A woman of mystery -- who confesses she hasn't yet gotten her author photos done – Cynthia provided her profile image from Mysteristas.
Well-published as a professor, including scholarly books, Cynthia shares with us the challenges of writing an academic mystery.
There I was, in a bright, overly warm room, facing a group of professors who would soon vote on whether or not I should be promoted. The interview went along pretty much as I’d expected—that is to say, I was increasingly dizzy and inelegantly chirpy as I described how much I loved the work. When the subject of my current writing project arose, I heard myself stressing that the setting was “A fictional university. Totally made up. Nothing like here.” That was the first moment I realized that writing an academic mystery while currently working in academia might not be the best idea I’d ever had.
I couldn’t help myself, though. Academia is paradoxical in the sense that while faculty expertise in the critical examination of ideas could be expected to lead to thoughtful and measured interactions, the result is often quite the opposite. Just a quick glance at The Chronicle of Higher Education provides ample evidence of plentiful conflicts, skirmishes, and battles. Contextually, it’s perfect for mystery plots.
When I began drafting Lectured to Death, I aimed to create hyperbolic versions of common academic experiences, pushing past the boundaries of typical professorial behaviors to (gently! lovingly!) satirize certain hierarchies and issues. Particular aspects may have been inconceivable outside of a fictional world, perhaps, but useful for foregrounding subjects worthy of consideration, I thought.
But as I continued to work on the book, some of those inconceivable things actually happened to people I knew at various schools. So all of it had to go. I came up with new inconceivable things. Then some of those happened, too. The line between satire and reality seemed disconcertingly thin. All I could do was revise yet again, acknowledging, like Inigo Montoya, that such things were (sadly) not inconceivable at all.
In the meantime, as word got out that I was working on an academic mystery, several colleagues suggested that I put this or that incident into the story. (I didn’t.) And one early reader said they’d enjoyed how I had turned so-and-so into a character. (I hadn’t.) The further into the project I went, the more I started to worry: could I write about any academic environment without everyone thinking that I was recording history rather than writing fiction?
Then a well-published author kindly explained that it didn’t matter because the people you know who read your fiction will think the events and characters are based on them, anyway.
Even though they aren’t.