Episode 12: Genre Basics & Mystery Guest

On September 29th, Kasie and Rex hung with Peggy Cwiakala (chi-CO-la) into the studio to discuss the conventions and expectations of genre and her own mystery specialty. Here are the show notes:


Dr. Kasie Whitener, Clemson Road Creative, fiction writer

Rex Hurst, fiction writer and English instructor

Peggy Cwiakala, mystery writer

Theme for the day

Genre — conventions, limitations, advantages


  • Who we are and why we’re here
  • The topic for the week: Genre
  • Book discussion — currently reading and its analysis through the lens of the topic
  • Craft book discussion — Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird
grayscale photo of crime scene do not cross tape
Photo by Mark D’aiuto on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

Mystery writer guest — Peggy Cwiakala is a mystery author whose fourth book, Gunder’s Cure is available on Amazon.com.

Peggy Cwiakala is also a winery owner and a coffee shop proprietess. Born in 1958 in South Carolina, she lived in Hawaii and New Jersey, earning two Masters degrees while working and raising a family. She served as Editor for the SCWA publication The Quill, and wrote a popular blog for her winery. She and Rex met one another when they were both teaching at a Midlands region college.

Segment 2

Genre — what it is and why it’s used in literary circles.

“Genre is all about reader expectations,” according to this source. Steven Pressfield has created what he calls the Story Grid Five Leaf Clover:

  • Time — is this a long period of time? Several generations? A decade? Or is it a short period? A day? A few minutes? Or is it somewhere in between — a week, a month?
  • Content — this is what we’ve talked about with “conflict” — the internal and the external. Steven suggests you must focus on one of the two so that the reader gets what they expect — a spy thriller, not a guy agonizing over his abusive childhood.
  • Structure — the archplot, mini-plot, and anti-plot.
  • Style — epistolary, drama, comedy, documentary, cinematic, theatrical
  • Reality — fantasy, realism, factualism, absurdism

Genres have obligatory scenes and conventions. Do not ignore these.

What are some of the obligatory scenes and conventions in mystery?

These conventions are about meeting reader expectations. What’s the difference between the obligatory scenes and “formulaic” writing? Is there one?

Six key questions (Great resource from Shawn Coyne):

  1. What’s the genre? — use the clover to identify
  2. What are the obligatory scenes and conventions for this genre?
  3. What’s the point of view?
  4. What’s the object of desire?
  5. What’s the controlling idea/theme?
  6. What is the beginning (inciting)? Middle build? And ending payoff?

This is similar to Save the Cat — and Rex is a fan of that book, so we can talk a little bit about that. Maybe it’s next month’s craft book?

Segment 3:

Breakdown of Mystery as a genre and some subgenres thereof.

Let’s use Shawn’s six questions to guide this:

What are the sub-genres of mystery?

  • Standard Private Eye — Walter Mosely; PI usually has a license and is a professional practitioner of mystery solving.
  • Cozy Mysteries — features minimal violence, sex, and social relevance; solution achieved by intellect rather than police procedure, order restored in the end; example: Agatha Christie
  • Classic detective — had its peak in the 1930s, features a mysterious death and a circle of suspects; deductive reasoning. Example: Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
  • Police procedural — our hero makes mistakes, is confined by rules and regulations, and has a life outside of what’s happening in the mystery plot; example: PD James
  • Hard-boiled — “objective viewpoint, impersonal tone, violent action, colloquial speech, tough characters, and understated style” Sue Grafton, Raymond Chandler; Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?
  • Thrillers — “threats to the social order, heroes and villains, and deduction and resolution” might also be detective stories; examples: Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels and Robert Ludlum

This resource suggests the following additional sub genres:

Legal/Medical – penned by professionals in these fields and elevate the profession itself

Romantic Suspense – love conquers all

Historical – takes place in the past, maybe a re-telling of a story we already know

Noir – a mood, gritty, cynical

Caper – comic, a lovable bungler who stumbles through the plot

This resource gives the obligatory list and then asks: Do you prefer to know the criminal in a mystery or do you like to figure it out as you go along?Which I think is an interesting transition into the next question:

What are the obligatory scenes and conventions in mystery? This writer calls these scenes “Horror” genre, but they’re worth considering for mystery.

  • Fate Worse Than Death: Something more than life is at stake. A fate worse than death is possible, such as torture or damnation.
  • Monster: The villain is far more powerful than the hero, possibly even supernatural.
  • Speech in Praise of the Villain: Early one, someone describes how insurmountably powerful and/or awesomely evil the monster is.
  • Hero at the Mercy of the Villain: There’s a scene near the climax where the protagonist seems to be utterly powerless against the villain.
  • Double Ending: There is a false ending where the villain seems defeated, but isn’t, followed by the real defeat of the (real) villain.

What is the point of view for mystery? Good list of examples here.

  • The first-person POV is the detective — Walter Moseley’s Phillip Marlowe, The Dresden Files books by Jim Butcher, Sue Grafton’s Alphabet books featuring Kinsey Millhone
  • The first-person POV is not the detective — Sherlock Holmes books by Doyle — Watson is the narrator; Agatha Christie’s Poirotbooks narrated by Arthur Hastings
  • Third person POV — Nancy Drew books by Carolyn Keane

What is the object of desire? This great breakdown of Silence of the Lambs talks about choosing to center the story on Clarice Starling, a newbie investigator instead of Jack Crawford, the “seasoned, hardened detective.”

  • The external – solve the mystery, bring a criminal to justice
  • The internal – personal ambitions, career ambitions, revenge

What’s the controlling idea/theme?

What’s the beginning? Middle? end/payoff?

Segment 4:

What we’re reading

Kasie — I just finished One of Us is Lying which I’d classify as a Romantic Suspense. In it, four high school kids witness the mysterious death of a fifth student while in detention. As the story unfolds, they have to determine how the kid died, deal with the police procedures and accusations, but they all have secrets the dead kid would have exposed. Two of the accused strike up a relationship and in the end, when the boy, Nate, is arrested, it’s his new girlfriend’s desperation to prove his innocence that drives solving the crime.

Craft Book — Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

As for applying this to genre, it’s not a straight-line. She doesn’t discuss genre really. But I’d suggest thinking of her approach – one bit at a time – as a strategy for constructing your novel using the conventions of your genre.

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