Today we have a very special guest at Maine Crime Writers. I’m especially pleased to have Shelley Burbank visit us because, way back in the dark ages before there was an Internet, she was a student in a section of Freshman Composition I was teaching as adjunct faculty at the University of Maine at Farmington. Shelley didn’t really need me to teach her how to write an essay. She was already a terrific writer and she still is. She’s here to tell you about her first novel, which will be available tomorrow! Please welcome this native Mainer, currently living in California, to the blog.
BUT WHERE’S THE DEAD BODY?
Or why my debut private detective crime novel isn’t a murder mystery
Much has been made of Raymond Chandler’s rules for crime writing. Google “Raymond Chandler’s rules for writing mysteries,” and you’ll be presented with a list of links to blog posts and Reddit discussions–all citing the rules (sometimes called the Ten Commandments) culled from an essay entitled, “Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story.” This essay by Chad Nevett was published in The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler. I haven’t read the essay yet, but from what I gather, there were also 13 addenda, which means he really gave 25 rules for the eager new mystery writer to follow.
The rule that gives me the most angst at this point in my nascent career as a mystery writer is #2, written as follows: “It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.” It’s actually the only one of the major rules that implies a mystery story must include a murder–which my debut private detective novel, FINAL DRAFT: An Olivia Lively Mystery, does not.
I can’t say I’ve successfully checked all of Chandler’s other boxes. I do my best. As one of my father’s fifth-grade students once blurted out to him, “That’s the best a horse can do, is try.” But for some reason the lack of a dead body in my crime novel about plagiarism (and to a lesser degree, mortgage fraud and cyber crime) seems to cause some people a bit of consternation, especially when considering that bugaboo of the bookselling world–categorization.
“What kind of mystery is this, exactly?” one might ask. “It’s not a cozy because the main character’s not an amateur sleuth. It’s not a police procedural because the main character’s a private eye. But it’s not a hardboiled detective story, because there’s romance and… well…brunching.”
Honestly, if I could go back and change it, maybe throw a fatal stabbing or a nice choking or a toss off a tall building or a sly sip of poison into a champagne glass, I would. But the origin story of my story sheds some light on how I happened to write a mystery without a murder. And how I wrote it without knowing the rules. And how I didn’t plan on writing a mystery novel to begin with.
It was 2014. I’d successfully sold four or five stories to the confession magazines: True Love, True Story. These venerable pulp classics folded after ninety-plus years just as I’d broken into a paid market, and when I thought about what I should do next, I decided I would find something on the cutting edge, something new peeking over the horizon. This time I’d get in at the beginning rather than the end. I discovered an online writing platform called Wattpad.
Now the funny thing about Wattpad in 2014 was that fan fiction ruled, specifically fanfic based on the teen band One Direction. Yes, Harry Styles’s band. That guy. Read about Anna Todd, sometime, and her four After movies based on her One Direction fanfic series written on Wattpad
Teenage readers and amateur writers abounded on the platform, but there were some older writers posting stories as well. I jumped on board having little idea how it worked. I figured I’d put something up as an experiment and learn as I went along.
I’d been a Nancy Drew fan as a kid, and I read a smattering of crime fiction every year. A few cozies. A thriller or two. Romantic suspense. Why not offer a chick lit short story with a vaguely criminal vibe? I’d already written “Disguised,” a flash fic that featured a feisty female P.I. hot on the trail of her cheating boyfriend. In combat boots and a blond wig. It was 500 words or so. I didn’t expect much of a response.
Shortly after I posted, the weirdest thing happened. I started to get all these comments from readers. “I love this! When is the next chapter?” “Olivia Lively’s great! I can’t wait to see what happens next!” “Hurry up and post!”
I blinked at the screen. What next chapter?
I soon figured out that readers thought this was just the opening pages of what would be a full-length mystery novel. I decided to give it a shot. I needed to create a case for Olivia to solve, and I turned to Wattpad itself for inspiration. So many young writers added wording to their book descriptions along the lines of, “Don’t steal my story! This story is copyrighted!”
They were worried about plagiarism. I thought, So why not write a story about a struggling young writer claiming his mentor/professor stole his manuscript? That should interest these young readers. And that’s how the book came to be. I posted one or two chapters per week. I made online friends from around the world. I gained a respectable number of followers and over 400,000 reads with the story. It never occurred to me to murder anyone in this particular story—or to look up “the rules.”
My bad. I know I’ve been naughty. Please forgive my brazen nerve.
Eventually, I decided to take the book, originally entitled Disguised, off the platform. I sent it to Encircle Publications figuring if they didn’t want it, I’d put it away and work on something new. Happily for me, they liked it. It’s coming out March 8, this female private detective/chick lit mash-up set in Portland, Maine. There’s an academic-type mystery, suspense, and a cast of slightly-odd characters: Quirky college employees, competitive MFA students, a sleazy ex-boyfriend, a manipulative mother, a hot heart doctor, and of course, feisty and fashionable Olivia Lively, P.I.
But no dead body. Not a single one.
Shelley Burbank is a mystery and women’s fiction author and journalist based in Maine and San Diego, California. Her short fiction has been published in True Story Magazine, San Diego Woman Magazine, and The Maine Review and will be included in the Partners In Crime Anthology, Crime Under the Sun, due out this summer. Her debut novel, FINAL DRAFT: An Olivia Lively Mystery will be published by Encircle Publications on March 8, 2023. Shelley’s currently hard at work on the next Olivia Lively mystery, NIGHT MOVES. PS: There’s a dead body in this next one.
Love how you came up with this book, which I enjoyed.
Hi again, Dru! I so much appreciate your reviews and everything you do for the writing community. Thanks for reading this essay.
Crime fiction can be just that. Detecting the crime! As you so intelligently deduced readers are intrigued by the process hence the popularity of series such as Nancy Drew, Stephanie Plum, and the Hardy Boys. No dead bodies are required. Really can’t wait to read about Olivia.
Hi Julianne: Phew! I’m glad I’m not the only one. I really have been feeling a bit paranoid about the whole issue. I enjoy the Stephanie Plum’s that I’ve read…she’s quite a character! And of course I grew up on Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. I’m giving in and writing about a murder in the next book, though. After that, who knows?
Sounds great. I look forward to reading it.
Thanks, John! I hope you like it.
Fascinating path to publication. BJ started off with short stories on Lily Robinson before turning them into novels as well. But she does kill people.
Hi Matt. I feel like the world’s oldest debutante at fifty….mumble, mumble, mumble.
Shelley, I love this! It’s wonderful to meet a fellow Trues’ alum. I still miss the mags. Crime stories without bodies always fascinate. I’m looking forward to meeting Olivia.
Kait, I’m so happy to hear from a Trues writer! So often I mention “the Trues” and people give me a weird stare. I grew up seeing them on the magazine rack at the supermarket, so I thought they were kind of ubiquitous. Anyway, I was thrilled to sell stories to them and then…they were gone. I hope you enjoy Olivia.
Way to go! Will be ordering from our local bookstore. Looking forward to it. Maybe a local signing when you are in Maine?
I will be at the Limerick Public Library on April 15, time to be determined. There’s another exciting venue possibility in the works. Yay for local bookstores! I loved working at Books N Things when it was down the road in Oxford, ME. So many fond memories.
Just ordered it. Sounds great.
Thanks so much, Ann! I hope you enjoy it.
Thank you for this blogpost! I’ve written a trilogy of genealogical mysteries (set in Maine) with no dead bodies but plenty of frightening scenes for my young amateur sleuth to negotiate. The danger builds as the stories unfold, but her detective skills help prevent a murder (or other crime) rather than solve one already on the books. It’s a combination of suspense, problem-solving, and appealing characters that capture my imagination, and I’m trusting other readers feel the same way. Looking to publish soon!
I LOVE that genealogical concept, Katherine! Your books sound great. Is it YA?
I’m thinking of the novels as all-ages, but they’re ones I would have liked as a YA (I was also a huge Nancy Drew fan, and there are some allusions to her and cousin George in two of the books!). The idea for a genealogical mystery was born when I came across my great-grandfather’s penciled 1878 diary, which contained clues to a first family no one knew about, one that I managed to confirm through dogged census research (I felt like an ancestral detective!). (Full disclosure: I found my great-grandpa’s first son ONLY through an egregious dating error entered into the Ancestry search engine.) P.S. I am 73, so from my vantage point, you have time for dozens more novels after this happy debut! – Katherine
Just pre-ordered Final Draft – looking forward to reading it, especially knowing the fascinating back-story!
A note on the essay attribution on which I found the rules. I found the information on Chad Nevett’s website, GraphicContent.blogspot.com. Nevett’s article was entitled, “Raymond Chandler’s Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story: Identity Crisis.” I guess there was some problem with the link, so it had to be deleted. The attribution got a little garbled in the process. “Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story” was an essay written by Raymond Chandler. I got MY info from Chad Nevett’sarticle. Sorry about any confusion. I was, ironically, trying to make sure I gave credit where credit was due.
This sounds like a book I’d enjoy. I get emails from readers thanking me for the lack of dead bodies in my books, and I’m sure you will, too. I enjoyed your story of how the book came into being.
Hi Amber! I’m so glad to meet another “no dead bodies here” author. I will have to check out your books!
Oh, and a HUGE shout-out to Kaitlyn/Kathy for several reasons. As a student at UMF, I was encouraged by her feedback on my writing. Even more important, I looked to her as someone I could emulate. I’d hear about her travels to conventions like RWA (so glam!) and I’d say, “I want to do that someday!” Kathy, you inspired me early on, and it made a huge impact. Second, when it came time to ask people to blurb my debut novel, Kathy graciously said yes. It means so much to me. Third, asking me to guest post here on this blog that I’ve followed for many years, reading the thoughts of so many authors I admire, is a gift I did not expect. So thank you, Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson. From the bottom of my heart. I hope someday I can do the same for another aspiring author. Your example is shining. Okay, enough gushing for today, lol.
Thank you, Shelley. And yes, please pay if forward. There’s a wonderful tradition among writers (especially women writers) of doing just that.
I’ve been lucky enough to read this debut mystery- and as a fan of cozy mysteries- I didn’t miss the dead body!