Monday, April 4, 2011

On Writing, Part I —Back Story

Before you write that first crime fiction novel consider a few things. What follows is the first in a series of short articles about what you might want to consider as you put pen to paper or fingers on the keyboard.

It’s one thing to write a one-off book — that is you create characters you do not expect to revisit. The book ends. It’s over. You needn’t worry about anything you said jeopardizing anything you write in the future. But if you have any notion that you’ll want to write book two about these same characters, you might want to do a little thinking before you cast them in cement, so to speak.

When I wrote the first Deets Shanahan mystery I gave the idea of a second book with him as the main character no thought at all. I established his age at 69. The problem with this wasn’t yet apparent when St. Martin’s Press suggested a second book. But after book four, I began to see a problem developing. Does Shanahan, like Dagwood Bumstead, remain the same age forever? Doesn’t that become problematic after the 20th murder he’s called in to solve? If I had been less specific, I would have less explaining to do. He could have been just an “older” private eye. On the other hand, I do admit that having to overcome challenges is part of what makes writing interesting. And Shanahan, as it turns out (in a compromise I wish I could make), is doing fine, having aged three years since 1990.

However, the point is much larger than just the age of your characters. How you define your main and reoccurring characters may put limits on their growth or on what you need them to do later on. If you give your main character a college education in the first book, you can’t take it away later. Does he or she have children? Parents? Speech patterns aren’t likely to change over time either. Even how he or she views the world will have to carry forward. Is he or she a worrier or carefree? Though there are always creative solutions to the boxes writers put themselves in, you may be stuck with your first impressions of the people who live in your fiction. Are these people you want to live with for the next 20 years?


Maureen said...

Good point. I must admit that I agree with you....I wish that I could age just 3 years every 20!! I recall an old writing professor telling me that I should have someone in mind when I was describing a character. That way I would say on one page that her blue eyes twinkled and on another that her brown eyes gleamed. Thanks for this blog Ron. It is cool!

The other Maureen

Ronald Tierney said...

Thank you and thank goodness for copyeditors and proofreaders. I hope to have a new article on writing every Monday.