- by Lillian Stewart Carl
For many years now, I’ve been quoting a passage from Chapter One of Mark Twain’s immortal Huckleberry Finn. No, it’s not one of the passages that makes the book, to a certain segment of the population, controversial. Or is it?
The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways . . .
When you got to the table you couldn’t go right to eating, but you had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though there warn’t really anything the matter with them—that is, nothing only everything was cooked by itself. In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better.
I’ve been accused of being anal-retentive, but even I don’t demand that each of my food items be piled separately on the plate, with space between, like miniature fortresses of solitude. No, like Huck, I like my things mixed up, and the juice swapped around. I like the different flavors and textures teasing each other. I like combining sharp and sweet, pungent and mild, crunchy and chewy and soft.
But you can’t make a good minestrone, for example, by just throwing everything into a pot, cooking, and stirring. You need to trim your vegetables, saute your onions, measure your spices. Are you using pasta? Watch out, it might get flabby if overcooked. Are you tempted to add maraschino cherries? Then you’re on your own—I’m taking my metaphor and going home.
Why yes, I’m using Huck’s statement as a metaphor for the kinds of stories I enjoy reading and writing. Stories where the sexual tension is spiced with the tension of a mystery. Stories where genuine, hard-edged history is seasoned by the subtle undertones of myth. Stories where grim reality is leavened by wit and humor, where prosaic realism is intensified by a hint of paranormal.
Stories where the elements are carefully blended and balanced and the end result is greater than the sum of its parts, just as a chocolate cake is greater than the sum of flour, sugar, butter, and cocoa, and isn’t a mess of sweet mush.
I grew up reading romantic suspense, stories where no matter how much a couple yearned toward each other, they could not truly get together until a mystery was answered or a thriller resolved. I also grew up reading fantasy, where the couple’s yearnings would be fulfilled only if a quest was achieved or a war won.
So I write romantic mystery with paranormal elements (the Ashes to Ashes series, Memory and Desire, Shadows in Scarlet), mystery with romance and a touch of fantasy (the Jean Fairbairn/Alasdair Cameron series, Time Enough to Die), fantasy with romance and a touch of mystery (Blackness Tower), all seasoned with history and legend (Lucifer’s Crown and the Sabazel series.)
Yes, I can write “straight”, but only in short stories. And even then quite a few of my stories add a dash of alternate history or woo-woo, just to kick them up a notch.
Is it fun to mix and match? Sure it is. There’s just one problem.
Even the diners who enjoy one flavor at a time, a slab of meat, a pile of potatoes, wouldn’t find Huck’s statement about swapping juices controversial. But just try talking about cross-genre fiction, and the meat-and-potatoes crowd starts getting nervous.
Where does the book go on the shelves? How do we market this?
Unlike the real world, which is similar to that barrel of odds and ends, the publishing world is the Widow Douglas’s table, including the grumbling over the victuals whether there’s anything the matter with them or not. It’s not that publishers are antipathetic to swapping juices around, it’s that publishing is a commercial enterprise. It’s run by accountants with their regular and decent habits, which, dismal as they may be, are necessary to the health of the business.
The rule of thumb for beginning authors is to choose one dish—lamb chops, sugar cookies, cole slaw—and stick with it until he or she has built up a reputation for chops, cookies, or slaw. That way, not only does the publisher know what to expect, so does the reader. Some are thrilled when what they thought were chocolate chips in their cookie turn out to be raisins. Some are distressed when what they thought was a strip of red bell pepper in their Kung Pao chicken turns out to be a dried chili pepper.
I suppose even Huck ended up with a case of salmonella or two.
All writing advice ends the same way, just as all recipes end the same way. Don’t try to cook and serve what you wouldn’t want to eat yourself. If you try to come up with a meal you think others will like, but it turns out no one can digest it, you’ll have wasted your time. Worse, if everyone gobbles it up and asks for more, you’ll be stuck cooking something you don’t like for years to come.
I’m sitting at the publishing dinner table surreptitiously pushing my peas into my mashed potatoes and shoveling my mashed potatoes onto my pork chops, swishing my dinner roll around in the salad dressing and dunking my cookies in my coffee. I don’t think I’ll ever be civilized, not in the sense the Widow Douglas—or the publishing bean-counters—mean for me to be.
So I fudge things just a bit, and say Blackness Tower is fantasy, or The Burning Glass is mystery, or Shadows in Scarlet is romance—and yes, some readers are a bit queasy, but others dive right into that barrel with me, and we happily swap juices.
Bon appetit, Huck. And Mrs. Douglas, too.