I attended the Malice Domestic Convention this past weekend. Malice Domestic celebrates traditional mystery literature, the kind Agatha Christie wrote, with bodies in the library and such. Nowadays, the definition is a bit broader, with bodies everywhere from Cabot Cove, Maine to the mean streets of LA, and around the world, but at Malice, you'll still find more whodunits than dark, gritty thrillers.
I could write pages about all the terrific fans and writers I met. I found some new authors, like J.J. Murphy who writes about Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table, and John Cullen, who deciphered Dame Agatha's handwriting and transcribed her writing notebooks.
Instead, I'll mention one discussion that got me thinking about why readers choose certain authors. We were talking about law mysteries. One lawyer friend of mine said she doesn't read them. She reads to escape and doesn't want to spend time in the same setting where she works. Then she admitted that she does read Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott series, saying "but she's a judge."
I thought about why I read the Deborah Knott series. Not for the law aspect. Maron's Carolina settings bring back to me the happy times I've spent vacationing and eating my way through that region. I like the character of Deborah. She's intelligent and down to earth, a person with whom I love to spend time. I like her big family and all their antics, all the brothers that I can't keep straight. The mystery plots are always good. Maron's prose is beautiful. If you took the courtroom scenes away, I'd still read the series.
Lisa Scottoline's novels have lots of "law" in them, but I read those books more because I feel at home in them. Mary DiNunzio's family isn't so different from mine. I understand their notion of food equaling love. And, having grown up in the Philadelphia area, the settings are familiar to me. I can even vividly picture the Federal Courthouse, because I did jury duty there. Lisa makes the "law" parts of her books interesting, but frankly, I don't choose her novels because of them.
Still, lots of readers probably do read law mysteries for the law in them, just like some readers pick up cat mysteries specifically because of the cats, or cooking mysteries because of the food. Yet, it's still important for authors to make their characters, plots and settings strong, to win over those readers not otherwise interested in their subject matter.
I had one fan this weekend say, "I don't normally like history, but I like your series," and another say the same thing about not usually liking ghosts in books.
That to me proves that what a lot of readers want is simply a good story. I'd be interested in hearing your opinion.