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Weaving Social & Political Themes into Mysteries. Guest Post by Amanda Traylor

Recently I shared with friends the challenges of including social and political issues in my mystery series. Especially since my protagonist is an ordained minister in the turbulent 1960s. Amanda Traylor, who writes twisty murder mysteries and thrillers, sets forth her ideas on this challenge to authors of all genres.

Amanda’s books are available on Amazon.com. I’m currently reading “The Perfect Life.” Good stuff.

Personal Note: The owners of Rio Grande Winery, Carol and Randy McMillen, have invited me to do a book signing Saturday afternoon, April 13 at the winery, 5321 NM 28, Las Cruces, NM, 88005. All of my David Elliott mysteries will be available, including some “freebies.”

Enjoy a glass or two of their excellent wines. As the saying goes, “Wine: Because no great story ever began with someone eating a salad!”


Here's Amanda:

in addition to being a commercial artist, I’m also an invested citizen of the world. Like anyone, I doom-scroll Google News and wonder how the world is going to survive another day. Whether I’m writing a suburban domestic suspense or an international crime thriller, I can’t help but interject contemporary issues into the plot. It’s my way of making sense of the world. It’s how I ground my readers in my world.

I don’t shy away from difficult topics. After all, I write contemporary thrillers, and the things going on in the world today are the foundation for thrillers. I also believe if you want to elicit a reaction from your work, you must tickle a nerve in people. Is this an intelligent approach when aiming to ingratiate readers? I think so. We want people to relate to our characters and their experiences. We want our readers to have opinions and emotional reactions. We want them to feel.

I’ve written a wide variety of thrillers and through them, I’ve tackled many serious issues resonating with me at the time. Organized crime and the drug trade, the misogyny of the corporate tech world, human trafficking, sexual assault. Even I make myself uncomfortable sometimes.

So how provocative should you go when tackling social issues? Whatever your book calls for! Or whatever you think is necessary to tell the story, as long as you understand your audience. Not every social issue is hotly divided, of course. While uncomfortable to read about, I think we can all agree human trafficking is bad. Hopefully, we all agree racism is bad. Domestic and sexual violence? Bad. But Immigration? Reproductive rights? Gun laws? Environmental protection laws? Vaccines? Dust off your boxing gloves and prepare to enter the online debate ring.

In my latest thriller, Lost Sierra, I found myself tackling several headline issues. I also wrote this book during the heart of the pandemic while quarantined with a newborn at home, so, needless to say, my mind was in a twisty place and the ills of the world weighed heavily on me. The world felt like it was fracturing and collapsing during that time, and all I could think about was how I was going to raise my daughter in this dark, dark apocalypse in which we’d found ourselves. The only way for me to make sense of it all was to write about it.

The toll Covid was taking on all kinds of communities–urban to rural—the income inequality rising to the front page, the resurgence of white supremacy beliefs, the continued silent epidemic of opioid deaths, the decay of the rural small town—all these make an appearance.

Are my views on these topics clear through my writing? Maybe. I imagine if you’ve read enough of my work, you’ll start to get an idea of which way I lean. But I try not to let that be the main point. I aim to explore these topics from both sides. From the victims and perpetrators to those on the sidelines looking in. Those ignorant of what’s actually happening. Those really trying to help and those simply giving lip service to the solutions.

Any time you focus on hot-button issues, whether it be the rights of certain communities, healthcare, immigration, sexism, racism–pick your poison–your characters are going to have opinions about them. After all, you can’t just have your characters living in a state of complete neutrality on such timely matters. If you have done your job right, your characters are living, breathing people, and undoubtedly have diverse opinions about these topics. You, the author, must decide how much of those opinions mirror your own. Exposing your personal beliefs through your writing certainly poses some career risks. We live in an increasingly polarized society and even hinting that you lean left or right, up or down, can cause a polite exodus of readers on the nice end, and a complete Twitter mob on the not-so-nice end.

So, how can you retain neutrality, or at least equitability of thought (if that’s what you’re going for), when exploring contemporary issues? Personally, I aim to explore the dual nature of every divided matter.

I spent my childhood and young adulthood in Northern California. While the Golden State is indeed a vast and diverse place, I must admit I was often surrounded by people who, more or less, thought as I did. My opinions on certain issues were ironclad because they were never countered. And while I considered myself “worldly,” my worldview was indeed limited. In 2016, I left San Francisco for Dallas, Texas. Talk about a culture shock during a particularly tumultuous social time. It happened to be an extremely divisive year politically, as you might recall. And for the first time, I was surrounded by people who didn’t always share my opinions.

I could have refused to engage with my new community and their sharply differing beliefs. I could have isolated myself. But instead, I chose to see how people were experiencing the same world events through a different lens. My husband and I have gone on to live in multiple regions, including the Rocky Mountains, the south, and even Europe, all in the last seven years, during which time our country has gone through tremendous social upheaval. I’ve now seen so many contemporary issues through the eyes of people all over the United States, as well as internationally, and I can use that to add depth to my characters’ experiences.

Your story is yours to tell and only you can determine how deeply to explore every topic you write about, how timely or real you want to get. Yes, you might ruffle some feathers, but you might also stir some thoughtful discussion!

***

Thanks, Amanda!

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