What do you do if you’re the kind of writer who likes to set books in the past, in interesting locations, but then your instincts tell you that the story has something mysterious happen there, too? And also, yeah, your characters are kind of into each other as well, doing the chemistry thing while they’re solving the mystery?
You could, though you shouldn’t, shut down two of your three biggest instincts in order to make sure you write a book that fits neatly under one of the usual book categories, like Historical Fiction, or Mystery, or Romance.
Or, you could, you know, be an artist. And follow your influences and instincts, and write cross-genre.
On this episode of Fiction School, we talk with one such interesting stylist and writer, Deanna Raybourn, whose books do indeed dabble in all three of these worlds. She writes, as she calls her work, “stylish historical fiction with a twist,” using elements of mystery and romance, and following her own reading interests to guide her as a writer. On the show, we talk about Deanna’s path to being a cross-genre writer (“I’m the opposite of an overnight success,” she says), what she learned by taking a year off from writing to just read, how her upbringing helps her capture details and nuances of language, and how she researches her historical fiction with armchair travel. She was also kind enough to explain a very stupid sign in a sandwich shop near Baker’s house.
It’s a great interview about using genres to your advantage and writing what you want, rather than writing something only to go on a certain bookstore shelf.
Thanks, Deanna, for being on the show!
SHOW NOTES FOR EPISODE 27
- How does Deanna describe what she writes? “Stylish Historical Fiction with a twist,” she says.
- This is the tag line she and her team came up with for her work. It’s all about writing cross-genre, historical fiction with elements of mystery and romance.
- She manages to jam so many elements of genres together–it’s an offshoot of what she likes to read, including reading mysteries a lot as a child.
- But this is also the greatest reason any Fiction School guest has ever given for writing historical fiction: Deanna can’t stand writing about technology, so historical fiction is an escape from it. (How crafty is that?)
- Deanna tried to get published for years writing traditional romance, but struggled because it was a specific genre with specific conventions, and the format didn’t fit with her writing instincts.
- So, her agent told her to quit writing for A YEAR. Her agent told her: “The problem is, you don’t know who you are as a writer because you don’t know who you are as a reader.”
- (This is pretty much like getting fired by her agent.)
- But Deanna did it. Read for a year, only books she loved, and looked for similarities. Took her two years to write the next book, but that was the first one they sold.
- “I’m the exact opposite of an overnight success.”
- We discuss the British sensibilities of Deanna’s writing, and where the come from in her family background. Cool to hear how we absorb things in our upbringings that shape the kind of art we make.
- Capturing the nuance of language is an immersive thing, a reflection of what we take in. It’s almost impossible to fake that handle on the subtleties.
- Baker mentions the ridiculous neon sandwich sign near his house, saying “Bloody Delicious.” Which is so stupid. Deanna sets the record straight on the origins of “Bloody” as a euphemism.
- In the tag, “Stylish Historical Fiction with a twist,” stylish is an important description. In Deanna’s books, the clothing and sensory detail is described really richly. Does that take a lot of research? “Shockingly little,” Deanna says.
- Sensory detail is how we process the world, and it’s a very quick and easy way to shortcut a scene for a reader, to give out tons of these details and enrich the environment around the character. “We all have those sense-memory triggers,” she says, and writers can use them to attach to a character and make them feel even more real by sensory association.
- Her exotic settings (India, Damascus, England) are all places Deanna’s never been. But to bring it to life on the page, it’s in the subtle sensory details for the reader. Armchair travel is one of a writer’s most powerful tools.
- Baker and Jody admit their fan-obsession with Austin Kleon and his new book about how you should embrace your influences and show that in your work. Deanna likes the idea, and discusses how she likes her main influences to be from nonfiction and how those really inspires her writing.
- We talk about how authors get classified as certain types of writers–Deanna’s publisher is an arm of a romance imprint, but she gets shelved in general fiction, rather than mystery or romance. She’s won as many awards for mystery as she has for romance.
- “My fear has only ever been, if someone thinks my books are romance, and that sets up certain expectations, they’re not going to be met.” Readers would be disappointed if they expected the usual romance. So Deanna takes pains to note that she’s a cross-genre writer.
- By choosing historical fiction as the overarching focus of her writing, it allows her elbow room to write whatever she wants, and she can use elements of the other genres as she’s interested in them.
- How about what appears to be Deanna’s prolific production? What’s she learned in her many years as a writer to be able to produce so much? Aside from shipping her daughter off to college, she learned to write more efficiently. Her first draft was 600-pages, way too unwieldy. She’s learned, rather than writing a huge, oversized first draft and cutting it down, that it’s more efficient to write a smaller, thinner first draft and pad it out in later drafts.
- Deadlines also help a writer be productive. Be professional, hit your deadlines. Even if a hurricane hits your house and the power goes out, like it did for Deanna, still hit it.
- You can research every single book on the subject, and exhaust all nooks and crannies, but if you’re on deadline, you don’t have that luxury. Instead, she leaves placeholders where she needs a specific tree or leaf name, and researches to fill in those blanks rather than reading an entire book on the flora and fauna of a continent.
- We end with Deanna telling us about Lady Jane Salons, a great writer event that’s led to many cool connections. Look for one coming to town near you, perhaps!
Thanks again, Deanna, for joining us on the show!