Reading to Write: Staying in Touch with Mystery Fiction
by Stephen D. Rogers

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One of the most common questions I'm asked is: "Who should I be reading?" As is often the case, there is no simple answer, but the following guide should point you in the right directions.

Favorite Writers. Revisit your favorite writers, even if you discovered them during a period when you were slumming outside the mystery genre. Our favorite writers remind us why we spend our time lining up words.

While you can analyze the stories to learn each writer's tricks, sometimes it is better to simply let the fictive dream wash over you. Favorite writers renew us. They return us to those heady days when we first realized the power of a good story well told.

Current Writers. That said, it is important to know what is being written and published today. Mysteries have changed over the last ten, thirty, fifty years. If we only read our favorite writers, and if those writers are no longer writing, we may lose touch with an evolving marketplace.

Buy the latest issue of the mystery magazines. Click through the numerous online mystery publications. Check the bookstores and libraries to see which writers are coming out with new books. Read reviews of mysteries to learn which writers to watch and what the critics are saying.

Popular Writers. Best-selling novelists shape reader expectations. If you are going to write a series featuring a female PI, for example, you simply must read Sue Grafton because the people who may pick up your book already did and will judge your book accordingly. While Sue Grafton was certainly not the first writer to tread that path, she probably had the greatest impact on the landscape.

Writers who sell consistently to magazines and anthologies build a less visible following but one that is just as important. They help chart the course of short mystery fiction.

Follow the various best-seller lists and pay attention to which names keep appearing in magazines and anthologies.

Award-Winning Writers. Awards (and inclusion in annual best-of anthologies) generally indicate that a work has either perfectly represented the genre or approached the material in a new and exciting way that expands the boundaries of the genre.

Some of the major awards for novels and short stories follow. Please be aware that the recipients reflect the tastes and interest of the judges, voters, and editors. Your opinion of "best" may differ.

Agatha Awards
For traditional mystery novel and short stories as determined by attendees of Malice Domestic

Anthony Awards
For novels and short stories as determined by attendees of Bouchercon World Mystery Convention.

Daphne du Maurier Awards
For novels as determined by committees representing the Romance Writers of America, Mystery/Suspense Chapter

Derringer Awards
For short stories as determined by members of the Short Mystery Fiction Society

Edgar Awards
For novels and short stories as determined by committees comprising members of Mystery Writers of America

Macavity Awards
For novels and short stories as determined by members of Mystery Readers International

Two annual best-of anthologies are The Best American Mystery Stories (edited by Otto Penzler and a guest editor) and The World's Finest Mystery and Crime Stories (edited by Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg

Up-and-Coming Writers. Pay attention when writers you've never heard of are suddenly everywhere: speaking at conferences, being reviewed, appearing in interviews. People are expecting great things and there's usually a reason for signs of enthusiasm throughout the industry.

Of course, if the writer eventually proves to be a dud, at least you know to track down the writer's publicist. That's someone you want in your corner when you're ready to break out.

Envied Writers. If you want to appear in this publication or win that award, read the writers who are achieving those goals. While you don't want to simply mimic the work of those who have succeeded, you do need a realistic assessment of the requirements for joining the club.

The guidelines for almost all publishers and publications suggest familiarizing yourself with current offerings. There's a good reason for the advice. What has sold to them is an indicator of what will sell.

Non-Mystery Writers. Many writers incapable of putting together a mystery can still teach us about language, characterization, or plot. They can broaden our horizons, spark fresh ideas, and suggest themes to drape in the background.

Fill up a bag at the library book sale. Since you're not paying much and you're helping a good cause, buy books that you wouldn't ordinarily read. You can always donate them back later.

Nonfiction Writers. Unless you write exclusively about characters who are exactly like you, who share the same interests and history, you can never discount the value of exploring new territory.

Characters need jobs, beliefs, and backgrounds. They need places to work and live. They need to be unique individuals.

There is only so much that you can mine from your own life. The rest is found through research.

Bad Writers. As long as you recognize bad writing for what it is, you can learn from the mistakes of others. You'll see what not to do or how not to do it.

Because good writing provides a seamless experience, technique and writerly decisions can appear invisible, as they should. While this makes for pleasant reading, it can prove frustrating to those trying to analyze process.

As to finding bad writers, the task is only too easy.

Find Out More...

How to Read 'How To Write' Books, by Sean McLachlan

Copyright © 2004 Stephen D. Rogers
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Stephen D. Rogers has published mysteries in magazines ranging from Plots With Guns to Woman's World, multiple anthologies, and several non-mystery markets. He is a graduate of the Framingham Police Department's Citizen Policy Academy and a member of Mystery Writers of America, Private Eye Writers of America, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Visit his website at


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