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The Pros and Cons of Writing a Series

I’d written short stories for some time with moderate success before deciding to tackle a novel. At the time, some fifteen years ago, I happened to be reading a great many novels by writers such as Nicci French, Minette Walters and Barbara Vine. I loved the edginess of their writing, the idea of the main character finding her life spinning out of control – taken over by events she can’t explain, and if she doesn’t sort it all out, she will end up dead. What interested me was trying to capture the fear, that unease, the tension of wondering what is going to go wrong next? Thus, All in the Mind and Watcher in the Shadows became my first published novels. I was having problems writing the latest psychological suspense and it was my then agent who suggested that I should think of having a series character. Her argument was that it would be easier to sell them to the publishers, but that wasn’t the reason I decided to give it a try.

I’d had the idea of a tour manager for a coach company as a main character for some time. In the spirit of the Golden Age whodunit tradition, it would give me a limited number of people as suspects – my coach passengers, a driver who would be my protagonist’s confidant and partner plus the added advantage that each book would be set in a different country and have a limited time scale – the length of the holiday. Not that things turned out quite like that. Novels and characters take on a life of their own! The agent’s prompting came just at the right time and so the Fiona Mason Mysteries were born.

The Pros

As a writer, the main advantage is that for each new novel you have a readymade protagonist plus two or three other significant characters and, in my case, a fully drawn template – a coach trip and the ongoing love/hate relationship of my two main characters (another thing that was never planned but just happened).

As a reader, I love characters I can return to. They become like old friends. I felt deprived when Lindsey Davis decided to abandon her third-century Roman private eye, Falco. It took a book or two before his adopted daughter, Albia, found a similar place in my affections. It’s the characters one remembers – Poirot, Morse, Scarpetta, Vera, Kurt Wallander et al that linger in the mind rather than their adventures.

 

 Cons

If you are not careful pros can turn into cons – the template can become formulaic and characters become stale. It’s an accepted maxim that characters must develop. The experiences they go through in the course of the story must alter them in some way. That is difficult to do book after book.

Much as I waited eagerly for the next Stephanie Plum and Agatha Raison when I first discovered them, after the first ten or so book, their appeal began to wane. Perhaps comic protagonists can easily end up too two-dimensional or did their creators began to tire of their characters? We all know how Agatha Christie complained of falling out of love with Poirot. Perhaps that’s why she created Miss Marple. Not that either character became stale for me!

If I can grow my Fiona Mason as Ian Rankin manages to do with his Inspector Rhebus or P D James Adam Dalgleish, then she may survive a little longer.

One of the major cons for me, is Fiona Mason’s adventures need to be heavily research. In a busy life, it’s just not possible to drop everything and take a couple of weeks’ holiday in Europe. In January I found myself in that position. Work on Blood Across the Divide was over – I was just waiting for its publication in February – but I was ready to write the next book. The problem being that I still had three months to wait before our planned holiday to Paris and a Rhone valley cruise. Without being able to immerse myself fully in the right location I was stumped. I had been to Morocco in November. Not for research – a pure holiday – so I’d made no notes! How was I to know at the time that I’d come up with an idea for a new series?

I’m currently feverishly writing away at the first Aunt Jemima mystery. Trying desperately to get down the first draft as quickly as possible – firstly before I forget what we did and the fantastic places we visited and secondly because come April, when we get on that plane at Heathrow my mind will be fully in Fiona Mason mode! I’m a slow writer at the best of times and I’ve never taken less than six months to write a first draft, so my chances are slim, but I suppose I can but try.

The Ideas Behind the Book

Today is launch day for Blood Across the Divide. I am often asked where I get the inspiration for my novels so it seemed appropriate to explain some of the things that inspired the novel.

Two mysteries – what has happened to Fiona’s missing passenger, and who shot the rebel republican terrorist, Eamon McCollum? Once again, tour manager, Fiona Mason and MI6 chief Peter Montgomery-Jones come together to find the answers and unravel how the two cases are linked.

Belfast rightly deserves its reputation as one of the top British cities for tourists. All looks set for a wonderful tour, but, people are not always who they claim to be. Fiona and her coach party quickly find themselves drawn into the undercurrent of distrust and thirst for revenge that has been simmering in Northern Ireland since the time of The Troubles. Drawn into one another’s investigations, Fiona and Peter need the other’s help to cut through the web of deceit and betrayal to find out what has been going on.

Established parameters

My first two published novels were standalone psychological suspense, but when I was having problems with the third book, my then agent suggested my books would be easier to sell if I had a series character. I gave some thought to the idea and decided my investigator would be a tour manager for a coach company. Her sidekick could be her driver and, in true Agatha Christie fashion, my cast of suspects would be limited to the number of passengers.

Not that things quite worked to that pattern as I hadn’t accounted for Peter Montgomery-Jones. Intended as a minor character, he took on a life of his own and not only demanded on a bigger role in Book 1, insisted on coming back in all future mysteries. Who said characters don’t take over?

Blood Across the Divide is the fifth Fiona Mason Mystery therefore there are I didn’t start with a blank sheet. I already knew my leading character, Fiona, who would solve a murder within the time frame of a coach tour. Two other characters would also an essential part of the mix – Peter Montgomery-Jones – who would have his own investigation – and Fiona’s West Indian driver, Winston whose role might only be minor, but already established as a steady rock for when Fiona is besieged by problems.

In every good novel, the leading character is changed in some way by the events that happen and although Fiona and Peter are well-established characters, they two continue to grow.

First decisions

The location is obviously another important element in any Fiona Mason Mystery. In the first novel Blood on the Bulb Fields, the idea of finding a dead body in a beautiful place like Keukenhof gardens appealed to me. I’d been to the Netherlands several times and, once I settled on Holland as the venue for Fiona’s coach party, the whole plot began to come together. Amsterdam has one of the world’s leading diamond cutting industries. Smuggling diamonds then became the obvious crime. Research told me that most smuggled diamonds are conflict or blood diamonds and that they are financed by terrorists – hence the introduction of Peter Montgomery-Jones as head of an anti-terrorism unit.

With the next two in the series, I knew the locations well although it did entail a further visit. In the case of Blood in the Wine, we did an actual coach trip and I used the same itinerary when I came to write the novel. A cruise of the Elbe valley beginning with a pre-cruise stay in Berlin was never intended as a research trip but it quickly became the itinerary for Mystery number 4 – Blood Hits the Wall.

With Blood Across the Divide, things were a little different. I had been to many of the places on Fiona’s trip before on different occasions, but with this book, time eluded me, and the return trip to check all the different locations never quite happened. Last year was a very busy year. One of the reasons was the solid six months of research needed to be the port lecturer on a couple of cruises. However, one of the ports I needed to research for my presentation was Belfast. By the time I’d finished, I was familiar with the history of Belfast and Northern Ireland and all of Belfast’s tourist attractions. As port lecturer, I also had to talk about the details of all the tours the ship had to offer. These then became Fiona’s itinerary. Naturally, when we arrived at the port, I opted for a tour to one of the places I had not previously visited and my husband visited the other – with strict instructions to make notes and take as many photos as possible. As luck would have it, I have a friend who lives in Belfast and she was kind enough to act as one of my beta readers checking that I had my facts right.

Location is not the only thing that has to be decided upon before I start writing. I need a reason to involve Peter Montgomery-Jones. What terrorist activity will bring him hurrying over from his MI6 headquarters? The crime must be related to the location. Setting Blood Across the Divide in Northern Ireland, something to do with the Troubles seemed an obvious choice. But it’s an emotive issue, and I was apprehensive that I could walk the fine line that would fulfil the needs of a crime novel and, at the same time, cause no offense.

I’m beginning to think about the next novel. I have two locations in mind. Originally, I’d decided on the Rhone Valley – we have a visit planned in March/early April but the idea I came up with for Peter’s investigation is probably better served by setting Fiona’s trip in Paris and the Normandy Britany area. We will have to see!

Author Interview on ‘toofulltowrite’

First and foremost, I wish you all a happy and productive New Year.

Towards the end of the year, I was approached by David Ellis and asked if I would agree to be interviewed for his toofulltowrite website subtitled as a Creative Palace for Artists and Author Resources. David asked some interesting questions that had me scratching my head at times and here is the result.

PORTRAITS 043_cr 300 tallAuthor Interview – Judith Cranswick

Welcome to the latest installment in the Author Interview series and we are finishing out the week with a bang.

Tonight we speak to Award Winning author Judith Cranswick about her crime thriller novels and what makes them so special, engaging and worth reading.

 

Hi there Judith, thank you for taking the time to be with us today to talk about your thrilling stories.

Blood Hits the Wall front cover copyLet’s start with your latest novel “Blood Hits the Wall” – Book 4 in the Fiona Mason Mysteries Series. Please tell us more about Fiona, how she has evolved over the course of four novels and what sleuthing adventures and sticky situations she is going to find herself dealing with this time round?

In the first book in the series, “Blood on the Bulb Fields”, Fiona was recently widowed. She had spent the last nine years looking after her terminally-ill husband. When he died, family and friends suggested she get herself a little job to keep herself occupied though becoming a tour manager for a coach company wasn’t quite what they had in mind. Fiona has grown in confidence as the year (and the first four books) has gone on and in “Blood Hits the Wall”, on her tour to Belin and the Elbe Valley, her relationship with MI6 chief, Peter Montgomery-Jones develops though they continue to find themselves at odds with one another all too often as they pursue their separate objectives. This time she wants his help when the group is detained in Berlin following the murder of their local guide, but he has his own secret mission which he cannot jeopardise. Continue reading

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A Death too Far cover iguana copy 300 tallA Death to Far will be available as a free download from all Amazon Kindle stores from 11th-15th December.

How can Kathy uncover the truth about her sister’s death when all she has to go on is a holiday journal and someone is determined to stop her investigation?
Kathy is devastated when Leanne dies on a holiday. It doesn’t help that they argued at the airport. How did Leanne fall from the boat in the middle of the night? Attempting to solve the mystery becomes an obsession that threatens to alienate Kathy from her friends.
Leanne’s journal describes not only her exotic wildlife adventures in a remote Amazon eco-lodge and the fabulous Galapagos Islands but also her suspicions that all is not as it should be. Had she stumbled onto a smuggling racket?

The story centres on Kathy, a woman trying to unravel the truth behind her sister’s tragic death while on holiday in the Galapagos Islands. The author guides us seamlessly through the clues, both in the present and through excerpts from her sister’s journal, and delivers numerous twists, turns, and red-herrings as we follow Kathy’s determined quest for answers.

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My Favourite Reads of 2016

I hope it’s not too early to wish you all a wonderful Christmas and a happy and fruitful New Year.

It is one of life’s great pleasures to curl up in bed at night and read a good book, so for my December blog, I’ve decided to share with you some of the crime novels that have given me most pleasure this year. It’s always a tricky task to narrow down the field to a select few, even more so when I realised there would be room to mention only three.

I’ve chosen one by a well-known author whose books I’ve been enjoying for almost twenty years, but my other two choices are writers who were new to me this year. It’s always a delight to discover a new author and once I’d read the first books in each of their series, it wasn’t long before I’d downloaded the next.

graveyardThe Graveyard of the Hesperides

Lindsey Davis

Marcus Didius Falco’s feisty adopted daughter, Flavia Albia, is a remarkable woman in what is very much a man’s world. Young, widowed and fiercely independent, she lives alone on the Aventine Hill in Rome and makes a good living as a hired investigator. An outsider in more ways than one, Albia has unique insight into life in ancient Rome, and she puts it to good use going places no man could go, and asking questions no man could ask.

The Graveyard of the Hesperides is the fourth in the Flavia Albia series

I have a long list of writers I admire and think of as my ‘favourite’ authors, but I can probably count on one hand the number of prolific writers –  with lists of 20 to 30 books to their credit – who I can claim to have read every one of their books. Lindsey Davis is one. (If you’re wondering who the others might be, they include Agatha Christie, Dick Francis and Terry Pratchett.)

I loved the first Falco novel and, from the 1990 onwards, have eagerly awaited the publication of each new book. I must admit, at first I was not sure about her new protagonist, Flavia Albia. After 20 Falco novels, I felt a little cheated having a substitute. Falco was such a loveable rogue – always wheeling and dealing. However, though this new series is different, I’m now a firm fan. I confess it was Tiberius Manlius Faustus who won me over, just as he has Flavia Albia as the series has progressed. Nonetheless, as well we know, the course of true love never runs smooth and there are always dead bodies getting in the way!

 

dante-collectionThe Dante Connection (Book 2)

Estelle Ryan

Despite her initial disbelief, Doctor Genevieve Lenard discovers that she is the key that connects stolen works of art, ciphers and sinister threats.

Betrayed by the people who called themselves her friends, Genevieve throws herself into her insurance investigation job with autistic single-mindedness. When hacker Francine appears beaten and bloodied on her doorstep, begging for her help, Genevieve is forced to get past the hurt of her friends’ abandonment and team up with them to find the perpetrators.

Little does she know that it will take her on a journey through not one, but two twisted minds to discover the true target of their mysterious messages. It will take all her personal strength and knowledge as a nonverbal communications expert to overcome fears that could cost not only her life, but the lives of many others.

This is a series with an unconventional protagonist. Genevieve is autistic and she has a band of likable but equally unconventional guardians who work on the other side of the law.

Estelle Ryan is one of my great finds of the year. She ticks every box – great plot, superb characterisation and a page-turning quality that keeps me reading long past my switch-off-the-light-and-go-to-sleep time. I thoroughly enjoyed The Gauguin Connection, book 1 in the series and couldn’t wait to read the next, but the best thing is, I still have seven more yet to read! By the time I’ve caught up, I expect book 10 will be in print. Fantastic.

 

divining-the-lostDivining the Lost: Andromeda, Book 2

G.M. Cameron

DC Frankie McCormack’s ex-wife has gone missing and Frankie’s going mental. The second in the Andromeda series sees DI Mike Donnelly and Annie use their very differing method to help. With Donnelly trying to keep him out of it, he turns to Annie’s jiggery-pokery.

But Annie is being attacked by an old enemy and dodging a violent stalker just at the moment …

A gritty tartan noir with wit and a hint of the occult.

 

With a name like Andromeda, you are not likely to expect a conventional protagonist and the reader certainly doesn’t get one! Though I love all of the many sub-genres that crime has to offer, that’s the attraction, I am always a little wary of delving into the occult. It is however, a testament to my enjoyment that I read the second in the series straight after I’d read the first – Divining Murder.

If you are looking for Christmas presents for family or friends who enjoy crime fiction, you couldn’t go far wrong with these authors, but why not give yourself a treat! You won’t regret it.

I’m sure many of you will have suggestions too. What have been your best reads of 2016?

 

The Life-Gets-in-the-Way Factor

writng-adviceWriting magazines and blogs are full of helpful advice for how to deal with the problems we writers sometimes have to face – dealing with writer’s block, “soggy” middles, constant interruptions and even finding the time to write. I’ve even read articles about finding your best time of day to write – as if most of us could choose when we sit in front of our computer screens or pick up a pen – or the best place to write. One thing I’ve never seen written about, but something I frequently struggle with, is when life gets in the way.

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Two Nations Divided by a Common Language

quote-two-nations-divided-by-a-common-language-winston-churchill-78-95-13One of the great advantages of eBook publishing is that even a first time novelist can now access a global market without difficulty. EBooks are just as easy to download in America, Canada and Australia as they are here in Britain. However, this has definite consequences which we writers need to bear in mind. Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill have all commented on the confusion that arises in the differences in our use of language on either side of the Atlantic.

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The Novelist and Depression – Dealing with the Downside

DepressionWe fiction writers are sensitive people – we live on our emotions. We create characters and, if we want to make them to be real for our readers, we see the world through their eyes. We put our protagonist through all kinds of misery. One problem after another. If we didn’t there would be no story. The more we experience our character’s pain, the better the writing will be. We train ourselves to feel the grief, the despair, the anguish. Is it any wonder that we fall victim to a certain level of despondency when life hands us a bad deal? Life is never fair. I like to claim that I’m a glass half full person, trying to see the best side and count my many blessings, but there are times when I don’t succeed.

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Writing the Novel – The Final Lap

Blood Hits the WallWriting a novel is a totally engrossing occupation. For the last year, ‘Blood Hits the Wall’ has been my obsession. As we writers know, writing is far more than sitting at the PC and getting the words up on the screen. It becomes something that occupies the greater part of your day. The characters and the scenes constantly play out in your mind even when you are busy doing something else entirely.

Rewriting is a lengthy process. Once the first draft is complete and the numerous rewrites analysing plot, characters and pace have begun,  your head starts spinning as you rework sections in your mind. You reach a point when you’re not sure if that great extra clue or nuance is still in your head or if you have already altered the manuscript itself. Whole scenes get moved around to provide a more logical unfolding of the story line. This means a careful check that it does not result in references to events that haven’t happened yet because you’ve moved them later.

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