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.