Friday, May 29, 2020

What We Write About

Should we keep the real world out of our books and short stories? Some writers and readers would argue that we should be able to "escape" into a book. In crime writing, those books are sometimes dismissed as "cozies." Many readers want books that provide an opportunity to spend time with characters who are likable in settings that are safe. It requires as much of those writers to craft a satisfying book as it does of writers in other subgenre, and they deserve respect.

But then we have the other question. If we are authors who write grittier books, how much should we deal with social issues? Should we respond to the current reality? This morning I woke up as a message was being left in my voice mail. The host of the morning roundtable discussion on our local public radio station was calling to ask me to join this morning panel.

During the show, he mentioned that I'm a mystery writer, but I was there as a criminal justice professor. If you've been watching the news, you can guess that the conversation was about -- the death of Mr. Floyd and the fires burning in Minneapolis and the tweets coming from the White House and the social media responses to the video. . .

As a crime fiction writer, I've spent of my fiction writing life focusing on a series set in the recent past with a couple of short stories set in the 1940s. Now, I'm working on a thriller set in 1939. I also have two novels published by St. Martin's set in the near future. Or, at least they were, now it is 2020. And my second book in the series was set in January 2020. I was writing alternate history, but that history shares much in common with the present moment. In the third book -- the one that I had contemplated writing even though I don't have a publisher -- that book involves a threat to my protagonist Hannah McCabe. She is the target of a group of rogue police officers who are aligned with the candidacy of a third-party right-wing presidential candidate who is doing "arena" rallies doing which he urges his supporters to make American Great Again. He is running against a Hispanic woman who is the Republican candidate and the African American (biracial) male vice president who is running because the first female president has been so badly damaged that she is not a viable Democrat candidate. As the election approaches, Howard Miller, the third party candidate is coming  to visit the Albany area.

Let me say, the first book in this series, The Red Queen Dies, came out in 2013. The second, What the Fly Saw, was published in 2015. I wanted to write a series that would allow me to comment on the future that nonfiction writers were foreseeing -- the environment, the food supply, pandemics, domestic terrorists, poverty, solar flares. I had a long list of concerns.

I deal with social issues in my book. I try my best not to stand on a soap box yelling. I write books and short stories in which I try to present various perspectives. But my protagonist, Hannah McCabe, is a police officer -- a detective in my fictional version of the Albany police department. She is a good cop. She works with other good cops who care about their job. But in my world, there is also rot at the core in the form of the police officers who are Howard Miller supporters. Hannah's father is a white retired newspaper editor. Her mother was a black radical poet. She is caught in the middle -- an "outsider within".

This is a moment -- with a pandemic and fires burning and fear, anger, and chaos -- that I want to spend some time with Hannah. I want to hear how she sees the world and find out what she will do when she finds out what is happening around her.

I have the murder -- my plot involving an animal-rights activist who supports bringing the wolves back to the Adirondacks and is found dead in an abandoned school -- I also have the context in which that murder occurs. My challenge if I decide to take it is to write a book that is both a good mystery/police procedural and a comment on the times we live in.



Anna said...

Frankie, I enjoyed hearing you on the radio this morning---and although the host did identify you as a mystery author (he does most of the on-air book reviews, remember), he acknowledged your academic position more than once during the breaks, which you may or may not have had access to. It was a much-needed discussion at this heart-breaking time.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Hi Anna,

Thanks, I wanted to say something sensible. No, I could hear what was playing doing break but I was busy re-directing my cat's attention. Yes, it is a needed discussion, but right now no one seems to know what to say.