Genre-Blending: 3 Keys to a Well-Mixed SFF/Crime Blend

Guest post by Jayne Barnard.

It isn’t easy to pull a balance of elements from two genres into a single story. Mysteries need crimes, suspects, red herrings, and character development for motivation. Science fiction and fantasy require questing characters, a reasonably adventurous plot, and a certain amount of world-building as well. Each of those elements absorbs words, and melding them all smoothly into a single narrative – often a short story with a tight word count – can be agonizing. Here are three keys to cutting down the word-wastage and blending the genre elements smoothly:

  1. Don’t describe anything about the story-world except the facets needed to understand the action. Concentrate on what’s different from the reader’s default Earth-based mental image. Integrate those world-building elements into the characters’ inner thoughts, actions, and dialogue. Even though you, the author, must know what political, social, technological and possibly tectonic elements shaped the physical surroundings, your readers don’t need to know it all. Your readers only need to feel confident that it does fit together in some rational pattern, and that if they asked you, you could tell them. So only describe the bits that they need to know to understand the current story.

In When the Tide Burns (appearing in BURNT, Analemma Press, August 2016), the setting is a barge moored in a garbage-packed cove as the wind is rising. This could be present time, familiar reality for coastal dwellers until the fifth sentence. The soapberry wax, all that protected their clothing and equipment from the acid spray, was down to its last sheen in the tin’s bottom corners. Not such a normal cove after all, but one holding a danger unfamiliar to the readers. The implied menace of the acid spray, combined with the rising wind, are not only effectively alien elements of world-building but introduce a sense of a rising menace against which our protagonist must pit her wits.

  1. When introducing characters, only describe what makes the alien, orc, or robot different from an ordinary human. Don’t bother with anything about their culture or planet of origin unless it’s vital to the plot of this story. You need to know it all; the reader doesn’t. Again, integrate. Don’t info-dump.

In Quest for Parts (Enigma Front, Analemma Press, 2015) we see what the protagonist sees: a scrawny, pasty, generally human-looking intruder. But… Ignoring the racket, the guy stared into the sky-blue mirror, adjusting a knob at his collar with one claw. His face shimmered, gaining warmer tones while losing the sharp tips to his nose, ears and chin. The lasers in the room shimmered, too, stopping when his face settled. This character has claws, not fingernails, and can adjust his appearance by turning a knob. He’ll need those assets later in the story, so best to slide them into our protagonist’s, and the reader’s, first impression. 

  1. Make some element of your mystery one that could only occur in that particular alternate reality. Stories that could have happened down the block but are set on a space station will not be as engaging as those that require, nay, demand the setting and culture you have created for them.

In MADDIE HATTER AND THE DEADLY DIAMOND, the inciting incident sets this up immediately: The expeditionary airship of Baron Bodmin, ardent African explorer, has been found adrift and deserted. Its log-book is missing and no clue remains to its captain’s fate. A fortnight after its last sighting over the mouth of the Suez Canal, the airship appeared off the coast of Cornwall, floating low and rudderless above the waves. No escape canopy or life-vest remained on board. The batty baron must have vanished from an airship because only airships can stay aloft indefinitely without fuel or a pilot. Exactly where he vanished, and whether by accident, on purpose, or someone else’s design, is the first of many questions for which our intrepid Steampunk reporter must seek answers.

Now to integrate them all. An example from Painted Jade (unpublished) opens with all of the above: Working security on the top side of a conglomerate-built drift makes you a traffic warden in any gated community anywhere. You spend your days petting the dogs and smiling at the nice ladies. Or, if you’re me, trying to reverse that process. Troubles happen way down the bottom, where the ore processors and overcrowded labor force are located. Not my turf. I’m up here with the shiny clean management and their families. Low crime? Try non-existent. So it was unusual, to say the least, to get a morning report about a body bobbing against a pricey porthole high up on C7. A human body, not a stray hunk of rock freed from the asteroid belt. The dome owner objected less to the body proper than to it blocking his view of ore-blasting among the asteroids.

This opening encompasses all three of the keys: world-building, character, and unique element to the crime. The space habitat, the mining industry and the rudiments of a class structure are set out immediately. The point-of-view character’s job and general attitude are on the table up front. No other setting but space allows for the body, and all the evidence the killer left on it, to be perfectly preserved from the moment of disposal. Additionally, the space station serves like one of Agatha Christie’s isolated manor houses: all the suspects and the next possible victims are trapped in one place. The story could not happen anywhere else.

Thus, the essence of a nice, smooth blend of genres: integrate world-building with the lead characters’ actions, which also reveal their attitudes and attributes. Make the crime specific to that world, and the solution unique to those characters.

 

Jayne from steamconJayne Barnard is a founding member of Madame Saffron’s Parasol Dueling League for Steampunk Ladies and a longtime crime writer. Her fiction and non-fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines. Awards for short fiction range from the 1990 Saskatchewan Writers Guild Award for PRINCESS ALEX AND THE DRAGON DEAL to the 2011 Bony Pete for EACH CANADIAN SON. Her longer work has been shortlisted for the Debut Dagger in the UK and won the Unhanged Arthur in Canada. You can visit her at her blog, on Facebook or @JayneBarnard1

I Just Love a Good Mystery: The Mystique of the Genre

 

Strength of Spirit_Amanda FaithA guest post by Amanda Faith.

I love a good mystery. Being the detective, following the clues, and arriving at the logical conclusion to catch the bad guy has always held such fascination to me. Sherlock Holmes, Jane Marple, Inspector Clouseau, Nancy Drew…these are but just a few of my childhood sleuths that I followed. I couldn’t get enough.

One of the largest draws for me was the fact that I could become part of the story. If the author did their job right, I had to work along side the detective to uncover the clues. It made me work. No, strike that. It would make me want to work.

There are some key elements in a great mystery that should be followed:

  1. A detective that engages the reader. No one wants to be bored reading nor should the detective be a twit.
  2. A solvable puzzle.
  3. A well-done setting
  4. Interesting characters. More than likely, there are several in the book.

Reading mysteries, I discovered that a great mystery has more than one mystery in it. Yes, it contains the “big question.” However, a great mystery also contains several smaller ones to keep the reader engaged, to bring more tension, more problem-solving opportunities, and more ways to introduce red herrings. It also brings depth to the main character (and sometimes the villain). Solving a crime is never neat and pretty. There are twists and turns, wrong assumptions, and initial wrong answers that help the reader stay intrigued. Sometimes it’s good in seeking the truth by showing a lie to propel the story forward.

A mystery must have stakes. There has to be an important, life-changing reason that the unanswered question needs to be answered. The question has to have meaning and weight or there would be no reason to pursue the answer. The greater the problem, the more the tension can grow.

Creating a good mystery can be challenging. There are a few things to keep in mind while writing.

  1. Start with the ending. I have discovered that if you know what the crime, who was involved, and how the bad guy gets caught is important. It will make it easier to create the story to make sure you get to the end game.
  2. A lot of exposition will kill a good mystery. Sure, sometimes it’s necessary. There has to be some exposition to move the story along. However, a good mystery engages the reader. They are part of the story. They are part of the crew to catch the bad guy. If a writer feeds them all the information, a reader will just toss the book aside, bored and hurt you didn’t let them be a part of the takedown.
  3. Do not be unrealistic with the conclusion. The clues, although challenging, cannot be so difficult that a reader cannot solve the case. You don’t want clues to be easy, either. No one reads to the middle of a book and stops. You need to take it all the way home. The reader should be able to go back and trace how things happened to discover how the detective came to the right answer at the end.
  4. Don’t make the conclusion stupid. I say this will all kindness, but things like the assistant figuring it out for the detective, there was an unknown twin, or arbitrarily have a key piece of information appear out of thin air. You can’t hide information. There has to be a hint of a clue somewhere prior to the time the detective unveils it.
  5. Introduce the criminal soon, and the detective sooner. Let the reader know within the first third of the book who the bad guy is so they feel they have enough time to solve the case.

Someone once told me that building a mystery is like the game Jenga (I wish I could remember who). Reach in, grab a block, and pull. Does the story stand? Did you watch it fall apart? This is where the edits come in. You will find all kinds of holes in your story during editing if your Jenga falls down before you get to the end.

I have discovered my love for mysteries has taking me to read about all kinds of mysteries, including real ones. Take the Egyptian Pyrimads, the ruins of Chichen Itza and Puma Punku, or the Lost City of Atlantis. How about the real cases of Jack the Ripper? Amelia Earheart? All of these real-life areas hold a sense of mystery for me. I find that I become lost in the clues and read about what researchers discover.

There are a lot of wonderful authors that transport the reader down a road to uncover the clues and catch the bad guy. Maybe the mystery can be the reader discovering their next great book to help them escape…if only for a little while.

Guest Writer Bio:
Amanda FaithTeaching high school English by day, college English by night, writing, and doing paranormal investigations doesn’t slow her down from having a great time with a plethora of hobbies. Her published credits include short stories, poetry, several journal articles, her doctoral dissertation, and her award-winning book Strength of Spirit. She is a staff writer for The Daily Dragon at Dragon Con and an intern for Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta at WordFire Press. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English, a Masters in Education-English, and a Doctorate in Education-Teacher Leadership. Check out her website at www.amandafaith.net.

Descriptive Genre Novels

Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, novels were suddenly available to the general public at greatly reduced cost. The paper wasn’t always the best quality and plagiarism was rampant between different countries — sometimes even between regions or states. People didn’t travel much and there was no Internet to bring rich, colorful multimedia presentations to someone’s eye at a whim.

Literature was their window to the world and beyond. The descriptions and eloquent language had to give the reader an understanding of places they’d never been to and most likely would never actually see. In a way, the genre novels were a combination of travel books combined with a fascinating tale.

Marie CorelliTake, for example, the best-selling author Marie Corelli. She was read by the masses more than HG Wells, Edgar Allen Poe, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — combined. In her book, Vendetta, she introduces the Italian landscape with intricate detail and flowing prose. Everything is richly described that let the readers “see” through the text. Colors, sounds, smells — all were documented to bring the landscape to life.

This method of novel-writing remained active and at the top of the best-sellers list until the 1980s. James Michener’s doorstopper novels included when the Earth was forming from dust up until the actual story took off. This detailed understanding of the environment was just as important to his novels because the landscape was an important character. Alaska, one of his last novels, explained volumes of how life was like in the frozen, snowy wastelands. Without that understanding, the story would be missing something important for the reader to incorporate in their thinking.

James A. Michener's Post-1980’s, the writing landscape changed. People had less time to spend on reading and publishers pushed for stories that started when the action began. Michener and James Clavell would have a tough time getting published these days without their extensive bookselling record.

One of the reasons for this sea change can be blamed on the Internet. Instead of having an author interpret and describe an exotic location, people can fire up their favorite search engine and watch travel videos and see pictures of daily life in far-off lands. We no longer need the words. For some genres, this is a sad thing.

With the hustle-and-bustle of daily living, coupled with the constant barrage of time-absorbing activities as far away as the cell phone in your pocket, nobody has the time for a beautifully written novel. They want to jump in, read the good parts, and jump out. The older readers are the ones who miss the prose the most.

Probably the one spot where this is less apparent is the speculative fiction markets. Science fiction and fantasy are based in places beyond our experience, so the author still has to do some worldbuilding. The details, alas, are typically lacking because the publishers want the action and not the description. Sometimes it is a good thing to take a break after a wild chase and a fierce battle to rest — both the characters and the reader — by delving into some more history or landscape description. At least, it’s something I miss these days.


 

About the Author:DeMarco_Web-5963

Guy Anthony De Marco is a disabled US Navy veteran speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award® nominee; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, third-party D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.
A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, NCW, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at Wikipedia and GuyAnthonyDeMarco.com.

You Can Ride My Rocket…(Wink Wink)

There are some people who cringe at the idea of combining science fiction and romance. I suspect that these same people also don’t like Firefly so their opinions don’t really matter anyway. Personally I like a spoonful of romance in my steaming cup of science.

Science fiction is a genre that romance plays well with. Okay, I’ll be honest. If romance was a person they would be a double-jointed omnisexual gymnast. Romance can be easily adapted to satisfy everyone’s needs and plays well with every genre. But when it’s combined with science fiction it gives the story a lot of *ahem* unexplored territory in which to boldly go where Kirk has gone before.

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 (Bondage night with Lady Gaga?)

At its heart, science fiction is about exploring new possibilities. Sometimes it’s a new scientific theory, sometimes it’s a new planet, and sometimes you’re running from Shai-Hulud. Regardless of the territory it’s still all about exploration and all of the joy, fear, trepidation, and danger that goes with it. If you boil romance down to its very essence it’s about the same thing. Seriously. What’s more exciting and terrifying than exploring a space cave and nearly getting mauled by a Gorn? What can be more explosive than the Tothian minefield? Relationships!

minefield-galaxyquest-nailyournovel

(I’m pretty sure the odds of not starting an argument when you suggest that your partner stop and ask for directions is 3,720:1)

Yes, there are a lot of novels where the romance is merely a time slot on the holodeck or a green skinned Mary Sue. But it isn’t limited to that. In fact, it can be a lot more.

When done well, romance can compound a story’s major conflict (cue Ted and Robin salute). In Babylon 5 the romance between Capt. Sheridan and Ambassador Delenn made it a lot harder for them to take necessary risks during the Shadow war. It also made things very awkward when (Spoiler alert) it turned out that Sheridan’s wife wasn’t dead. On the other side of the spectrum, Marcus’ final sacrifice wouldn’t have brought a tear to many viewers eyes, including mine, if his love for Ivanova wasn’t unrequited. The fact that they hadn’t so much as kissed turned what would have been just a noble act into the most romantically tragic moment in the entire show.

Let’s not forget that The Empire Strikes Back wouldn’t be the same without Han and Leia’s love spat or heartbreaking farewell. (Odd that both were in very cold climates.) But that’s enough examples from TV and movies. Let’s turn to books!

Linnea Sinclair writes some of the best sci-fi romances I’ve read. In fact, her novel, Shades of Dark made me cry. Some of hers are exactly what you would expect a sci-fi romance to be. However, in Shades of Dark the protagonist couple’s relationship become strained to the point of breaking when one of them starts learning how to use their latent alien abilities. They realize, almost too late, that their ignorance and folly not only hurt their relationship but put their partner in very real danger. It’s this last twist that for me makes this romantic conflict real. I mean we probably all know someone or were with someone who became so obsessed with something that it almost destroyed, or did destroy, a happy relationship.

In The Postman by David Brin the protagonist falls in love with an idea more than an actual person. When he stumbles upon a quiet, and safe community the idea of staying and building a life there rather than taking on the mantle of responsibility of being a postman is incredibly appealing. In some ways it’s strange to think of an idea as being romantic. Think if it this way: when you’ve been up late working on a manuscript and have to get ready for work at the crack of dawn, the idea of calling in sick has a lot of appeal. This is the same thing except their desire for comfort and ease is so idealized that it takes on a romantic quality.

Dara Joy is an amazing romance writer whose stories sometimes has a sci-fi twist. She has a duology, High Energy and High Intensity, that’s set in the real world but uses science in an… interesting way. The main character’s love interest is a sexy physicist who decides to teach them the basics of physics through sex. I know. It sounds super cheesy but take my word for it. It’s hot! Besides, who wouldn’t want to go to that physics class?

Okay. I’ll admit that last one was a traditional romance. While it doesn’t use romantic elements in a creative was she does get bonus points for including science in a creative way. This partnership does work both ways after all.

Whether you use a little or a lot, use more romance or use more science, or use a romanticized idea is up to you. It’s also by no means a requirement that there be romance in every science-fiction story. Rather, it’s another tool that can perform more than one task. It’s entirely up to you whether or not to use it, as well as how you want to use it.