Some notes about Genre

Every genre has its own mythos, its own atmosphere. Certainly authors’ individual voices and differing plots add variety to the flavors of a particular genre. But the overall feeling of that genre transcends these differences. When a reader sits down with a category romance, it doesn’t read like a single title; a romantic suspense has an entirely different mood than a small town romance; a Regency-set historical has a different tone than a traditional Regency.

And one of the most difficult tasks for a writer is to figure out those differences, which can be subtle, and spill them back onto the pages of his or her story. It takes a lot of reading in one’s chosen genre, and a lot of writing practice. It can’t be taught; it has to be absorbed into one’s pores.

As a critiquer and frequent contest judge, I like to read the given chapter(s) first, before I read the synopsis. I need to see whether I can tell what kind of story it is.

And when the turn a story takes surprises me, that’s not a good thing. Sure, as a reader I want to be surprised, but when a contemporary spy novel suddenly turns into a time travel, or a cozy homecoming story becomes a mystery, I’m kicked out of the story. You want the surprises for your reader to be of the “I should have seen that coming,” rather than the “what the heck!” kind.

For historicals, even the historical period in which a novel is set is another whole character. The fog-shrouded moors, repressed sexuality and tightly corseted heroines of the Victorian era; the elegance and wit of the Regency juxtaposed against the grittiness of the Peninsular War and the developing Industrial Revolution; the lush clothes and bawdy sensuality of the Restoration; the harsh conditions of the medieval time contrasted with its deeply devotional Catholicism; the untrammeled frontier of the Western. I could go on.

Writers of historicals can be tripped up by a thousand unexpected facets of a period’s ethos, mindset, social rules; how people spoke, thought, carried out their days. They can be even more important than getting details of clothing, furnishings, transportation, historical events, and all the rest correct.

The important factor in all literature is, whatever genre a person writes in, one needs to read widely in that genre and become familiar with its tacit and explicit mythology and common understanding. This is primarily what the reader expects about that genre, and has everything to do with the story’s marketability and acceptance.

NOTE: This article is from a Critique workshop my critique group (Joleen James, Gina Robinson, Gerri Russell, and I) gave at the Emerald City Writers Conference in October 1-3, 2010.