You know those books that stay with you long after you’ve finished reading them? Years later, you still remember how they made you feel because they affected you on a deeper emotional level?
I recently read the tweets of all the “Yes” votes for the Bath Novel Award 2018 (#BNA2018 on Twitter) and phrases such as “topical without being obvious or preachy” and “insightful, original and compelling with great emotional depth” had me panicking and questioning myself – what would they say if it was my novel? My novel isn’t particularly topical and it’s emotional depth is more fish tank than Pacific Ocean … so, is my novel shallow and meaningless?
I’m writing a cozy mystery, which, by definition, is a genre not typically known for being deep and meaningful. Cozy mysteries are light, fun and entertaining murder mysteries that leave you feeling satisfied, but usually don’t linger in your deeper subconscious or cause you to question the human condition.
In a recent podcast with Booktopia, writer Michael Robotham stated that the main objective for the author is to make the reader care. If the reader cares about your character, they will establish a connection with your character and will continue reading to find out what happens to them. This is particularly important advice if you are writing a series of books with the same main character (cozy mysteries are usually series with the same amateur sleuth).
But if my novel doesn’t explore any deeper themes, why would the reader care about my main character? What can I do to make sure the reader connects with the characters and doesn’t give up partway through the story?
I tried to think of books that really stayed with me after I read them, and why. The first one that came to mind is The Third Day, The Frost, by John Marsden, the third book in the Tomorrow, When the War Began series. As a teenager, this book had me in tears when (spoiler) Robyn saved the main character, Ellie, and their friends from a death sentence by activating a hand grenade to take out the villain, Major Harvey – but also ending her own life in the process. By this point, I really cared about Robyn as a character. Over three books, I’d gotten to know her and was rooting for her to survive. Instead, she sacrificed herself to save others – a truly heroic act. Of course, this is a YA novel, not a cozy mystery.
When I think of cozy mysteries I’ve read, I remember enjoying them but I don’t remember any stand out moments that hit a nerve or made me particularly emotional. They were entertaining, and it was fun to guess whodunit, but then I forgot about them.
Perhaps my real problem is that my desire to write a traditional cozy mystery is in conflict with my desire to write a story that stays with people.
But who says I can’t write a cozy mystery with characters that resonate with the reader?
Why can’t I, as the writer, put these characters through trials and tribulations that have the reader reaching for the tissues, the way I did when Robyn made the ultimate sacrifice? Or pausing to reflect for a moment after reading the final words, rather than casting the book aside to go put on a load of laundry, completely forgetting they’d even read the book by the time the washing machine is on spin cycle?
A recent article in The Huffington Post by Kristen Houghton says:
Today, authors no longer have to follow ‘rules’ and now set their own formula for success with their sleuthing women and men, including professional detectives and private investigators. Today’s cozy mysteries are popular because readers feel connected to the characters who seem like someone they would want to have as their friend.
Perfect! I think my main character, Sylvie, is someone the reader would like to have as their friend, so perhaps all is not lost.
I also need to spend more time thinking about the themes in my novel. An article on Novel Writing Help states that “all good novels, whatever the genre, should have a theme. This is what the novel is ‘about’.” My themes are becoming more apparent now I’ve almost finished the first full rewrite.
And themes don’t necessarily need to be topical or political to strike a chord with readers. Struggling to fit in and family relationships are themes used widely in novels because they are everyday issues readers can relate to.
Of course, meaning can’t be forced. It takes time, effort, consideration and many, many rewrites to make sure themes and subtext occur naturally within a story.
So my reader can still be entertained by the whodunit puzzle at the surface of my cozy mystery but underneath the surface, draw conclusions about aspects of their own life, or life in general. My novel may not win any literary competitions, but hopefully someone will care about Sylvie and be invested in her journey, the way I was with poor Robyn. (But I promise not to kill Sylvie off with a violent explosion).
Is your story imbued with a deep layer of meaning running beneath the surface? Is it full of subtext? If it is or isn’t, how much of that is due to the genre you are writing in? Or are you like me – worrying no one will remember your story if it doesn’t say something poignant about the human condition?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.