by Barb, in Maine, where it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas
Our guest today is a woman who needs no introduction, at least to crime writers in New England. She’s a founding member of the New England Crime Bake, Level Best Books, (first publisher of several Wickeds) and the Maine Crime Writers blog. She’s been publishing for twenty-five years and writing longer than that. She’s here today to give us the benefits of her wisdom.
Take it away, Kate!
There are those who will meticulously research the field before embarking on their first story. Most of us, though, have an idea, a character, and incident, a story to tell that we manage to put down despite our terror of the blank page and the certainty that we have no idea what we’re doing. Our mistakes often begin when we have no idea that we’re embarking on a series.
I had no idea, more than a quarter of a century ago when I started my Thea Kozak series with Chosen for Death that I would write another story with Thea in it. I didn’t know I was using a cliché (unless it was a trope) when I made her a young widow with a sad past, determined never to love again. When she and Andre, the Maine state trooper investigating her sister’s death, battle their way to a relationship, I intended it to be a minor thing. Then I submitted book two (having been given, to my surprise, a three book contract) and got back a nine page critique from my editor, about every other line of which was “pump up the Andre quotient.”
He wasn’t supposed to be a major character. Thea was supposed to rescue herself. For the next several books, I was stuck with the battle of two strong-willed characters, both of whom are rescuers, trying to create a relationship where he can give her the space she needs to be who she is. Not part of my plan.
Conventional series wisdom suggests that you don’t let your character get too entangled in relationships, because having a significant other makes it hard for the amateur detective to leap out of bed at three a.m. to go asleuthing. Someone is going to say “Are you okay?” or “Where are you going?” or “I’m coming with you.” Or someone is going to say, “It’s too dangerous. Don’t go.” Especially when that someone is a “serve and protect” kind of guy. Some of this can be solved by long-distance relationships: Thea in Massachusetts and Andre in Maine. But in the long term, that couple who weren’t meant to be will want to be together.
A mistake that time will make? The writer gets older and the character does not. Technology changes. Music changes. Clothing styles change. Over a quarter of a century, Thea will age a few years. I will age, well, a quarter of a century, and be calling on my nieces and daughter-in-law for advice about the music in Thea’s car.
Don’t let your character get married. Relationships are okay but don’t tie your character down too much. I dragged it out for a few books, but then the inevitable happened. Perhaps there was a nudge from readers when several other series writers killed off their character’s significant other and I started getting mail that said: If you kill off Andre, I’ll never read you again. Don’t make the mistake of forgetting how much readers get invested in your characters.
Biggest mistake you can make? Bring children into the picture. As a former attorney for the Maine Department of Human Services in the area of abused and neglected children, I always used to say that I would take Dave Robicheaux’s daughter away from him because he was such a careless, risk-taking parent. Now I fear I may have to do the same to Thea.
In the latest book, Death Comes Knocking, she is very pregnant when another very pregnant, and mysterious, woman knocks on her door. She and Thea are on track to become friends when the woman disappears, and Thea needs to rescue her. Cue in a demanding job, a house renovation, a protective husband, and a woman the shape of whale. Thea has always been a rescuer. She describes herself a “Thea the Human Tow Truck,” someone who finds people broken down on the highway of life and has to stop and help. But now she is responsible for the baby she’s carrying and must balance her need for caution with her desire to help.
For a while now, Thea and Andre have called their prospective child MOC, for Mason, Oliver or Claudine. They don’t know the sex of their child, so they, and readers, will learn it together in the next book. All they know so far is that they will be the parents of a acrobat. Meanwhile, before book eleven, this writer had better find them an excellent nanny, or readers will be writing to say she’s not taking good care of the baby.
Here are two Christmas stories for you:
Readers: Is there a mistake you’ve made that only could be revealed with time?
Kate Flora’s fascination with people’s criminal tendencies began in the Maine attorney general’s office. Deadbeat dads, people who hurt their kids, and employers’ discrimination aroused her curiosity about human behavior. The author of twenty-two books and many short stories, Flora’s been a finalist for the Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, and Derringer awards. She won the Public Safety Writers Association award for nonfiction and twice won the Maine Literary Award for crime fiction. Her most recent Thea Kozak mystery is Death Comes Knocking; her most recent Joe Burgess is A Child Shall Lead Them. Her crime story collection is Careful What You Wish For: Stories of revenge, retribution, and the world made right. Her latest publications include a romantic suspense, Wedding Bell Ruse, a story in The Faking of the President and one in Heartbreaks and Half-Truths. The next Joe Burgess police procedural, A World of Deceit, will be published in 2021.
Flora divides her time between Massachusetts and Maine, where she gardens and cooks and watches the clouds when she’s not imagining her character’s dark deeds.
Getting married. But I did it and endured it for 36 years. Got a son out of it.
I got two sons. But I wouldn’t want to have to have juggled their care while I went head to head against bad guys. Hard enough to do that in court.
Kate, I’m sitting here nodding in agreement to all of your points. Congrats on having to deal with the mistakes involved in having a long-running series!!!
Thanks, Annette. I am really nervous about the child care situation. And it was a serious challenge to write about a pregnant character so many years later. I had to ask a friend with a pregnant daughter to describe using an airplane restroom. Pretty darned funny. Also, maternity fashions have changed a lot since we wore circus tents.
Having just married off two of my protagonists (in book six of one series and nine in another), I hear you! I’m also glad Thea is continuing – I’ve always loved that series.
Well, lots of fun ahead for you, Edith. Those husbands, even when they are understanding or co-sleuths, can be difficult.
Marriage, kids – all rocky propositions for a series. However, as a reader, a relationship where they are “dating” for three years and the continuous “will they, won’t they” is also frustrating.
There are times I wish I hadn’t given my main character a love of dark beer and coffee. Two beverages I can’t stand!
It’s tough when your character sometimes takes refuge in a glass of wine and now she’s pregnant! I once was criticized for having my characters eat too much meat. Do you keep a character diary, as we are told we should? And have you given your character a birthday? I still have to go back and reread sometimes, to be reminded about relationships, and it was fun in the current book to bring back some characters I’ve missed.
I do! The latest criticism I had was my WWII character smoking too much, but hey, that’s what they did.
I have always kept a character bible, but I didn’t give them a specific age and birthday until recently, when I realized they can’t be in their mid-30s forever.
And I hear you about the glass of wine – but think of the possibilities for frustration when she realizes she CAN’T have the wine and has to come up with something else!
Ah, marriage in a series, it’s more difficult than marriage in real life. I’m looking forward to catching up with Thea!
Thanks, Kait. I’m trying to figure out what happens in the next book, and how she’ll go asleuthing with an infant in tow. At least young babies stay put, one they start crawling? Nightmare to write.
Congratulations on your latest book, Kate! I love the human tow truck!
I love that, too. The challenge for this book has been how to write a very forthright and brave person having to put the brakes on her impulses in the interests of her child. And do I dare open a mystery with childbirth in the next book? I think not.
As a reader, I’m laughing because I get it. I understand your struggles. But as a reader, I want to see the character’s lives progress. It’s why I read a series. And if you drag things out too long, it gets very irritating.
Good observations, Mark. I’m not fond of characters who dither or writers who make you want to yell “Get on with it.” Don’t much like having to yell at the page: Don’t be so stupid! So they’ve gotten married and they’re about to have a kid and they both have very demanding jobs. I think about an old TV commercial where both parents grab their stuff and head for the door, and the baby is still in its highchair. Trying not to let that happen while still keeping Thea authentically tough. Curious how readers will find the new book.
Thanks for the advice, Kate! I often wonder what happens in sleuthing land after marriage…
Jennifer, it’s not too different than out here in real life, but abbreviated, and with more tension, since tension of all sorts, even that as simple as who gets up with the baby, moves story.
Kate, years ago now I read a nonfiction book entitled Here If You Need Me by Kate Braestrup…a memoir about her life, her late husband who was a Maine State Trooper and the aftermath of his accidental death which led her to become a priest. So, your synopsis had me intrigued…reading about the character of Andre, the Maine State Trooper. Chosen for Death is now in my wishlist at Amazon. Kate Braestrup wrote another book which I also read entitled: Marriage and Other Acts of Charity…another memoir…this time about her work with the Maine Warden Service and her second marriage.
Judy, if you liked Kate Braestrup’s book, you might like the memoir I co-wrote with a retired Maine game warden, A Good Man with a Dog. A different, but also compassionate dive into the warden’s world. It was a fascinating process for me to help Roger Guay tell his story, and I look at the world, and at dogs, differently since we wrote it.
Thank you, I will look for it!
This is such a great article. When I read a series, I do expect the main protagonist to have a life outside of solving a mystery. Bravo to the authors who can deliver that. And you know I love Thea so I can’t wait to see her with the baby and how things change.
Thanks, Dru. It pleases me so much that like Thea. It’s like she has a special cheerleader out there as she goes on her adventures. What do you think, boy or girl? I’m still on the fence.
I love this series, Kate. I read it well before we met, introduced to it by my mother. The “don’t get married” idea has been drummed into me a few times. I look forward to having a series that runs long enough that it’s an issue. 😉 Congratulations!
Thank you for introducing me to a new author. Your series sounds very intriguing. Yes. I have been caught in a situation that time will bring everything into the light. Merry Christmas.
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