Thursday, April 22, 2010

Romantic Mystery and Romantic Suspense

Some of my favorite books are romantic mysteries and romantic suspense. Although I write historical romances, I think I'd like to try a mystery or suspense, but it seems so challenging--as if other genres and subgenres aren't! The problem is I enjoy reading both suspense and mystery, so I don't know which I'd choose. There are quite a few differences that may not be obvious at first.

According to Carolyn Wheat who has written a lot about the differences, a mystery is centered around a puzzle while suspense involves a nightmare scenario. Thinking is paramount in a mystery, but in suspense, feeling, especially a spine-tingling feeling, is most important.

Even the characters differ. The hero or heroine in a mystery already has the skills necessary to solve the puzzle--some are police detectives, private investigators or amateur sleuths. But suspense heroines learn the skills to survive during the story and look for betrayers. They expect to encounter surprises and they're not disappointed. In a mystery the detective looks for suspects and clues.

The experiences are different for the reader. Can you guess which one is more emotional and which one is more intellectual? Yes, it's easy. And mystery endings must provide intellectual satisfaction while suspense gives us emotional satisfaction.

In a mystery the author wants the reader to be one step behind the hero, but in a suspense the reader should be one step ahead so fully anticipate and appreciate what's coming next.

For those of you who read romantic mysteries or romantic suspense: which of the two subgenres seems most romantic? Which do you prefer?


  1. Cara Lynn:

    I prefer mystery, because I like the puzzle solving aspect.

    Timer's set on the COFFEE pot.


  2. Loved this post! Thanks for defining the difference between suspense and mysteries. My WIP is full of bad guys with guns, fights, and old secrets, and I was having trouble deciding what genre it was, since there is a lot of suspense, but a little mystery as well.

    I enjoy reading both genres you mentioned, but my personal favorite (and the one that usually feels more romantic to me) is romantic suspense :)

  3. I definitely prefer romantic suspense. I like the faster pace and the emotional connection with the characters. Even though I know there will be a happy ending for the H/H, I enjoy the events that lead to that happiness.

    I had never thought about the differences between the two types of stories. Thanks for pointing those out. Gives me something to think about when I sit down to work on my romantic-suspense WIP.

  4. Oh goodness. I've been clueless. I had no idea there was a difference! Thanks for the clarification...I feel a lot smarter today! :)

  5. Good morning! I'm drinking my latte right now for real. I wish I could say it was my only indulgence for the day, but it's not.

    My mood dictates the kind of book I want to read so sometimes I pick a mystery especially if one of my favorite authors just had one released. I often choose historical mysteries. There seem to be a lot of them.

    Most of the romantic suspense I read are contemporary and fast paced. They're often hard to put down so I tend to read them when I have a bigger chunk of time.

    I've never tried to write either one, but before I started writing seriously I always thought that might be my genre. Or maybe women's fiction. I wonder how I ended up writing romance!

  6. Holy cow, Cara, I honestly have ALWAYS wondered what the difference was, and now I know -- COOL!!

    I think I am definitely a suspense type of gal over mystery just because I like the EMOTIONAL feel over the intellectual feel. Oh, what a surprise! :)


  7. Okay, for some reason I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around the difference. Every time I think of a romantic suspense I've read, there's a mystery involved. I'm not sure if I've even read a romantic mystery. Could someone give a title of one?

    As to which would be more romantic -- I think that totally depends on the author. A good author can create romantic tension out of the most mundane things -- like washing dishes (Julie) or a pair of snazzy shoes (Ruthy)so I'm thinking that romance can be the ultimate in romantical in either mystery or suspense, depending on who is writing it.

  8. Since I write romantic suspense, I'll put my two cents in. I grew up on mysteries and must have read every Nancy Drew book in the school library...twice. Now that I'm an adult, I prefer to read and write romantic suspense.

    For those of you wondering about the difference between suspense and mystery. I look at it like a mystery, there's a puzzle to solve. For example, a murder has been committed and we're seeking the identity of the killer. In suspense, the main character is trying to stay alive. For example, they're being stalked and trying to stay one step ahead of whoever is after them.

    It's the perfect genre for me as a writer because I enjoy getting into the head of the heroine as she struggles with whatever danger she faces. That said, I absolutely love romantic suspense with a twist. Throw me a zinger...send me down a path I never expected, let the bad guy/gal be someone I never would have anticipated. That's what I love and that's what I write.

    I'm normally pretty heavy on the suspense, light on the romance because the suspense scenes come a lot easier for me than the kissing scenes. I worked so hard on the romance scenes for my new release "Queen of Hearts" because I wanted romance readers to enjoy the book too. I've had several positive comments about the romance, so I'll assume at this point that I did something right.

  9. Although I read and enjoy both, mystery is my favorite, especially "cozy" romantic mysteries.

  10. I've read a couple books on the differences between the two genres. Of course, in each genre there are different types too.

    Cara, I liked the way you made it nice and clear.

  11. Cara, excellent definitions of mystery and suspense! I prefer historicals but a touch of suspense is nice too. Suspense is great for shoving the heroine into the hero's arms. Or the other way around. :-) Though sexual tension is appropriate to any genre, says this romance author. :-)


  12. Kay, I've noticed there are often mysterious elements in suspense and in mysteries there can be a lot of suspense. Maybe a combination makes a book really great to read.

    I think in most suspense books the romance is concluded by the end since the book is probably a single title. Romantic mysteries are often written as a series with heroes and heroines appearing again and again, so the romance is often extended through out several books. I'm thinking Victoria Thompson historicals and Ann Perry mysteries featuring Charlotte Pitt and her inspector husband. I think she married him during the first book.

    Dragging out a romance from book to book can sometimes become a problem because readers get impatient about when the h/h will finally come together.

    Does anyone know of contemporary romantic mysteries that have the romance progress slowly from book to book? I can't think of any.

  13. Cara, I wrote the Nosy in Nebraska three books in one mysteries.

    I found it to be the hardest writing I'd ever done.

    If you read the book it's so silly and lighthearted (I hope) that I doubt anyone would read it and see evidence of any hard work. :)
    But trust me, a mystery is extremely hard. You need clues sprinkled in. Not to many but not too few.

    You need red herrings.
    You need to tie up loose threads.

    If was amazingly complex and I had a great editor at Barbour who was really good at spotting plot holes and remembering red herrings I never explained.

    It was a fun way to write, but you can't just be linear, start the book at the beginning and go through to the end.

    I much prefer writing suspense.

  14. In a suspense the bad guy can be an unknown entity, too.
    In a mystery there's supposed to be a 'list of suspects'.
    The reader is supposed to solve the crime along with the author. And the author can't 'cheat' there needs to be enough evidence that the reader could solve the crime. Of course I wrote cozy mysteries, those may be different.
    One of my biggest problems was telegraphing the bad guy. It makes me laugh really to think of a critique partner who, about ten pages into a 300 page book says, "I know who did it."
    And she was right.
    I had to be much lighter with the clues and do better at misdirection.

  15. Hi Cara,
    Great topic today and one I love to mull over. As Dawn mentioned, mysteries often start with the murder. Then the book revolves around trying to determine whodunit!

    A suspense has that active villain. The reader may or may not know who the villain is, but usually, the protagonist learns that info in the story...often at the climax. There is, as you mentioned, that run-for-your-life aspect of suspense that always grabs me.

    One of my favorite contemporary suspense authors, Harlan Coben, is moving more and more toward mystery in his stories. He likes to develop the "head" aspect and reveal how his protagonist determines who the villain is. He writes in first person, which is often what we find in mysteries, and is a good author to read to see how that mix of mystery and suspense can work.

  16. What a great tutorial, Cara! I've often wondered the difference myself. LOL!

    You explained it really well.


  17. I'm more fond of suspense than mysteries.

  18. I can't write books in first person very well since I tend to start every sentence with I. I (there I go again) prefer books written in third person because there are often multiple POVs but I read both.

    Mysteries probably take a lot of pre-planning as Mary said. And throw in a murder if things start to sag!

    But the like the idea of writing the same characters over and over. Of course they can grow and change over time but there character arc can be slower.

    What category do Stephanie Plum books come under?

  19. Kav, I haven't read any Joanne Fluke's mysteries, but since they have good recipes I'll have to check them out.

  20. I thought of another recurring romance - Sarah Strohmeyer's "Bubbles" books. They're definitely mysteries, and like the Joanne Fluke books and Evanovich's "Plum" books, have a comedic aspect to them.

    This was a great post! I like both mysteries and suspense - depending on what kind of mood I'm in. And if they're combined, and have romance thrown in? Be still my heart . . .

  21. I love both but tend to go toward romantic suspense!

  22. I like both subgenres. It depends on the author and my mood. I am an old Mary Higgins Clark fan and yet I love a good Jordan Dane.

    Of course I am fond of Debby Giusti and Camy Tang too.

    I don't know how they do it though, that's a lot of threads to weave into a story.

  23. WOW was this what I needed today.

    How do y'all DO this?!

    Question - how about a James Bond type character? Would that be a mix of the 2 or another genre entirely?

    I might as well fess up - I'm not a romance reader. GASP

    There's been so much to learn and enjoy from Seekerville. That's why I'm hanging around...

    (Now I'll be blackballed.)

    Well - fun while it lasted. May I please stay?

  24. I'm back...still thinking about this fun topic.

    James Bond might be classed as a "Thriller." That takes the suspense to a blockbuster level. Tom Clancy writes military thrillers -- lots of technical info plus the danger impacts a larger region, if not the world.

    Just yesterday, I was thinking about series romantic suspense with an ongoing protagonist. I love the first few books in a series but often don't read past the third or fourth book. By then, I'm ready for new characters.

    Because pulling all the bits and pieces of a character's past is important to the development of the story, I can't imagine writing the same hero or heroine over and over again. A real challenge! My hat's off to those who do it well.

    Many of our editors want a three-book series. No doubt they realize that readers can grow weary if a series continues too long.

    James Patterson held my interest until only recently. I fell in love with Alex Cross' family, and always worried about their safety. Plus, Patterson gave Cross a number of love interests, although none lasted too long. His books were always at the top of my Must Buy List.

    Currently, I'm buying Andrew Gross, who wrote with Patterson for a number of years. I heard Gross speak at RWA last year and enjoy his work.

    Anyone have a new suspense author they like to read? It's fun to get their debut novels and then watch their careers grow.

  25. Tina! Another Mary Higgins Clark fan! I used to read every one of her books I could get my hands on. Same with Phyllis Whitney. I love a good romantic mystery.

    Cara, great job of explaining the differences between mystery and suspense. I think I'd find suspense easier to write than mystery because as a seat-of-the-pants writer, I'd find it awfully hard to plan all the clues and red herrings and keep them all straight.

  26. KC, I read a lot of women's fiction and suspense and mysteries. I'm fairly new to romance although I've always enjoyed love stories even those without a HEA. I used to read mostly thrillers, but my taste changed over the years. I still love historicals.

  27. I am sooooo late to the party.

    But what a lovely party 'tis! Cara, you did a great job of highlighting the differences for us, Sweetcakes. Thank you!

    My dad thrived on mysteries. I have two sisters that devour them as well. Stacks of them. Library hounds. Used book store junies. Every cat book, every Poirot, every Miss Marple...


    No. No. No.

    But suspense? I love it. Loved Phyllis Whitney, Mary Stewart, and someone else wonderful whose name escapes my aging brain...

    I devoured those books. Someday when I have more time to devote to thread-weaving, I want to play in suspense, but to make it palatable I like it tight. Thought provoking. A source of wonderment and heavy on the suspense with the romance just the right dusting of sugar on a really, really good, moist, fresh fried cake.

    But I also love to read and write romance, and that drips from my pen so much more freely right now, and I LOVE a good, warm, evocative romance that makes me say, "Awww..."

    Like that Love on a Dime novel due out in WEEKS!!!

    I cannot wait, Cara-Mia!!! ;)


  28. I'm with Ruthy, Cara. Can't wait to get my hands on your debut!!!

    Whoo-hoo!!! We'll be celebrating in Seekerville!

  29. I prefer romantic suspense! The heroine/hero in jeopardy part is exciting to read.