1920s, Books, fantasy, fiction, mystery, publishing, stories, writing

Categories and Genres

Genre, sub-genre, categories … when trying to find a home for a story on the shelves of a bookstore or library, the options can sometimes seem overwhelming. Is this fantasy or science fiction? Historical mystery, cozy mystery, or some other type of mystery altogether? Thriller or adventure? Memoir or autobiography?

This is made even more difficult when you have an author who likes to cross two or more genres in one book. And yes, I’m talking about myself and the Whitney & Davies series here. Since the beginning, these books have been hard to categorize. Do they go on the fantasy shelf or the mystery shelf? (One local library solved the puzzle by sticking Magic Most Deadly on the “fiction” shelf–going more generic instead of less, I guess!) It wouldn’t matter so much, aside from causing headaches to librarians and bookstore owners, except that muddled categories can make it difficult for readers to understand what sort of book they are looking at, and thus make them less likely to pick it up and read.

The basic premise of the Whitney & Davies series–taking an already-existing genre and adding a magical twist to it–is not unique to me. My first exposure to the concept was with Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s marvelous fantasy of manners Sorcery and Cecilia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot. Other well-known Regency fantasies are Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories, and of course Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

Then there’s the “gaslamp” or “gaslight” fantasies, which take the same idea and place it in a Victorian or Edwardian England setting. Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series would likely fall into this category, as well as Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent.

However, I’ve not yet found anyone besides myself taking Golden Age Detective Fiction and inserting fantasy into that, and I’ve been racking my brains for ages now trying to coin a phrase to neatly sum up this sub-genre to make it clear from one glance what type of a story the reader is getting. “Mystery-fantasy set in 1920s England” is, let’s face it, way too clunky.

I’ve narrowed it down to two options, although I am open to suggestions for something else! I like “Golden Age Detective Fiction” for its descriptiveness, but on the other hand it is still long and a little bit clunky. Then there’s the short and snappy “Whodunit Fantasy,” but the downside to that one is that it doesn’t necessarily convey the sense of time and place–between wars in England–that the other does.

So I am tossing the choices out there for my readers! Which do you prefer? Which one conveys the feel of Whitney & Davies best to you? And if you haven’t read my books yet, you may still feel free to comment–I’d like to know what type of story you think of when you see either of those two categories.

I would also be curious to know if you have any comparison books or series that come to your mind when thinking of W&D–you know, the old, “If you like _____, you will like Whitney & Davies.” The closest I’ve come up with is Martha Wells’ Death of the Necromancer, and I’m not exactly sure that’s the best match. I think that’s the sort of thing that is difficult for an author to judge about his or her own work, especially when one of the main reasons for writing the books is that no one else out there is!

7 thoughts on “Categories and Genres”

  1. I voted “Whodunit Fantasy”, by a slim margin. I like both phrases, but as you say, Whodunit Fantasy is snappier; also, I think it has broader application. A good Whodunit doesn’t have to be set in the inter-war years (much of Poirot and Inspector Alleyn happens in the 50s and 60s, which was “contemporary fiction” at the time), and while I love the time period the W&D books are set in, it’s the blend of fantasy and mystery that I find to be their biggest appeal. Whether it’s the 20s/30s, the 50s/60s, or even today, matters less. Shanna Swendson has a new series out that would also come under the “Whodunit Fantasy” heading – her “Lucky Lexie” is “paranormal contemporary cozy mystery” (the MC/sleuth can see and communicate with ghosts).
    So I guess, “Golden Age Detective Fantasy” could be a further sub-genre underneath “Whodunit Fantasy”? (And then there could also be “Fantasy Whodunit” – is that different?)
    Interesting musings.

    1. Someone on FB also suggested “Roaring 20s Detective Fantasy,” which has the benefit of being VERY specific and doesn’t require a prior knowledge of mystery sub-genres to understand (the difficulty with both “Whodunit” and “Golden Age”–when I asked Carl which he liked better, he had to ask what both of them meant). This is turning more complicated than I was expecting! I might just have to close my eyes and point and go with whichever one my finger lands on.

  2. I feel your pain! I wrote a book that can basically be described as “National Treasure meets Aladdin meets the Song of Solomon.” Yeah, there’s a really obvious niche for that one :)

    I’d go with “Whodunnit Fantasy” because “Golden Age Detective Fiction” doesn’t convey the fantasy element. But when advertising the book you might also consider using one of the touchstone names from the Golden Age era. E.g. Magic Most Deadly: Agatha Christie with Magic. I’ve got a friend who advertised her gaslamp fantasy series as “Georgette Heyer with magic,” and that turned out to be a terrific and very effective choice. Good luck! Can’t wait for book 3!

    1. Lol! We both definitely suffer from writing the stories we like to read, and then struggling to define them for a wider audience! I have been thinking of something along the lines of “Agatha Christie with magic” as a tagline–my mother also suggested “E. Nesbit for mystery fans,” which is fun but slightly less automatically recognizable to the wider world.

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