Tuesday, January 29, 2013
A Fine Romance
It’s probably safe to say that most authors, by the time they finish a book, aren’t really sure about what they’ve done. When the writer finally types “The End,” he or she might think it all came together, but there’s always that nagging doubt. When you’ve been working on something for a long time and wrestling with the messy details, you can never be certain about how distorted your perspective might have become.
In one regard, though, authors are something like actors in live theater. They have an opportunity to learn from the audience and its reaction. It takes time to get a reading — after all, the audience may roar at a line one night and chuckle just slightly the next. But after enough nights, the actors get a sense of what’s working and what isn’t.
Last week marked the six-month anniversary of the publication of my mystery novel The McHenry Inheritance, and I’m starting to get a handle on the reaction to it. One response in particular has surprised me.
Not Holmes or Brunetti
Looking at detective stories over the years, one sees a range of attitudes with respect to the detective and the opposite (or occasionally, these days, the same) sex. There are loners, like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot; happily married men like Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti or Patricia Moyes’ Henry Tibbett; and there are detectives, single and married, who get into edgy and loosely defined sexual relationships, like Benjamin Black’s Quirke or Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone.
A central element of my book is the protagonist’s romantic (as opposed to sexual, though there’s some overlap) relationship with a woman. It’s what spurs him to become involved in a murder case and to take actions independent of law enforcement that eventually lead to the solution.
Writing the passages of the book that developed the romantic relationship was about the toughest part of the project. There was a lot of getting up from the computer and having another cup of coffee while trying to come up with the next line of dialogue in a scene. When I finally said it’s time to let go and publish, I was confident about other aspects of the book, but whether the romance worked was as much of a mystery to me as the murder in the book was to the sheriff.
The Reaction You Least Expect
So out came the book, and as the weeks and months went by, I began to hear from people who had read it, and I tried to pay attention to those who offered specific comments, as opposed to those who said, “Loved your book, gotta go now.”
Pretty early on, one comment, expressed in several variations but essentially the same, started to recur. It had to do with the romantic relationship at the heart of the book, and I can’t say what it was without giving away one of the book’s surprises. I can say that it wasn’t something I had expected in any way, and that at first it puzzled me. And yet I kept hearing it over and over again, particularly from female readers.
This past weekend, my godfather Harold Stuiber, 90 years young and sharp as a tack, called to say he’d read The McHenry Inheritance, then made the comment to which I’ve been referring. Hearing it from him, the penny dropped for some reason, and I realized that people were making that comment because at some level they cared about the characters and their relationship. The puzzlement was over. The audience has been letting me know that the romance worked.