The winner of UnCatholic Conduct is Susan McLachlin! Congratulations!
Good morning and Happy Easter to those who celebrate it. Happy Sunday to those who don’t.
Today, we have a fabulous author, Stevie Mikayne, here to share her thoughts on mysteries and sex. And maybe the mysteries of sex. Or not.
You’ll have to keep reading to find out.
First, I need to tell you some great news! Stevie’s publisher, Bold Strokes Books, is giving away a copy of her latest release, Uncatholic Conduct. If you live in the US, you can choose between paperback (not signed by the author) or ebook. Due to the insanity that is international shipping, if you live in another country, you will receive an ebook. Leave a comment below to enter. I’ll draw the winner on Friday, April 10.
Leave the Door Open (and the light on): Sex in Mystery Novels
by Stevie Mikayne
Our favourite characters occupy a space in our hearts usually reserved for close friends, so as readers, we can be pretty invested in their activities, and in their lives. Their personal demons and small victories make readers turn pages, staying with a book to the end to find out what happens. Will she solve the case, or be killed? Will she reunite with the lover she fought with in chapter five?
Even in plot-driven novels like mysteries, the reader must be invested in the characters to care about the high stakes the protagonist is facing. The better a reader knows her, the more she will care about how the plot resolves.
As a writer, I concentrate on creating realistic characters before I even look at the plot. After all, I have to spend a lot of time with these characters—and I like authentic people. It turns out readers do too! Do you know anyone smarter than avid readers? Well, they can suss a likeable character just as quickly between the pages of a book as they can in real life—sometimes faster.
Recently, I asked members of a lesbian readers’ and writers’ group about sex in mystery novels: did they like the door to stay open or did they prefer the fade-to-black often found in this genre? Almost universally, the readers responded that they liked sex scenes in books…when they belonged in the story. Ah, so many shades of grey!
In my opinion, when there’s a romantic relationship, there’s a good chance that sex belongs in the story. The interconnectedness between people affects all facets of their relationship, and how people treat one another in the bedroom tells you a lot. From the first date to the first shower together (if the writer’s doing her job) the reader is invested in the relationship. Fading to black leaves out essential insight about the life of the character.
There’s so much more to write—so much more to understand about a person.
Who is the character attracted to? Why? What elements of the partner’s personality bring out the best parts of your protagonist, or dredge up insecurities from past relationships?
How quick is she to get undressed? Or how shy? Is she a lights-on or lights-off type? What about her partner? What kind of conflict comes up in their relationship when it comes to matters of intimacy?
Is your protagonist a considerate lover? Does she make her partner come first—or repeatedly? Is this her one redeeming quality?
How differently does she act toward her partner with her clothes off than she does fully clothed (in control behind the wheel of a car with her leather jacket on, for example)?
So. Much. To. Know.
In mystery novels, perhaps even more so than literary fiction, full-bodied protagonists are crucial. Especially if you’re going to commit to a series. That’s the main reason that when I set out to write UnCatholic Conduct, the first in the Jil Kidd series, I mapped out a backstory that would support a private investigator with a Past.
The mystery genre may be larger than life—but that almost demands a subtler contrast. A nuanced approach to characterisation. What better way to highlight the nuances of a character’s behaviour than revealing what she’s doing when nobody should be watching?
How real to be is something I came up against when I wrote my first book, Jellicle Girl. The complication came about because of the age of my protagonist. Beth is a seventeen year old girl who lives alone in her father’s flat and careens through her life in a series of self-destructive moments—which I chose to let the reader witness.
My publisher decided to label the book as adult instead of YA, because (true to my style), the door stayed open at several key places. At first I was a bit disappointed, because I really wrote the book for young lesbians struggling with coming out—but it turns out that keeping the adult label attracted some readers I hadn’t anticipated (men in their forties, particularly) who became die-hard fans. Go figure!
My email box pinged with notes. Readers wrote to tell me about how viscerally connected they felt to Lizzie, the little girl in foster care that Beth looks after, and Nancy, the therapist with a disability who is determined to connect with Beth before she has to quit her practice. They felt like they were leaving friends behind when they closed the pages of the book.
I maintain that this is partially true because I let them go along for the whole ride—no blackouts.
When I decided to delve into mystery fiction, I had to re-examine the characterisation issue. The mystery genre has definite tropes, and I wasn’t sure how far readers would tolerate moving beyond those tropes into a steamier category.
In UnCatholic Conduct, Jil falls hard for the woman she’s supposed to be investigating—the principal at a Catholic school who’s accused of turning a blind eye to her teachers’ UnCatholic behaviour. She’s also married—to a man.
Complications? Yes, please.
Sex? Well…yeah. The beautiful, dynamic, emotional kind. The kind that exposes all the characters’ deepest feelings and flaws—and the powerful explosion that you get when you mix a complicated protagonist with a forbidden love.
As it turns out, the result really resonated with readers. UnCatholic Conduct became a Lambda Literary Awards Finalist—and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Now, I’m working on Illicit Artifacts, the second in the series—and pushing a few more boundaries, this time with fidelity and bisexual attraction.
Sometimes my fingers freeze over the keys and I wonder…have I gone too far this time? Will my readers go there with my characters as they figure out their lives?
I hope so.
If not, I know my inbox is going to start pinging, but until then, I want to keep exploring the depths of the human experience—and, to me, that means leaving the door open and the lights on.
Stevie Mikayne is the author of three novels: Jellicle Girl, Weight of Earth and UnCatholic Conduct. She is a PhD student in creative writing at Lancaster University, and works as an online English professor. She lives in Ottawa, Canada with her wife and daughter, where there is still snow on the ground on April 2nd…Her most recent research project is to work through fifty food dates in fifty weeks. Yum! Come read about her amazing chocolate cake at http://www.StevieMikayne.com