Monday, April 14, 2014

Jenny Milchman Explores Why Writers Write Mysteries

Jenny Milchman's journey to publication took thirteen years, happening in the end thanks to one very special member of the mystery community. Jenny’s debut novel, Cover of Snow, was chosen as an Indie Next and Target Pick and nominated for a Mary Higgins Clark award. Jenny is also the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day and chair of International Thriller Writers' Debut Authors Program. Her second novel, Ruin Falls, also an Indie Next Pick, comes out on April 22nd.

Connect with Jenny at:

The Mystery of Writing & Why We Write Mysteries

I used to think that writing was something we learned. I thought this despite the fact that I loved to write even before I could write. My mom tells stories of how I dictated bedtime stories to her from the time I was two years old. One of my earliest and happiest school memories was binding stories using wallpaper (I chose a blue flocked pattern). Friends used to ask me on play dates if I would tell just one more chapter.

Still, I figured these were all responses to influences that came from outside. I was terrible at math, having what would now be called a disability, whereby I reversed numbers. Maybe writing was the best option left.

Then I had a child of my own. And when she was two years old, I told her to take her toothbrush and her brother’s toothbrush back down to the bathroom for me. As she marched down the stairs, I caught a glimpse of her holding the toothbrushes upright, like little figurines. And I heard her say, “The twins were on their way home…”

She was making toothbrushes into characters. And she was doing it at the exact age that my mom tells me my writing bug kicked in.

What makes a writer? Is it something inborn, a gene, instead of the environmental influences to which I’d attributed it? Perhaps a blend of the two, a predisposition that might emerge if you live around people who read you stories, and you go to school with encouraging teachers and receptive children?

As mystery writers, our job is to create puzzles, then tease out answers. The puzzle I’ve been grappling with lately is how I became this animal called a writer. It’s a strange species, one that lives in another world a great deal of the time, is willing to type until its fingers bleed for very little guarantee of pay-off, and finally…kills people. On the page, of course.

When I began thinking about this further, I realized I was really wondering about two questions, which would have to be pried apart. First, is there a gene for writing? And once someone has become a writer, then why of all things does she write mysteries or thrillers or suspense?

So I dissected the body of a dead writer and found this really weird thing laced amongst the chromosomes. It looked something like a pencil shaving…OK, I have no idea if writing is genetic or not. Music and mathematical abilities appear to be, so that would be sufficient evidence for me to say, sure, writing is, too. Science, schmience, puzzle solved.

But what about the other question? Once a writer is born or made, how does he become a mystery writer?

I’ve gotten different responses to this question. Many mystery writers say that mysteries were the books they read and loved as kids so they grew up wanting to pen one. But this sort of ducks the question—why were these the stories they loved in the first place?

Other mystery writers note their logical minds and penchant for puzzles and games. They want to create such a thing on the page. And still others admit to a deep and abiding interest in the dark, the unsettling, the criminal.

My own reason comes down to fear.

Back in the days when I was entertaining my mother and friends with stories, I was also an extremely fearful child. I remember hearing that a dog next door liked to eat children under four feet (did I mention that I was also very short?) and I would walk three extra blocks to avoid going by his house. When the sliding doors shut, dividing the gym in half, I became convinced I’d be trapped and had to be led out of class in a hysterical fit of tears. A neighbor told me if you swung high enough on his swing set, you’d be catapulted through a portal, never to return to this world.

I believed all of the above.

Now when I write suspense novels, I take similarly outlandish premises, and I make them come out all right in the end. I am conquering my fears—or my characters are doing it for me. It’s soothing. It’s therapeutic. It’s triumphant. No wonder I choose to write these kinds of books. Voila--one question solved.

But what made me turn to words for solace in the first place? What makes a writer?

That’s still a mystery to me.

About Jenny's latest, Ruin Falls:
Liz Daniels has just set off on vacation, but when the family stops for the night, she wakes to find a terrifying reality. Her children are missing, and the hours tick by without anyone finding a trace. But in a sudden, gut-wrenching instant, Liz realizes that no stranger invaded their hotel room. Instead, someone she trusted completely has betrayed her. Now Liz will stop at nothing to get her children back. From her guarded in-laws’ unwelcoming farmhouse to the woods of her hometown, Liz follows the threads of a terrible secret to uncover a hidden world created from dreams and haunted by nightmares.

Buy link:

Please leave a comment to welcome Jenny to Make Mine Mystery.


Morgan Mandel said...

Welcome to Make Mine Mystery, Jenny.
That tale you heard about the child-eating dog is really something! That person could have also been a writer.

Jenny Milchman said...

Ha, or a torturer! Thanks for having me at MMM, Morgan. It's a really fun blog.

And please--MMM readers, come look for me on the road. I'll be there for 4 months starting at the end of April!

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Jenny,

I loved your tale of how your were telling stories to your family and friends from just about day one. And I think fear is a great motivator. People who are fearful think about stuff a lot and they have plenty of story fodder.

I wanted to be an astronaut as a kid even though I got motion sickness and vertigo and had a bladder the size of a toothpaste cap. In my mind, space travel would be like hopping in the station wagon with a picnic lunch, sleeping in the back until we arrived, then stumbling out to see the sights. The moon landing pictures made me realize what an undertaking it was to go to space; that was okay with me. I still went in my station wagon.

Jenny Milchman said...

Maggie, it was probably even better that way! Thanks for coming by. I'm glad you stayed on earth.

Kaye George said...

Your daughter with her toothbrush twins awakened my memories. It took me forEVVVer to do the dishes because the forks were women, the knives men, and the spoons little kids. They got into the cups and journeyed across the dishpan. The furniture pieces in my doll house were people too! Future writer in your house!

More road trips, I see. Better you than me! Good luck.

Jenny Milchman said...

Kaye, I'm so glad to know that about you! I can picture it, and what a fun way to do dishes. I'm going to tell my daughter!

Lynn Cahoon said...

Welcome Jenny! I can relate to writing for fear. We had a haunted house in the neighborhood where I grew up with a flag pole story.

I pedaled my bike quickly past that house. :)

Anonymous said...

Jenny, if I knew what makes a writer, I'd bottle it, patent it, and make a fortune. Until we figure it out, let's just keep on doing it. It may not be easy, but that's okay. If it were easy
, everyone would do it, and we wouldn't be special.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Jenny,

A great post! It is something of a mystery why we choose to write mystery. I was a fearful child as well. Perhaps that contributes--along with an overactive imagination. But it's wonderful that this contributes to the making of an author. Congrats on the new novel! Wishing you well-deserved success.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Jenny, I admire you so much and your bookstore touring with your family sounds fabulous. Best of look with the new book!

Marilyn Levinson said...

I love what you've written here because it raises as many questions as you answer. Recently someone wrote somewhere that we humans learn through stories. Writers write stories to explain things to themselves as well as to others. When I hear a strange noise or I'm frightened, I also create a sinister scenario in my mind.

Unknown said...

Hey, Jenny, it's so good to see your name and face again, and with a brand new book! Which also sounds fascinating. You are one of the most engaging, encouraging, enthusiastic people, and a wonderful mystery writer!

Marja said...

You wrote an entertaining post, Jenny. I can't pick out a particular point you made because they were all so true. And, yes, writing can be very therapeutic. My father was a wonderful storyteller, so maybe writing is something I inherited. I wish he'd written books. : )
Marja McGraw

Susan Sundwall said...

Jenny, you are always full of good advise and insight. Fear and love are both great motivators. The peek into your past was enlightening! Can't wait to see you at The Book House in a few weeks. Happy traveling!

Jenny Milchman said...

What fascinating comments! Teach me to go away for a few days. (Had to move/scramble out of the rental house preparing to Hit The Road). seems a lot of us mystery writers (and readers) were fearful as children. I used to think of most children as fearful--childhood is scary after all...isn't it?--till I had some. And my kids, especially my eldest, are simply less scared than I was. Anyway...I agree, these thoughts raise a lot more than they solve. I would love to sit around with all of you to have this discussion one day.

Lynn, Marja, Jacqueline, Dorothy Earl, Susan, & the Marilyn's, last but definitely not least...thank you for these post-extending words.