What the Heck Do You Write? by Kate Thornton

Reading and Writing – The Basics by Kate ThorntonKate Thornton is a retired US Army officer who enjoys writing both mysteries and science fiction. With over 100 short stories in print, she teaches a short story class and is currently working on a series of romantic suspense novels. She divides her time between Southern California and Tucson, Arizona.


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I write Mystery and Science fiction.

I used to say, I write short stories. And while I do indeed still write short stories, I also write novels.

We tend to identify ourselves by the most comfortable label, or by the one we’d like to fit, as well as by the one that seems to fit the best, based on what we have actually written. Or maybe just by what we wish we could write: “Yes, I write archaeological papers with a bit of whimsy,” or “Yes, I write about the cosmological implications of French cooking.”

So I have identified myself for decades as a mystery and/or science fiction writer. But even as my short story career – long and semi-illustrious as it was – began to wind down, I started writing real full length novels, whole stories over 65,000 words, some of them in the 85,000 word range..

I found that I liked it. It’s a whole other world. Worlds within worlds. Multiple characters, multiple settings, a story arc that can encompass several plot threads. It’s wonderful, and the discipline I learned as a short story writer helps me to keep it concise and not wander all over the page.

But there was a danger I had never thought about, a hidden pitfall to the novel-writing game that never occurred to me. The characters, so spare and driven in a short story, are under no obligation in a novel to do as the author says.

The characters, fully fleshed, do as they please. Whether you outline meticulously or are a seat-of-the-pantser, the characters have a way of driving the story, sometimes into a ditch or over a cliff. They become real enough to take on their own lives and are no longer a simple Mary Sue reflection of the writer, but become individuals who possess a weird amount of self-determination.

You might want them to murder or solve murders when they are busy developing relationships with other characters. You might plan for them to journey into space, when what they decide to do is stay home and build a fire in the fireplace. You might outline a tidy little puzzle, and they may turn it into a messy romance.

Yes, you are the all-powerful Author and can line your ducks back up into their neat little rows, but sometimes listening to your characters can help you take the story in a completely different direction, a better place, a more interesting and life-like place.

So before you proudly say, “I write such-and-such!” take a look at where your story is going. You might find that your characters have taken your sweet little cozy into noir territory, or burned up the spaceways with hot inter-species encounters.

I used to say I write Mystery and Science Fiction, but now I have to add Women’s Fiction and Romance to that description.

So what do you write? And has it changed from what you thought you would write?

PS – It’s all good as long as you keep on writing!


17 thoughts on “What the Heck Do You Write? by Kate Thornton”

  1. Ah labels, labels, labels! I hadn’t really thought about classifying my writing until my first book was published and then I HAD to peg it for marketing purposes. When a fellow writer described it as “women’s fiction” I took a close look at that category and decided I fit very nicely in there. I’m grateful to belong in such a stellar group of writers.

    PS Glad to know I’m not the only one who find her characters become “individuals who possess a weird amount of self-determination.” A couple of them have managed to hijack my storylines, for the better.


    1. Bonnie – I love your work! And I really love “women’s fiction” which transcends its own label so handily every time I see a man reading it and enjoying it. Real life is almost as unpredictable as fiction.


  2. It IS difficult to categorize writing. My mysteries are traditional. What the heck does that mean to the reader looking for a mystery??? Is Rex Stout traditional? Agatha Christie? (She doesn’t usually meet the criteria of a cozy.) Two very different writers. Women’s Fiction is such a broad label, it makes it difficult to browse. I find I just look for a synopsis I like, and then I peek inside to check out the writing style. And recommendations, of course. Maybe we overthink it (for marketing purposes.) I’ve never searched for a new book to read based on a category.


    1. I have a hard time categorizing the series I am working on – but agents, publishers and book stores all want categories, because readers can then find what they are looking for. And synopses- I hate writing them! I know they are necessary, but I still have a hard time with them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I, too, hate labels – but, as you say, agents and publishers want us to label our stories & novels…. so if you can’t categorize your work perfectly, you might lose out on getting read. It’s very frustrating. “Sort of cozy-with a bit of romance-and a noir influence – plus an historical setting – with a great sci-fi ending,” doesn’t really cut it. Good post, Kate.


  3. I have had characters grab the wheel and take the story into uncharted territory. What a great way to discover new worlds and new characters. I had one character refuse to be killed off, so he stayed. I discovered something about another character that explained more about his personality than anything before that revelation. Yes, our characters do drive us. Ain’t it great?


  4. Love your line, Kate, “The characters, fully fleshed, do as they please.” And, they keep popping up! I walk my dogs every morning (well almost every morning) and some new character inevitably says, “how about putting me in.” I’m not kidding, and sure don’t know what part of my brain they’re coming from. Sigh.

    On the genre front, I’m usually characterized as a mystery writer, but lately several have said I write literary-mysteries. Hmm. I think I just write, I’ll leave the labels to others like publishers and reviewers.

    Excellent post, started me thinking on several writing fronts.


    1. So glad you enjoyed it, Maddie. I love where the characters can take you, even when it’s 20,000 words away from where you really want to go!


  5. You have all hit the mark on categorizing book genres. After a trilogy, a novella, and several short stories, I think the main line through my books futuristic crime thrillers and sci-fi romance/adventure.I don’t bother picking out genre any longer and have just given way to calling a book or series or trilogy what ever I think works best. I went insane (along with my poor editor) when my first novel came out because I couldn’t categorize it. Futuristic is the line that runs through all of my work so I use it because I don’t write so far into the future readers can’t relate to it, either the setting/timeline, characters (alien-human) and technology that’s also either so advanced it’s hard to understand or dull and dry. I try to keep it as interesting as I can without overwhelming a reader with all of that. I think Jacqueline is right, I don’t ever recall going into a bookstore and looking at any particular genre. It was sort of a combination of cover art and then back blurb and yes, me too, the first paragraph. If I finish the first page it’s pretty much got me.
    Great post Kate! Re-blogging…


  6. Well I began writing very short fiction first, 55 to 1.5k words max. Then I started writing longer short stories of about 4-5k. Finally I was able to stretch my fiction to ebook novella length (25K+ word). Those novellas were gay WWII romantic suspense–not erotic but sweet. I know what you mean about characters in longer works taking over. After writing four novellas in the series I wanted to end it. I thought I was done but my characters wouldn’t let me go, so I had to write two more before they finally agreed we’d reached the end. 🙂 Great post, Kate as usual.


    1. It’s so true about characters having a mind of their own, especially in long form fiction. It takes me years to write a novel, so living with these characters for that long eventually gives them a sense of independence, which I often have to honor. It’s why my trilogy has become a ‘quadrogy’. And your point about categorizing book genres reminded me of a comment from author Heather Ames, whom I interviewed for my post on outlining. She said, “My difficulties in achieving publication are because I write out of the box and can’t find an exact spot for shelving my books. That’s why the electronic industry was such a good fit for me….”

      Liked by 1 person

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