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.
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.
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.