That Difficult Long-term Relationship—with Characters! by Carolyn Haines
When I wrote Them Bones in 1999, which turned out to be the first book in a mystery series, I had no idea what the future held for me. I’ve been an avid mystery reader all of my life, wallowing in the delicious creepiness of E.A. Poe and daydreaming about being Nancy Drew. My early writing ambitions focused more on short stories—because I didn’t believe I could plot well enough to write a full-fledged mystery.
When I finished Them Bones, what I considered a Southern humorous novel with a murder at its heart, my agent sent it out to several publishers. Lo and behold, an auction ensued. Of course, it was thrilling, and when Random House won the bid I was snapped back to earth. They wanted a 3-book contract for a mystery series. My little plotless goose was cooked!
My desire to be an author was bigger than my fear. I’d written numerous Harlequin Intrigues, which are a balance of mystery and romance. I had some experience under my belt, and yes, I would do this no matter how hard it might be.
Today, I am writing the 24th book in the series, and with each book that same old haunting fear of not having a good enough plot rises up to frighten me. I nod to it and keep writing, using the tools I’ve learned over the years about action/reaction and I remember that in a mystery, motive is all. But I will confess that never did I ever think that, while my protagonist, Sarah Booth Delaney of Zinnia, Mississippi, has aged only some 20 months in all this time, I have aged closer to 25 years. Sarah Booth is still spry and frisky, riding her horses across the wide-open spaces of the Delta. The passage of time hasn’t been as kind to me. It’s just part of life, as Jitty (the haint of Dahlia House and Sarah Booth’s subconscious) would say.
Along the way, I’ve learned some lessons about writing a long-term series. Each book is a complete, standalone mystery. But the art of a series is in how the characters grow and change. When I was teaching fiction writing at the local university, I would go over the elements of a novel (plot, theme, setting, character), asking my students, “In romance, what is the most important element? Plot, character, setting, or theme? Think simplistically. Think in broad terms.” They caught on quickly that character was vital to every romance. The meat of a romantic story is embroiled in the characters’ backstories, their wounds and flaws and, yes, motive.
That same question, when asked about mystery, often led to a lively debate between two camps: Those who said character is more important, and those who championed plot as the major focus. Both are correct. Readers fall in love with the characters and how they work to solve the mystery. Characters, just like regular humans, are shaped and formed by past experiences, hopes, dreams, and fears. And that character is revealed via the plot—how the characters seek the clues and solve the puzzle. Character revealed through action is exciting to a reader.
I was very, very, very lucky when I wrote Them Bones in that I spent a lot of time learning about Sarah Booth, Tinkie, Cece, Millie, Coleman, Harold, Oscar, and the entire population of my little fictional town. I knew Zinnia inside and out.
While each book stands alone as a mystery, the characters do grow and change, just as I have. Over the past twenty-five years, I’ve learned a whole lot of valuable lessons. By some miracle (I do believe each story is a gift and is given to us to tell to the best of our ability) I chose wisely with my characters. Sarah Booth had plenty to learn, and she has changed. But the character who has changed the most in the series is her partner in the detective agency, Tinkie Richmond. Sarah Booth is a tomboy and Tinkie is a daddy’s girl who can get her way with men by crooking her little finger. At first Sarah Booth resented that and found it manipulative, but over time, she realized how smart and wonderful Tinkie really is. By the third book, they are partners, each valuing the strengths of the other. I wish I could say I’d planned that out, but I didn’t.
Pick characters that allow you to explore different value systems, classes, and beliefs. In my opinion, diversity is your friend because it allows you, the writer, to explore and learn new things. If the series is stale to you—it will be stale to your readers. So explore. Let your characters go there with openness and honesty. Your readers will love the journey. There’s a big difference between exploring with your readers and preaching to them. I try to keep that in mind, though I’m far from perfect.
The Sarah Booth books are somewhat issue driven, but they are also humorous. Remember that the first book you write will set certain patterns that will be expected in additional books. If you blend mystery and humor, that’s what you have to deliver. If you use mystery and supernatural elements, as I do in the Pluto’s Snitch series, then those are a must to include in future books.
It’s an art to introduce each character afresh for the readers who may join the series midway through. Don’t forget to include that courtesy to new readers. I sometimes want to pull my hair out trying to explain Cece’s life choices in a couple of sentences. Or to clue the reader into the role that Millie, the café owner, plays as the mother each character so desperately needs in her life. It’s hard to encapsulate the history of 23 books in a few sentences. But like descriptive details of setting or historical facts—choose wisely and remember less is more if you pick the right details.
I am a pantser by nature, meaning I don’t like to outline. I love letting the story unfold for me as the characters live it. But I write one and sometimes two books a year, and along with the grand joy of having a contract there is also the backside of knowing that the publisher is counting on me to deliver. Life is always up and down. The past two years I’ve had a lot of family illness and loss. I have accepted that in writing mysteries, a synopsis is a must have to stay on track. I don’t have the luxury of spending months working only to have to discard a lot of pages because I hadn’t thought out the plot properly.
I write every day. I plot out my book before I start and I discuss it with my editor so she’s aware of what’s coming. She also offers invaluable help with considerations that perhaps haven’t occurred to me. But this thinking through of the plot is crucial (at least for me) in a mystery so that I can lay the red herrings and plot twists properly and set the clues up so the payoff in the end is gratifying to the reader. You can’t trick a reader—there are rules about playing honest—but you have to sometimes obscure the truth. It’s a grand challenge to me. This is not my natural strength, but I have learned to enjoy trying. That is not to say, though, that if the characters and the story take a hard left turn somewhere that I won’t go with them, despite the synopsis. Remember the first rule is to honor the story you’re given, and sometimes that means listening to the story before all else. When this happens, I stop and really think about where these changes will take the story, and I proceed with caution. Each writer has to find this balance for themselves.
I didn’t deliberately choose not to age my characters. That was lucky happenstance—for me. I fought hard against incorporating cell phones (because I didn’t have one!). Now my characters are current with technology and they employ it as it becomes available in real life. I sometimes think of my grandmother, who emigrated to this country in 1896. She saw incredible change in her life, from covered wagons to landing on the moon. Sarah Booth has a quarter decade compressed into 20 months. Crazy and kind of fun. Some writers freeze their characters in a specific decade, and that’s fine too. Just think about it a little before and make your decision, remembering that it is a decision you will have to live with for the lifespan of your series.
Readers tell me that Sarah Booth and the Zinnia gang are like family to them now. They certainly are to me since I spend more time with them than anyone else. I am with them every day, all year long. Create characters that you can love enough to let them become family. And then enjoy the ride.
Carolyn Haines is the USA Today bestselling author of the Sarah Booth Delaney mystery series, the Pluto’s Snitch historical spirit detective series, and one of the authors of Trouble, black cat detective, mystery series. She is an animal advocate and runs a small refuge for dogs, cats, and horses in Alabama. She urges everyone to please spay and neuter their pets to stop the suffering of unwanted animals.