Just as an aside: My first starred review from Publishers Weekly came out this week. They really seem to like The Question of the Unfamiliar Husband ("captivating"). So that's nice. But that was just an aside.
This is my last day of "vacation," as I'll start a new draft on a new book tomorrow (which, against my wishes, will be Sept. 1). So it's time to ruminate on process.
On my new schedule (short breaks between books, which is what I've always wanted), the shift from one style to another, one series to another, one character to another, is quicker. Not as much time to think about whether Alison Kerby would say that or Samuel Hoenig would find a particular situation uncomfortable. Just finding my way with Rachel Goldman and Kay Powell as I head into their second adventures.
You'd think that would be a daunting task. Frankly, I don't find it all that hard to do. Although I did just have to look up Kay's last name. Haven't written her in a while.
The key to my kind of writing (that is, where plot may not necessarily be the primary draw although it is hardly neglected) is voice. All four (!) series I write are done in first person. The character is telling you the story from her/his perspective. So when the incidents I cook up occur, the key is to know how each character will react and how s/he will choose to relate it to you, the reader.
This is where my natural tendency as a "pantser" comes into play. I've never really been very good at planning the nuances of the story. I have an idea of a premise, a general midpoint and a very vague notion of an ending. This goes back to my decades as an unsuccessful screenwriter writing in three acts. Some people who write screenplays chart out each scene with 3x5" file cards and pin them to a cork board.
For me, if each scene is plotted before I begin, I've told the story. Writing the book would be a waste of time and a joyless experience. That feeling would no doubt bleed into the writing and readers would sense it. Not a recipe for success.
There have been times in the past few years when I was working on more than one novel at a time. For example, the first Rachel Goldman/Duffy Madison book Written Off (once called Deadlier Than the Sword) was written at the same time as the most recently published Haunted Guesthouse book Inspector Specter. It just worked out that way.
When that happens, I have to switch from one narrator to another in the time it takes me to close one Word file and open the next. Then I dive in and start typing away in the other character's voice.
It's not a mystical process; it's not magic. It's just being able to know the characters well enough that I can let them speak for themselves. And that is key for any kind of fiction writing; it's something I try to impress upon my students (get those final drafts in today by noon!) every week--if you know your characters well, can let them be people and not concepts, they'll lead you to where you want to go.
You have to trust them. It's not hard to do. Just write people you find interesting.
For me, it starts with Alison Kerby, the narrator of the Haunted Guesthouse series. A single mom trying to run an accommodation business, she's going to be more polite than some of the others. She's got to be more politic. She is sensitive to the needs of her daughter and sometimes takes out her frustration on the people she finds most inconvenient, like the ghost Maxie Malone, who usually deserves it.
Rachel Goldman in the Mysterious Detective series is in a little more over her head. She writes mystery novels, a business I know fairly well, so she'll face situations that aren't completely alien to me, but she'll deal with them differently. She's sarcastic but befuddled often, and she's coping with the presence of a man who claims to be the living incarnation of her fictional character, Duffy Madison. So she's not always sure what to believe. Rachel will not ooze confidence.
Kay Powell, who will start narrating the Agent to the Paws series in 2017, is from a showbiz family and doesn't want to admit how deeply that runs in her. She rejects the idea of performing and becomes an agent representing actors who are furrier than most and no, I don't mean the cast of Duck Dynasty unless you count the ducks. She works with animal actors. She's not as crazy about most people she knows, is wary of show business types and is probably the most sarcastic of the current bunch (although Aaron Tucker probably hit my personal best in that area).
And then there's Samuel Hoenig, the proprietor of Questions Answered. Samuel's Asperger's syndrome makes his narration very specific and probably requires most conscious thought to write well. He's not going to talk like me (he speaks more formally for fear of being misunderstood and because he likes rules) and he usually doesn't think like me, so he's more of a challenge. Switching from someone else to Samuel can sometimes clear my head. Other times it's like Michael Jordan trying to play baseball--you'd think it would be a fit, but it needs a different set of skills.
But all that is analysis after the fact. I didn't sit down with the first Guesthouse book Night of the Living Deed ahead of me and say, "Okay, she's going to be running a public accommodation...". No. Alison's circumstances gave her a personality for me and I just wrote that. Same with the other three (and anyone else I've ever written).
The trick to writing characters is that there's no trick to writing characters. You have to be the characters, let them roam around in your head and see where they go, listen to what they say, watch what they do. If that sounds like a sign of mental illness, I urge you to remember one essential fact about today's blogger.
I'm a writer.