Sunday, November 8, 2009

How Do You Grow Your Series?

On Saturday, I attended my first meeting of the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Donna Andrews was kind enough to drive, and she brought along her neighbor, the superb Barb Goffman, Program Chair for Malice. We picked up Sandra Parshall en route.

I’m thrilled to belong to a chapter with so many multi-published authors. There’s so much to learn from them. For example, chapter member Marcia Talley (the national president of Sisters in Crime) spoke at the meeting about her most recent novel Without a Grave. She decided on the setting in the Bahamas and her protagonist’s temporary job (communicating with the other islanders by radio) as a way to avoid the dreaded “Cabot Cove Syndrome.” That’s author-speak for the unfortunate fact that anyone who lived within spitting distance of Jessica Fletcher always wound up dead!

That made me think about Kiki Lowenstein, and the deaths/crimes in my novels. I’ve spent a good part of today, Sunday, thinking how I can artfully manage to have people die—and to have Kiki care about these deaths—without knocking off everyone in her immediate zip code. In part, we authors have a contract with our readers. You KNOW we’re going to bump people off. It’s our job. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be thoughtful about who, what, when, where and why.

After the meeting, we were getting on the elevator, and Donna said something about a scene and how it occurred to her. That scene set the direction for the book she just turned in. “So that’s how you work?” I asked. “You get flashes of insight?”


I turned to Sandra Parshall and asked her how she works. Sandra says she sits down to write and sees what she gets. Her process is more organic.

All this was wonderful, powerful stuff to consider. After all, Sandra and Donna have both won Agatha Awards. Marcia has been an Agatha Award nominee and received the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Contemporary Mystery.

My editor told me last week that Midnight Ink is interested in more Kiki Lowenstein books, and I’m the type of writer who likes to work ahead. (I’m 47,000 words into Book #4 and it isn’t due until March 2010.) So, while I have a character arc (a trajectory of personal growth) for Kiki, today was a day for thinking ahead to future books.

But this morning, I just couldn’t get my brain to function. Finally, seeing what a lovely fall day it was, I took the dogs for a long walk to the local dog park. After being jumped on by a pit bull, my head cleared. (Maybe a Chihauhau would have had the same effect. Who knows? I guess I owe that pit bull a debt of gratitude.)

How do I plan my books?

I start with what I know. I know where I think each important character is heading in his/her life. I know what special events/places/activities in St. Louis I want to feature. I have a file of interesting “stuff.” I have ideas about why people would kill each other.

And I also consider the timing issue. I want each book to move Kiki and her daughter Anya’s lives along…slowly. I put that all in my mental hopper.

By the time I turned the key in the lock of the front door, I was ready to write.


Sandra Parshall said...

Hi, Joanna,

It's great to have you in the Chessie Chapter!

As for planning a book, I do need a central idea to work from, of course. In my new book -- BROKEN PLACES, out in February, if you'll pardon the BSP :-)-- I made use of some characters and material from a mainstream novel I struggled with many years ago and never finished. The murder victims are a couple who came to the mountains of Virginia in the late 1960s as VISTA volunteers in the War on Poverty -- and never left. Their daughter happens to be an old girlfriend of Deputy Tom Bridger, my hero, and she works in the state crime lab. When she returns home after her parents' murders, she creates havoc in the investigation AND in the relationship between Tom and my heroine, Rachel Goddard. That's what I started with and built on. I had to give my editor an advance story summary that made sense, and I had an outline of sorts, but most of the story evolved as I wrote it.

I wish I could see every scene, every twist and turn, before I start writing, but that's never happened and probably never will.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Sandra, thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you expanded on your comment from the other day because I was wondering how you did what you did! So you do outline!

I agree that often the outline only points us in the right direction and that some deep well within us takes over and helps the work evolve.

For those who think that having an outline makes it boring, well, I guess they've never felt that sense of discovering as they work. I sure have.

Barb Goffman said...

Hi, Joanna. The local SinC chapter is so lucky to have you join us!

I write short stories, and I find that my impetus for any particular one usually comes in one of two ways: Either I hear the character's voice appear in my head out of nowhere (that's fun!) or I see a call for stories, and the challenge gets my brain cells going.

Tell me to write a 5,000-word story, and it might take me a while to come up with an idea. But tell me to write a 5,000-word story in which you kill someone using jelly, and bam! I'll be off and running. A friend recently told me I couldn't kill someone with jelly. I will prove him wrong. And I'll avoid the easy poison route. I guess I like the challenge.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Barb, I understand about responding to a challenge. Makes me more eager to prove someone wrong. Good for you! Uh, remind me not to eat at your house.

Linda O. Johnston said...

Sometimes my series grows ME, Joanna, and that's part of the fun of it. Although I do a synopsis for each story before I start writing it, my protagonist Kendra Ballantyne seems to tell me what happens next. In her adventure HOWL DEADY, my December release, she's involved with a wildlife rescue organization--and we introduce the protagonist of her spin-off series, Lauren Vancouver, pet rescuer. The main thing in my mysteries now is that although I always have a human murder victim or two, animals rule!

It's really great, BTW, for you to be in such auspicious company in your SinC chapter! I also feel lucky to belong to the Southern California chapter.

Betty Hechtman said...

My book planning has evolved with each book in the crochet series. I am actually grateful I have to turn in a synopsis first. It's hard to write, but then I have a map of the book. Of course, things change when I'm actually writing, but I know the basics and what's happening to Molly Pink. I also have the project I'm going to include in mind.

Everything has been different with book 5 because they decided to have it come out in hard cover and make it a holiday book after I had turned in the synopsis. Luckily, I was able to add a holiday theme to what I'd already come up with.

Camille Minichino said...

Very inspiring Joanna! And it gets us in the mood for next week intensive workshop right here on killerhobbies.

lucky chessie chapter!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Wow, it's fascinating to see all these different "takes" on growing a series. I love the variety--and you know, it made me think of something someone said: "Everyone outlines. Some people do it in their heads and others do it on paper."

Of course, as Linda says, there are times when our protagonists "talk" to us. And there are always elements that we are sure to include.

Betty, you're coming out in hardcover? You rock, girl!