Monday, August 27, 2018


Let’s talk character evolution.

Part of the fun of a series is how events change a character. As a reader, I want to settle in with my favorite fictionals, find out what life flings at them, and learn how they handle it all. I care—passionately. That is one reason I love long series, each book being just a chapter in a very big novel. Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks is a good example. Each book is a small step in Banks’ evolution. We see the break-up of his marriage, the growing up of his kids, the various love affairs and how he handles the relationships afterward. There are lots of secondary characters we care about. How will they change and will he ever get back together with… Well, that’s a spoiler. And we care about the small stuff. I got upset when Banks gave up (with good reason!) his favored whiskey, and, from the way Robinson has handled that detail, I wasn’t the only one.

Sometimes a writer makes a mistake with a character, giving them some quirk or past that doesn’t really work long-term. Even the best do this. When I suspect this has happened, I want to see how the author gets around it and applaud clever handling. Ian Rankin first drew Rebus as a detective with a Bible always close to hand. For some reason this very Scottish Protestant detail never rang true to me with the rest of Rebus. I don’t know if Rankin began to think the same, but the book disappeared early on. This was linked to Rebus’ growing disillusionment with the world, and that worked for me.

Minor characters are very important in this process as well, not only in their relationship to the main guys but just for themselves. When I started my own series, I peopled it with ongoing fictionals and some that show up occasionally. As a reader, I often wonder whatever happened to “X”. Sometimes it is good to let the reader fill in the blanks. Sometimes it is fun to bring the character back. I have an anchoress who was introduced in the second book, shows up again in the fifth, and may well drift through again.

Secondary characters take the heat off the main ones, and good writers know how to do this. Other than Sherlock Holmes, most primary characters welcome it when the spotlight shifts a bit to another intriguing storyline. Pointing to Rebus again, he has no problem with his former sergeant, now outranking him as an inspector, Siobhan Clarke taking front stage from time to time.

I’m always disappointed when the author rushes character development. Maybe that is why writers should plan a series arc. Even though I love long ones, I am satisfied with a three or six book series if the character has evolved fully. Sadly, series are so often dropped after just a few books that authors are almost driven to trying too much in too short a time.

Finally, there is an equal problem when character evolution stalls but the series goes on. That is a subject I want to tackle but will put off to another blog.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Writing Routine

OK, now I’m embarrassed. Just how many of us want to admit that we (male or female) write in our nightgowns (loose waist = creative freedom) or have a wee quart, near to hand, of a libation with an alcohol content banned during Prohibition? Do we become the Mr. Hyde of Creativity, snarling at loved ones and demanding trays at our locked door, which are often ignored because we are chained to the Muse? Or must we confess that… Oh, you mean “how do you schedule your day”?


With a few books now under my preferably very loose belt, I have developed a comfortable routine. I must know location, theme, and a first scene plus last scene as well as whodunit/whydunit before starting any new book. A quote to give the story focus and a title come next. Then I scrape parchment, sharpen quill, and spend one to two months scratching out a chapter-by-chapter synopsis without regard to logic, grammar, or even any changes of names in minor characters. In short, if I die during this process, even the computer on which the thing has been composed must be burned.

I own some pride.

This mess does have value. The chapter-by-chapter synopsis is an outline of the book for both me and my editor. (Her idea. A bow of gratitude.) Before sending it off, I move chapters around, add chapters to fill plot holes or adjust tension, fire pointless characters, correct names, and otherwise strengthen the story bones. Once the synopsis returns, I make my editor’s suggested changes in the synopsis itself. Thus I end up with an outline from which a mystery can be crafted.

The remaining process takes six to eight months. I am an excruciatingly slow writer, sweating blood to reach the 65,000 word publisher minimum while knowing I must still cut. If interrupted in mid-scratch, I must restart two or three chapters back because I have lost the flow of the story. Unfortunately for the family member who cooks, I work in the kitchen with a view of the untamed backyard. Unfortunately for my waist, I work near the refrigerator, requiring that need for little binding about the middle. Part of my routine is to diet after a book is done and ban Mr. Hyde style howling except during football.

Much has been made of a daily routine. In principle, I agree. In practice, I’m flexible. I write between lunch and dinner or four to six hours. There are days I write myself into corners or toss dreck into the computer. Conventional wisdom says to write through this. I opt for lunch in the wine country. There is merit in shutting off the louder brain and delegating work to the sub-conscious, a function often ignored in a 24/7 world. Some of my best solutions have come when I was falling asleep.

Bottom line: find a routine that works for you, keeps you creative, and keep to it. As for other quirks we have, I suggest you always thank the loved one who leaves that tray by your door…