When you meet someone new, one of the first questions you get asked is, “What do you do?” When you meet another writer, the question changes to: “What do you write?”
Oh, I could give a long explanation to answer that, but I prefer a short-hand in order to not sound like an egocentric blowhard who think he’s a better writer than everyone–which I plainly am. “That’s a joke, son,”–Foghorn Legghorn.
I used to say I wrote “historical fiction,” which when I said it, suggested that I wrote literature. Funny. I wouldn’t confuse anything I write for Tolstory, Dickens or F. Scott Fitzgerald. In fact, I would insist on denying I was anywhere near a Steinbeck or Hemingway. Let’s not even bring up John Dos Passos!
So, the next time I was asked the “question of death,”–“what do you write”–I said: “Thrillers.” Big mistake. Apparently thrillers require you to open with a scene of suspense to “grab your reader and make them want to turn the page.” Frankly, I’ve never believed in that grabbing the interest as a rule set in concrete. Besides, I probably couldn’t write an opening suspense scene if my life depended on it. I kind of like to structure my novels like a Nirvana song: Quiet, loud, quiet.” For me, the problem with constant suspense is that it can become incredibly unrealistic like in the old books where Mack Bolan, “The Executioner” always whipped up on the Mob no matter the odds. Besides, “thrillers” are a dime a dozen and I like to think I’m working on something more original.
“So what do you write?” “Uh…mysteries,” I said. They asked: “What kind of mystery?”
Turns out that there are genres in fiction writing: mysteries, horror, romance/erotica, science fiction/fantasy,and literary. Then are the “sub-genres” that writers choose to inhabit, many times for most of their professional careers.
Let’s take mysteries. Sub-genres include “The Cozy” (mostly single victims with bloodless deaths–old-fashioned style like Agatha Christie’s novels); the Amateur Sleuth, the Professional Sleuth, Legal, Historical, Procedural and the Private Eye. Personally, I don’t think the “sleuth” novels have ever found anything better than Arthur Conan Doyle and for the Private Eye it’s a toss-up between Chandler (Philip Marlowe), Hammett (Sam Spade and the Contiental Op) and John D. McDonald (Travis McGee). Never cared for legal or police procedurals either because as a real-life lawyer, I know that most of those books are incredulous BS and having been a defense attorney, I have known my share of unlikeable cops–enough to not care about writing about them. Besides, police procedurals require the author to know jargon and do research in service of the story. For others that might be fascinating. For me: boring.
So, okay. “What do you write.” I said, “Crime novels.” Except that I don’t. Yes, my novels have crimes in them, but it’s now about the crime or planning the crime or about the cops trying to stop the crime. I have no interest in that kind of story or sub-genre.
Thus, we go down another level. Below the “sub-genre” is the “niche” or the “sub-sub-genre.” These are much narrow defined and usually involve a series of books based on a particular theme. How do you know? Usually it’s in the title. Here’s where it gets amusing.
Cat mysteries? Lillian Jackson Braun. Everything from “The Cat Who Saw Red” to “The Cat Who Sniffed Glue.” (Inside joke: “The Cat Who Listened to the Ramones?”)
Spice oriented mysteries? Gail Oust. “Kill ‘Em with Cayenne” and “Cinammon Toasted.”
Wine-based mysteries? Jean Pierre Alaux and Noel Balen. “Treachery in Bordeaux” and “Nightmare in Burgundy.”
Witness Protection Program mysteries? Rob Gittins “Gimme Shelter” and “Secret Shelter.”
And it ain’t just mysteries. Romance has its own niches.
Rumor romances. Cheris Hodges. “Rumor has it” and “I heard a rumor.”
Texas brides. Linda Broday. “Twice a Texas Bride” and “Forever His Texas Brides”
Firefighter Romance. Shannon Stacey “Heat Exchange” (Now THAT’s a title) and “Controlled Burn.” Well done, Ms. Stacey.
Navy SEAL romance. Sure, why not? Anne Elizabeth. “Once a SEAL” and “A SEAL Forever.”
Niches allow for quicker writer, appeal to audience familiarity and, in these days of making a buck, allow for a brand to be built on the theme. No shame in it. There’s actually even a niche for Elizabethan era romances nicknamed, “Broadswords and Ballrooms,” which is part of a large niche called “Regency Romances.” One for any taste under the sun.
“Bollocks,” as the Sex Pistols would say.
“So, what do you write?”
Hell, I don’t know what to call it. My novels are set in the 1920’ around vaudeville theaters and the silent film industry. They’re slow-burn mysteries. I could call them “silent film suspensers” but that seems a bit silly indeed to quote Monty Python.
I guess I don’t need a tag for my niche. It is what it is and as far as I know, no one else writes what I do. Maybe they don’t want to. Good. More for me.