates him, she actually really loves him” premise just didn’t appeal. No matter how much the pair disliked each other at the start, by the end they’d be in love. No suspense there. End of story. 

I was burned out, bored, and out of ideas. 

I pondered the possibilities. Maybe I’d write about a Navy SEAL. Or a cop. Or a homicide detective. Something more action-y. Maybe I’d try penning a thriller. They’re popular, right? Maybe a historical romance. But none of those really grabbed me, either. 

I read an article about writing (I read a lot of those) and something the author said clicked. If you don’t know what to write, the article advised, think about what you loved to read growing up. 

And I thought about it. And I realized I loved to read . . . mysteries. Nancy Drew. Agatha Christie. Barbara Michaels. Elizabeth Peters. I’ve spent many hours over the years watching countless episodes of Midsomer Murders, Murder She Wrote, Murder She Baked, Monk, Garage Sale Mysteries, Miss Fisher’s Mysteries, Father Brown, and (my absolute favorite) Agatha Raisin. 

Suddenly I knew I wanted to write mysteries. Cozy mysteries.

What, you ask, is a cozy mystery? What makes it a ‘cozy’? The story typically occurs in a small town or perhaps an English village. Everyone knows everyone else. Shopkeepers greet visitors with either a cheery good morning or indifference, and there’s usually a neighborhood busybody, someone with a secret, and a philandering husband or wife (or two). 

Then someone is murdered. 

Enter the amateur sleuth. He or she has no background in police science, no private investigator’s license; only a talent for picking up clues and a burning desire to figure out “who done it.” Why? Because our sleuth has a personal stake in the outcome. Perhaps the victim was a friend, or a family member is accused of the murder. Or perhaps the sleuth is accused of the murder. Whatever the case, the true culprit must be found. 

Readers expect certain things from a cozy. They want to be entertained, certainly. They want to be puzzled as they consider the clues right along with the sleuth. They want the murderer to be caught and they want justice to prevail. 

And, best of all, there’s room for a little romance in a cozy mystery, too. The detective must deal with an intrepid amateur sleuth who annoys, obstructs, and frustrates him every step of the way, and yet . . . Well. Let’s just say that love can bloom in the oddest places.

I created my own amateur sleuth, a college professor and Jane Austen scholar named Phaedra Brighton, and dropped her smack in the middle of a murder mystery in a small Virginia town. The stakes are high – her best friend is wrongly accused of killing her husband and it’s up to Professor Brighton to find the real culprit. Will Detective Matteo Morelli help or hinder her attempts to investigate?

Because I really loved the subject matter, I wrote Pride, Prejudice, and Peril with an enthusiasm and joy I hadn’t experienced in a long time. I fell in love with writing again.

The three-book series sold to Berkley Prime Crime, I got my writing mojo back, and now I look forward to sitting at the computer and tapping the keys.

No mystery there.

TEN QUESTIONS WITH VANESSA A. RYAN

Author of The Trouble with Murder

Today I’m pleased to welcome Vanessa A. Ryan to the blog. She’s a talented artist, actress, and writer, and her brand new book, The Trouble with Murder, is out now. So without further ado, let’s get started!

As an actress (Magic Mike, Heart of Fear), former stand-up comedian, artist, writer, and feral cat rescuer, tell us — what’s your writing story? What led you to writing?

I liked writing stories when I was in elementary school. I even wrote our sixth-grade class play, but when I went to college I studied art. I worked hard at it and eventually made a living from selling my work. Though before that happened I supported myself by teaching grade school and then working as an accountant, as well as a few other short-term jobs. I didn’t have time to think about writing stories, though I did take some writing classes at UCLA and UCI Extension. 

When I became more successful as an artist, I decided I had more time to write, and I wanted to write a novel. That novel ultimately became A Palette for Murder. One of my writing teachers had referred me to a New York agent, and she tried but couldn’t sell an earlier version of it. Then I sent that agent A Blue Moon, which became the first novel I published. She hated it and left me a voice message about how much she hated it. At that time, I had an answering machine, and when I saw a message on it I picked up the phone to hear her shouting about how much she thought it was the worst book she had ever read. When she realized I had picked up the phone, she told me she had meant to leave a voice message and told me to write another mystery. However life got in the way, but some years later I got A Palette for Murder published, though not through that agent.

Your newest book, The Trouble With Murder, is the first in a brand-new series featuring private investigator Hetty Carson. Tell us a bit about it.

I had written about amateur detectives, and The Trouble With Murder is my first private eye novel. I wanted to add a noir element to a novel, and I felt that having a professional investigator as my protagonist would be the way to do it. Hetty isn’t the clichéd hard-drinking PI. Her ex-husband was a rich, powerful lawyer who’s now disbarred and on the lam for embezzling his clients. She makes it her mission to track him down, so she starts working for a PI firm as an intern. When she has enough experience, her employer promotes to an investigator. But after a few years, the company fires her for spending too much time trying to locate her ex-husband and not enough on their clients. She starts her own PI business, but clients are few so she takes a side job selling tequila mixers to bars and restaurants. Her sales route is in the garment district of downtown L.A., and this is where the story begins.

Your previous books, A Palette for Murder and A Blue Moon, are mystery and urban fantasy novels, respectively. What drew you to the mystery genre?

As a kid, I read Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys novels. As an adult, I discovered Agatha Christie’s novels and devoured them. I also started reading other classic mystery novels and then I got into darker ones, such as those by Dorothy B. Hughes, Cornell Woolrich, and James M. Cain. I read all the Graham Greene novels and those of Ernest Hemmingway. Since I loved reading mystery novels, that’s what I decided to write.

Who are your favorite writers? How did they influence you?

I guess, Agatha Christie, Cornell Woolrich, Graham Greene, Dorothy B. Hughes, Mary Roberts Rhinehart, Barbara Michaels (aka Elizabeth Peters), and there are so many more I couldn’t name them all. 

From these authors, I learned about timing and transitioning from one scene to the next. I once tried outlining some of their novels but got so caught up in the stories that outlining seemed too tedious. I’d rather just enjoy them. I think people learn by osmosis or something.

Are you a “pantser,” a “plotter,” or a bit of both?

I’m a bit of both. I outlined my first novel on 3×5 cards. But now I think of the main characters I want and the situation I’m putting them in. I have a vague idea of where the story will end up, but I don’t always know how I’ll get there. Or who the culprit is. 

What’s your typical writing routine? Do you prefer to write in a busy coffee shop, or a quiet corner? 

I like to write in my home office on my desktop. I need a very comfortable chair. And a large block of time so I won’t be thinking I’m supposed to be somewhere else. I usually like to start in the late morning, but sometimes at night before I turn off my computer I will look at what I’ve written and start plowing into it with rewrites or new ideas I’ve thought of during the day.

What inspired the idea for The Trouble With Murder?

I once worked in the garment district of L.A. and I had a friend who was a fashion designer for one of the manufacturers there. Hetty sells her tequila mixers to dive bars in that area, and when I lived in Venice, California there was a dive bar across the street from my art studio. I had many artist friends and we would hang out in that bar. I wasn’t much of a drinker (and neither is Hetty), but it was fun to go there. We thought the upscale bars in Marina del Rey were too corporate for our tastes.

Social media. Love it or hate it? 

I don’t enjoy posting and keeping up with it, but it seems that we all need to be involved in it. The Internet is a blessing and a curse.

What can we expect from you in the future? Any plans to switch genres?

I plan to write more mysteries. I don’t know if I’ll ever switch genres, though I have written paranormal mysteries, and I may write more of them.

For all of the aspiring writers out there, share your best writing advice.

Hmm. My advice is to keep writing and try to ignore your critics. If you’re lucky, you’ll develop an audience who enjoys your work. If you’re luckier, they will outlast your critics.

Great writing advice, Vanessa! Thank you for stopping by.

To learn more about Vanessa:

Vanessa A. Ryan website

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The Trouble with Murder