Because I didn’t have enough things to do, I’m working on a ‘Christmas book’. It doesn’t have much to do with Christmas; it’s only set at that time of year, and if I can pull it together, I’ll bring it out during the holiday season, for marketing reasons.
And because I never do anything the easy way, it’s a genre I’ve never written before: the English country house mystery. This is an older sub-genre of cozy mysteries, and they tend to feature large, discordant families in large, rambling houses in the English countryside- surprise! Often, a disliked family member is murdered during a house party or other gathering, thus providing the police with an inconveniently large pool of suspects. Sometimes family heirlooms, a secret from the old retired general’s time out in India, or a case of secret or mistaken identity come to the forefront as the case is solved.
They’re fun, fairly light books, and usually have a happy ending. The murderer is discovered and taken away by the police, sometimes including a mental breakdown, the plucky niece or granddaughter falls in love with the handsome detective- or sometimes a cousin, which I find weird, but, chalk it up to the story being set in England during the Depression and WWII. In any case, everyone but the murderer- and his victims, alas- lives happily ever after.
I like idiosyncratic Brits and happy endings in my fiction, so this kind of story appeals to me. And since imitation is supposed to be the highest form of flattery, writing one of my own is a logical extension of that admiration. It also helps cross-pollinate my other projects when they’re getting stale.
Like with everything, there’s a learning curve. I learn new genres by binge-reading books in that genre. It helps me fix the vocabulary and speech patterns in my head, and sometimes I can learn the story beats along the way (If you’ve ever wondering why my books are best described as ‘eclectic,’ this is why. I never learned how to learn, so I pick things up by osmosis. If it doesn’t drift into my brain that way, I don’t learn it). So I’ve been going through the works of Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer, and Patricia Wentworth.
It’s been…instructive. And slightly weird. The cousin-marriage thing is very obvious and odd to a modern reader- or maybe just me. From a story-telling perspective, the plots are most satisfying when I have a chance of guessing the murderer’s identity. Twists are nice, but twists that come completely out of left field, with no foreshadowing, are less satisfying. Heyer tends to go light on the foreshadowing and heavy on the weird coincidences in her mysteries, and I think that’s part of why I prefer her regencies.
I’m also having trouble with my inherent American-ness, namely, why don’t any of these characters own guns? England has practically no civilian gun culture, and that comes through in their books. I keep tripping over my instinctive response to give the frightened heroine a pistol as she wanders the halls of the manor at night, wondering what made that eerie shriek that surprised her out of a sound sleep.
Guns are a simple solution in fiction- not so much in real life- so a lack of guns forces the characters, and therefore the author, to think about the story a bit differently. Any violent confrontation between the murderer and victim, or the murderer and the police, is hand-to-hand, usually with blunt force objects as the weapons of choice. There’s no distance, no taking out the villain with one shot before he knows what’s happening. It gives an otherwise clean and elegant story a bit of messiness among all the old money and formal politeness.
One more thing of note: most of these books were considered ‘contemporary’ when they were first published; they’re were set in the era of publication. Wentworth in particular isn’t shy about putting dates in her books. Yet they’re all considered historical or vintage nowadays. Time marches on.
Does this kind of story appeal to you? What other authors do you recommend? How do you learn a new genre?