Mysterious Doings: Clean Chills and Thrills with Stephanie Black

*Stephanie has won the Whitney Award for Mystery/Suspense two years running (2008-2009) and is a finalist in the same category for 2011. Her books are well crafted suspense and have been part of the expanding Mystery/Suspense genre in the LDS Market. I’ve asked her to guest post on this blog about what she writes and why she writes it.

From Stephanie:

From Encyclopedia Brown’s thwarting of the devious Bugs Meany, to Nancy Drew’s poking her teenage nose into the mysteries that popped up all around her, to Mary Higgins Clark’s nice-girl-in-peril spine-chillers, I’ve always loved reading a fun, suspenseful story. Bring on the suspension of disbelief—let’s throw ourselves into an imaginary adventure and worry about people who aren’t real as they face peril that, in reality, is just words on a page. The power of fiction to create an emotional response in the reader is an amazing thing.

Why do I enjoy mystery and suspense novels? It would probably take a psychologist to thoroughly answer that question, but since my daughter is a psych major and uses giant words I don’t understand (what are hermeneutics, anyway?), I’ll stick with a layman’s interpretation: I enjoy the vicarious thrill that comes when a sympathetic character faces danger and escapes it—and the good guys win. For me, the happy ending is non-negotiable in a suspense novel; if I wanted to read a scary tale with a depressing ending, I’d read the newspaper. Everything doesn’t have to be perfect at the end of the novel—people can still have struggles and problems and regrets—but the ending needs to be upbeat and hopeful.

I’ve written four LDS contemporary suspense novels—(Fool Me Twice, Methods of Madness, Cold as Ice, and a book coming out later this year, which currently has the working title of Rearview Mirror). Here’s the kind of suspense novel I’ve enjoyed writing for the past few years: the protagonist is female and young (well, young to me—oldest so far is 30). She’s trying to do the right thing, but makes some mistakes. Backstory—events that happened before the story opens—plays a critical role in my mysteries; something that happened years, or even decades, ago is going to be a catalyst for much of what takes place in the real-time of the novel. There will, of course, be a murder or two. And, with the exception of Fool Me Twice, there will be a touch of romance (which should please the readers who were disappointed when there wasn’t anything huggy or kissy at the end of FMT. I’d telegraphed where the relationship between the hero and heroine was headed, but feel it would have been a mistake to push things further before the last page. It was too soon for the characters–romance at that point wouldn’t have rung true for either of them—but a few readers were disappointed that there wasn’t more Cupid).

What of LDS elements? I’m writing for an LDS publisher that distributes exclusively to the LDS market. Is there some kind of template I need to follow? Mandatory things to include? Does the main characters need to be LDS? No to all of the above. As far as non-negotiable points: the story needs to be clean–no sex, no profanity, no graphic violence, no endorsing evil. No, the good guys do not need to be perfect. Yes, characters can have plenty of problems and struggles. My protagonists tend to have personal problems intertwining with the mystery elements of the story. How about LDS references? Yes, my publisher does want them, but they’ve given me a lot of leeway there. Sometimes LDS elements play more of a role, and other times they’re more of the “cultural” variety—mention of attending BYU, mention of parents on a mission, mention of a singles ward. In the LDS market, you’ll find mysteries with lots of LDS elements, and mysteries with few to none. Some readers want a lot of LDS elements; others just want a clean read. The market is big enough for both types of books.

There is something that can be tricky when it comes to creating mystery/suspense novels with an LDS protagonist. In my third mystery, I discovered that when I’m setting a book in an area without a large LDS population (in this case, the Finger Lakes area of New York), it can take some dancing around in order to make sure two LDS characters don’t know each other before I want them to meet. I ended up booting one character into another city, though his office was still in the town where the heroine lived—sorry about the commute, dude—because if they’d lived in the same town and were both active LDS, there’s no way they wouldn’t have known each other, and for story purposes, I needed them to be strangers. Also, when trying to create potential love interests for the heroine—who is staunchly LDS—and you need more than one interesting guy/red herring so you can keep things uncertain—well, hey, look at all the eligible LDS bachelors now in this area where members of the church form only a small percentage of the population! (Of course, one of those eligible young men might be a murderer, but that’s how potential romance goes in a mystery novel). But there are always ways to work the story out and make thing credible and satisfying. I enjoy writing for the LDS market. I enjoy creating LDS characters, and not having to worry that my editor might wonder why I’m so rigid about not allowing my characters to take the Lord’s name in vain, or about writing anything else I wouldn’t want my kids to see springing from my computer. It’s very possible—and very fun—to tell a chillingly suspenseful story that is also totally clean.

About Josi Kilpack

Born in raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, I'm the third of nine children and the mother of four kids of my own. I've written 13 novels, most of them directed to the LDS market, and also write articles, short stories, and do freelance editing. I've been involved with LDStorymakers, a guild for LDS writers, since it's inception ten years ago and am currently the president of The Whitney Awards, a genre award program for LDS writers. I live in Willard Utah with my husband, kids, dog, and chickens.
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5 Responses to Mysterious Doings: Clean Chills and Thrills with Stephanie Black

  1. James Goldberg says:

    “if I wanted to read a scary tale with a depressing ending, I’d read the newspaper.”

    The news is actually even worse than that, because the story never really ends…;)

  2. Krista says:

    Interesting! I really enjoyed hearing about your process and background. It’s always intrigued me how mystery writers plot. I think I’d have to start at the end! Loved Cold as Ice. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Great post, Stephanie, and a useful breakdown of the genre as it applies to the LDS market. Love your books and can’t wait for Rearview Mirror!

  4. Mary Walling says:

    I’ve never read your books, but love mysteries. It’s refreshing to know that I can find an LDS mystery and not have to worry about the language, sex, etc. I have dropped a couple of writers that I loved because they switched from good clean mysteries to explict and foul. Thanks for bringing something to the market for those of us who really care about what we read.

  5. Thanks for the comments and the encouragement! I really appreciate it.

    James, good point about the news . . .

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