Thursday, February 24, 2011

Write Like a Lady, Think Like a Man

By J. J. Murphy

I’ve always been outnumbered. I was the only boy in a family with four girls. I now have a wife and twin daughters, so my dog and I represent the male minority of our female-majority family.

For the last few years, I’ve been one of only a couple of men in the Delaware Valley chapter of Sisters in Crime. I’m a Mister with an overwhelming number of wonderful Sisters.

When I decided to write a mystery, it was natural to pick a female protagonist. (And not just any female protagonist, but legendary writer and wisecracker Dorothy Parker. More on her in a minute.)

But here’s the interesting thing: My choice to use a female protagonist was not only a creative decision but also a “business” one. Why? Because women read mysteries, and women readers naturally prefer women protagonists. If I was going to get published, I reasoned, I had to find a female sleuth.

But here’s something I didn’t count on: My editor asked me to use a “gender neutral” name. Huh?

“We don’t want anyone to have to think twice when they’re considering whether to buy your book,” she explained. And women readers might think twice about buying a book written by a man but featuring a woman.

All righty! Whatever it takes to get published, I thought. I’ll be a woman. I’ll be a platypus, if that’s what it takes.

We settled on using my initials. (Call me J.J.! I’m in good company. On Sunday mornings I get together for coffee with J.D. Robb and J.K. Rowling. And then I wake up.)

Now I face something else I didn’t count on: I’m lumped into the mystery subgenre of “cozies,” a category largely ignored by the literati and book reviewing powers-that-be. Meanwhile, it feels like James Patterson and Tom Clancy can pump out a book a week, which gets instant best-seller status, prime positioning in the book store, reviews in every newspaper, and an option for the movie rights.

What’s up with that? What separates those big boys from us? Our frilly book covers and lack of violence (and heightened vocabularies), that’s what.

Again, we’re in good company. My gal Dorothy Parker faced the same problem daily. She was one of the only women accepted into the boys’ club that was the Algonquin Round Table. (You know Dorothy Parker. Even if you don’t know Dorothy Parker, you do know her. She coined such phrases as “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” and “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.”)

We can take courage from Dorothy. She matched wits with guys from the Ivy League, yet she never went to college — never even graduated from high school. Now, 90 years later, she’s the most well-known of the members of the Algonquin Round Table. (Can you name any others?) Her collected works have never gone out of print.

So, I’m fine being a woman. I’m honored to count myself as a Sister. Just don’t ask to borrow my size 13 high heels.

And speaking of Dorothy Parker, which current actress would you select to play her in a movie? Vote here:

Top photo: J. J. Murphy and spouse at the launch of Murder Your Darlings.
Bottom photo: A young Dorothy Parker.

J. J. Murphy is an award-winning health care writer in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Murder Your Darlings, a humorous historical mystery featuring Dorothy Parker, a dead body under the famed Algonquin round table and New York in the Roaring 20s. For more information on J. J., go to


Lindsay said...

At least you haven't gone through life with a first name like mine-Lindsay. And no I'm not that actress who is always getting in trouble with the law. Or the tennis star.
Just a plain simple writer of mysteries who also has female protagonists.

Pat Marinelli said...

Great post! Love the coffee comments, but I think I should tell you J. D. Robb prefers tea. So this Sunday morning, put the kettle on with that coffee pot.

Your book looks interesting, I'm going to add it to me next book-shopping list. Love the 20's era.

J.J. Murphy said...

Yeah, J.D. eats up all the jelly doughnuts too!
Thanks for reading.

Msmstry said...

M.D. Lake, who won the 1993 Agatha for his short story, "Kim's Game, reminded folks that using initials rather than a full name allowed the print to be larger on the cover. He also had a female protagonist.

I, personally, don't care which gender writes my books as long as they're well written, well plotted, and well delivered!

Margaret Maron said...

Can't think of all the Round Table cohorts, but Robert Benchley, who shared a tiny office with her at the New Yorker, comes instantly to mind. And playright George Kaufman, who was very tall and supposedly afraid of being accosted by midgets.

Marcia Talley said...

The title of your posting reminds me of the official state motto of Maryland: "Fatti maschii, parole femine." Variously translated as "Manly deeds, womanly words" or, as MD is being very PC these days, "Strong deeds, gentle words." I prefer "speak softly, but carry a big stick."

But I digress ... loved your posting, JJ.

Julie D said...

This is great, J.J! I, too, am outnumbered in all aspect of my life, and I, too, wrote an opposite gender protagonist, and in his voice. I 'wrote like a man, thought like a man'. It was fun, and I know what I did isn't original, but from word one, I never considered doing it any other way. Now when I asked my agent if I should use initials in my name so my gender wasn't so obvious, she said 'absolutely NOT!' I'm glad.

Looking forward to getting to know Dorothy better.