Steph Cha on Writing a Crime Novel Without the Mystery
In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl
Steph Cha is the guest. Her new novel, Your House Will Pay, is available from Ecco. Cha is also the author of the Juniper Song crime trilogy. She’s an editor and critic whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. A native of the San Fernando Valley, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two basset hounds.
From the episode:
Steph Cha: The first three books were all in one series, and they were all P.I. novels with the traditional mystery structure. There is somebody killed or missing at the beginning and towards the end you find the solution, and the whole thing is told from one person’s point of view and in the fist person.
The structure of it was pretty similar for the first three books, but this one is a departure in a lot of ways. It’s still a crime novel but in a different part of the genre. It’s not a mystery, but it is still a crime novel. It’s not a whodunnit sort of thing; it deals with crime, which is one of the engines of the novel, but I’m calling it a social crime novel.
Brad Listi: I think that’s fair. When you talk about the Juniper Song books, you talk about the structure having the same basic plotlines or architecture. For someone writing crime fiction in a more traditional genre vein, is there a set formula out there that you have located in other books in the genre?
Steph: Yeah, they vary in different ways, but when I first started writing my first novel, a detective novel felt approachable to me because there’s a skeleton that comes with genre. There are genre expectations. There are certain points that you’re supposed to meet and certain promises you’re supposed to deliver on. There are tentpoles to this thing that allowed me to wobble around towards various goals, so it was easier to plot those books than the new one because I knew I had to hit certain points.
Brad: There is a vessel. You can fill in, but you have the pot or something.
Steph: I’ve taught novel writing classes, and I think a very useful thing for creativity, especially when you’re starting out, is to have constraints. Constraints are conducive to creativity. You have something and instead of being paralyzed by trying to come up with every little thing you have something to hold onto and you can get really inventive with that. I find that to be true with the entire crime fiction genre. Even the ones that hue to a fairly traditional structure, they can do that in so many different ways.
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