with special guest Christy Barritt.
So you want to write a mystery novel. Or is your story that’s emerging on the page a suspense? A blend of both?
Uh-oh. Is blending both even okay? But what if I want to write a historical mystery novel with underlying suspense elements that takes place in a sci-fi fantasy world?
Are you feeling anxious? Confused? Unsure what genre is what and even worse . . . what’s okay and what’s not?
I’m here to try to put some boundaries on these genre definitions and offer you some peace of mind!
Before I start, my name is Christy Barritt. I’ve written 50 books, which have sold almost a million copies. Eighteen of these novels have been traditionally published, a few are with small presses, and the rest are indie.
I write both mystery and romantic-suspense and everything in between. My mystery novels have been called suspense, my suspense novels have been called cozies, and my romantic suspense novels are occasionally labeled as thrillers. So, writers aren’t the only one confused about the genre breakdown. Readers are too.
The good news is that most readers don’t care about whether you’re abiding by genre rules. They just want a good book. But, for the sake of your sanity and curiosity, here are the differences in the genres.
A true mystery novel will focus on the process of solving a crime. The book is like a puzzle where the reader gets to walk along beside the protagonist to figure out who did the crime and why. Readers are exposed to the same information as the detective in the story. Usually, it starts with a crime that’s already been committed, and the reader is one step behind in discovering information. The novel should make a reader think.
Think: Sue Grafton, Lorena McCourtney, Amanda Flower, Traci Tyne Hilton, Cynthia Hickey.
Subgenres: cozies, historical, noir, amateur sleuth, sci-fi, P.I.
Let’s say the basic plot of the story is: Who killed the cupcake baker? Here are the different spins that could be taken on this story based on subgenre:
Cozy: To make this cozy, add some cats, as well as a small, quirky town. No blood or guts, though!
Historical: It probably goes without saying that the story should then take place in the past.
Sci-fi: Throw in a hero with superpowers who helps solve the crime or maybe an alien who visits from another world.
Amateur sleuth: Perhaps an apprentice who works at the bakery has an astonishing attention to detail (she makes amazingly life-like roses out of icing!), which will later help to solve crime.
Police procedural: These mysteries will contain more detail about how the police go about solving the crime.
A suspense novel will focus on imminent danger as the villain tries desperately to reach a goal. The story doesn’t have to be primarily about the villain, but he will play a prominent part in it. Often, parts of the story are told from his POV, though readers are kept in the dark about certain aspects (maybe readers know why he’s doing the crime but not who he is. Or who he is by not why). Readers are aware of things unknown to the protagonist. In other words, the reader is one step ahead of the protagonist. They know something bad is going to happen and wait for the protagonist to discover it (for instance, they see the villain hide in the closet and wait as the protagonist walks through the house, making various stops, totally unaware of the danger that awaits). I love what one person said: a mystery novel will make you think, and a suspense will make you sweat.
Think: Davis Bunn, Ted Dekker, Ronie Kendig, Sandra Brown, Lisa Jackson
Subgenres: psychological, supernatural, military, espionage, medical, legal, romantic-suspense
Let’s say for these examples that the overall plot involves a killer who chases his next victim and won’t give up until she’s dead. Here’s how that would break down by subgenre:
Medical: A doctor should have saved the life of the villain’s wife and now the villain wants revenge.
Legal: An attorney doubts that the client she just helped set free is actually innocent. Did she put a killer back on the streets?
Psychological: A killer plays mind games with the victim because he finds pleasure in terrorizing people who remind him of his abusive mother.
The thriller is a suspense novel that’s been cranked up a few notches. The stakes are higher, the action even faster moving, and the consequences if the protagonist isn’t successful are devastating to more than just the hero or heroine. The safety of the world could be at stake if the hero doesn’t reach his goal.
Think: James Bond, The Bourne Trilogy, Joel Rosenburg, Lee Child, Sandra Brown
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The truth is that most novels are a blend of mystery and suspense. One will usually be stronger, but both elements are often present.
Think: Colleen Coble, Dani Pettrey, Lynette Eason
One of my best-selling series is the Squeaky Clean series, which is about a sidelined forensic investigator who begins cleaning crime scenes to both supplement her income and feed her curiosity. While doing so, she often finds clues the police overlooked. The books are classified as mysteries, but I also like to have a strong suspense element present in each story. Inevitably, as my amateur sleuth Gabby St. Claire gets closer to finding the truth, the danger against her becomes more imminent as the villain tries to stop her from exposing him.
On the other hand, some of the best suspense novels will show the protagonist playing an active role in figuring out what’s going on. The hero or heroine will not simply sit passively. In doing so, mystery elements are usually added. Clues are followed and found, proven, disproven. In my book Disillusioned, the protagonist’s brother is a POW who’s returned from captivity only to be accused of being a traitor (think Bo Bergdahl). The book opens with men posing as their security team trying to abduct them both at gunpoint. Is it the terrorists he escaped from? Or is it the government, who desperately wants to silence him? The more threats that are made against them, the more obvious it becomes that something big is going on, something that involves more than just this brother and sister duo. The two begin tracking down clues about what’s really happening in order to a stop a terrorist plot that’s slowly uncovered. This book is labeled a suspense, but there’s definitely some traits of a thriller involved, as well as mystery and romance. There’s also a psychological aspect: what if her brother really is a terrorist, released from captivity in order to unleash a plot to destroy the U.S.?
So if your book is a blend, don’t worry about it. Just decide which element is stronger, and you’ll find a way to define your genre.
Now, let’s solve another mystery.
Which do you prefer to read: Mystery, Suspense, or Both? Why?
Seekerville has opened the prize vault to give two commenters a terrific read in honor of Christy's visit. Leave a comment and your name will go into the forensic files for a chance to win an ecopy of Christy's latest release from Waterfall Press, Disillusioned. Two winners announced in the Weekend Edition.
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But soon they realize the paparazzi are the least of their worries. When a group of men try to abduct Nikki and her brother, Bobby insists that Kade Wheaton, another former SEAL, can keep them out of harm’s way. But can Nikki trust Kade? After all, the man who broke her heart eight years ago is anything but safe…
Hiding out in a farmhouse on the Chesapeake Bay, Nikki finds her loyalties—and the remnants of her long-held faith—tested as she and Kade put aside their differences to keep Bobby’s increasingly erratic behavior under wraps. But when Bobby disappears, Nikki will have to trust Kade completely if she wants to uncover the truth about a rumored conspiracy. Nikki’s life—and the fate of the nation—depends on it.
USA Today has called Christy Barritt's books "scary, funny, passionate, and quirky."
Christy is the author of fifty books, and she writes both mystery and romantic suspense novels that are clean with underlying messages of faith. Her books have won the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Suspense and Mystery, have been twice nominated for the Romantic Times' Reviewers Choice Award, and have finaled for both a Carol Award and Foreword Magazine's Book of the Year. Her novel Hazardous Duty has been optioned for a feature film.
She's married to her Prince Charming, a man who thinks she's hilarious—but only when she's not trying to be. Christy's a self-proclaimed klutz, an avid music lover who's known for spontaneously bursting into song, and a road trip aficionado.
When she's not working or spending time with her family, she enjoys singing, playing the guitar, and exploring small, unsuspecting towns where people have no idea how accident prone she is.
She’s a graduate of Indian River High School, and has a degree in Bible and Communications from Cincinnati Christian University. Her husband is a former teacher turned children’s pastor at Kempsville Christian Church in Virginia Beach. For more information or to sign up for her newsletter, visit her website: www.christybarritt.com.