Friday, February 10, 2023

Art Taylor on writing with range

Guest Post by Art Taylor

I debated fiercely about the subtitle of my new book: The Adventure of the Castle Thief and Other Expeditions and Indiscretions, due out February 14 from Crippen & Landru, a publisher specializing in collections of short mystery fiction. 

In an informal and very limited poll (my wife Tara, our son Dash, and Jeffrey Marks at Crippen & Landru) “and Other Expeditions and Indiscretions” was the unanimous winner among several options, and I hope readers ultimately find it more catchy than cumbersome. But my mind keeps circling back to the subtitle I’d originally been considering: “Stories Light and Dark”—a tag which would’ve served two purposes, not only description but also (frankly) disclaimer.

In an interview several years back, Ed Aymar mentioned the range of my stories (a nice compliment, I’d thought!) but then he asked if I ever worried about branding, which . . . which honestly I hadn’t considered before in terms of my own work . . . and maybe I should’ve? I’m an avid reader in the mystery genre—everything from traditional mysteries to domestic suspense to hard-boiled and beyond—and I’d enjoyed writing across a similar spectrum, even crossing some genres within a single story, a bit of speculative fiction in the mix, for example. 

But are other readers equally broad in their tastes, or are they more focused in what they like and don’t like? With a collection, does that phrase “something for all readers” (you’ll find that idea in my book’s description) also carry the suggestion “oh, well, you can’t make everyone happy all the time”?  

The title story, “The Adventure of the Castle Thief,” is a traditional clue-driven mystery: a college study abroad in Ireland, students suffering a series of small thefts, and a professor and his star student setting out to solve the case discreetly and return order to their once-happy little group. This one’s at the lighter end of the spectrum. 

And at the other end . . . “The White Rose of Memphis” focuses on a hotel which has made a tourist spectacle out of the legendary assault and murder of a woman on her wedding weekend; the story follows a modern-day couple paying to recreate that experience, which hardly goes well. Do Some Damage’s own Steve Weddle originally published this one in Needle: A Magazine of Noir—with emphasis on that subtitle, noir at the core. 

Truth in advertising, the book jacket for my new collection explains that range, and I’ve ordered the stories within mostly with an eye toward increased darkness as readers push ahead—and increased dipping of my toes into speculative fiction as well. 

Ease into these waters—that’s the message. Not “Abandon All Hope Ye Who . . .”—at least I hope not!   

Coming back to titles and subtitles, I’m grateful to be here at Do Some Damage, and I want to focus on the site’s own subtitle/tagline: Crime Fiction Is For All of Us. In fact, it’s that combination that’s prompted some of these reflections. What kinds of “damage done” are readers here willing to accept in the fiction they read? How widely do you read generally in either direction? And for the writers, how much attention do you give to positioning yourself along that spectrum from light to dark—with an eye toward whatever reader you imagine? 

(These are real questions, I should stress—and I hope folks reading this might answer below!)

Order yours:




Art Taylor is the author of  two collections—The Adventure of the Castle Thief and Other Expeditions and Indiscretions and The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense—and On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. His short fiction has won three additional Agatha Awards as well as the Edgar, Anthony, Derringer, and Macavity Awards. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University.


Art Taylor said...

Thanks for hosting me today! Curious what other writers and readers might think on all this.

Anonymous said...

Art, a very interesting question that you bring up that might move writers to the essence of their experience as to “why do I write?” Certainly we shouldn’t disclaim the drive for attention and compliments. Aren’t we all needy in these ways? But once we leave that one basis for the human experience, why do we choose writing as the conduit for that end? Because we think we have an talent that separates us from most people and, more importantly, we have a story we want to tell. And the creation of our stories should not be hemmed in by, for me cringe, “branding,” which is very different from genre. If we are mystery writers, are we to make ourselves so one dimensional as to,

say, our creative minds can and will do noir or cozy only? Is that not a version of the tail wagging the dog? Are writers more robotic than people who can change from day today, month to month, or year to year? The interest and beauty I find in writers who I value (P. D. James, As an example) is that while I recognize the “Genre,” I also recognize their core values and also the elaboration and extension of their thoughts in the mood and direction that they wish to take us in any given work. That is the freedom I seek for myself as a writer who is not even close to James.

Saul Golubcow said...

Hi, Art I just tried to publish a comment on branding that may have come across as Anonymous. Just wanted to let you know I am the source Saul

Michael Bracken said...

I don't think a short-story writer should worry much about "branding." With the markets for short fiction ever changing, branding limits a writer's opportunities for publication.

Though a good short story writer may favor a particular sub-genre, the ability to shift from writing hardboiled for one story to cozy for another and to traditional clue-driven fiction for yet a third suggests that the short-story writer may establish a rather long career.

And then the brand—if, indeed, there is a brand—becomes more defined by length than sub-genre. Readers may say, "That author writes good short stories."

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Art, I think in your case, your brand is Being Art Taylor, and your many admiring readers will be happy to read your new collection. It goes otherwise with me. Fans of my contemporary mystery series tend not to pick up my Jewish historical mystery stories and adventure novels and even cheerfully tell me so. And even fewer read my urban fantasy stories. It's very disappointing to me, but it doesn't trouble the readers one bit. And it doesn't affect what I write, which has always been exactly what I'm moved to write at any given time.

C Matthew Smith said...

Interesting question, Art. I’m probably two new (one novel and a handful of stories) to have a particular brand or enough readers to label me. But I’m mindful of the fact that my second novel is darker and more bizarre, and if published, it may well lose readers who enjoyed my first, a relatively conventional cop-solves-crime story.

Anonymous said...

I feel breadth has long been part of the mystery tradition. Poe and Stanley Ellin delved into the speculative. Hitchcock’s movies did too. Noire intersects with horror. The great ones, Art Taylor included, are instantly recognizable. Their brand is baked in.

Anonymous said...

Art, your post struck several chords for me. It raises the issue of trying to retain one’s fan base while obeying the creative urge to write in different genres, A corollary to this is the recent discussion in SMFS on whether or not to use different pen names for different types of stories. The post also addresses the increasingly common trend of mixing elements of two (or more) genres within the same story. And from a story placement perspective, it makes an author work even harder to find just the right market for the story that begged to be written--but doesn’t fall within a fairly well defined framework. All good, chewy topics for discussion.

I read widely (and write a bit) across the spectrum, but am very selective in my choices. A charming cozy or clever traditional mystery is always a pleasure, but I can spot a formulaic effort on the first page. A dead giveaway is word choice (e.g., mistakenly using ‘flounder’ instead of ‘founder’ when trying to describe a character coming to grief). If the story isn’t well written (and edited), I’ll never read that author again. On the other hand, many romance authors have been combining intrigue, suspense, and mystery with romance quite successfully… even adding elements of horror or the supernatural. Think gothic And, many writers of today effectively combine sci-fi with mystery, romance, and humor. I think that effectively marketing a diverse group of stories is the trick, especially for an unknown/unbranded author.

All of which is to say that I’m looking forward to reading your latest collection. Especially because it will showcase a variety of tales by Art Taylor. Your reputation for quality precedes you, in all the best senses of the phrase. J.M.