A group blog featuring an international array of killer mystery, suspense, and romantic suspense writers. With premises and story lines different from your run-of-the-mill whodunits, we tend to write outside the box. We blog several times a week on all topics relating to romantic suspense and mystery, our writing, and our readers. We welcome all comments and often have guest bloggers. All our authors can be contacted separately, too, using their own social media links.

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Friday, June 15, 2012

I-Spy: Writing the Gay Mystery: Theme

Join the authors and friends of Not Your Usual Suspects for an occasional series of posts about their world of reading, writing and publishing.

Short and sweet, hopefully both informative and entertaining - join us at I-Spy to find out the how's and why's of what we do.

TODAY'S POST: I-Spy Writing the Gay Mystery…with Josh Lanyon


One of the least understood elements of writing is theme. The very word makes some writers break out in hives as they flashback to high school compositions on Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter. Theme is too often viewed as the stuff of literary fiction. Not something genre writers need to worry about.

But that's quite wrong. Every story has a theme, even if the theme is unconscious or not clearly defined. Theme is what your story is about. Plot is what happens. Theme is the point of it all. Or, if you can think of it as the moral of our story.

Now you might think that the potential themes of any given mystery novel are both obvious and limited: crime does not pay, good triumphs over evil, justice can be found in an unjust world. OR (if your taste runs to hardboiled and noir crime fiction) crime DOES pay, sometimes evil triumphs over good, there is no real justice in an unjust world.

It’s actually, or at least ideally, a little more complicated than that. Especially when it comes to the GLBT subgenre. Because GLBT fiction has to do with sexuality, it is inevitable that the gay or m/m mystery will differ from mainstream mystery in regard to the relationships and romance of your main characters. The themes you choose to write about reveal your personal philosophy about life and love. When you write about two people in love you reveal your own feelings and beliefs about relationships and society and sex and all kinds of things you may not have consciously been thinking about.

While it remains true that in our culture, to write about men loving each other openly is, in itself, a thematic statement, in a genre as crowded and competitive as gay mystery, you’ll have to come up with something a little more meaningful.

 Potential topics for themes in gay fiction include: 

Coming out





Superficial values/material world

Facing prejudice





The power dynamic

The closet

The two themes most overworked in the genre are the first and last: coming out and the closet. That’s because they’re easy and obvious. Why are they easy and obvious? Because gay writers have been writing about these topics forever and the majority of writers attempting gay mystery have been heavily influenced by the writers before them. The problem is, they’re writing their own stories like it’s 1994. Society has changed. Law enforcement agencies have changed. No, this is not to say that prejudice is no longer an issue, but let’s give a little credit where credit is due. Given that most law enforcement agencies now pride themselves on diversity, it’s time to STOP writing tiresome clichés. As it stands now, there seems to be some unwritten rule that if the two main characters are in law enforcement, one will be closeted. Or if only one character is in law enforcement, he will be closeted.

There are other important and interesting themes to explore.

 But let’s say you don’t have any interest in writing anything “heavy.” Maybe you just want to say something about the healing power of love. Your theme doesn’t have to be some big lofty PRINCIPLE. In fact, it’s generally better if you don’t put your message in flashing neon lights. Even readers who agree with you philosophically and morally don’t like having an agenda rammed down their throats. You don’t want to be heavy-handed or blatant. Your first job as a mystery writer is to entertain. 

Ideally theme is not something that can be lifted out of one story and plugged into another. It should be integral to this particular story and these particular characters. Theme is, in fact, closely linked to character. Theme often develops through the conflict of your two main characters. Each man brings his own experiences, expectations, attitudes, beliefs and dreams to a relationship. When those different personalities collide it creates conflict, and through conflict we explore our themes about love and belonging and compromise and whatever else we think important in human relationships.

 Let your characters argue out two sides of an issue that’s important to you. Allow your characters to be wrong once in a while. Allow them to learn from each other. Allow them to genuinely disagree. There are two sides to every story – and to every issue. Through the course of the story your characters will discover what is important to them, and that is the exploration and development of theme.

 But keep this in mind: when you’re writing these themes, your own lack of experience and knowledge can turn something earnest and well-intentioned into pretentious or just plain silly sermonizing. Be sensitive to that. And remember that you’re preaching to the choir.

 It’s okay if you haven’t decided on a theme before you start writing. Theme often develops organically through the creative process. Sometimes the most powerful themes gradually reveal themselves through the course of the story, through the journey the characters take. Sometimes your characters will surprise you; sometimes the theme of your story turns out to be something different than you imagined. Often the very best way is to let theme develop naturally out of the characters’ journey and the events of the story.


 A distinct voice in gay fiction, multi-award-winning author JOSH LANYON has been writing gay mystery, adventure and romance for over a decade. In addition to numerous short stories, novellas, and novels, Josh is the author of the critically acclaimed Adrien English series, including The Hell You Say, winner of the 2006 USABookNews awards for GLBT Fiction. Josh is an Eppie Award winner and a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist. 


FUTURE POSTS will cover:

Kindlegraph / the art of research / writing male/male romance / rejection and writer's block / building suspense / writing love scenes / anti-piracy strategies / audio books / interviews with editors and agents / using Calibre.

We welcome everyone's constructive comments and suggestions!


mc said...

As always, an article that makes me think, both as a reader and fledgling writer. Thanks, Josh.

Toni Anderson said...

Sometimes theme comes easy and other times its obscure until you get that blinding flash. Great article. I'm thinking the theme of my latest book might be forgiveness. It started out as a redemptive story but I think the deeper issue is that of forgiveness.

Marcelle Dubé said...

Great essay, Josh, as always. I never know what the theme of my story is until after I've finished writing it. I'd like to think that means I'm intuitive, rather than oblivious...

Vivian said...

I think the bit about sermonizing and getting on soap boxes is often overlooked, especially by the hip, new writers.

I recently read a story that was so preachy and point blank disrespectful that I swore I would never again read anything by that author. It was that bad and it ruined the reading experience of the whole anthology in which that story was included.

Rita said...

*Let your characters argue out two sides of an issue that’s important to you.* Perfect! This is an important way to show the characters growth.
I'm pretty sick of cliché situations. Taking a subject and twisting it is what makes it high concept and more likely to be interesting to an editor. The movie, A Single Man, with Colin Firth took on the subject of death. I thought it was brilliant.
Great post! Thanks.

Cathy Perkins said...

Interesting as always, Josh. I'm finding I'm concentrating more on theme in my current story - and am enjoying writing it more because hopefully it has something to say.

Without being preachy.

Especially since it may end up noir

DHM said...

Thank you for the article.

liade said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

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