How We Keep Our Series Characters Interesting

Note: Kate and Vicki will be at the Camden Public library this Tuesday, July 31st at 6:30 p.m., joined by Janis Bolster for a Sisters in Crime Beach Read event. We’d love to see you there.

Kate Flora here, starting a conversation about the challenges of writing series characters. In a recent post, we asked our readers what question they might ask if they met us at a library or bookstore. One reader, who is just embarking on a series, asked if we would talk about how we keep a series character fresh and interesting to ourselves and to our readers. It’s a great question, and one I know we’ve all faced. So, Maine Crime Writers, what are the challenges and how do you handle them? Here are some specific questions for you.

Gerry, in a recent conversation, you said you started writing your Brandon Blake series because you were tired of Jack McMorrow after so many books. Why Brandon, and did imagining and writing a new character help you feel “fresher” when you went back to Jack?

Gerry Boyle here. Thanks, Kate. Good question. And yes, I was a bit tired of my reporter friend Jack McMorrow after eight novels and two movie projects (neither of which resulted in an actual movie, but that’s another story). I’d spent a lot of time with McMorrow and friends and wanted to try a new series hero, one whose life was less similar to mine (McMorrow and I shared a profession, and covered the same rural Maine territory much of the time). I also wanted to write a book that wasn’t in the first person. 

This may not seem like a big deal but a first-person narrator and a third-person narrator are very different things. FIrst-person is great for intimacy and truly getting inside the head of your hero. It’s limiting in that the writer can only reveal what he knows, sees, hears. Third-person, in my Brandon Blake books, allowed me to write from the point of view of multiple characters and to view my hero from outside. It’s been fun and PORT CITY SHAKEDOWN and PORT CITY BLACK AND WHITE have a very different feel, I think (readers chime in here) from the McMorrow novels.

That said, going back to McMorrow for DAMAGED GOODS was like reuniting with an old friend. We took up right where we left off and that book practically wrote itself. It’s a real pleasure to write a book filled with characters who feel like old friends. Now I have projects underway with both characters and may even have them meet. Jack, meet Brandon. Brandon, meet Jack. Then I’ll step aside and see how and if they hit it off.

Kaitlyn: You’ve written whole shelves of books, and many different series. So what are your strategies for keeping your characters straight and not mixing them up or being repetitive? Do you work on more than one book at a time?

Kaitlyn Dunnett: I’ll give the short answer first. For the last few years I’ve alternated between writing one of the Liss MacCrimmon mysteries (contemporary humorous) and writing a non-mystery historical set in the sixteenth century. When one needs to “rest” or I hit a snag I switch to the other one. As for keeping characters straight,  I make character sheets for each character, even the walk ons, with details of physical appearance, odd little habits, relationship to other characters, and so forth. The tricky part is remembering to add information from book to book, but at least the character sheets keep me from giving someone blue eyes in one book and brown in the next. Each WIP is in a big looseleaf. I use dividers to section off each chapter. And yes, I do print a hard copy. I print up every day’s work in addition to making umpteen electronic backups. Also in the looseleaf for any given book is a set of a-z dividers so I can arrange the characters by surname and find them easily. Other sections are labeled “outline,” “dates,” “setting,” and “notes.” The outline isn’t the synopsis used to sell the book. It’s the outline I make as I go along, so I know what’s really in each chapter, including significant character development. “Dates” includes calendars, a chronology of everything that’s happened in the series so far and, in the case of my historical series, significant historical events even if they aren’t mentioned in my story. Continuing characters usually have birthdays assigned, so those are in there too. “Setting” has maps. Lots and lots of maps. Also floor plans. Photos, too. Notes on distances between places. For my 1888 series written as Kathy Lynn Emerson, I also had a lot of information on train and steamboat schedules. “Notes” is for everything else. For Bagpipes, Brides, and Homicides, I had information on wedding planning (what to do six months ahead of time, three months ahead of time, etc.), Scottish festivals, Medieval crafts, hand fasting ceremonies, and hand and a half broadswords. If I have very thick files, they go in a file box for each book and some of them stay there from book to book. The file box for BB&H had folders on how murder cases are handled in Maine and on Scottish dancing, luxury hotels, Scottish games, and the discovery of America by a Scot sailing for Norway in 1387 (see my blog tomorrow for more on that and a chance to win a copy of the book).

As to the original question of how to keep characters fresh, one simple way is to let some time elapse between the action in one book and the action in the next.

Lady Appleton from the first short story in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine

With the Face Down series, about two years passed between each story, which gave Lady Appleton and her friends time to live their lives and do something besides deal with dead bodies. I don’t let that much time pass between Liss MacCrimmon’s adventures, but even a month or two is enough to let me imagine all sorts of things unconnected to murder that might be going on in her life. These events may never be mentioned in the books, but as long as I know about them, they make Liss more real to me. That, in turn (I hope) makes her more real and more interesting to my readers.

Paul: You are on a tight yearly publishing schedule, while at the same time working a very demanding day job. What is your process like for coming up with new plot ideas? Do you have your warden mapped out for several books in advance?

Paul Doiron: Tighter than it looks even! I hope to have some more news on that front soon. Definitely having two full-time jobs (three if you count the publicity work that comes from being a professional author these days) means I have to be more organized than I tend to be by nature.

I use my favorite program, Evernote, to keep track of ideas from day to day. I get news updates from both the Warden Service and the Department of Public Safety, and these go automatically into my Evernote folders. I also have a Google alert programmed for the Maine Warden Service. Every night at approximately 10:30 I hear a ding in my office as my computer gets a digest summary of the day’s news involving game wardens. And I tend to do a lot of clipping of Web pages and factoids as I’m browsing throughout the Internet. My Evernote database is a repository of all kinds of weird and wicked information —from hunting homicides to sightings of mountain lions in Maine to historic anecdotes about old lumber camps. (And yes, I back it all up in twenty different places.) To me there’s not a more useful program for writing research in existence.

In answer to your question about planning the series, I have Mike’s life mapped out to some degree in my mind (and my notes). The stories aren’t centered around specific lurid plots per se. They’re more about the cast of characters I have already introduced into his life and some future characters—good and bad—that I know are looming. I tend to work closely with my agent and editor to rough out plots from book to book and am open to making major changes. In Bad Little Falls I introduce a femme fatale into Mike’s life name Jamie Sewall. She started as one kind of character but gradually became more complex and, I hope, interesting through the revisions. As Jamie changed the story changed, too. So it’s a matter of having a general direction in mind concerning luckless Mike Bowditch, but making frequent detours in search of better routes. As I’ve noted before, my game warden is maturing from book to book—but readers should expect plenty of twists and turns on his journey.

Lea: We know that you write both Y/A historicals and adult mysteries. At any given time, you have many irons in the fire. How do you keep the different genres separate? What’s it like when you return to writing your Shadows series after working on a book for younger readers?

Lea Wait: The two genres I’m published in are like two separate worlds that I move between. The periods are two hundred years apart, and the research required ranges from whether people wore underwear in 1789 to what forensic techniques are used today. My 19th century voice has a different vocabulary and  different experiences in a very different political and social world — even if that world is geographically very close to my 21th century world. Although the 19th century books are officially written for younger readers, they’re not “written down” to younger readers. Their differences from my Shadows mysteries are that their protagonists are aged 12 – 14. They live in the first half of the 19th century in Maine and the only mystery they’re solving is how to survive and suceed under harsh circumstances. In comparison, characters in my contemporary mysteries have it pretty easy!

The historicals take longer to research, and the writing is more compact. In Shadows of a Down East Summer I combined the two genres by including entires from the nineteenth diary of a young woman as a key element of the plot. That was fun — but not something I could repeat!

Writing in two genres gives me a wider basis to explore characters and plot possibilities. At the moment I’m exploring possibilities of writing other books, too … Whether or not any of them are ever published, I want to stretch the range of my writing further. And the only way I can do that is to head off in different directions and see where they take me.  I’ve been lucky so far to find homes for two very different types of books.  I’m hoping that same luck will carry me into other possible areas in the future.

Barb: After working for a while with your police chief character, you’ve embarked on a new Maine-based series. I believe you’ve got a contract for three books, right? So how do you approach that? Are you mapping out your character’s arc for the three books, or will you take it one book at a time?

Barbara Ross: So that is the question, indeed–a question every single author on this blog could answer better than I can, since you all have the benefit of experience. I have a three book contract, and it is built on a larger arc for the protagonist that’s comprised of three smaller arcs–i.e one for each book. When we meet Julia Snowden her life has just changed radically. She’s given up her job in venture capital in Manhattan and returned to New England to rescue her family’s failing clambake business. It’s going to be a tough adjustment, and she’ll have to decide if she can commit to a new business, a different kind of town and a very different way of life. Each of these decisions will be in a different book. At least, that’s what I think now. There’s always the possibility that in book two she’ll decide to chuck it all and go to clown college where she’ll fall in love in and have lots of clown babies.

Vicki: Darby started out with some personal issues when she first arrived in Maine. Do you have a long-term plan for developing her character over the course of your series, or do you take it one book at a time? After a few books with her, does she feel like a friend? Do you find you know a great deal more about her, and what makes her tick, than needs to appear in the stories?

Vicki Doudera:  I have a long term plan for Darby in some respects, but in other ways she’s developing on her own as the series goes along. Her relationship with the investigative journalist Miles Porter, for example — I really didn’t intend for there to be a romantic angle in the series, but apparently that’s something Darby wants!  Book 5 opens with Miles and will feature him more than in the past. I’m certainly hoping I’ll have the happy problem of figuring out his role in books, 6, 7, and 8….!

As far as Darby being a friend, she’s becoming more like someone I’d have as a buddy as the series goes on. In A House to Die For, she was so raw from the personal issues you mentioned that I would have had a hard time hanging out with her!  But she’s maturing as the series develops and becoming more than just a driven busineswoman. Her edges are softening, I guess. And yes, I do know an awful lot about her, and yet each new book has a freshness for me that I really enjoy. I think the fact that I don’t have it all planned out means I can experience the joy of discovery along with my readers.

Kate Flora: My solution to keeping the series characters fresh is to alternate books in two different series (or write a true crime or some short stories), so that when I return to Thea Kozak or Joe Burgess after writing something else, it’s like coming back together with old friends. Rejoining them, I’m curious about what has been going on in their lives, how they’re doing, how characters have changed while I was away. It always fascinates me to start a new book. Even though I think I’m in control, the characters often seem to have minds of their own, and they are going off in unanticipated directions or having thoughts or feeling that I didn’t plan for them to have.

When I was just beginning to write, the idea that a character might do something unplanned or unexpected used to terrify me. I felt like the book was spinning out of control. But now that I’ve written something like 22 books (yes, Virginia, I do have a closetful of unpublished manuscripts), I trust that there is a purpose behind these things, and I go with them. It’s a real adventure to follow a willful character or dig into an unexpected scene, and see where the story wants to go. Yes, sometimes I know that that sounds a little bit too “woo woo” for some writers. But for me, it invariably takes me somewhere better, or richer, or more surprising, than what I had originally planned.

And the other way I keep the characters fresh and unexpected, to me as well as the reader? I do what is generally called, “writing toward my fear.” If there is something I imagine doing that I immediately dismiss because it’s too hard or I simply don’t know how to do it–that’s where I know I should go with my writing. That’s where I got Joe Burgess–from knowing I didn’t know how to write from the point of view of a middle-aged male cop. And Joe has been a fascinating person to spend time with. So now I stare down that fear, and start down that road, even though it’s scary, and I know that there will be moments when I’ll be tempted to throw the manuscript, or indeed, my laptop, into the sea. Or go back to writing something easier.

I don’t know how many times, at libraries and bookstores, someone has come up to me and said, “I always wanted to write a book, but I tried it once, and it was hard.” Yes. It is hard. But yes, it is also amazing. And most of the things that are worth doing are hard.

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2 Responses to How We Keep Our Series Characters Interesting

  1. sandy gardner says:

    Kate, thanks so much for instigating (!) this discussion about series’ characters! And thanks to all the MC writers who shared their experiences about this! Very information, helpful advice.
    Sandy Gardner

  2. sandy gardner says:

    Kate, thanks so much for instigating (!) this discussion about series’ characters! And thanks to all the MC writers who shared their experiences about this! Very informative, helpful advice.
    Sandy Gardner

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