Building a Character’s Family

Edith, North of Boston

I’m delighted to welcome my former teacher and one of my first author friends today, SusanHeadShotSusan Oleksiw. I love both of Susan’s series. Her Anita Ray mystery series make you feel like you were plopped directly into southern India, and her Mellingham series lets us see deep into Joe Silva’s life. Take it away, Susan!

Building the Protagonist’s Family 

One of the best parts of writing the cozy is building the protagonist’s family. I write two traditional series, one set in a small New England town, which I’ve named Mellingham, and the other set in South India at a tourist resort. The lead characters in both series have families but there the similarity ends.

LastCallforJustice500pxChief of Police Joe Silva is the third of seven children in a large Portuguese family, and the first to move away from his hometown. He remains close to his family, but wants to make his own life. A bachelor for many years he falls for Gwen McDuffy, who has recently moved to Mellingham in the third book, Family Album. Gwen is the ostensible foster mother of two young children, Jennifer and Philip. By the fifth book, A Murderous Innocence, Joe and Gwen are living together and becoming a family. Joe’s parents and siblings take to Gwen right away, and as much as she comes to love them, she is intimidated by the sheer size of his family and their exuberance over the smallest matters, in Last Call for Justice. More changes are in store for Joe and his beloved, but right now I enjoy exploring their relationship in short fiction before I move on to the next step in their relationship in the seventh novel.

In the Anita Ray series, Anita lives with her Auntie Meena, her mother’s younger sister, at For_Parvati_(red)her aunt’s tourist hotel. Meena’s husband died young, and she is left with the hotel and a daughter who would rather live high in America. Anita’s mother is South Indian and her father American, but she has no interest in living in the States, which she is barely knows. Auntie Meena sees in Anita the perfect opportunity to be a fully engaged mother, finding her a suitable husband, introducing her to the “right” sort of people to tempt her away from photography, and proving to her older sister that she is a good parent, in the third in the series, For the Love of Parvati.

As a writer of mysteries I spend a lot of time working out plot lines for each book, but equally important for readers of the two series are developments in the characters’ lives. Joe and Anita grow, and their families and personal lives expand and deepen. I never know where their personal lives are going to go, but this is definitely one of the best parts of writing a series.

Susan Oleksiw writes the Anita Ray series featuring an Indian American photographer living at her aunt’s tourist hotel in South India (Under the Eye of Kali, 2010, The Wrath of Shiva, 2012, and For the Love of Parvati, 2014). She also writes the Mellingham series featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva (first introduced in Murder in Mellingham, 1993). Susan is well known for her articles on crime fiction; her first publication in this area was A Reader’s Guide to the Classic British Mystery. Her short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and numerous anthologies. Susan lives and writes outside Boston, MA.

Readers: Ask Susan a question! Curious about India? Or the life of Joe Silva? She’ll stop by today and answer.

21 Thoughts

    1. I fell in love with India as a child through a book of fairy tales. I went to progressive schools, learned more about India, and went there to study in 1976, on a research grant for graduate students. I’m much happier writing about India in mystery novels than I ever was as a graduate student, though that was fun too.

  1. Like most, I suspect, I am curious about your Indian setting. Having lived in the Middle East for ten years, I had an opportunity to travel to Delhi on business. The Indian culture is fascinating and their history is broad and rich. My primary question is How do you ensure that your setting and characters are authentic to southern India?

    Secondly, I’ve read a bit of recent ‘period’ fiction in which the characters dress the part, look the part and act the part, but when they open their mouths, they sound like 21st century millenials. What is your view on shaping your characters dialog to match their setting?

    1. These are two great questions, and each one deserves a separate posting. I’ll be brief. First, I visit South India almost every year, to see friends, attend concerts, take note of all the changes or lack of them in some areas. I usually work out some of the plot while I’m there, and, of course, I’m writing the story as well.

      Second, you’re right about the dialogue. This is a challenge. My stories are set in the present time, but I am always conscious of the way Indians speak, and the different ways they can speak also. I try to keep track of that, jotting down specific expressions, for example, but mostly I listen, listen, listen.

      If you lived in the Mideast for 10 years, you’re probably deep in another culture also. You know the challenges. I rely on some of my Indian friends to point out my culture gaffes.

  2. Your series sounds interesting. The families sound like people you want to get to know. Back in the summer of 2011 a scene came to me while I was sitting on the beach. From that scene a family grew. There developed so many characters that I had to set up a family tree. That was absolutely fascinating to create the characters and their back history. I picked up Carol Higgins Clark and found Regan and her husband and interesting couple.

    1. I also set up a family tree for Joe’s family. He had so many siblings, and of course they had spouses and children and grandchildren. It was fascinating watching them evolve and grow. I’ve occasionally thought about writing about them as a family and changing the direction of the Mellingham series. I may still do that.

      1. I will look for your books. There are several series about the character’s family that I follow. The families are interesting to read about.

  3. Interesting post, Susan! I am an author of Historical Romances, and as a “pantser,” I wrote scenes by the seat of my pants. Now that I have moved to the Mystery genre, I appreciate your comment that “As a writer of mysteries I spend a lot of time working out plot lines for each book.” I need to become better at that up front, rather than painting myself into corners and rewriting 🙂
    Quick question: In your opinion, what is the difference between Traditional Mystery & Cozy Mystery?
    Sharol Louise

    1. Your question on the difference between these two sub genres requires a lot more room than I have here, but I’ll give it a try. The traditional mystery follows a sleuth, usually an amateur but not always, who solves a crime that does not involve a lot of blood and gore, involves a self-contained group of suspects, and follows basic rules of detection. The cozy does the same but veers into a softer realm with a greater emphasis on quirkiness of characters and their lives. The terms are generally interchangeable except on the fringes. (And this is where I’ll get into trouble, so I’ll stop.)

  4. I’ve been reading your novels, Susan, and you do a good job of creating well-rounded families in your fiction.

    1. Thanks, Barb. I’m getting into your clambake series. As a New Englander, I know the clambake well–an essential part of summer.

  5. Thanks so much for joining us, Susan! As my husband’s family has roots in Portugal I really look forward to reading the Joe Silva series

  6. Thank you for posting with us Susan! Families provide such a great opportunity for incidental family development that really affect a series. Thanks for sharing insight into your two worlds.

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