Mystery fans are honoring Egyptologist Barbara Mertz, best known to them as Elizabeth Peters, author of the beloved Amelia Peabody mystery series featuring a strong-minded early archaeologist. Fellow authors will interview Barbara April 28 at the annual Malice Domestic Convention.
That reminded me that I interviewed her 20 years ago on how she made the transition from academic to accessible and entertaining nonfiction (look for Red Land, Black Land) and from nonfiction to genre fiction, first Gothics as Barbara Michaels and then mysteries as Elizabeth Peters. At that time (1991) she already had 50 books to her credit.
What she told me still applies, so a shortened version of the first of my two articles follows. It appeared in Writing Concepts, December 1991, under the head “Egyptologist tells how she writes as two novelists.”
Today Barbara Mertz is better known as Barbara Michaels and Elizabeth Peters, the authors of bestselling novels noted for strong story lines, well-defined characters, accurate settings and serious themes both masked and emphasized by humor.
Thinking back to the beginning of her writing career and the development of her writing style, Mertz says, “I’m a big reader. I think that’s probably the most important thing for anyone who writes—reading enormously. You end up being imitative at various stages of your life. You imitate the writers you admire. I think that’s a useful stage, too. It teaches you some of the techniques of syntax and how to get an idea across. And eventually, one hopes, you develop your own style.”
Developing your voice takes time. She found hers in nonfiction much more easily than she did in fiction. Publishers rejected her first novels. She says, “I had not found my voice. It’s a rather pretentious terms, but I think it’s true that there’s a certain kind of thing that each person does well, and you can mess around trying this and trying that.”
You also need to learn what works, and sells, in your preferred genre. Mertz says, “You have this awful crisis between writing for the market and being totally cynical, giving up what you like to do just to sell something. … I think you have to consider the market, but I just don’t think anyone can write his or her best by playing solely to the market.
She broke in with traditional Gothics—“Victorian settings and spirits and haunted castles and that sort of thing.” Once established, she moved to modern settings and wandered from the formula. She found the restraint on humor frustrating.
So she became Elizabeth Peters, a mystery writer noted for her humor. The styles and content produced under the two names differ enough that many readers don’t realize that Michaels and Peters are the same person. Yet Mertz says she doesn’t consciously make her writing style fit the pseudonym.
Michaels and Peter strike different tones. “Peters is a lot sillier,” Mertz says. “I am more sarcastic, and the dialogue is, shall we say, sappier and more sardonic. The whole tone of the books, the commentary, is humorous, but I’m still talking about serious things. Most of the things I’m saying, whether they’re hidden under a guise of humor or not, are serious ideas. Definitely the Michaels books are more serious in tone. Peters makes fun of everything—of pomposity, of staid ideas, of prejudice.”