How to write: Keeping a series character fresh

Welcome to the first in a series of essays on writing by guest bloggers. Today’s blogger is Marni Graff. A former writer for seven years with “Mystery Review” magazine, Graff has interviewed Ian Rankin, Deborah Crombie, Val McDermid, and her mentor, P. D. James, amongst many others. A member of Sisters in Crime, she runs the Writers Read program in NC, and is a founding member of Coastal Carolina Mystery Writers. She is also the co-author of Writing in a Changing World, a primer for modern writers to find their writing group. Her poetry was most recently published in A Tribute to Amelia Earhart and her creative nonfiction most recently seen in Southern Women’s Review. Graff’s English series features American children’s book writer Nora Tierney. The Blue Virgin is set in Oxford; The Green Remains is set in the Lake District. She is currently working on the third book, The Scarlet Wench.
Keeping a Series Character Fresh
I’m a voracious reader, and once I find a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed, I’ll read his other books. If he’s writing a series, I try to read those books in the order their written to see the development of his continuing characters.
So when I decided to write mysteries, I knew a series would allow me to stretch and grow my characters in the same way I’ve enjoyed the growth and development of those readers whose books I reach for again and again.
When I developed the character of Nora Tierney, an American writer living in the UK, I made her reasonably young to allow for years of growth as I decided on what I call her “bible–” the history of her life that may or may not make it to the page. This background helps me know Nora better, so I have a feeling for how she would react in certain situations. The two most important things I have to decide for any character are: what they want the most, and what they fear the most.
As a writer, Nora loves research of any kind and is an information gatherer. I also gave her an insatiable curiosity, which leads to her snooping, and a strong sense of fairness and justice, both of which contribute to her tendency to become involved in murder investigations. Nora has been known to lie at the drop of a hat if it will further her gathering of what she considers important or necessary information. She sees these fabrications as harmless. The detectives she runs across don’t necessarily agree.
The underlying theme of all the books is how the choices we make affect our lives, and Nora’s background had to have some kind of kink in it that has ramifications for her now. Nora still suffers guilt from her father’s death in a sailing accident. A teenager at the time, she’d turned down his offer for an evening sail in favor of a date, a reasonable thing for anyone of that age, until a squall capsized his boat. She carries the unreasonable idea that if she’d gone with him, he would have survived. This also has an impact on her relationships with men. She’s often confused about her feelings for the men she cares about and has difficulty becoming too attached.
Then I threw in a real kicker in the first book, The Blue Virgin: her back story had her unhappily engaged to a workaholic scientist. Nora was on the verge of calling it off when he was killed in a plane accident. Fast forward to the current action weeks later, and she finds out she’s pregnant and has to decide whether to keep the baby as a single parent. This is in the midst of trying to prove her best friend, artist Val Rogan, is innocent of a murder charge in the death of Val’s partner, Bryn Wallace. The book is set in Oxford, where Nora is packing up to move to Cumbria. But first, she is determined to clear Val.
Saddling Nora with a child to raise alone in the future will give her many challenges and responsibilities that thwart her natural desires. During the second book, The Green Remains, Nora is living in the Lake District and heavily pregnant. I had to keep in mind Nora’s physical condition and how that would impact and interfere with her ability to snoop actively when she stumbles across a body at the edge of Lake Windermere.
There will be more challenges for Nora down the road. I’ve already planted the seeds in these first two books that will grow into plot lines in books three and four. The next book is The Scarlet Wench, and when a theatre troupe takes over Ramsey Lodge to put on Noel Coward’s play Blithe Spirit, a series of escalating pranks will result in a murder Nora is determined to solve. I just can’t seem to keep that gal out of trouble!
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