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Thursday, September 29, 2011


Terri Lynn Main is a soon-to-be retired teacher at Reedley College who lives in Reedley, California with her five cats. For 40 years she’s written everything from radio commercials to novels and recently opened an online learning space called Education Wants to be Free. Visit Terri at the Dark Side of the Moon website

Terri is offering both a hard copy and an e-book version of Dark Side of the Moon to two of our readers who post a comment to the blog this week. -- AP

When Genres Collide: Writing the Science-Fiction Mystery
Mystery novels throughout the years have been set in different time periods ranging from Twelfth Century monasteries to Victorian England to World War II. This is common practice and few people think much about a gumshoe amateur or professional solving a crime at some point in the past whether 1930’s Chicago or Ancient Egypt. However, when you set a mystery in the future, the game changes.
No one ponders over the genre of a Brother Cadfael mystery, for instance. They don’t wonder if it should be classified with historical fiction or maybe Catholic fiction. They recognize the mystery elements immediately, and Ellis Peters goes on the same shelf as Agatha Christie.
Such is not the case when the setting for the mystery set in the future. For instance, let’s take my novel Dark Side of the Moon (Muse It Up Publishing, 2011).  Here are two blurbs for the story, both accurate, but one causes more questions than the other.
After the death of her mother, History Professor Carolyn Masters takes a job at a new university hoping to leave her past behind her. However, the murder of a colleague brings her face to face with her own demons as she tries to find his killer.
After the death of her mother, History Professor Carolyn Masters takes a job at a new university on the moon hoping to leave her past behind her. However, the murder of a colleague brings her face to face with her own demons as she tries to find his killer.
Just three words and now, a cozy mystery becomes – what? A science fiction story? In a world that likes to carefully put everything in simple well-defined boxes, what do you do when you start combining genres? I’m not sure I have all the answers, but here are a few observations.
Decide on a Dominant Genre
Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov  set the standard, in my opinion, for the science fiction mystery. In his story, a murder occurs and Elijah Bailey, seasoned cop, must team up with Daneel Olivaw, an android to solve the case. Even though we have political intrigue about a division of humanity between the denizens of Earth who stay in their underground cities and those who generations ago left for the stars, the story remains one of a couple of cops trying to solve a mystery.
Now, by his third Elijah Bailey/Daneel Olivaw novel, Robots of Dawn, Asimov’s focus shifts and is much more on the science-fiction elements than on the mystery. In this case, it becomes a sci-fi story with a mystery as the trigger for the action. It is also an excellent novel which lays the groundwork for his Hugo Award Winning Foundation series, which is pure science fiction.
I chose with my novel to emphasize the mystery over the science fiction elements. What always makes my day is when someone says when reading the story they almost forget it is set on the moon until something happens to remind them. That was what I intended. So, first, decide whether it’s a mystery that happens to include sci-fi elements or a science fiction story that includes a mystery.
Research, Research, Research
You wouldn’t sit down and write a mystery that takes place in a Roman Villa at the time of Christ without studying everything you could find about the history of that time, it’s customs, architecture, food, wardrobe, etc. Yet, many think that writing stories about the future can be an act of pure imagination without doing any research.
Such is not the case. Science fiction readers, and even if you emphasize the mystery, you will get sci-fi fans as well, are tough on any type of scientific blunder you make. You can get away with more imaginative science placed further in the future, though. This is because science changes and what seemed settled today may be overturned by new discoveries tomorrow. I just read a story about scientists who this week accelerated some neutrino particles past the speed of light. If that holds up, it changes everything and overturns much of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and opens up the possibility of two science fiction standby’s time travel and FTL (Faster than Light) travel – at least at the subatomic level. But with near future (100 years or less) science fiction, be sure your future technology is firmly rooted in scientific principles as we know them.
World Building
Even with historical fiction, you have something relatively familiar to begin with: the college campus, the small town, the monastery, the urban neighborhood.  You only partially create the world of your story. Most of it is based on models already known to you or based on your research of olden days.
However, when you are speculating about the future, you have no such firm foundation.  That new world may even work on a different physical basis than the one you are familiar with. My novel is set on the moon, which means every so often having only 1/6 the gravity of Earth becomes an issue. One essential clue in the novel depends on that fact.
World building goes beyond all the things you do when creating a setting for your story. You have to consider social mores which may change over time, new art, new clothing, new architecture. However, don’t get carried away. In 200 years everything isn’t going to change. People still live in colonial mansions and a resident of Boston 2011 would be able to communicate easily with one from 1811, at least in terms of language. So you need to balance the familiar with the exotic to give your reader solid ground on which to stand when entering this new world.
I don’t know that I’ve mastered all of these. I suspect I will continue to struggle with them through several more novels. I do hope they have given you a bit of insight into the process of writing when genres collide.
Thanks for joining us today, Terri. Readers, if you’d like a chance to win either an e-copy or a physical copy of Dark Side of the Moon, post a comment. Mention which format you’d like, and don’t forget to check back on Sunday to see if you’re one of the lucky winners. -- AP



This comment is from Sandra who had trouble posting:

"I think I'm more of an SF reader who also reads mysteries than a mystery reader who also likes SF. Then again, the mysteries I enjoy tend to be those that are well outside my everyday life - historical or different cultures. I think I like the distance, and perhaps the learning, involved.

Patty G. Henderson said...

I love mixed genre mysteries so much that I write some of my own. My Brenda Strange mysteries are part supernatural and part mysteries.

I would love to read an exciting SF mystery, since I don't think I've come up against many so far. This would be delightful if I could win a copy!

Thank you so much for your very insightful blog regarding what I call "genre blending." I'd love to see more of it in mysteries.

Patty G. Henderson

Lynn M said...

This may sound sacrilegious, but I don't know if I have ever read a SF mystery ... I used to read a lot of SF but now have slipped more towards contemporary cozy mystery ... I am intrigued though ... I may have to look it up!

Anonymous said...

I love both mysteries and scifi, so Dark Side of the Moon definitely sounds like something I would like to read.

Kathy Nycz

Carol-Lynn Rossel said...

Please enter me into the drawing.

Terri main said...

Lynn-- There are very few Sci-Fi mysteries. In terms of books, I can only really remember reading The Asimov Elijah Bailey/Daneel Olivaw books and his Black Widower short stories in which the mystery usually involves some sort of scientific element, but not really speculative fiction in that since.

There are a few "hard boiled PI" and "police procedural" types that are movies but end up being more action adventure than mysteries per se such as Blade Runner and Outland.

But I like playing with both genres. I am working on another novel set on the moon right now and hope to get it to my publisher by the end of October.

Mary Hake said...

interesting premise. I remember when Terri asked for input re her Nano novel.
tormhake @ netzero.com

Margaret Fieland said...

Terri, I *loved* "Caves of Steel," and highly recommend it. I'm a huge sci fi fan, a more moderate mystery fan, though I did read all of Sherlock Holmes.

Terri main said...

Just for reference, the three Elijah Bailey/Daneel Olivaw novels were Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun and Robots of Dawn. For Sci-Fi Fans, Daneel Olivaw is instrumental in advising Hari Sheldon the Psychohistorian whose Seldon Moments push forth the story in the original Foundation Trilogy. Seldon's story is told in Prelude to Foundation. So, the "foundation" of one of the most honored science-fiction series in history started as a series of mystery novels.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Thanks for the tips. I've been successful adding mystery elements into sci fi romance, but I haven't tried a straight whodunit type mystery in a sci fi setting as yet. Your advice will be useful should I venture in this direction in the future.

pennyt said...

I was a hugh Isaac Asimov fan and am glad to see sci fi mysteries making a comeback. Can't wait to read the book!! Thanks.

Terri main said...


I don't know if they are making a comeback or not. My publisher is good at pushing the boundaries a bit and taking some chances with genre blending.

I downloaded an ecopy of Asimov's Caves of Steel last night onto my Nook since I hadn't read it in awhile. For the first time I read the introduction which gives a fascinating insight into the whole evolution of the Robot stories.

He mentioned that the legendary Joseph Campbell, editor of Astounding Magazine, didn't believe there could be such a thing as a science-fiction mystery because the technology would be so advanced that it wouldn't leave anything for the sleuth to do.

Asimov didn't believe that. He felt the technology would support the sleuth in such stories but it would still be the detective that solved the mystery.

Sheri Fredricks said...

Hi Terri - Great post in helping me decide which direction to take my MS. With all the sub-genres these days, it gets REALLY confusing.

S. Cat Sullivan said...

Terri - wonderful article with some great tips. I blend genres myself with a mix of sci-fi and fantasy. It definitely helps when you have one or the other predominate, even when the storyline switches between them. I certainly agree with the emphasis on research. It makes the story that much more believable, even in far future sci-fi. When researching ships and navies for my space navy, I discovered a lot of the terminology hasn't in the last 500+ years. I figure it probably won't change much in the next 500+ years.

P.S. I would love to win a copy of your book. I prefer physical copy, please :) There's just something about the smell and feel of a book in hand....

Terri main said...

Erica- You raise a very good point. A lot of things don't really change much. For instance, you have carpets and rugs on the floor. The designs and materials and methods of production change, but at a functional level, the product itself is pretty much the same. You have apartment houses in ancient Rome. After the invention of the tacking sail, the sailing vessel has changed very little.

We sometimes want to make everything in a piece of writing set in the future to be completely different. However, the basics often change very little and much survives from one century to the next.

mollie bryan said...

This is a fantastic, informative post. I've never given sci-fi mysteries much thought. Intriguing.