Debra, thank you for inviting me to be on It’s Not Always a Mystery. In my case, the title of your blog turns out to literally be true. When I first began writing, with serious publication ambitions, which would have been around 2007 or 2008, it seemed as if mystery fiction, or some variation thereof, would be the only place for me. But that has turned out not to be the case.
As a reader, mystery has been in my blood from the get-go. Early childhood trips to the library, found me bringing home armloads of Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Bobbsey Twins, and from there I graduated to Sherlock Holmes, and eventually all the crime fiction greats. As I grew older, my tastes in broadened to include science fiction, fantasy, adventure, and literary fiction—really, anything with words printed on or in it—but crime fiction was always my favorite. And when it came time to put pen to paper, the shadowy world of crime and mystery eclipsed all others. My first two books are mysteries and that wasn’t even a conscious decision.
The idea for my first book just came sailing in, out of the ether, uninvited and unexpected—one of those strange what-if moments—and after years of wrangling with the basic premise, I finally found the story and the protagonist to carry that story. And even though I wasn’t thinking in terms of a main character who would return for another go-around, that’s exactly what she did. So, I assumed I was “home” and never gave other genres a thought…until my publisher decided to discontinue my series.
My initial reaction was to look inward, to wonder what I could have done different, that might have changed that outcome and improve my chances for future publication. After some contemplation, I decided to focus on the most important things over which I had the greatest control—what I was writing and how I was writing it. In other words, my story-telling and my prose-styling.
So, I reread my books, identified areas where I felt my writing could stand some improvement, then I decided to take on those shortcomings, one at a time. And the most efficient way I could think of to do that was to use the short story format—to devote at least one story to improving each of the areas that needed work. For me, this was a terrifying prospect, because writing short was not something I felt comfortable with. My history as an academic, and as a corporate attorney before that, had accommodated my natural long-windedness. But, short stories? Well…that was like watching a magic trick. I could see what the writer had done, but not how they had done it.
Unable to think of a better way, I identified, then read, then reread quite a few short stories that seemed to do well the things I most needed to learn. I was looking for the techniques hidden behind the veneer of engagement the authors had created—the sleight of hand behind the flash of illusion. After several readings, the stories ceased to entertain me and began to instruct me, and that gave me the nerve to try writing them on my own.
My first few stories were crime fiction, which didn’t surprise me. But it wasn’t long until I found that some of the things I needed to learn were best learned by attempting to write in new genres, and that did surprise me. Over the past couple of years, I’ve managed to publish a few science fiction pieces, along with some horror, and even one with strong romantic elements. And I’ve got several more, out on submission, that fall into the categories of science fiction, magical realism, and folk horror. Each attempt has helped me discover some new tools and to sharpen some old ones, but it took stepping out of my comfort zone and plowing new fields to get there. So, while I feel certain I’ll always write mysteries, I’m equally certain that it’s not always a mystery I’ll be writing.
ROGER JOHNS is a former corporate attorney, a retired college professor, and the author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries, Dark River Risingand River of Secrets, from St. Martin’s Press. He is the 2018 Georgia Author of the Year (Detective·Mystery Category), a two-time Finalist for Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion Award, and runner-up for the 2019 Frank Yerby Fiction Award. His short stories have been published by, among others, Saturday Evening Post, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly Magazine, Dark City Crime & Mystery Magazine, After Dinner Conversation: The Philosophy & Ethics Short Story Magazine, and JOURN-E: The Journal of Imaginative Literature. Roger’s articles and interviews about writing and career management for new authors appear in Southern Literary Review, Writer Unboxed, Career Authors, and Southern Writers Magazine. Website: www.rogerjohnsbooks.com. Blog: www.murder-books.com.