Thursday, October 10, 2013

Julia Spencer-Fleming, Guest Blogger

We're very lucky. Julia Spencer-Fleming found time in her busy schedule to do a guest post here. Her new Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alsytne book,  Through the Evil Days,  is due out Nov. 5. I'm looking forward to reading the new book. And, it's wonderful to welcome her to Lesa's Book Critiques. Thank you, Julia.



I am somewhat famous in the mystery community for two things: winning a bunch of awards and proclaiming to anyone who would listen that a crime fiction series should have a natural conclusion and that I, therefore, would wrap up the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series in five books.

Well. Turns out that was very like a first-time parent saying, “My child will never watch TV.” Everybody knows it's hogwash, they're just too polite to tell you. And in fact, when I reached the end of book five in my series, I was already steaming ahead with the I Shall Not Want, because I just had to get my protagonists out of the terrible emotional mess I had put them in. And then I had to write the seventh book, because I was dying to tell a story about veterans of the Iraq war returning to their hometowns, and I had to follow that with Through the Evil Days because I had dropped a (metaphorical) bomb into the last sentence of One Was a Soldier and I desperately wanted to see what was going to happen next. (I really write because I want to read the story myself. If someone else would start authoring my books, I could retire.)

Reaching the eighth book in my series has been akin to moving to a foreign land as a student, only to discover ten years on you've become a resident. At some point, you have to recognize reality and adjust accordingly (US Congress, I'm looking at you...) For me, that means having to deal with how keep a long-running series fresh, how to keep myself growing and expanding as a writer, and how to convey the complicated backstory that's built up for almost everyone residing in the fictional town of Millers Kill. How do I do it? I have a few pointers:

Trust your audience. Nothing is worse than getting into the fifth or sixth book in a series and encountering the “As you know, Bob,” exposition dump. Sometimes it's a character needlessly recapping the events of the last novel(or two), sometimes the character has a long, introspective walk down memory lane. Meanwhile, the first-time reader is wondering if she ought to stop until she can pick up an early book in the series, and the long time reader is yawning. Trust the readers. There's actually a lot of backstory that simply doesn't have to be given. In my books, for instance, Russ Van Alstyne has been shot, nearly drowned and has broken his leg. None of these exciting events are mentioned in Through the Evil Days.  If characters casually drop in references to a past event, people are smart enough to figure it out. If you really need to revisit the past, use a flashback. Just don't, for God's sake, put it all in italics.

Take chances with the structure of the book. In my series so far, I've written a twenty-four-hour ticking clock thriller, a mystery that runs backwards in time through seventy years, a story set within the framework of therapy sessions, and now, a book where every character is on a life-changing deadline of one week. The architecture of a novel affects the way the story unspools, which in turn affects what kind of story the writer tells and what sort of elements within the story are emphasized. (And now you've all gotten the intro to my lecture on “Story Architecture” that I do when teaching writing.) Long story short: switching up the books keeps them fresh and interesting.

Write about issues that genuinely interest you. I tend to write about literal issues: migrant workers, vaccination, corporate malfeasance. It takes me a year (or longer!) to write a book (sorry, everybody) so I need to find what I'm writing about compelling. However, a story doesn't have to be ripped from the headline, to quote L&O. In Through the Evil Days the issue is how to deal with a surprise pregnancy, and, more deeply, what people will and won't do for their children. Of course, I'm getting older, so look for my eventual novel based on a scathing denunciation of Denny's Senior Special.

Don't be afraid to let genuinely life-changing things happen to your characters. No, I'm not advocating having your beloved heroine die in childbirth. But real people grow and change and the world keeps moving. Be willing to have someone leave his job, leave her marriage, leave town. A talented editor once told me good authors keep their characters at arm's length, so they can bear to let bad things happen to them. For those of you who have read my series so far, don't fear: Russ doesn't leave town and Clare doesn't leave the marriage. But there are some big changes in the wind in Millers Kill.

Finally, leave 'em with a cliffhanger. I am the queen of cliffhangers, it's true. I love them unabashedly. And I'll continue to use them to keep readers charged up about the next book and the next. Why? It works. Want proof? Here, never before revealed on the internet, are the penultimate sentences in Through the Evil Days:

“I just wanted you to know. I'm tendering my resignation.”


What keeps a series fresh for you? Let me know in the comments and one lucky reader will get an Advance Readers Copy of Through the Evil Days.


Julia Spencer-Fleming's New York Times bestselling books have won multiple awards, including the Anthony and Agatha, and have been Edgar and RT Reader's Choice nominees.  The next Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne novel, Through the Evil Days, comes out on November 5th. You can find Julia at her website, her readerSpace, on Facebook and on Twitter as @jspencerfleming. She also blogs with the Jungle Red Writers.

34 comments:

Mollie Cox Bryan said...

Hi, Julia! Love your series. One of the things I find lacking in many of the long-time series is a character arc in which the character actually grows and changes. Drives me batty. This relates directly to the last in your list: Don't be afraid to let genuinely life-changing things happen to your characters.
At the same time, I know it's a challenge. I appreciate this blog post. Thanks so much for the great advice.

susan morrison said...

Morning Julia, Like Mollie I love your series. I started out following the Russ/Clare story but now find I'm reading madly to find out what is happening with all of the secondary characters too. I feel as if I know the people of Miller's Kill and love watching them grow and change. This is what keeps me interested in a series and it is rare for a writer to do it as well as you do.

Joyce Delaney said...

As much as I enjoy the "comfort zone" of seeing the same characters interact within the same setting, I think it makes for some more interesting possibilities when an author moves a character to a new place temporarily. This can be a literal change of location or perhaps a change in the character's circumstances. Two authors whose work remains fresh for me because they've done it are Louise Penny and William Kent Krueger.

Kristopher said...

And this is why Julia's series is so successful and has won the awards and nominations that it has.

Characters must grow and change. Sure, there are some series out there where the featured character is the same book after book and there is nothing "wrong" with that, it gives readers an easy expectation going into the book.

But for me, I prefer to always be on my toes. Never knowing what is going to happen and how the characters are going to react to it.

This is part of the reason George RR Martin is so successful, he is willing to make the difficult decision to kill off major (and favorite) characters. Now, I wouldn't expect that exact thing in a mystery series (Lord knows, we can't deal with Clare's death, or Gamache's or Reacher's for that matter), but we can get equivalent life-altering situations that bring the book characters to life.

Just a wonderful guest post, Julia. And thanks for Lesa for bringing it to us.

Lesa said...

Terrific post that opens up a whole conversation. Thank you, Julia. I agree that characters must grow and change. Your characters, Louise Penny's, Ellery Adams', Vicki Delany's Constable Molly Smith. Those are characters I think about who do change, and there are unexpected losses and changes in the series. It needs to happen. But, you had a point, Julia, in one of your other blogs. For pete's sake, don't kill off the romantic interest that everyone has grown to love.

Jane R said...

What a fabulous guest blog! It's one of the best I've read in a long time. Maybe the fact that it's about one of my favorite series has something to do with it! I can only echo the previous posters who have said it so well. The best series are the ones that move along with life, including challenges, changes and unexpected events. I enjoy a series that reflects life - both good and bad. Thanks for the wonderful post!

Mary Sutton said...

Great post. This relates to a conversation I had over the weekend. That if you truly love a character, you must be willing to hurt them. And I think readers will respect you for torturing them (eventually, at least). It seems to be a balancing act: make a series character change enough to remain interesting, while staying familiar enough to be comfortable for the reader.

petite said...

Hi Julia.
For a series to connect with me and retain my interest there must be realistic characters whose depth is evident and whose lives are vividly portrayed. I then can relate well with them and understand their personality, actions and it is more meaningful.

traveler said...

Morning Julia. Your series is captivating and very special. I look forward to catching up with the individuals and their trials and tribulations. This gives me a broader perspective on their desires, their lives and their motivations. Characters that are able to cope and are sincere make the series memorable.

Julia said...

Thanks for the kind words, everyone. It is possible for the lead character to remain static and still have the books seem fresh year after year, but it's a difficult task. Lee Child is, obviously, the master at this, and he does it, in part, because each book in the Reacher series is in many ways a stand alone, albeit with one recurring character.

SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT...

In fact, when he used a series-developing story line in 61 HOURS, WORTH DYING FOR and NEVER GO BACK, I was a bit disappointed that by the end of the third book nothing had changed after all.

donna said...

What a great post - thanks so much - love all of your books. Definitely what keeps me interested is an author who is not afraid of change - keeps you on the edge of your seat not knowing what will happen - someone who doesn't play it safe. I'm looking forward to reading the new book. Also, I do appreciate that it takes you time to write each one - even though we readers want to crack the whip and say faster, faster!
Donna from CT

LSUReader said...

Characters really make the book for me. I agree with other commenters here that in a series, characters have to keep growing. Just as in real life, we need to see our friends evolve. I love your series, Julia. Thanks for visiting.

CindyD said...

This was a great post, Julia, and something I have thought about before (Dana Stabenow's BAD BLOOD is obviously taking her series in a new direction). You make me want to go back and read all of your books before I read the new one, which I am anxiously awaiting!

SandyG265 said...

I won't keep reading a series unless the characters grow and change. I've stopped reading a few series where the characters stagnated and nothing in their lives ever changed.

Kimberly said...

I love your series, and have been waiting with bated breath for each new installment. Thank you for summing up that characters NEED to change. The Stephanie Plum books were hilarious, but I gave up the series because the main characters never changed. You see this in some cartoons, too: For Better or Worse had characters grow up and grow old... but was still interesting. Some comics were able to stay relevant with unchanging characters, but some, like Garfield, just became stagnant. Thank you for a lot of awesome hours spent in Millers Kill.

Diane said...

Hi,
I read a few of the first books in your series years ago then never got back to it. You have interested me in it again and I will be picking up where I left off.
One problem I have with a series is when the town or area is relatively small yet so many people are being killed it becomes too far from realistic for me. And yes all the characters must grow and change throughout the series to keep me interested.

TFJ said...

Yes, I've stopped reading many series characters because, while I read for escapism, I do want the characters to behave as people do in "real life" and face new problems and challenges as they age. As previous commenters have noted, Louise Penny, Dana Stabenow and Julia all do this with aplomb.

And, Julia, I love your cliffhangers: reminds me of eagerly awaiting all summer for certain TV shows to return in the fall with the cliffhanger resolved.

Thank you for Clare and Russ.

JFC said...

One thing that keeps a series fresh is having a variety of secondary characters available, who can appear in different amounts in different books, bringing new areas of interest and new challenges to the main characters. Mix in the occasional new character, such as Hadley, and it keeps things even fresher. And as you said above, don't be afraid to put your characters through major changes. If Clare and Russ were still resisting their attraction in book twelve, that would be a bit much.

Having characters who are self-aware enough to reflect meaningfully on what they're going through helps too. If we see their own reactions to the things that happen, it makes our experience of the story deeper--or at least it does for me.

Jim

Gram said...

I love to watch? the characters age and grow. Even Elizabeth Linington did that with her policemen and women. I am looking forward to Through the Evil Days. Dee

Dotty Ryan said...

What keeps me coming back? Compelling characters who grow and change in ways that seem true to life (Clare and Russ) Settings that are realistically rendered (Miller's Kill, the Adirondacks) Secondary characters who are interesting in their own right (Hadley, Kevin, Marge, Lyle), Complex plots that are full of unexpected, but not unbelievable twists and turns (the misidentified body in All Mortal Flesh) A lively well paced writing style that at times rises to the level of poetry ( "Above the cabin's deep-eaved roof he could see the first star of the evening glimmering through a thin veil of chimney smoke.....She opened the door, spilling golden light.") These are just some of the things that make reading these novels a pleasure.

FChurch said...

Hi Julia,

I'm always looking for something slightly new and different in a mystery series--Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody and Emerson set in Egypt (mostly), Anne Perry's Monk and Hester--an unlikely love interest, Tony Hillerman's Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee series, to name a few. So, I was intrigued when I picked up In the Bleak Midwinter to find that Clare was an Episcopal priest. That was the first hook. Then Russ, the not-so-perfect police chief, and the supporting cast of characters, the setting. And the will-they/won't- they romance. Cozies are fine as a sort of momentary diversion, but I'm like everyone else here--I want a story that is multi-layered, characters who are people you'd like to be friends with (Gamache and Reine-Marie), characters you root for, cheer for, laugh with, shake your head at, and miss when the latest book is finished. Characters you can revisit and still find interesting, plots that suck you back in even after a second or third re-reading. So, bravo! Can't wait to read Through the Evil Days!

maryalicemeli@yahoo.com said...

I was thrilled to learn your next Clare book was due in Nov. Each of the others had nuggets glowing and enlivening them in new and fascinating ways. For me, I stay intrigued with a series when the MC takes chances that surprises me, that stretch her in uncomfortable ways allowing her to grow. An Oh-No moment also works to keep it fresh along with occasional changes in location, all of which you have done well. A healthy dollop of humor and quirky characters help, too. I know you have to promote Evil Days but I hope you're hard at work on the next book because, you know, we read fast!!

jenny milchman said...

Thank goodness you didn't end on book five!! I think you keep things fresh by never getting boxed in. I really don't know what to expect with your new one...but can't wait to find out.

I admire series writers greatly. It's not something I think I could do, but I will take a tool from your kit and never say never :)

Congrats, Julia, and great post. Thanks, Lesa!

Lesa said...

Thanks, everyone, for the great comments. Whenever Julia gets back today, she'll find some interesting comments. Thank you!

Sandra Parshall said...

Julia, your series has not diminished in quality, which is the best argument for continuing. Do you think about writing a standalone, though?

Reine said...

Hi Julia,

I will join the I love you chorus.

I love series. I like books in series that are connected in characters, time, and place even if they are loosely connected in storyline. But the more serial, the serial the more I like it and the more loyal I am. Knowing the story continues keeps me hooked, and I like that. I enjoy the anticipation.

I am happy to hear that you feel as I do about information dumps. Each time I have brought it up in discussion people jump all over me. "It's traditional" or "It's expected" or "The reader will be confused." Blechh.

I also don't like endless wrap-up dumps of the kind where there is an almost-miraculous coming together of all the characters who manage to hook up all at once for the first time ever and chat about what happened. I want the information, so I read it. However, if all I wanted was the information I wouldn't read the story. I'd just ask someone for an outline. When overdone this technique leaves me feeling disappointed that the information hadn't been part of the story but had come off as an erratum and addendum. Worse is the sense that the author was bored with the story and was in a hurry to finish up.

Give me cliffhangers. I love them. A good cliffhanger not only makes me want to come back for more, it is a contract of engagement in unfolding life, not just in the story but with the reader.

Carol N Wong said...

The characters are what drive me to read a mystery series. I feel read about Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne. Handling issues is like the cherry on top for me. I treasure these books!!! So thrilled to read this interview.

CarolNWong(at)aol(dot)com

holdenj said...

Loved Julia's post--I bet she is a great speaker at a book event! I stumbled upon this series by accident and have never looked back. I think one thing that keeps things fresh is how well the characters are layered and how things from the past peel away to achieve new sides of them in subsequent books. Thanks!

Sue Farrell said...

I think to keep a series fresh and interesting the main character has to be realistic and change and grown like we all do--even grow old in some cases. The introduction of new minor characters also helps.
suefarrell.farrell@gmail.com

Margaret said...

Like the other posters, Julia, I love the series and have been with it since the beginning. I like books with compelling characters and great atmosphere, which, of course, your books have. However, at the age of 75, I'm not really into cliffhangers in books. Some of us might not be there for the next one, and we would prefer to have a resolution to the story in that book. Also, while I like characters to grow, so to speak, I don't like really bad things to happen to characters the author has gotten me to be emotionally
invested in. I have stopped reading series that did just that. For example, I stopped reading Karin Slaughter because of a major character's death many years ago. While I stopped reading Dana Stabenow after a very notorious happening in one of her books, also many years ago, I did pick up
her series about three books later. I just don't want to be sad in my entertainment. Life has enough of that every day. I love crime novels, but I do stop reading those where the author goes to very sad places with the narrative and leaves the reader there. That said, looking forward to November 5th.

Iron Angel said...

I just finished writing the 2nd book of a 4-part action series, and I heard what you said about thinking THIS one is the last--it was supposed to be one stand alone story in the beginning. I like a character that I can depend on acting a certain way, but once in a while surprises me by what they do. We all do uncharacteristic things from time to time don't we?
Janet McClintock

Julia said...

Thanks, everyone, for all your comments! I had to head down to Connecticut to pick up my son (home from college for the weekend, hurrah!) and it was lovely to come home to so much enthusiasm.

Sandra, I have several ideas for stand-alones and even other series. My problem is, I am notorious for taking up to two years to produce a book! If I could be more like my blogging mate Rhys Bowen, who writes two books a year, I could tackle some of those other stories!

Margaret, I admit cliffhangers can be a bit of a cheat. In my defense, I learned from a master: Charles Dickens. It was Dickens who pioneered the 'leave them dangling breathlessly' chapter ending, as many of his novels were first serialized in monthly magazines. Imagine being one of the poor readers who had to wait a month to find out Little Nell's fate!

Lesa said...

FChurch was the winner of the book. Julia didn't tell me if she contacted you or not, only that you won. If you need to send me the mailing address so she can send the book, email me at Lesa.Holstine@gmail.com. If she's already taken care of it, don't worry about it!

Prentiss Garner said...

the books just get better and better. I am looking forward to reding this new one.