"Mystery Writing" with Anne Underwood Grant

Thursday, January 24, 2002

Moderator is Kristi Holl, web editor of this site and author of 24 books for children and teens, plus l50+ articles for adults and children. Kristi also taught writing courses for fifteen years.

Anne is Anne Underwood Grant, author of the mystery series featuring female amateur sleuth Sydney Teague. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, where she has served on the board of directors.

Names in blue are viewers who had questions.

Interviews in the Professional Connection room begin at 9 Atlantic/Canada, 8 Eastern, 7 Central, 6 Mountain, and 5 Pacific.

Moderator: Good evening! Welcome to tonight's interview with Anne Underwood Grant on "Mystery Writing." I'm your moderator and the web editor for this site, Kristi Holl. The mystery genre is more popular than ever today, and I devour them myself. Tonight, series mystery writer Anne Grant is going to share about what makes some mysteries compelling "page-turners" and how a new mystery writer can break into the genre. Welcome, Anne!

Anne: Hi y'all. It's good to be here.

Moderator: Anne, have you always loved reading mysteries, even as a child?

Anne: I'm embarrassed, but I was late coming to the genre. I read Nancy Drew mysteries and that was about it until Christie, Doyle, etc.

Moderator: Who are your favorite mystery writers?

Anne: Now I read everyone. Minette Walters, Elizabeth George, PD James, Dennis LeHane.

Moderator: What are the latest trends in mysteries?

Anne: Recently it's been stand-alone thrillers. Stand-alones are books not in a series. The main character appears only in that one book.

Moderator: Are the types of mysteries we've grown up with (like Agatha Christie) still possible to sell today?

Anne: In limited numbers, I think. Everyone talks "high-concept" today. High-concept means dealing with some big important social or political issue and being at least thriller-like.

CHRISTINE COLLIER: Anne, I just submitted my first "cozy" mystery, 4000 words, to Ellery Queen magazine. Is this a good way to start? They have a special department for new mystery writers.

Anne: Yes, by all means. Magazines build great credits.

JaciRae: I know in the romance genre, women read most of those books. What about mysteries? What group enjoys mysteries?

Anne: Women read more than men...period. Even in mystery.

Moderator: Your character Sydney Teague is an amateur sleuth. Have you written mysteries (books or stories) using private eyes or policemen as the heroes?

Anne: I'm writing one now with a sheriff as one viewpoint character. But published? No, just Sydney.

Moderator: Are there advantages (as a writer) to using pros (like police officers) over amateur sleuths?

Anne: Heavens yes. I wish I'd known before I started. Pros have a reason to be involved. Amateurs are always in danger of the Jessica Fletcher Syndrome.

MBVoelker: What's the Jessica Fletcher Syndrome?

Anne: Do you remember that TV show? Jessica was an amateur detective, and all her relatives died, then everyone she worked with, then casual friends started disappearing. Not too believable!

cyndi770: What are the core elements of a mystery?

Anne: Only one major one that I know of that separates it from any compelling novel, and that's a huge unanswered question, which usually involves murder.

JaciRae: Generally speaking, how long are adult mysteries?

Anne: 65,000 to 85,000 words. That ends up being 250 to 300 pages long in finished book form, a third or so longer in manuscript pages.

ArtisticWriter_1: What genres seem to be most popular in the mystery categories today versus a few years back?

Anne: I think extreme ends of the genre are working best today. Either very, very funny and light, or extremely serious and dark.

Moderator: Do you outline? If so, could you describe how for us?

Anne: I'm embarrassed to say I don't. Not traditionally. I makes notes as I go along. I might write a paragraph about the book before I start.

Kevin: How hard is it to plot a mystery with all the suspects and clues and red herrings you need?

Anne: Ah...this is the part I love. It's the fun work of mystery writing.

CHRISTINE COLLIER: Even with my short mystery there were so many loose ends you had to make sure are answered, I can't imagine how many there would be in a novel. How do you make sure things do not go unanswered?

Anne: Great question, Christine. I have a group of readers who check. I rewrite most of my novels at least 4 or 5 times. One or two of those rewrites is just for what you say - continuity. Then there's the copy editor at the publishing house if you are already with a house.

marvin460: Have you ever begun a mystery story without knowing who the guilty party was?

Anne: Oh yes. I have never known. I like to find out myself.

Moderator: Is plot or character more important in a good mystery?

Anne: I believe they're equal. Solid characters become integral to plotting and vice versa.

Kevin: Do you finish the first draft before making changes?

Anne: Yes, I had to learn that. I used to write only short stories where I expected my own perfection before I could move on. Since mysteries are so much of a whole and rely on momentum, I think it's important to finish the story and come back to make it perfect.

Faith001: What's the most amount of times you should rewrite and edit a story?

Anne: I don't know about "should," Faith. I'm still rewriting several I started a decade ago. I do 2 or 3 revisions straight through. 2 or 3 more for specific reasons like continuity or character continuity.

Kevin: What is character continuity?

Anne: Making sure she or he uses the same language and body language, etc. Those characteristics that make that character who she is.

Moderator: Since you don't outline, do you find yourself having to cut out a lot or do major revisions to plant clues, etc.?

Anne: Yes, yes, yes. I probably waste a lot of time, but I enjoy the discovery process.

racemup: If you do not know the guilty party, how do you handle your synopsis when submitting?

Anne: I write the vaguest synopsis I can get away with.

GjolboeCreations: Did you find that writing short stories helped you with your work as novelist, and if so, how so?

Anne: Yes, short stories have helped in so many ways. One of the main ways is in character development. I try characters out in a short setting before taking them to novel length.

Holly: I have trouble focusing on one story at a time. I tend to get several "good" ideas and leave my initial project hanging. Do you write on only one project through its completion?

Anne: I can work on several projects ONLY if they are at different stages. By that, I mean I can't be plotting two stories at once, or thinking up two stories at once.

GjolboeCreations: If you have worked on a character within the short story format, will you still bring that character, more fully developed, into a novel?

Anne: Yes, it's my favorite way to do it. Other authors I know do it too.

msbrumage: What is the shortest mystery (number of words) that you have written?

Anne: I don't really know. I've written short-shorts of a page or two, about 500 words.

Moderator: How many viewpoints do you use in your mysteries? Just the heroine's, or others as well?

Anne: In the Sydney Teague books, it's only Sydney's and it's first person. I'm writing a different kind of mystery right now with 4 viewpoints and 3 are male. Very different for me...and hard.

Moderator: That sounds so difficult! What made you decide on 4 viewpoints?

Anne: The story demanded it. I find the stories demand just about everything. I think a story itself dictates almost everything about it. Like who should tell that story (POV), whether it happened last year or today, if more than one character is important in seeing their viewpoint, etc.

JaciRae: Is it important to know WHY the villain does what he does, what his motive for the crime was?

Anne: My favorite question. Yes, all villains have means, opportunity and motive. If I do any kind of organizing, it's all about this. I have a chart and you can make one for yourself called MOM: Means, Opportunity, Motive. Put those three words across the top of your page. Put your suspects down the left-hand side of the page and then fill in the blanks. All villain suspects have to have ALL three.

Moderator: How do you as the writer decide "who done it"?

Anne: By using my chart. And also sometimes a villain will convince me he didn't do it, and someone else will come along who says, hey I had a full MOM chart too!

msbrumage: So, does a story with multiple POV's really have multiple stories layered or woven?

Anne: That's an interesting way of looking at it, but I'd say yes, every POV is its own story, isn't it?

marvin460: Have you ever used the Roger Akroyd trick? I mean, made the POV character the villain?

Anne: Not in the past, but I'm doing it right now.

CHRISTINE COLLIER: Should all three things on the MOM chart be answered and obvious or can some answers be assumed?

Anne: You need to be able to put down the page number of where the MOM stuff appears in the book. What's obvious to one reader might not be obvious to another. I think it really needs to be spelled out in the book itself.

JaciRae: What about suspects? How many do you need?

Anne: The number of suspects shifts and changes as the book moves through its plot. By the time I'm 50 pages from the end, I'm usually dealing with 3 suspects, but I don't know any rule about numbers.

cyndi770: Regarding the synopsis, I've heard differing opinions: keep it short and vague, or go chapter by chapter with lots of detail (almost an outline in synopsis format). Does the mystery format dictate a vague synopsis?

Anne: No, the agent or the editor dictates what they want.

MBVoelker: What with modern forensic techniques for fiber matching, DNA testing, and all (on one episode of "The New Detectives" (TLC), the culprit was fingered by a microscopic match of the garbage bag he wrapped the body in to the roll of bags in his cupboard), how do you manage to create convincing mystery -- a real sense that the evidence can point several different ways?

Anne: Good question. It's one of the reasons I've stuck mostly with amateur detective work. However, even with DNA and all the technical expertise out there now, they still disagree as to what it means. Look at the O.J. trial.

BingoCliff: Anne, where do you get your ideas for a story?

Anne: It's usually a merging of experience, something I've read in the newspaper, something someone said by chance, the big "what if?" thrown in. Then, one day I walk into my office and this idea is just sitting there on my paper and, lo and behold, I've written it. Isn't that one of the most fun parts of this? Accepting the stories as they come to US?

Moderator: How do you create and maintain suspense in a mystery and keep readers turning pages?

Anne: So important. First is to leave unanswered questions dangling all the time. Never answer one until you've got at least one or two others unanswered. Then use lots of dialogue to create white space for fast-paced reading. Finally, make sure the action is always rising or getting more intense.

MBVoelker: When working with an amateur detective how do you manage things so that the police don't take over? How can you keep this realistic and believable?

Anne: It's so hard. I have Sydney dating both a policeman and a P.I. in the 4th book. She keeps info to herself usually because she's not really sure it's important to the case or for some other legitimate reason.

Moderator: How can you reveal clues without being obvious?

Anne: I like to drop my clues when the focus is very much on something else going on.

Moderator: What about cliffhangers? (First what are they?) Do you begin the following chapter by "solving" the cliffhanger?

Anne: Cliffhangers are frightening unanswered questions, and, no, I don't usually solve it right off the bat at the beginning of next chapter. But you have to fairly soon because otherwise the reader gets mad and screams, "Hey, you're not playing fair."

Kevin: How important is choosing your setting?

Anne: That depends on the mystery. Usually it's very important and should be integral to the plot. For instance, you couldn't do Block's Scudder series without NYC, or LeHane without Boston, or Burke without Louisiana.

racemup: To what extent can you use real people, places, events or corporations in your fiction?

Anne: Common sense should dictate here. Changing names is usually wise unless you're calling it true crime.

msbrumage: Is there a PI "personality-type" or range that is important to developing PI characters?

Anne: I've seen all kinds of PIs recently, from traditional ones to women doing some outrageous stuff as PIs.

CHRISTINE COLLIER: Have you ever interviewed amateur detectives to get a feel of how they work?

Anne: Actually, I am an amateur detective and so are you. What defines the kind of amateur I have written about is that it's all accidental.

james55clinton: If you write in the first person of the heroine, doesn't the reader realize whodunit at the same moment as the heroine?

Anne: I like it when the reader finds out a page or two before Sydney simply because Sydney is caught up in the drama of the moment and we the readers are calm, cool and collected.

bernie: How much do you really have to know about police and PI procedures for an amateur detective series, since they are usually characters in the story?

Anne: I know what I've done only. I made friends with one of Charlotte, NC's top homicide detectives, and I've used him as my model for Tom Thurgood who is a top homicide detective.

bernie: How do you go about planting clues and red herrings? Do they just come as you work?

Anne: They come as I work and some times the MOM chart will tell me I need more.

Moderator: How can you tell if your book should be a "stand alone" mystery or a series?

Anne: Editors decide that. What you tell the editor is that it can be anything he or she wants. Just give you a chance!

GjolboeCreations: Did you set out to write a series, or did the main character's charisma elicit more from you?

Anne: Dell Publishing asked if I could turn Sydney into a series character. I'd just written a single book, I thought.

CHRISTINE COLLIER: Anne, how many Sydney Teague books will you write? Do you have a limit?

Anne: I may have written the last one. At most, there'll be one more.

Moderator: Is a series better than a stand-alone mystery? Is it easier to gain a following and/or sell the next book?

Anne: Not necessarily. Depends on what's "hot" with the publishers.

Moderator: What happens if you get tired of your series character? (Does your editor decide when you can quit?)

Anne: Well, I've gotten tired of Sydney Teague. You can do just so much with an amateur sleuth.

Moderator: Does your editor have anything to say about it?

Anne: Only if there's a current book under contract and right now there's not, so I can quit if I want. One more thing about series vs. stand alones: It is an advantage to write a series in one way. They usually ask for more than one book when it's a series. If it's a stand-alone, they'll usually only ask for "right of first refusal" on your next book.

Moderator: If you want to write one, how do you keep an amateur sleuth series fresh?

Anne: It think it depends on how well you build your secondary characters and how well the ensemble of characters interact.

Moderator: Can a series character grow and change, yet remain the same enough for the series?

Anne: I think so. Just like regular people grow and change, but don't lose their jobs when they do.

james55clinton: In a series, must you rehash background covered in a previous book?

Anne: You need to learn to do it cleverly, with just enough information to fill in holes that are essential, but no more.

Moderator: What qualities make a series successful?

Anne: I'm going to sound stupid, but I can honestly say I don't know because the rules keep changing. What was successful yesterday isn't today, etc.

Moderator: When I contact an editor or agent (query), should I propose a whole series first?

Anne: Focus should be on one book you're trying to sell. Perhaps at the end, just slip in that it could be the beginning of a series and why - briefly.

Moderator: How do you recommend one go about breaking into the mystery field?

Anne: Whoever just submitted to Ellery Queen has started well. Also there are annual contests like Malice Domestic that automatically give you an entre.

Moderator: Can you recommend any textbooks on the craft of mystery writing?

Anne: I'm bad about this topic. I really don't much like the How to Write a Mystery Book approach, however. I own and have used the WEEKEND series by Larry Block, though. I'm always afraid of formula. Too many how-to books on mystery writing tend to produce formula instead of solid form. I much prefer just solid writing books like my favorite, STEIN ON WRITING.

Moderator: Are mystery writing conferences worth attending? How can you benefit from attending?

Anne: Absolutely! Networking is very, very important in the mystery world. Once you get in through being published, you find it's a very small community of about 300 to 500 people and 50 agents that you see at almost every conference. Making friends with those people is priceless.

CHRISTINE COLLIER: Anne, is a mystery convention much different than other writing conventions?

Anne: There are fan conventions and then writing conferences or workshops. Make sure you go to the writing conferences before you're published. Study the ones in your region and then check to see which editors and agents will be there.

Moderator: You belong to Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. Why is that important?

Anne: MWA is the only real legitimate organization for all mystery writers. It's the granddaddy, over 50 years old. MWA is in NYC and deals with publishers a lot. They have agents and editors cocktail parties where MWA members can attend and MWA bestows the coveted Edgar Awards. Sisters in Crime was founded about 15 years ago by Sara Paretsky and some other women writers who noticed that men were getting their uneven big share of the mystery pie. They promote women who write mystery fiction. Since Sisters' beginning, women mystery writers have seen shelf space in stores increase from 33% to 51%.

Kevin: Do you need an agent? Did you sell your first adult book with an agent?

Anne: If you want to sell to one of the big houses in NYC, yes, you need an agent. I landed my first contract with an agent. It took me 4 years to get an agent and then took the agent only two weeks to have two different publishers bidding against each other for my first book. You never know. Smaller houses will look at your work without an agent.

GjolboeCreations: Why did it take you 4 years to find an agent?

Anne: I wasn't looking the whole time, but who knows why we're rejected? I did have some agents holding my manuscripts for very long periods of time. One agent convinced me that I'd written the wrong kind of book during those four years so I actually sat down and wrote a second book and that's the one that sold.

MBVoelker: What is "the wrong kind of book" that agent mentioned? Why was it wrong?

Anne: Agent said I had created a traditional amateur sleuth and put her in a James Bond setting. She said, those who read one won't read the other. So she asked me to write a "domestic amateur sleuth" which I did with Multiple Listing. But I got her back because my fourth book, Voices in the Sand, is the book she said I couldn't get published.

GjolboeCreations: Has an editor ever asked you for a serial book to follow what you thought would be a stand alone? If so, have you ever denied the request, and why?

Anne: I haven't been lucky enough to be in that situation yet. Maybe someday. I can imagine doing that if it didn't feel right.

CHRISTINE COLLIER: What's the criteria for belonging in MWA and Sisters in Crime, a published mystery?

Anne: No. Anyone can belong. MWA has different categories of membership depending on publication status, but Sisters has no such divisions. Even men can join if they agree to fight discrimination against women writers.

msbrumage: Does an amateur sleuth snoop for free, just out of curiosity?

Anne: Amateur sleuths snoop for free, yes. Not just out of curiosity though. It's best if you give your sleuth a strong motivator, like the death of her best friend, or being accused of the crime herself. Mere curiosity in your heroine will usually get you rejected, although I personally like nosy sleuths.

Kevin: What about the various kinds of mysteries, like romantic mysteries for example? Is it primarily a mystery or a romance, and how are they marketed?

Anne: Kevin, the two are merging more and more. Again, editors decide how such a book is marketed and which is heavier - romance or mystery. I know that Romantic Times Magazine started reviewing mysteries last year or the year before.

ArtisticWriter_1: I keep hearing how very hard it is to get published, so is there real hope for us?

Anne: Yes, there's hope for all of us. It's always been hard. There's one very important thing to remember and that's that it takes only 2 people besides you to get your book sold - 1 agent and 1 editor.

GjolboeCreations: Have you noticed any decline in the demand for mystery stories in light of the Sept. 11th attacks?

Anne: Actually, they are back up now. And people are reading dark as opposed to light - according to my agent. Surprising, huh?

Kevin: Do you give lots of speeches to promote your books? Is much traveling necessary to promote them?

Anne: Yes, lots of speeches at conferences and conventions and libraries. I also give workshops. And next week I'm the annual speaker at a Friends of the Library luncheon fund raiser a couple of hours from where I live. That's the sort of thing you get all the time.

cyndi770: Since readers read at different levels, how do you know if you've given too many clues (or not enough)?

Anne: Unlike writing for children, I can't gear a level for anyone but myself and then let others read it and hear what they say.

Faith001: What about teenage mysteries? Are they still being read too?

Anne: Yes, there's a large market for teenage mysteries, I've been told. I've never written for it though. There's even a market for mysteries for adults learning to read. In fact, I know several people under contract to write that kind of mystery.

GjolboeCreations: Have I understood you correctly? Must you appeal to agents the same way you would a publisher, with queries, outlines, and manuscripts, coupled with your credentials?

Anne: Yes, agents must be sold just like editors.

GjolboeCreations: Have you ever written a book that is NOT set in a current time?

Anne: I am writing a 1924 book right now.

Mom of 3: What is the average cost of a writers' conference, and how long are they usually?

Anne: They range from $100 for a one-day workshop to $800 for 3 or 4 day conferences - that includes hotels, food, etc.

MBVoelker: Can a mystery work in a fantasy setting? (Assuming that you play by the established rules of that fictional world.)

Anne: Oh, yes. I'm reading one right now: Connie Willis's TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG.

GjolboeCreations: Do you find it easier to write in a past era, without DNA testing, etc.?

Anne: It is one of the reasons for working historically, but I am so particular about getting everything right that I could research 1924 to death and still feel insecure about "getting it right."

Oma: Is it possible to write a nonfiction mystery? For example, write a story about a real murder case.

Anne: It's called True Crime and it's a genre unto itself. Try books by Ann Rule.

Moderator: Anne, thank you for coming and fielding so many questions tonight! Excellent turnout, and we covered a lot of topics!

Anne: I had a great time. Thank you for having me.

Moderator: Do come back in two weeks on February 7 when Colleen McKenna will be here to talk about "Rules that Rule: Nuts and Bolts for Beginners." Look for more details in upcoming newsletters. And now, good night, everyone!

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