Thursday 28 February 2013

Series Characters

I never set out to write a series character. When I started my first novel “Eye Contact” I told the story I wanted to tell, about a serial killer who chooses his victims at random, and the detective who hunts him. There was no grand design, no long-term plan, and I wrote without any restriction. Only when I was asked to do a second and a third book, did I begin to see the benefits and challenges of going back to an already established world.

For me, the biggest concern was not to write the same book again. In “Knife Edge” both my detective and my killer are returning characters, and it would have been all too easy to let them reprise their actions from the first novel. Yes, they develop and they grow, but such a course would have felt like treading water, and I wanted to go somewhere new.

So I shook things up. A pivotal event changes each of the principal characters’ lives and irrevocably alters the dynamic between them, while an additional narrative viewpoint promotes a third character from a supporting role to centre stage. As part of a series, it was easier to do this because these felt like real people and I knew them so well, but it also imposed restrictions on me – I couldn’t alter my characters to fit the plot, I had to let the plot grow from my characters.

With hindsight, I could have made things easier on myself, but at least I’ve tried to learn from the experience. At the end of “Knife Edge”, I tidied up a number of loose ends, and opened some doors ready for book three. I have no doubt that I’ll continue to be tripped up by innocuous things, that I’ll yearn to go back in time and give my detective a brother, or change where someone grew up. But that’s the real challenge of a series character – it may be a long story, divided into novel-sized episodes, but once each episode is in print, there’s no changing it! Just like real-life, it’s done and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Think that sounds like fun? Ask me again in a few books time, and I’ll tell you how well I did!

Friday 8 February 2013

Strangers on a train

There’s a guy on this train who keeps smiling to himself. He’s maybe twenty, well-built, with an open fleece top, and tracksuit trousers that have a local rugby club badge on them. And he sits there, staring at the back of the seat in front of him, with an involuntary grin on his face.

This is what I’ve missed about travelling – people watching.

All sorts of wonderful little dramas play out on trains, but I’ve been somewhat reluctant to go on longer rail journeys of late. Waiting for a kidney-stone makes you edgy – the frequent bouts of discomfort really break your concentration – and staying close to home feels safer.

However, with book two off to the copy editor, my focus is back onto number three, and I have a backlog of Bristol locations to research. Normally, this is a job for the weekends, but top of today’s list was the Pervasive Media Studio down at the Watershed, where they have an open day on Fridays. One of my characters needs a suitably creative environment to work in and, as it happened, the studio was everything I’d hoped. A very helpful member of staff showed me around and answered my questions – by the end of the tour, I wished I had the opportunity to work there myself.

Next, I spent some time at Bristol Crown Court, getting to know the workings of the building and watching some of the proceedings from the public galleries, before heading up to Stokes Croft.

There, in a cafe just a few streets from the key locations where book three is set, I was rather startled to discover that the man on the next table had exactly the same day-job as my next villain. These life-imitates-book coincidences just keep occurring, and I’m never quite sure whether to be spooked by them, or simply accept them as uncanny anecdotes, to be stored up for future interviews.

I spent some time walking-off my lunch, round Montpelier and Redland, before it was time to head back to Bristol Templemeads and the train home.

Which is where I am now.

The guy is still smiling. It’s busy tonight, so he spent the first twenty minutes of the journey standing in the aisle, then managed to get a seat next to an extremely attractive young woman. They clearly didn’t know each other – hardly anything passed between them – just a couple of polite words when he took his seat, and again when she got off ten minutes later. But while the train was waiting at her stop, I saw him glancing out of the window and there, walking along the platform, I saw her glance up, pause, and flash him a broad, blushing smile. His face lit up – I can’t remember seeing anyone look so genuinely chuffed – and I suspect he’ll be feeling good all day.

No wonder I get so many ideas on trains. It’s a people-watcher’s paradise...
...and this was one of the nicest moments.