Thursday, November 3, 2011

Writing a mystery series: the recurring character tease

Writing a mystery series: the recurring character tease
By Lindsay Downs

When our readers don’t have their noses buried in one of our books they might have their eyes glued to the TV. It doesn’t really matter what show they watching, most of the shows all have one thing in common. Repeating main characters.

NCIS, NCIS: Los Angles, CSI (all three cities), Rizzoli & Isles, Castle and Blue Bloods, to name just a few, all have the core actors. Isn’t that what brings the viewer back week after week? Following them week to week, watching them grow, develop?

So, why not give our readers a similar experience, the same main characters story after story. In my case - Emily and Dakota.

The whole idea is to get the reader to not only want the next book but to tell their friends, as many of us do with a TV show or movie we like. You can do this by constantly developing the lead characters.

Recently, I read the David Baldacci book Deliver Us from Evil. At the time, I didn’t realize this was the final book of a two part series. Unfortunately, for the author, not me, I learned enough about Shaw, the main character, so I didn’t need to buy the first book. Sure the information was scattered throughout the book but still, if some had been held back then a sequel would be interesting to read.

What I choose to do, and it might be wrong, is in short stories give the reader bits and pieces about my main character, Emily Dahill. In at least one case it was an experiment, as I was not sure how the reading public would accept a heroine and a collie for the heroes.

In my debut Army mystery, Emily Dahill, CID Part 1, the stories weren’t written in the order they appear in the book. The first, “A Body in the Snow,” was really the test story. Here I introduce the heroine and hero, and a periodic recurring villain a/k/a the brown-haired man. In this story I give you a little insight into her, even let you see a humorous side to her.

With “Right Place, Wrong Day” I showed a no-nonsense side of her plus my editor’s favorite scene of Dakota not misbehaving, not really acting as a dog but asserting his control over the situation, thereby giving a little insight into him.

With the third story, “Dog Gone Fishing,” I took a real gamble and told the story mostly from Dakota’s POV. I should point out this had my editor confused until she realized he was a main character. Hence, Emily and he are both on the cover.

Once I had the two main characters they still needed to meet, accomplished in “Final Mission.” I didn’t want her to wake up one day a CID special agent and I wanted my test audience to see the progress from MP to agent. This ended with her hooking up with Dakota.

As you can see, just like in TV shows, I continued to develop my characters, which is important. Don’t let them become stale. By keeping them growing and expanding you will keep your reader interested in them. And yes, even Dakota is growing and maturing.

The whole idea is to make the reader want to read more of and about them. Not just a rehash of old experiences and events.

One way to do that is to put them in difficult and or dangerous situations, as I did in “A Body in the Attic” with Emily. Make them act outside what you think the reader will expect.

Writing the series featuring these two characters allows me to carefully build them as a person would build a house, piece by piece. Each of the stories builds on others. In one story you might learn what color hair she has. Another, the length. Her eye color in a third. In “A Body in the Attic” the reader finally learns how tall she is.

This story starts out in the CID office where the reader meets the other members of her team, in name and technical skill. You learn a little about what the office looks like but I don’t bore the reader with extraneous data. As the series progress and one or more of the characters are in the office, then and only then will you get a better picture. Is this right or wrong? Truthfully, I’m not sure, but it’s the way I write, even if each of the stories was 65K or larger. I know some time I will have the characters back in the office and will give the reader more information.

In other Emily Dahill, CID stories I’ve had the opportunity to give you the reader an insight into her mindset. For example, in the YA, “Tears,” you get to see how she interacts with a bullied teenage girl.

All of this is carefully orchestrated. And that’s the advantage of writing a series especially when the stories range from 1K-23K.

However, not all characters are meant for a series and that’s fine. You have to choose what’s right for you, as I did with the Emily Dahill, CID series. To date, I’ve got something like fourteen short stories either finished or in some stage of being completed, along with story concepts for six full books.

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