What’s In a Name? The Trouble with Genres

Kris Bock writes action-packed romantic suspense, often involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. To learn more about her latest work, visit http://www.krisbock.com.

Ms. Bock also writes for young people under the name Chris Eboch. The Eyes of Pharaoh is an action-packed mystery set in ancient Egypt. In The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan girl in ninth-century Guatemala rebels against the High Priest who sacrifices anyone challenging his power. Read excerpts at www.chriseboch.com.


Mystery, suspense, thriller, hard-boiled, cozy, romantic suspense. Genre designations can help readers find books they’ll like. They can help authors quickly market their books to suitable readers. But genres can also feel limiting.

I love the books Mary Stewart wrote in the 1950s and 60s, which were often labeled “novels of romance and suspense.” Although she wrote many of her novels before I was born, I see my novels as following that tradition: ordinary heroines and heroes caught up in circumstances beyond their control; often exotic locations; plenty of action and drama, but little explicit sex or violence.

Mary Stewart is often considered the mother of romantic suspense. However, today’s romantic suspense novels often feature macho heroes who are Navy SEALs or former Army Rangers, a high body count, and dozens of explicit sex scenes. So if I call my novel Whispers in the Dark romantic suspense, is that misleading? The heroine and hero are ordinary folks working at a southwestern archaeology park, and no one dies or has sex (although there is danger and passion). On the other hand, if the novel isn’t romantic suspense, what is it?

Mystery categories are equally tricky, despite the many subgenres. Many readers expect certain things from any novel labeled a mystery, such as clues which the reader can follow to try to solve the crime and a surprise twist at the end. If the villain is obvious throughout the story, will readers be disappointed? Does that make it more of a thriller or action/adventure? But those genres typically feature male leads, often those whose profession leads them into trouble, such as spies, lawyers, or treasure hunters.

In my newest novel, What We Found, the 22-year-old heroine is back in her small New Mexico hometown after college. Her attempt to fit in and build a normal life is derailed when she stumbles on a dead body in the woods. When her companion refuses to report the body – and when the corpse turns out to be a murdered woman – Audra is drawn into danger.

There is certainly a mystery, and I enjoyed watching my critique group members try to identify the killer. I was especially entertained by the fact that one reader drew not on clues from the manuscript, but on expectations from genre standards. In other words, she expected it to be the least likely person, so therefore the murderer couldn’t be anyone identified as a suspect. If it turns out that the murderer is a prime suspect, does that now count as a surprise twist to readers who expect something different? Or does the ending simply feel wrong?

What We Found is a psychological drama as much as anything. I was exploring what it feels like to find a dead body and be drawn into a murder case. (For a glimpse of the true story that inspired this novel, stop by my blog.) Audra, the heroine of What We Found, also finds romance, but not until later in the book. So is this a psychological drama? A contemporary romance? Romantic suspense, but with a low body count and no sex?

As Mary Stewart once said, “I’d rather just say that I write novels, fast-moving stories that entertain. To my mind there are really only two kinds of novels, badly written and well written. Beyond that, you cannot categorize… Can’t I say that I just write stories? ‘Storyteller’ is an old and honorable title, and I’d like to lay claim to it.”

Ordinary women. Extraordinary adventures.

Whispers in the Dark: A young archaeologist seeking peace after an assault stumbles into danger as mysteries unfold among ancient Southwest ruins. Can she overcome the fears from her past, learn to fight back, and open herself to a new romance?

What We Found: When Audra stumbles on a murdered woman in the woods, more than one person isn’t happy about her bringing the crime to light. She’ll have to stand up for herself in order to stand up for the murder victim. It’s a risk, and so is reaching out to the mysterious young man who works with deadly birds of prey. But with danger all around, some risks are worth taking.

Rattled: When Erin, a quiet history professor, uncovers a clue that may pinpoint the lost treasure cave, she prepares for adventure. But when a hit and run driver nearly kills her, she realizes she’s not the only one after the treasure. And is Drew, the handsome helicopter pilot who found her bleeding in a ditch, really a hero, or one of the enemy? Just how far will Erin go to find the treasure and discover what she’s really made of?