Formulation

I bought some books last week. My husband, who shares the library with me, noted them and commented, ‘buying comfort reads, are you?’ or words to that effect. He knows me. He knows my reading patterns – as I know his. He’ll read anything on KU. After four years of either underemployment (he spent two years in a job where his physical presence was the only requirement, and started reading on his phone in sheer self defense) and two years of retirement (forced early due to the Coof), he’s read thousands of books in almost any SFF or Western genre. Fortunately for his mental health and the family exchequer, Kindle Unlimited exists and there is enough material in it to keep him satiated. My tastes are… slightly more esoteric.

Which is what he was commenting on. Not that he minds me buying books, not even right now with the future unclear for us. More that when I’m buying formulaic British Mystery, he knows my head is in a certain space. In this case, fleshing out my Patricia Wentworth collection (they were on sale). Which led to a conversation about formulas, and where they started, and how fresh they might have seemed at first, and then me looking for a physical book and not finding it and then discovering that Raymond Chandler was British-American… Let me clarify a little.

But first, I’ll take the dog for a walk. Because snow and ice thrill her little black heart. I’ll insert a coda here that this is the kind of winter I can get behind – it horrifies Texas to get snow and ice, but it’s only going to last a few days, then glorious sunshine! But I digress, and I’m back from her walkies.

I default to Brit Mystery when I’m not in a mood for anything fresh and novel. It’s like a cup of hot chicken noodle soup when my sinuses are congested. Comforting, known quantity, and does not take any effort to consume. My husband gets bored with them, because as he quite correctly points out, they are all formulaic. Besides which, he doesn’t get and finds annoying the spinster detectives like Miss Silver and Miss Marple. They are beyond his ken. I didn’t like them either, until I’d reached a certain age. Now, I rather enjoy the pungency of their observation of human nature – while understanding that the age which produced them, and these books, has passed into history and we will never see their like again. For me? These books are as much another world as any space opera ever will be.

The book I was looking for is Murder Ink, and it’s not a history of mysteries, although it does talk about the chronology of mystery fiction, beginning with Wilkie Collins’ Moonstone as the first detective novel. What I wanted it for was to look at the formulas… And when I couldn’t find it, I went to google for the names of Brit Mystery authors I couldn’t remember, and that’s where I discovered the trivia that Raymond Chandler was a British subject for most of his life.

Wandering back to my subject, though. Over the last year I’ve been working on becoming a formulator. Not for fiction, although it had crossed my mind to wonder if the concept could be applied to writing. Why not? Formulaic fiction has been a staple of books since pulp was cheap enough to start mass printing whatever people wanted to read, instead of the books publishers thought they ought to read. In this era? With Amazon and other venues allowing people to read what they jolly well like, as much of it, and as often as they please? Well, ok, maybe that last only works for retired readers, not so much dayjobbers like myself. My husband will occasionally surface from a book, muttering about the formulas, but I notice he submerges again quickly enough. And occasionally the muttering will include him enthusiastically narrating a fair chunk of plot at me, as he illustrates his point.

From this I take away that formulas are not all bad. I’m not sure I want to take a formula like I do a cosmetic solution and build a book… no, I know I don’t want to do that. I can’t. I’m a pantser. I can really only write what comes out of my head, and I have very little control over it. Still. I see the merits to a formula. It’s a known quantity, and sometimes, that’s what you want when you aren’t up for too much chewing, even mentally.

12 comments

  1. We’ve got a Chinook wind blowing, so the snow is evapo-melting. Alas. It needs to go into the ground, not the sky!

    In my opinion, formulas are sort of a cross between shorthand and a recipe. If you want chicken noodle soup, it had better have chicken, noodles, and broth, then you can go from there. If you want a sweet romance, it had better have the couple meeting, having a conflict, resolving the conflict, and falling in love in the process with some kissing but nothing past that. Then you start playing with the variations. Formulas are shorthand in that readers see the cover or read the first page and say, “This is what I’m looking for, and it will have these features. Yeah!”

    1. Yes! Exactly! You start with the recipe (formula) and then riff off it with the ingredients or ideas you have on hand at that moment.

    2. It’s why Poul Anderson’s, “The Martian Crown Jewels” is clearly a Sherlock Holmes story (and probably the best one not written by Conan Doyle — although if you insisted that the Anderson/Dickson, “The Adventure of the Misplaced Hound” was the most amusing one, I wouldn’t argue).

  2. In my opinion what is important about using formulas is understanding how the pieces fit together and knowing what is superficial and what is structural in the story. A lot of genre fiction suffers from what I call “gluing gears”, putting cosmetic touches in a story to try to invoke a particular genre without an understanding of the form.

    Writing a Noir Mystery doesn’t mean aping Raymond Chandler’s language, without an understanding of the element of moral peril, all you have is a narrator who talks funny. The same with “Lovecraftian” Horror–most of it is just splatterpunk with tentacles glued to it, completely missing Lovecraft’s grasp of existential dread.

    You can write a Cozy Mystery set on Mars or Middle Earth, but without the element of a DIY detective in an insular community, it’s not really a Cozy.

  3. I learned a lot about plotting and pacing by taken a book that I enjoyed, highlighting and noting different sections, and analyzing why and how those parts particularly appealed to me.
    BTW, some ‘formulaic’ books are on Gutenberg – Zane Grey (I’ve been very impressed by the quality of his writing), and some of the early Agatha Christies. Every year, many of the most popular authors of the 20th century will become available – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, et al.
    But, yeah, even with formulas, individual writing skill helps. Go ahead, and build a portfolio that could bring in some income, and give you practice in meeting readers’ needs in fiction.

    1. Agatha Christie was great at taking a formula and fooling you.
      The A.B.C. Murders (published January 1936) is a wonderful example. It’s a proto-serial killer novel where the killer taunts Poirot and the police.
      Except that if you buy that premise, you swallowed one of her biggest red herrings ever.

      1. The ABC Murders is so brilliant, it’s hard to say how brilliant it is. Leads you down the garden path, while also being quite good about serial killers. The more you know about crime, the more convincing it is. And the more you are convinced, the further you get down the garden path.

        They did a four part adaptation in the old anime “Agatha Christie no Poirot to Marple,” and it was really really good.

  4. I love Brit mysteries myself. I do have to keep reminding myself sometimes that the whole of the UK main island is about the size of Minnesota, so taking a day trip to some far flung province from where the hero is at the time isn’t out of the ordinary.

  5. “The same thing, but different” is probably baked into the species. That’s how seasons work* Once the craftsmanship is mastered (I make that sound like small beer, don’t I?😋) it’s natural that a writer’d keep pleasing everyone who likes what he can do.

    Besides, every instance of a popular author with a proven formula getting needled by the academic Guardian-essayist types has been a disaster. These dreadful human toothaches got to both Sayer and Mary Stewart. Thank goodness Dick Francis blew them off.

    *Also, radical change was usually horrific, but not so sure about the universality.

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