Three weeks ago, I wrote in part one of Writing Genre Fiction that all genres, including my favourite genre of cosy mysteries, have conventions. And what is a convention? The Oxford English Dictionary defines convention as: ‘a) general agreement, esp agreement on social behaviour etc by implicit consent of the majority; or b) a custom or customary practice, esp an artificial or formal one.’
Here is a quick recap of the main conventions of books in the cosy mystery genre:
- No excessive gore or violence, no realistic trauma, bad language is mild, no sex scenes.
- Usually feature a small cast of characters in an idealised setting, often a country house or a village.
- There must be clues and red herrings.
- The emphasis is on the puzzle of the crime and readers solving that alongside the sleuth.
- The sleuth is usually an amateur, not a police professional, and is often female. Though of course, not always.
- The ending is (generally) cut-and-dried and is often resolved with a gathering of all the main suspects and other players of the story so that the sleuth can reveal the truth behind the crime(s). There may be ongoing storylines that are not resolved, but the crime itself should be resolved at the end of the book.
(I’d be the first to say, my own books don’t always adhere to these guidelines. Sorry.)
Very often authors will strive to write something ‘new’ and may feel that it has all been done before, or that the conventions are ‘old hat’. But for readers who enjoy reading mysteries, doing something different just for the sake of it is not always a good way to win their approval – they love the conventions and expect the author to stick by them at least to a greater extent.
No reader will be happy if you kill off someone’s pet. And it goes without saying that if you bump off your main character’s love interest or a close relation or friend, you will be vilified forever. Likewise if you allow your character to – well – act out of character, readers will notice and be unhappy. Reader expectations are high once you have set out to create a series, and you absolutely have to do what you can to respect the reader’s investment of emotion as well as time and money into your work.
But in actual fact, the range of options available to the author is limited, because as we know, ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ (the Bible: Ecclesiastes 1:9! See, I can do research!) and also, ‘Is there a case where one can say, “Look, this is new”? It has already existed in the ages before us.’ (the Bible: Ecclesiastes 1:10)
And if it had already all been done in Biblical times…
But just because you are constrained by generic convention does not mean you can’t be creative or original. This is where the twists and turns of the plot become the essential ingredient to muddy the waters and cover your tracks . Sorry about the mixed metaphors.
Writing unique or ‘different’ genre fiction can seem difficult – you only have 26 letters to play with, and everyone uses them, right? And if all these conventions and tropes have been used before, if there’s nothing new under the sun, how can we find our unique voice? How can we say something new or fresh? Again this is where plot twists and devices and your own unique way of using those 26 letters comes into play.
Like writing, music is another creative art that has genres and stylistic conventions. And whilst I am not a musician, I am passionate about music. And guess what? Composers of music can be every bit in need of all their ingenuity as writers when it comes to creating something fresh and ‘original’. Just to give you an extremely simple illustration: all these songs are in the key of C Major.
Ain’t No Sunshine by Bill Withers
Stairway To Heaven by Led Zeppelin
Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley
Bad Romance by Lady Gaga
But they are not the same, are they? I was actually a teeny bit surprised to realise they are all in the same key. And of course, there are other keys than just C Major – and all the keys are made up of notes, which when combined in conventional ways, create chords. Chords are grouped together one after the other (called progression, ie moving forward) to create a tune. (Or for the writer, these would compare to scenes or chapters). Here’s another set of examples:
These four songs all heavily feature the same chord progressions. It is the I-V-vi-VI Progression/C-G-Am-F known as the Optimistic chord progression for its uplifting sound. (I think these chords are for guitar – sorry, now I am really revealing my technical ignorance.)
No Woman No Cry by Bob Marley
Right Here Waiting by Richard Marx
Run by Snow Patrol
Let It Be by The Beatles
But again, they are so different, aren’t they? I could go on: these are G Major works:
Another One Bites The Dust by Queen
Wake Me Up When September Ends by Green Day
Brown-Eyed Girl by Van Morrison
You Shook Me All Night Long by AC/DC
Or other chord progressions. If the previous ones are termed the ‘optimistic’ progression, these are the ‘pessimistic’ chord progressions: these are the same chords, just reshuffled to give a different effect. The I-V-vi-VI Progression/C-G-Am-F becomes vi-VI-I-V or Am-F-C-G, and these can create a sense of sadness that ranges from the merely plaintive to downright Throwing Myself Off A Cliff:
The Sun Always Shines On TV by A-Ha (a bit plaintive here and there)
Hurt by Johnny Cash (definitely a cliff moment… but sad songs can be beautiful, and uplifting too – giving catharsis.)
Angels by Robbie Williams
or one of my favourites, Wake Me Up by Avicii
Can you see how different these are though they are using, at least in part, the same conventions?
Coming back to writing, with a small cast of characters, it can be really hard to conceal the guilty party from the avid reader who will often have read hundreds of mystery books and have an excellent working knowledge of the generic style. Enter the trope – a recognisable kind of set plot idea that is often in use in certain genres. In romance, you have tropes such as ‘fake romance’, where the main couple pretend to be in love, often to appease persistent match-making relatives and end up falling in love for real; or you can have ‘enemies to lovers’ (think Elizabeth and Mr Darcy) where the couple begin by hating the very sight of one another but end up by loving the person once they get to know one another better.
In cosy mystery writing, a common trope might be the country house mystery – a closed community, a small number of suspects, a specific set of relationships, and the stage is set for murder in a kind of extremely popular notion but very idealised version of a pre-WWII English country house. The country house could be something other than a country house. For example your story could be set, not in a house but on a train, in a submarine, on a space station, on an island, in a bomb shelter. almost anywhere, in fact, so long as the setting is enclosed in some way. Or you might use any one of the countless other tropes, the locked room trope, or you might use the disappearing corpse trope, or the gaslighting/I think I’m going insane trope…
Just because you are bound by conventions, doesn’t mean you can’t find your own voice, and your own style, and using the generic conventions means you can increase the readers pleasure as they can anticipate and understand what you are doing. If anything, sticking to the rules of your genre can give you greater freedom with a good, solid framework to build upon.