Mysterious Doings: The Same but…Different

Ten years ago, if you were giving a ‘report’ on LDS fiction, most of what was being written was romance and historical. There were a few other genres represented here and there, but not many. Anyone who has paid attention to the LDS authors of the last few years have surely noted a change in what’s out there now. There’s still romance and historical, but other genres are making an impact. As president of The Whitney Awards for 2010, I was very surprised with the popularity of mystery/suspense; it had more official nominees than historical did.

While romance was strongly represented, we had a lot of books that were harder to classify. As LDS authors follow the trend of the national market, genres are blending and blurring more and more all the time—which makes categorizing books a bit of a headache. This year we’re asking the authors to confirm the category rather than try to choose it ourselves and by asking their opinion we are, of course, getting lots of feedback. Such as:

“My book’s kind of a suspenseful romantic historical with some paranormal mixed in.”

And

“Why don’t you have a category for thrillers, they really aren’t mysteries.”

In 2010 we were able to split the Youth Fiction category into Youth Fiction General and Youth Fiction Speculative due to the fact that there were enough official nominees to keep both categories competitive. It’s the first time we’ve been able to add a new category and was very exciting for those of us who have watched the Whitneys grow. We look forward to the day when we have enough nominees in enough genres and sub-genres to keep each category awards very specific.

One division I’m especially hopeful for is breaking Mystery/Suspense into three categories: Mystery, Suspense, and Thrillers. While each of them are about finding a solution while seeking justice, each genre has something unique to offer. Heather Moore, whose books have been called ‘Historical Thrillers’ due to how high the stakes are in her Book of Mormon novels, gave me the following definitions:

Mystery: A crime is committed in beginning of the book, rest of story is solving the crime “who-dun-it”. The inciting incident often happens off stage and the reader knows as much as the protagonist.

Suspense: The plot is spent trying to stop the crime or catastrophe from happening, a smaller scale setting than a thriller. The reader often knows more than the protagonist, anticipating danger a second sooner than the main character does.

Thriller: A suspense novel that has grander proportions, pacing is “break-neck” speed, consequences are world-wide, death is a viable threat, villain drives the plot, and the hero is forced to overcome the obstacles set in motion by the villain. Reader often sees more than the protagonist does, but not always.

There are critics who claim that the three different types of mystery can’t realistically compete against one another. As I said we hope they won’t have to forever, but each of them share enough similar elements that they work well in a category together. The solution for splitting categories sooner rather than later is to get more great mystery/suspense/thrillers written and in the hands of readers.

The hope of this happening is validated by the fact that all of these sub-genres ARE already represented in LDS fiction. If readers want a cozy mystery, they can read Betsy Brannon Green, Tristi Pinkston, Carole Warburton, and my culinary mystery series. If they want suspense, they can find that with Betsy Brannon Green (she writes in a variety of genres) as well as Stephanie Black, Jennie Hansen, Rachel Ann Nunes, and some of Gregg Luke’s work. If a reader wants the stakes even higher, the potential fall out even more devastating, you can find thrillers from writers like Gregg Luke, Traci Hunter Abramson, Steve Westover, Donald B. Anderson, and Julie Bellon.

This certainly isn’t an all-inclusive list—and it’s 100% subjective because I only have my own experience to draw from–so let me know what I’ve missed. Of all the genres I read, and I read most of them, my favorite curl-up is with a well paced, well written suspense novel that stops time in my world while I wonder how on earth the character’s world will be saved. I hope that in future years we get more and more into the market and making an impact. Looking at the last ten years gives me great hope for the next decade of LDS writing.

And, don’t forget that nominations for the 2011 Whitney Awards are open. Go to www.whitneyawards.com for more information.

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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3 Responses to Mysterious Doings: The Same but…Different

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Julie,

    Thanks for these thoughts about classification. Obviously there are exceptions (e.g., Columbo as an example of a mystery where the reader knows “whodunit” from the very beginning). But as general trends, they seem useful.

    I’ve long been attracted to an approach to genre that categorizes books in part by the type of emotional experience they’re intended to provide to readers. In that respect, a mystery is almost more like a novel of manners, focusing on how the detective will figure out the mystery, while suspense and thriller are more about generating suspense related to the question of whether things will (or can) turn out well for the characters we care about. At least, that’s a first-take stab at it. (I’ve spent more time developing my idea in the realm of sf&f — this is the first time I’ve really thought about applying it to mystery, suspense, and thrillers).

    With respect to the growing number of Whitney submissions: do you think this is because more books by LDS writers are being published, because people are more aware of the Whitneys, or a combination of the two? I’d love to think that both are true: that more books by LDS writers are being published, AND that people are becoming more aware of the Whitneys — and devoting more time and awareness to the concept of “books by LDS writers” as a classification worth thinking about. If that makes sense.

  2. Josi says:

    Interesting idea, Jonathan, in regard to the emotional experience. That could be quite effective in regard to books like historical romance, because a very different type of emotional response is given to romance than to historical. It’s hard to know which one it fits, but an emotional component might be a more sure fire way of determining. Of course, it would still be somewhat subjective which is the bane of categorizing!

    As to the Whitney awards–I think it’s both. I think there are more books published now than there were in the past, and I think readers are becoming more aware of the award program and therefore nominating the books they like for the award. I also think that the variety of what’s available and the increasing quality of the writing in the “LDS” market is attracting new readers. More and more often, the writing in the LDS market is equal to the national market and with the branching out of topics and genres we’re more inclusive to Joe Reader than we’ve ever been before–which is very exciting for all of us tapped into this market. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      I doubt that it would be very useful for formal categorizing (e.g., for the Whitneys). For me, the attraction is more as a starting-point for discussion — especially for talking about things like why genres that seem similar in terms of structural elements, such as fantasy and horror (both using supernatural elements), may appeal to entirely difference audiences.

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