Agatha Nominees for Best Contemporary Novel 2017

Hi Barb here. Since the nominations were announced, the Wickeds have hosted this year’s Agatha Award nominees for Best First Mystery, Best Short Story, and Best Historical. Today we’re bringing you the nominated authors for Best Contemporary Novel.

The Agatha Awards, given at Malice Domestic, honor the “traditional mystery,” and this year’s nominated novels span the length and breadth of the category–from cozy to edgy, amateur sleuth and professional, female protagonist and male, series mystery and standalone. I’m excited to be on this list with some of my favorite authors.

Agatha Award Nominees Best Contemporary Novel for 2016:

Body on the Bayou by Ellen Byron (Crooked Lane Books)
Quiet Neighbors by Catriona McPherson (Midnight Ink)
A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny (Minotaur Books)
Fogged Inn by Barbara Ross (Kensington)
Say No More by Hank Phillippi Ryan (Forge Books)

Here’s our question for the nominees: Did you know at the outset that your main character was strong enough to carry a book/series? How did this character change as you got to know him or her better?

Ellen Byron: I didn’t know for sure if my protagonist could carry a series, but I knew she had to. I was too in love with the fictional world of Pelican, Louisiana – and the real world of Cajun Country – to stop writing about it after one book. What I find exciting is how I’m always discovering new things about Maggie Crozat. A friend who was trying to wrap her head around the amateur sleuth angle of my series once asked me, “Does she see things other people miss because she’s an artist and very visual?” To which I replied, “She does now!”

I’m currently working on the fourth Cajun Country Mystery, and Maggie just shared she’s an only child, and was lonely growing up. This came as news to me because originally I gave her a brother, but then put him on the back burner because he didn’t contribute to the story. I always thought he’d come back someday, but Maggie has spoken. She’s declared herself sibling-free. I feel so close to her that sometimes I forget she’s not real. Those are the moments when I think, “Hmm, might be time to go back to therapy.”

Catriona McPherson: Oh, I wish this was a series! I miss them all now that the book’s done, even though it took me a while to get to know Jude – my heroine – well enough to write about her with confidence. I knew she was a librarian and she lived in London, but I wrote and wrote and couldn’t get the essence of her. She was flat, while all the other characters came to joyous life around her.

Then one day I was writing a scene in the dusty, disordered bookshop where the story takes place and the thought of all the dirt and mouse-droppings and dust-mites was making me feel itchy. Suddenly, I got that tingly feeling (different from the itching) and I knew that Jude was a cataloguer who’d given up working on the desk with the general public because she’s a germaphobe and the way people treat library books distresses her too much. I used to work in a public library and I know this from bitter experience. Worst bookmark I ever found in a returned book? Bacon rind. Anyway, germaphobe Jude came instantly alive and the book was plain sailing after that.

But it’s not the start of a series. The story of Jude, Lowell the bookshop owner and the irrepressible pregnant nineteen-year-old Eddy is done. Unless I think of another one . . .

Louise Penny: Initially my main characters were going to be the artist couple, Clara and Peter Morrow.  But as I thought about it more, I could see that while strong secondary characters, making them the center, the core of the series simply would not work, for all sorts of reasons, primary that I was afraid readers, and I, would tire if they had too much of them.

The other reason was that the head of homicide seemed so fully formed when he first appeared and I realized he was the one I needed.  Gamache could hold the series together, and that would allow the secondary characters to shine without the burden of carrying the series.  But he needed to be someone whose company I would enjoy, perhaps for years.  And so I made him a man I would marry, since this is, in effect, a marriage.  As it turns out, far from creating Armand Gamache, I actually transcribed him.  Gamache is inspired by my husband, Michael.

Barbara Ross: When I go back now and look at the original proposal for the Maine Clambake Mysteries, it’s amazing to me how much of Julia Snowden was there. Her family was there–her mother, sister, pain-in-the-neck brother-in-law, and niece were there, as was the still acutely felt absence of her late father. Her parents’ unusual marriage between a summer person who lived on a private island and the boy who delivered their groceries in his skiff was there, too.

This last was particularly important to me, because I am not and would never claim to be a native Mainer, so I needed to be able to write with the perspective of someone on the outside looking in. In her view, her parent’s marriage has left Julia forever on the outside, belonging to neither tribe in her resort town. (Her sister Livvie, on the other hand, doesn’t feel that way at all. Which is something that fascinates me, how people can be brought up by the same parents at more or less the same time, yet experience their circumstances utterly differently.)

But there was huge thing I didn’t know at the beginning–how Julia would act and react when put in a series of extraordinary situations. While I had a sense of her character, there was no way to know until those scenes were written. In that sense she continuously reveals herself to me.

Hank Phillippi Ryan: That is such a great question, because it made me examine my choices, and realize I hadn’t asked myself that question at all.

When I began the Jane Ryland books with The Other Woman, that started with a plot. And forgive me, here is a tiny bit of backstory: I had been reading about Governor Mark Sanford, who told his wife and constituents that he was “hiking the Appalachian Trail “when he was actually off with his mistress. And I started thinking about why anyone would be the other woman. It’s so destructive in every way. So someone was quoted as saying “You can choose your sin, but you cannot choose your consequences.”

And I thought: that’s my book.

So I needed a main character to tell that story. And it couldn’t be my first series character, Charlotte McNally, because the story was too big and textured for first person.
But I knew she would be a reporter, a tough, strong, curious, honorable, caring reporter.
And a reporter’s life is all about the search for the next big story. That is natural! So once I decided on “reporter,” it never crossed my mind that she wouldn’t be able to handle it.

But the fabulous part is how she came to life! Jane Ryland is 33-ish, when the book starts, so 64 year-old me, at the time, could not really draw on my experiences at that age, since that was a million years ago. That made me channel her through a different time…how that age would behave now. And I love how she showed up on the page! Confident, and not self-centered, and a little fearless when it comes to asking questions. Sometimes I am too worried about what other people think, and I was delighted to say she is somehow less timid than I am.

SAY NO MORE has her tackling a very difficult and sensitive subject. Not only testing her responsibilities as a journalist, but her emotional capabilities when dealing with victims and perpetrators of campus sexual assault. She turns out to be compassionate, and caring, and I love how she weighs her responsibility to the subject of her story with her responsibility as a journalist.

Yes, I know I wrote it, but you can’t MAKE a character do something they wouldn’t do. That’s when I know the plot is driving the story, not the character. Jane lets me know when I am doing that—it comes across awkward and “written.” And I think, oh, that’s Hank, not Jane. So when I am lucky, Jane reveals herself to me on the page, and I am so proud of her in SAY NO MORE. (Well, eventually.)

Readers: What do you look for in a character to carry you through a book–or series?

Ellen, Catriona, Hank and I will be at Malice at end of this month. If you’ll be there, we’d love to have you attend our panel, “Simply the Best: Agatha Best Contemporary Novel Nominees,” moderated by Shawn Reilly Simmons on Friday at 1:00 pm. (Or honestly, come talk to any one of us at any time.) Louise, we’ll all be thinking of you!







56 Thoughts

  1. What a wonderful and varied set of answers! I am happy to have read all these books. It’s gonna be a tough vote, ladies. As with Louise, when I’m writing I want to create a protagonist I like, who I can live with for a few (or a bunch of) years, and I look for the same in my reading. But she or he also has to be layered enough, deep enough to be a real person.

  2. What a great discussion—and a great group of writers all around! Love the perspectives y’all shared here—both perspectives on craft generally and insights into these books/series in particular.

  3. It’s funny how fully formed characters just come on stage (page) and the more you work with them, the more real they are. Thanks for the peek inside your heads. And congrats on the nominations!

    1. The scariest thing I found with a series character (not relevant here; different book) was that because I had no idea how I found her in the first story I had no idea where to go to look for her in the second story. It was tense until I realised she was right where I left her.

  4. I have to say, this is going to be one hard choice when we vote at Malice–they’re all great books.

    I think any series protagonist has to have some insecurities, whether or not she acknowledges them. That gives her room to learn and grow, with the help of her friends and her community. It also involves the reader with her as she changes. Who needs a perfect heroine? Boring!

    1. The flaws–and then the instantiation of the flaws, the mistakes. It’s like watching your kids screw up. Sometimes you have to stand back and let it happen.

  5. Congratulations to all and many thanks for the post. Over and over again I am impressed with the generosity of authors – these insights into the making of your art are a gift.

    1. That was the most astonishing thing to me when I started. People sometimes call us rivals, but we’re not. I heard it put best when someone said a writer writes a book a year and a reader reads a book a week. You need all the other wirters to keep readers going till your next one’s ready!

  6. Sue Grafton always says that Kinsey Millhone reveals herself, bit by bit to Sue, when she (Kinsey) feels like it. SO although she knows her character as well as anyone does, I guess, Kinsey knows herself better, and lets that come through from time to time. I love that, the element of the author learning a bit more about the character as the books progress. So yeah, although I know Jane as much as I know her, she’s still growing, so I’m still learning.
    Such a great discussion..and thank you so much for having us! See you soon! xoxo

      1. I SO agree. There’s just no explanation. ANd that makes it even more mystical. xoo

      1. Oh, my goodness–what a treat to be here! And so excited to see you all.. xoo

    1. Look who’s talking. See you v soon. (Oh by the way, I’m wearing a $2 dress (SPCA Thrift) and someone in this coffee shop said “wowza” when I walked in.)

  7. Thanks for a wonderful opportunity, Wickeds! It was a great question to explore. One thing I thought about while writing my post is, where does the “me” in Maggie begin and end? The longer I write the series, the more of “me” creeps in, but I’m relieved that there a still strong differences between us. I wish I had her ability to focus and some of her boundaries!

    1. I find this, too, Ellen, particularly with the voice. Not Julia’s voice particularly, but the “tone” of the series becomes increasingly me.

    1. I’m so honored to be in the company of these extraordinary women and authors. And that includes being hosted today by the phenomenal Wickeds.

  8. Congrats, one and all! And thank you for sharing your thoughts about your characters. Learning the thought processes behind the writing makes the books all the more interesting, and I appreciate them all the more. I look for characters who are not annoyingly dense or too screwed up. I love wacky characters, but they have to have some redeeming insights. And I can’t stand characters who just never can make up their minds or are too unsure of themselves. When I get to the point of saying, “Oh, just get real and get on with it,” I put the book in the recycle to the library bin.

    1. I agree with you, Ginny. don’t love when sleuths are indecisive about whether or not they should be sleuthing. Commit! But I accept insecurity in relationships because that’s real. Also, it adds dramatic tension to a story. It has to be believable, though. I’m writing the fourth book in my Cajun Country Mystery series, and my protagonist has discovered she and her boyfriend may be on different pages when it comes to having children. At least that’s what she’s discovering in the first draft!

      1. It’s a fine line, isn’t it, between realistically flawed and someone you want to throw your drink over just to wake them up. I saw The Last Word last night. Shirley McLaine’s character was fabulous but the young woman made my hands itch for an iced tea to lob her way. Still worth seeing, though, if anyone’s swithering.

    2. Isn’t it funny how the attempt to create suspense and conflict can come out as dithering? I so agree with you about the “all right already!” feeling–it’s such a tightrope.

  9. More than anything, I want to like the main character in a series. The ones I can’t wait to get back to are the ones that feel like old friends I can’t wait to spend more time with and get to know better as each book progresses.

    Looking forward to the panel in two weeks!

    1. Can’t wait to see you, Mark!

      Returning to old friends and familiar places. The same way authors often feel when they start a new book. (Which I need to do immediately after Malice.)

    2. Yes! And the world – I fall in love with worlds authors create, which is why I tend to be a series reader. See you at the airport! 😉

    3. That’s an interesting point, Mark. I wonder if we’d all be glued to The Girl on the Ferry (if it was a sequel to The Girl on the Plane and the Girl in the Cab). Okay, I don’t wonder really.

  10. It was wonderful having all of you visit the WIckeds today! I look for characters that make me curious when I am reading and even more so when I am writing. I like them to be people who surprise me as time goes by and who help me to see the world in new and interesting ways.

    1. Yes, exactly! Because people in the real world surprise us, and we are writing “real” worlds. But I am always astonished at how our brains work. And how much more we know than we realize we know.

  11. Argh – what a day to get tough with myself about hitting my word count before I go surfing! Hiya. I’m checking in from a sunny late morning in a coffee-shop in California. Thanks for hosting us, Wickeds. I was instantly intimidated by everyone else’s writerly responses. No one else mentioned bacon, for instance . . .

  12. Wow, this is a terrific post, which is probably not surprising given that it was written by the authors of these terrific books. Loved hearing your thoughts about your protagonists and how/when they revealed themselves.

    As a reader, I think I’m most intrigued by how the characters interact with others, with the world around them, with complexities, and so on. They don’t necessarily have to be likable, but they have to be interesting. (And if they are humorous too, I’m on board immediately.)

    Congratulations on your nominations, all–looking forward to seeing you at Malice!

    1. I agree characters don’t have to be likeable, but you have to care what happens to them–otherwise, why are you reading the book?

      See you in Bethesda!

  13. Great topic! Always interesting to see so many points of view on it. Thank you all for visiting the blog today, and huge congratulations on your nominations! Can’t wait to see some of you at Malice!

  14. Great answers, one and all! Having a strong series character is so important for the reader, the glue that holds the series together. Catriona, you may have a resurrection on your hands!

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