Have Myself a Home Life*

HomeLifeAbout a week ago, we had a really interesting discussion about domestic scenes and home life in crime fiction. At the time, I asked you what your preference is regarding those scenes. Do you prefer books that have them? Books that don’t? Does it matter?

With warm thanks to those of you who voted, here’s what I found.


Home Life Preferences


One of the interesting things about these findings is that those of you who expressed a preference were more or less evenly split between those who prefer a lot of domestic scenes, and those who prefer few, if any. Four of you (22%) prefer crime novels with such plot layers; three of you (17%) prefer crime novels that have few, if any, of them.

To me, this means that there isn’t really a mandate one way or the other. That inference gets support from the major finding here. Eleven of you (61%) told me you have no preference with regards to scenes of domestic life, so long as the focus of a story is on the plot.

I admit these findings don’t really surprise me. Today’s crime fiction readers want a solid plot that makes sense and keeps them engaged. In fact, the findings are similar to what you told me not long ago about books that you don’t finish. Of the reasons you might not finish a book, about 30 of the 76 votes (some 39%) were plot problems (plodding story and too much suspension of disbelief). So it makes sense to me that, for the majority of you, a plot that’s interesting and keeps you engaged is more important than other factors.

And yet, let’s not forget that 15 of you (83%) in this poll told me that you either don’t mind domestic scenes (so long as the focus is on the plot), or outright prefer them. To me, this means that character development (of which domestic life is a part, I’d argue) is important to you.

The key to all this, as it so often is) seems to be the way the author handles it. If the author weaves those scenes in, so that the plot is still the focus, then home life can add layers of character development and even sub-plots to a story.

Everyone has a different definition of how that’s accomplished, and who (among authors) does it well. But here are a few examples you’ve mentioned: Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series; Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe series; Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve series; and Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series. There are many others, too, of course.

What’s your take on this? Got any final thoughts about the topic? If you’re a writer, I’d really be interested in your thought process on how much domesticity to include.

Thanks again to all of you who participated. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go do the dishes and some laundry. Then I have a family dinner to plan…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mayer’s Home Life.


Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Elly Griffiths, Gail Bowen, Reginald Hill

45 responses to “Have Myself a Home Life*

  1. I’m pretty sure detectives are always lonely jaded men who have a teenage daughter and an ex-wife who never want to see him again all so the author doesn’t HAVE to create a home life, which drives me insane. I think authors should go talk to detectives more often and ASK them what their home lives are like!

    • Oh, I’d love to see that, GtL! Wouldn’t it be nice? As you say, it’s easy enough to create a stereotypical ‘lone wolf’ detective who can’t maintain any kind of home life. And I’m sure there are some like that. But the reality is far more complex – and, I think, far more interesting.

  2. Domestically speaking my protagonist, Mac McClellan, divides his time between home (a camping-trailer parked in a campground) and Kate Bell’s (his girlfriend/Girl Friday) house. BUT something always happens during these domestic scenes to advance the plot, someway somehow. Just whiling away time with useless dialogue or watching their favorite TV show would be boring beyond measure. If Mac IS watching TV you can bet he’s mulling over facts or clues related to the case he’s working on rather than paying attention to the show.

    • I think that’s the key to make those domestic scenes work, Michael. If they advance the plot, or give important insights into a character, they can add to a story. They can ‘flesh out’ a character, add tension and so on. Otherwise, they can pull the reader out of the story.

  3. It’s down to the writing really, isn’t it? Give me a clichéd detective with the miserable homelife or the lonely house with the departed partner – and I yawn. Give me Ruth & Harry, Dalziell and Pascoe, and Joanne Kilbourn – and I can’t get enough. Those characters have real, involving lives and we love to hear about them.

    • That’s just it, Moira. It’s all down to the writing, and to the way the stories and characters are developed. Clichés, stereotypes and so on are enough to put me right off, too. But with good writing and strong characters, I’m hooked.

  4. And that last para just about sums up the problem! Yes to Pascoe and Ellie, but no to Ruth and Nelson! Proving yet again that every reader is different! For me, it’s about balance and about entertainment. I enjoy Peter and Ellie’s relationship of equals and it rarely takes over from the plot – Ruth is miserably hankering after another woman’s unattractive neanderthal husband, and looking sadder and more pathetic with each passing year, while the books are more like MA (middle-aged adult) romance than crime fiction. What’s to enjoy? But I bet that’s now how other people would sum up the two relationships! 😉 I guess writers should write what they themselves would like to read and trust there will be enough other people out there with the same preferences…

    • Oops – should be ‘not how’ not ‘now how’ – sorry!

    • You do have a really important point, FictionFan. Plenty of this whole question of how much (and what kind of) home life to include has to do with reader taste. What one reader looks forward to, another finds extremely frustrating and off-putting. On that level, it really is difficult to find ‘the’ formula for a book. But perhaps that’s a good thing. Otherwise all books would be alike, and that would be far, far worse than occasionally reading one that doesn’t get the balance exactly the way one wants. Not everyone would agree with your comments about both Pascoe and Ellie and Ruth and Harry, but that’s the whole point. No need for agreement since there’s plenty of variety out there.

    • I must admit I’m with Fiction Fan on the subject of Ruth and Harry. Perhaps I like the individuals a little more but I am stick of the teasing out of their ‘relationship’ over the course of so many books. I don’t really know why I keep reading actually…I guess I am hoping for a resolution.

      But more broadly I’m OK with home life stuff as long as it’s interesting – though clearly what is interesting to each of us differs wildly.

      • That’s it right there, Bernadette: are the home life scenes interesting? If they are, and if they serve the plot, then they can add much to a story. If they’re not, they drag a story down. And as to Ruth and Harry, you’re not alone in thinking that story arc has had its day. Still, there are others who really enjoy it. Just goes to show you that individual taste really plays a role in how much domesticity is too much.

  5. I am definitely a fan of the domestic front, especially when it is handled with some humour and warmth, not so much when it is dark and depressing and matches the crime plot though!

    • I think you’ve put your finger on a really important thing, Sergio. If there’s going to be a home life aspect of a novel/series, it’s most effective if it’s not always bleak and dark. Every family has bad days and bad times, but if it’s relentless drama, then it can drag the plot down.

  6. I do like the layers the domestic add to the story but it is about balance and as Fiction Fan points out that it depends whether the domestic aspects are ones you enjoy. I love both Dalziel & Pascoe and Ruth Galloway and although both are very different, they are also both realistic observations. We all say no to plodding plots though and this domestic aspect shouldn’t be used as a filler.

    • That’s an important point, Cleo. When domestic scenes are used as ‘plot filler’ they’re not effective, and they can pull the reader out of the story. You’re right, too, that what ‘counts’ as the right amount of domesticity varies depending on whether readers like the characters and their personal story arcs or not. So personal taste plays a major role in the amount and kind of home life scenes people want in their stories.

  7. Col

    I enjoy a bit of “domestic life” otherwise there’s a lack of depth to the characters and I don’t care about the book and the outcome. The balance is critical though.

    • It really is, Col. On the one hand, readers want their characters to feel real (and that involves some domesticity). But they also want to main focus of the story to be on the plot.

  8. I think without a bit of home life the protagonist wouldn’t seem real. While I’m sure there are many in the law enforcement field that work almost 24/7, the lack of a home life is a part of their story. Sometimes I think it’s how the protagonist interacts with family life that leads them to understand something about the case they’re working. That said, I don’t like a story that dwells more on the home life than on the mystery/murder plot of the story. There has to be at least an even balance. Great post, Margot.

    • Thanks, Mason. And I know exactly what you mean about a story that dwells so much on home life that it loses the main plot in the process. I’m not much of a one for those sorts of stories, myself. At the same time, as you say, readers do want stories that feature realistic characters. And real people have home lives, as a rule. It really is a balance.

  9. Interesting findings, Margot. I think I’m in the 17 per cent. I don’t mind a bit of domesticity in novels but too much of it can spoil the fun for me, especially in crime fiction. I do understand, however, that authors write about domestic life to light up the atmosphere and make their stories as realistic as possible.

    • You’re by no means alone, Prashant. Many people do want a little home life in their stories, if only to flesh out characters and make them more realistic. But at the same time, they want the focus to remain on the plot. They don’t want the story to wander off too far into domestic-land.

      • Great post, Margot! And great to have some theories confirmed by your poll 🙂 I constantly struggle with how much domesticity to include in my Rollin RV Mysteries, and it’s been a bit more of a challenge as I polish my second book in the series. Many readers are RVers or know RVing –who tell me they appreciate the details (and have even picked up some hints and tips for living on the road) while non-RVers tell me they like some of the explanations that help them understand how a full-time RVing lifestyle actually works. Given the comments, I’m thinking I struck the right balance with “Pea Body,” so I guess I’m feeling especially conscientious of my choices with “Yuma Baby.” Your post is very timely for me!!

        • Thank you for the kind words, Ellen. I’m very glad you found something useful in this post for your own writing. And your comment touches on another challenge that authors face: how much information to provide about a topic. In your case, for instance, your context is the RV/caravan life. Readers who aren’t familiar with it may want some information, and find that interesting; at the same time, though, they want to follow the plot and the characters. Readers who are RV-ers themselves may appreciate the familiar context and the details, as you say. But they, too, want the focus to be on the plot and characters. I’d say the same thing goes for those whose series focus on archaeology, forensics, scrapbooking, academia, wine, or just about anything else. Just as with family life/domestic scenes, there’s a balance to be achieved. I’m glad you feel you’re striking that balance.

  10. Tim

    Thank you for such a generous and interesting analysis of the data. I suspect that preferences change most over time, relevant to readers’ ages, and between readers’ genders.
    I also note that my former blogging activities have ended. But — wait! — I have already resurrected my activities with a different address and very different focus. Mutatis mutandis!
    I invite you and everyone else to visit and join the discussions.
    All the best to you from the sunny beaches of the Redneck Riviera!
    v/r Tim

    • Thank you, Tim, for the kind words. I think you have a well-taken point about era, reader characteristics and so on. That’s one of the reasons for which I think it’s such a good thing that there is so much variety in the genre.

      Thanks, too, for providing your new blog link. Folks, let’s see what Tim’s got on offer!

  11. As always, your findings are fascinating. They surprised me a little. I would’ve thought more readers wanted to hear about family life IF it still moved the plot along. Hmm… To answer your question, I use family life as a springboard for conflict/fear/tension, so it fits with my plot. Nothing drags a book down like endless musings. I’ve put many books down for that reason. I’m not sure if I’ve answered your question or not. Sorry. My brain shut down 5 min. ago. lol

    • No worries, Sue; you answered my question quite well, and I’m grateful. I agree with you that including family life just for its own sake doesn’t do anything to advance a plot. In fact, it really can drag a story down. So I’m not surprised that books that do that end up in your DNF pile. Domestic life scenes are much more effective if they serve the plot and, as you say, add some ‘zip’ to a story. So long as they serve the plot, that’s the key.

  12. Interesting findings, even if I’m very much in the minority group of those who don’t care for home life scenes. I prefer my mystery stories to focus more on plot, character (especially protagonist, villain and maybe femme fatale), and setting, which doesn’t leave much room for the domestic part.

    • You’re not alone, Bryan. Whether or not this particular poll reflects it, a lot of people prefer a focus on the plot and just a few main characters, rather than a lot of home life/domestic scenes. And as you know, many, many classic/GA stories are structured that way.

  13. I don’t have a preference. I guess I’m in the majority, lol. I think, personally, domestic scenes add a familiarness to the writing and can even turn that tension button even higher as we start to worry about their position in the family and what their demise could mean to the whole. Or we could worry that the family will be drawn into things. It means more consequences for what’s going on.

    • That’s quite true, Traci. When you have a certain amount of family and domestic scenes in a novel, you also have opportunities for plot twists, tension and so on. And so long as it doesn’t detract from the main plot, that can add richness to a story. On the other hand, when such scenes don’t serve the plot, they can take away from the story.

  14. Kathy D.

    Very interesting study results and comments. I want good character development, which is why most thrillers don’t satisfy me as the characters aren’t usually developed. I wouldn’t want a mystery to wholly focus on family life as it might as well be non-crime fiction.
    But my example of how family and investigative lives are entwined is the Donna Leon series featuring Guido Brunetti. The books focus mainly on investigations of murders, but Brunetti’s home life with his spouse, Paola Falier, and their children, Raffie and Chiara, are excellently written and an important aspect of the books to their fans. We love those parts of the books and always want to see what Paola will say — also, what she’s cooking.

    • I’m glad you found the post interesting, Kathy. You make an interesting point about thrillers; many of them (certainly not all) don’t focus as much on character as they do on other aspects of a plot. And there is less emphasis on home life, etc., as a rule. I’m glad you mentioned Donna Leon’s series, too. Many people think it’s got an effective balance of home life and work life, with each informing the overall plot. And the characters are well-drawn, too.

  15. If the domestic scenes give depth to the character and show they are not one sided I like to get to see how they operate outside of their role as detective or criminal etc. They become more real and rounded and it is how they react with family and friends which gives them a more human side and not just defined by their work. I don’t like rambling domesticity but dropping in and out is fine.

  16. Kathy D.

    Well, as I’ve said I like detectives’ family life and interactions with friends as in the Donna Leon, Andrea Camilleri, Helene Turston (Irene Huss) and Sara Paretsky (V.i. Warshawski) books. And they combine good personal lives and mysteries well.
    But if the books solely focused on detectives’ personal lives, then there is no crime fiction component. And we want that!

    • That’s just it, Kathy, isn’t it? If a crime novel doesn’t have, well, a crime (and its investigation), then there’s not much of a mystery plot. So the real focus of a well-written crime novel is that aspect of it. That said, though, there are ways to weave in detectives’ home lives, too, so that we see them as people. And authors such as Tursten do that effectively, in my opinion.

  17. I am probably with the majority… it depends on the plot and how the author tells the story. One of the books about a police detective that I read recently (Frozen Assets, Quentin Bates) featured the detective’s home life and responsibilities prominently, and I loved it. But sometimes the home life or problems at home are just too much.

    • You put that very well, Tracy. There are stories and series where the home life information really works well, and isn’t overdone. And there are those where even a little such information seems too much. It really does depend on the author and story.

  18. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…5/17/16 – Where Worlds Collide

  19. Well, there’s one advantage to coming late to a discussion: you get to read all of the fascinating comments and examples in addition to yours, Margot! I was one of those who voted ‘don’t really care as long as it doesn’t overshadow the plot’, but it is a tricky balance to get right – and I think it can vary from book to book, just to keep up the readers’ interest. Ann Cleves’ Shetland series, Donna Leon and – on British TV recently – Happy Valley or The Bridge are great examples of this – and where the home life affects very much how the detective reacts to certain events. Then again, on paper the very recent ‘Marcella’ (finishing tonight) looks good, but it just doesn’t quite work on screen. I’ve just finished reading one of Peter May’s early novels, the first of a series set in China. Normally I adore cross-cultural experiences and misunderstanding, but this time it felt like too much personal life and the relationship between the American and the Chinese protagonist were impeding the investigation.

    • There’s no such thing as ‘late’ here, Marina Sofia; the party never stops. I’ve so much enjoyed the discussion on this topic, too, and that most enthusiastically includes your input. You have a really well-taken point that the ‘right’ amount of home life discussion so often depends on the sort of story/series it is, and the characters (and that’s not to mention the author’s skill). I like your examples of both the Cleeves series and the Leon. In both cases, home life serves the plot, and the authors know how to keep the focus on the actual mystery (i.e. not overwhelm the reader with too much domesticity. It is a difficult balance to strike, though, isn’t it?

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