Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Why I Write Mysteries - Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett

*Editor's Note: I was first introduced to Kathy Lynn Emerson by way of a book I have on my desk right this minute, HOW TO WRITE KILLER HISTORICAL MYSTERIES, a great guide for the would-be mystery writer. But she practices what she preaches in her 'Face down' series and others. Read on and enjoy!

Why I Write Mysteries


Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett

Why do I write mysteries?

There are two answers to that question. The first is that I’ve always loved reading well-written traditional mysteries. They have complex plots, characters who are far more clever than I am at figuring out who dunnit, and endings that solve the crime and wrap up all the loose ends. Readers know that by the end of a traditional mystery novel, wrongs will have been righted, villains will have been caught and punished, and justice will have prevailed. There may have been heart-wrenching moments along the way, the suspense may have been almost unbearable, and the detective will undoubtedly have been faced with great personal danger, but when it is all over, the reader will be wearing a satisfied smile. Unlike real life, mystery novels provide closure.

Such stories are not particularly easy to write, but the process is challenging. That leads me to the second answer to the question. Why do I write mysteries? It’s because I’m easily bored.

I’ve written all sorts of books during the last thirty-plus years. In most of them, even the ones that weren’t published as mysteries, I’ve included mystery elements. If I couldn’t work in a murder, I inserted secrets and intrigue and, in the case of the historical fiction, treason plots or spies. Even the non-mystery historical novels I’m currently writing under the name Kate Emerson are published under the series title “Secrets of the Tudor Court.”

For stories to be interesting, their characters need obstacles to overcome. The higher the stakes, the more invested the reader becomes in the outcome. Add crime to the mix, especially if that places the protagonist in a life-and-death situation, and the book, assuming it is well-written to begin with, goes from merely entertaining straight to page-turner. I’ve written novels without any mystery elements and, as far as I know, readers did not feel they were lacking in entertainment value, but those books are not my favorites. And, if I’m being truthful here, during the writing process I sometimes longed to throw in a body. As I said, I’m easily bored.

I’m never bored when I’m figuring out how to murder someone, or why the killer won’t get away with it. And traditional mysteries have another element that fascinates me, too—creating and solving a puzzle. Traditional mysteries are sometimes called cozies because they often, but not always, feature amateur detectives, small-town settings, and a notable absence of explicit sex and violence. Readers may never even see a body, let alone have to wade through blood and gore. Other elements, such as cats, crafts, and recipes, are optional. The emphasis is on plot, with twists, and on interesting characters and their relationships. Most of these books belong to series rather than being stand-alone titles.

I’ve never been tempted to write suspense novels or police procedurals or make my protagonist a private detective. All of those would require a more extensive knowledge of modern day forensics than I want to acquire. I’d have to learn more about guns, too. I’m happiest writing about an ordinary person who stumbles onto a murder and is pulled, reluctantly, into solving the crime.

People often ask me which I prefer, mysteries with historical settings or those that take place in the here and now. I’ve written both and enjoy both, perhaps because basic human emotions are the same, whatever century people live in.

As Kathy Lynn Emerson I’ve written two historical mystery series. The Face Down novels feature Susanna, Lady Appleton, a sixteenth-century gentlewoman who is an expert on poisonous herbs. There are ten novels, the most recent FACE DOWN O’ER the BORDER, and a collection of short stories (MURDERS AND OTHER CONFUSIONS) in this series, but it is currently on hiatus. The most recent entry was a story (“Any Means Short of Murder”) in the January/February 2009 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. I hope to write more of these, but for the moment I have other writing commitments that just don’t leave me with time enough to do it.

Why did I write these in the first place? Because I’m fascinated with that period in history. Fortunately, I’m still writing about it, just not, at the moment, in the traditional mystery genre.

In my other historical mystery series, a nineteenth-century journalist named Diana Spaulding is the detective. This four-book series was conceived as a quartet from the beginning and all four books (DEADLIER THAN THE PEN, FATAL AS A FALLEN WOMAN, NO MORTAL REASON, and LETHAL LEGEND) take place in various locations in the U.S. in 1888. I chose the late nineteenth century to write about for several reasons. First, early in my career I wrote a biography of reporter Nellie Bly for young readers and I thought at the time that a newspaper reporter would make a good detective. Second, I had already accumulated a great deal of material about the year 1888, making research much easier. And third, I had my grandfather’s memoirs, which gave me special insight into what life was like in those days. The third book is set in the area of New York State where he (and I) grew up. The fourth book is set in Maine, where I live now, and that one was a particular pleasure to write.

It was the desire to do more using a location close to home that led to the launch of my contemporary series, the Liss MacCrimmon Scottish-American Heritage Mysteries. My sleuth was a professional Scottish dancer (think Riverdance, only Scottish) until a knee-injury ended her career. In the first book (KILT DEAD), she returns to her home town of Moosetookalook, Maine to recuperate and figure out what she’s going to do with the rest of her life. And, of course, she immediately becomes involved in solving a murder. I write this series under the pseudonym Kaitlyn Dunnett. There’s more humor in these books than in those I write under my real name, more use of quirky characters, and a very different feel to the stories. The third Liss MacCrimmon novel, available just in time for holiday gift giving, is A WEE CHRISTMAS HOMICIDE. I’ve finished #4 and am at the plotting stage of #5.

I still love historical mysteries, even though I’m not writing one at the moment. I was fortunate to be able to combine reading other people’s historical mysteries with writing 2008’s HOW TO WRITE KILLER HISTORICAL MYSTERIES: THE ART AND ADVENTURE OF SLEUTHING THROUGH THE PAST, a book that won the Agatha award and was nominated for both the Anthony and the Macavity. Right now I’m working on the third book in the “Secrets of the Tudor Court” series. The second, BETWEEN TWO QUEENS, which does not contain a murder but does have a nicely complex treason plot, will be out in January 2009.


  1. What an interesting post; especially for someone like myself who writes historical mysteries as well. I try to write remembering my motto of "people are people" regardless of the date of when they lived.


  2. Isn't Kathy fascinating? Her how-to book is great, and I am so looking forward to reading her A Wee Christmas Homicide! I loooove holiday mysteries!

  3. I recently tried to write my first ever mystery - a fun exercise, though probably not terribly successful. But I really enjoyed this post. Now I almost feel inspired to try and rewrite it.