Thursday, October 29, 2020

Writing Light Doesn’t Have to Mean Writing Fluffy

By Kassandra Lamb, @

Part of The How They Do It Series 

JH: Serious topics don't always require serious treatment. Kassandra Lamb shares tips on how you can write light, and still tackle important topics in your novels. 

Kassandra Lamb is a retired psychotherapist/ psychology professor turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington Mysteries and the Marcia Banks and Buddy Cozy Mysteries, plus a non-fiction guidebook, Someday is Here! A Beginner’s Guide to Writing and Publishing Your First Book. She also writes romantic suspense under the pen name of Jessica Dale

Her specialty as a psychotherapist was trauma recovery, and today she brings us her insights into how the brain connects our past to our present, and the implications for writers regarding characters’ back stories. 

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Take it away Kassandra… 
Today’s readers often prefer shorter, “lighter” stories that they can breeze through while commuting to work or waiting for their child to finish a Zoom session with their teacher. But how can we provide what this market wants and still come close to producing something we find satisfying as writers?

I have three goals with my writing, not necessarily in order of importance: (1) to write stories, something I very much enjoy, (2) to make money, and (3) to educate people about psychological topics in a painless and pleasant way. The last has been my life’s calling.

My first mystery series was not light at all. There are moments of humor but the books are psychological suspense stories, with a psychotherapist protagonist. And in each book, I showcased particular psychological disorders and/or societal issues that impact on mental health.

Then I got an idea for a cozy mystery series, and I soon discovered that I actually like writing shorter, lighter cozies.

“But that’s so fluffy,” I thought. I felt I wasn’t being true to my goal of raising consciousness about psychology.

However, now that I’ve written ten cozies in this “new” series, I’ve long since realized that I can address deeper issues even in this lighter medium.

You may not share my particular goal of raising consciousness about certain issues, but your story will resonate louder and longer with readers if it has helped them understand themselves and others better and/or has tapped into their interest in certain topics.

Here are some hints for accomplishing this “light without fluff” result.

1. What are the “hot topics” in society today? What are people talking about, what are they interested in?

Are there ways to weave these topics into your story, perhaps via setting or minor characters?

Tony Hillerman wrote “lighter” mysteries (can’t call them cozies because the protagonists were police officers) that educated an entire generation of readers about life on the Navajo reservation. Cozy mystery writer, Teresa Trent, author of the Pecan Bayou series, has a secondary character who has Down’s syndrome.

2. What does your protagonist do for a living? 

Unless their vocation is central to your plot (or maybe even if it is), you can have them do just about anything, and thus create subplots or just throw in interesting tidbits about one of these hot topics.

One could have one’s protagonist work for a not-for-profit that funds research into autism or make them a social worker who works with foster kids. (Warning: you need to be prepared to do the research into these fields.)

My cozy series’ protagonist, Marcia Banks, trains service dogs for combat veterans. The plot of each story is a mystery related to a particular veteran, but along the way I am informing people about the psychological challenges our veterans face and the benefits of service dogs.

I totally did not expect this, but a common comment I get in reviews is that readers enjoy the insights into how such dogs are trained. That has definitely kept me on my toes, research-wise!

3. Address relationship issues that people can relate to and make them real.

Too often, I see romance handled superficially in lighter fiction. I find myself asking: Why have these people fallen in love? What’s the attraction? Are they really in love?

A light romantic novel or a cozy mystery is made lighter via the use of humor, a somewhat less complicated plot, etc., but the relationships don’t have to be superficial or contrived. In real life, relationships, especially in the early stages, are full of land mines. Let some of those mines blow up in your characters’ faces.

In the first few books in my series, the protagonist and her love interest struggle with some scar tissue from previous failed marriages. It’s a subplot and I sometimes handle it with humor, but these are very real and all too common issues today.

4. Have your characters grow and change over the course of a story or a series.

One of the things that irritates me about some cozy series is that the protagonist never learns. They keep right on poking their nose into things just for the heck of it, and there’s no real maturing of their personalities.

Granted, it becomes harder, as a series goes on, to find good reasons for the amateur sleuth to investigate, despite the dire warnings of law enforcement and their previous narrow escapes. But as writers, we need to try harder to do this. Motivation is the key to why the reader cares as well.

In the case of my main character, I’ve tried to have her mature as the series progresses, and I’ve gotten good feedback that she has and that readers like this about her. But of course, she still needs to get involved in other people’s messes in order to have more mysteries.

To explain this, over the last couple of books, her love interest (a police detective) has gradually developed a better understanding of why she can’t help herself when she sees someone in trouble. He reflects this back to her, along with his realization that this is part of why he loves her, because she cares—even though that trait also makes him crazy sometimes.

5. Describe the deeper issues and feelings with a lighter touch.

No need to paint the whole picture. Touch on the topic briefly, then move on.

But do let your characters have real visceral sensations to show their feelings. There are ways to do this without getting too graphic or dwelling too long on the heavy stuff.

At one point, Marcia’s love interest “kisses her soundly.” Her knees “go all wobbly.” In one of my longer, “heavier” suspense novels, the kiss would be described in much more detail (tongues hungrily exploring) as would her reaction (heat spreading). Wobbly knees, however, is enough to get the idea across in a cozy. She’s turned on by this guy.

I actually touch on some pretty heavy topics in this cozy series, such as sexual assault in the military, various psychological disorders, and some highly dysfunctional family dynamics. For the most part, I don’t dwell on them; I mention aspects here and there and then move attention back to the plot. By the end of the book, the reader has a pretty clear picture of the impact of such things on one’s life, without feeling like they’ve attended a psychotherapy marathon.

Romance and mystery are the genres I’m most familiar with. Any thoughts on writing lighter without being “fluffy” in other genres?

About My Funny Mayfair Valentine, A Marcia Banks and Buddy Mystery #10

When a charming newcomer makes a play for Susanna Mayfair, the sheltered niece of the town's matriarch, service dog trainer Marcia Banks is dragged into investigating the man’s past. Turns out he’s a wanted criminal, but he claims it’s a case of mistaken identity. While Marcia’s detective husband attempts to untangle the truth, Marcia worries about her friend’s mental health...unaware that she may be in physical danger as well. Will Marcia figure it out in time to protect Susanna...and herself?

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  1. Thanks so much, Janice, for letting me hang out at Fiction University today.

  2. Thanks for stopping by our 'campus' today, Kassandra. I'm 'writing lite' short fiction, hoping to momentarily escape the 'heavy' from all the various media. Nice, helpful article.

    1. Thanks, Paul. So glad you found it helpful.

  3. I write inspirational romance and I think this is a perfect list of how not to gloss over issues, but not dwell on them. Thank you!

  4. Blogger just ate my comment so I’ll try again.
    Thanks for this, Kassandra. I’ve been contemplating trying my hand at a cozy mystery but just yesterday I was wondering how deep I could go, issue wise. I love some cozies but not others and I’ve been wondering why. I’ve also been considering a focus on the human/animal bond so I’m glad I’ve found your books. We’ve just gone into Covid-lockdown here so it looks like I’ve got some good reading time ahead :D.

  5. I think cozies focusing on the human/animal bond would be great, Susan! Something many people care about, for sure. Sorry you're in lockdown again, but I'm glad my books may make it more bearable. Thanks so much!!