I recently shared my upcoming manuscript—Third Degree—with a trusted friend who is also a book reviewer by trade. She pulls no punches. She always lets me know what she likes and what she thinks is not so great. (She still contends that Quick Study was her favorite, and to her mind, my best. I beg to differ. The best one is the one that just came out. Every single time.) I hold my breath until she finished whatever I have shared with her and this time, I was relieved that she really enjoyed the soon-to-be-published work. I also thought it curious her overall reaction: “I like that your characters live lives. They change. They make mistakes. They move on.”
I got to thinking about this because some of the mysteries I love best include characters for whom nothing ever changes. Nancy Drew never got any older (nor did she get to second base with Ned, a disappointing fact to the fifteen-year-old I once was). The Hardy Boys stayed just slightly post-pubescent (again, a major disappointment until I was able to visualize them as Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy). Miss Marple never married. Stephanie Plum remains in limbo, caught between two men, blowing up a new vehicle in each subsequent book in the series.
But in the Murder 101 series, mayhem ensues in terms of mystery and in terms of just living life because to me, Alison, Crawford, and the cast of characters are real and I can’t imagine them standing still. I recently mentioned to my editor—the fabulous Kelley—that I was thinking of taking Alison to Dublin to do some Joyce research in a novel down the road. I asked her if she thought that was a good idea. Her answer? “Only if everyone else goes with her.”
I see what she’s saying, but I wonder how realistic it is for Fr. Kevin, Max, Fred, and a host of other people in Alison’s “life” to hit the road with her and spend a summer in Dublin researching Alison’s dissertation subject, James Joyce? When it comes down to it, it really isn’t. So the challenge becomes how to keep Alison and her peeps interesting without taking them too far out of their milieu or just far enough.
It’s always been easy for me to write about Alison and the other characters because they live in a very distinct world that is not entirely unlike mine, except for the part where they occasionally trip over dead bodies or find heroin residing in their plumbing. My life is exceedingly routine: get the kids off to school, walk the dog, empty the dishwasher, do the laundry. Oh, and write. I’m supposed to write in there somewhere. I’m not complaining. It’s a great life. But there wouldn’t be a series if Alison’s life was just like mine. It also wouldn’t be a series if I didn’t create an alternate universe where my grown-up Nancy Drew finds the dead bodies or tries to flush a brick of heroin down the toilet. Nobody wants to read about my life, but some people want to read about Alison’s and the goal is to keep her life interesting.
I guess my question for you, Stiletto faithful, is do you like characters that live lives? Or are you more comfortable with characters who stay pretty much the same? How much do you have to suspend disbelief to enjoy your favorite amateur sleuth’s investigations?