Mystery Mondays: Barbara Fradkin on Writing A Crime Series

doordieIt is my honour to  host Barbara Fradkin on Mystery Mondays. I’ve been reading her work since DO OR DIE was published in 2000. The novel sits on my bookself as a reminder of what to strive for.

Barbara is a generous author. She read an ARC of DESCENT and provided a blurb that I proudly display on the front cover. I could hardly believe after being a fan for so long, Barbara liked my work. I never thought when I read DO OR DIE, she would read one of my novels one day. These are moments to treasure.

So enough about my happiness, and on to what Barbara has to say about writing a crime series.

By Barbara Fradkin

Series are all the rage in crime fiction. Readers love reconnecting with their favourite fictional companions and following the ongoing ups and downs of their personal lives quite apart from the drama of the particular mystery. There is nothing better than spending a few days in the company of an engaging, at time infuriating, but always interesting old friend. And wondering what he or she will get up to next. Writers of series often remark, somewhat wryly, that readers never comment on the mystery plot itself, no matter how surprising, clever, or poignant it is, but on whether the detective’s wife will divorce him (finally) or have another child, or whatever. I’ve received numerous emails from readers warning me, “Don’t you dare kill off the father!” This despite the fact that Green’s father is now tottering into his nineties.

Publishers love series because readers do, and because once a reader discovers a series, they often read every book in it while eagerly awaiting the next. As a result, in the crime fiction world, readership builds with each new book, and books that were published ten or fifteen years ago still have a life. The first book in my Inspector Green series, DO OR DIE, was published in 2000, but since it continues to sell, my publisher keeps it in print. In fact, all my books are still in print. In today’s publishing reality, fifteen years is a long life for a book.

The question for this blog, however, is not whether readers or publishers love series; it is whether writers do. I can answer that question for myself only, but I suspect other writers feel the same. We have mixed feelings. We love that readers become connected and wait eagerly for the next book. We love that our publishers say, “Yes, bring on the next one!” We also love that we can slip effortlessly into the circle of characters we have created, picking up at the point in their lives where we left them in the last book and continuing to explore and develop their stories. Embarking on a new Inspector Green novel was always like walking into a family reunion. I have spent more time with these characters than with my actual family; I have created and lived through every one of their crises, whether professional or personal. I have walked with them, argued with them, agonized over their choices and created their moments of triumph and catastrophic despair. I love all my characters. Not just Michael Green, but his rebellious daughter, his wise, long-suffering wife, his father struggling with old age and loneliness, his work colleagues Sullivan, Jules, Peters and Gibbs. I have put them through all the challenges that life throws at us. I care what happens to them.

And yet, for most serious writers, there comes a time to break free. To make new friends and explore the struggles of new people. Time to explore new story styles and structures, and new settings. No writer wants to feel they have written this story before. No writer wants to feel constrained and straitjacketed by the cast of characters and the setting just because the public and the publisher demands it.

Luckily for me, Orca Books came along with a proposal for a series of easy-read, short novels with adult themes but a fast-paced, engaging, bare-bones style aimed at readers who lack the time, the patience, or the English reading skills to commit to a three hundred-page book. This allowed me to explore a whole new style, setting, and cast of characters. I created Cedric O’Toole, a simple country handyman who loves to tinker with junk and who lives on the hard-scrabble farm he inherited from his mother. Solving crimes is the farthest thing from Cedric’s mind; yet he keeps stumbling upon trouble he can’t ignore. Cedric is the antithesis of the Green, who is a committed crime fighter and die-hard city boy. And the setting –poor, rural Eastern Ontario—is the opposite of Ottawa. It has been fun to leave one set of characters behind and immerse myself in the country world of Cedric O’Toole, and it has helped keep me sane. Over four years I have written three Cedric O’Toole books, the latest being THE NIGHT THIEF.

Meanwhile, however, I have written ten police procedurals set in Ottawa (with the occasional foray afield), all featuring the same Ottawa setting (with minor variations) and the same hero. Michael Green and his entourage have become old, much loved friends. In each book I have tried to push the boundaries of the story structure. I have sent Green to Montreal, to Halifax, and up to the wilds of the NorthWest Territories. I have thrown him back into a historical case that may have gone entirely wrong. Ten books feels like a milestone, both a reason to celebrate and a reason to wrap it up. Not forever. I want to develop new characters, experiment with a more adventure-thriller style, and explore all the varied beauty the Canadian landscape has to offer. I hope to come back to Green refreshed, delighted to reconnect with him, and with a new perspective on the classic story structure of the police procedural.

FireintheStarsSept16So far I have a contract for three books in a new Amanda Doucette series. This time, finally, I have a female hero, and I have a setting that, although classically Canadian, changes with each book. The series will be travelling across Canada, with the first book, FIRE IN THE STARS (September 2016), set in Newfoundland, and the second, THE TRICKSTER’S LULLABY, in Quebec’s world-famous Mont Tremblant. I imagine that eventually I will hit the Pacific (or Arctic) Ocean and the series will have run its course.

Green and I stumbled upon each other fifteen years ago, when I had no idea I was writing a series and no idea where I was going to take him. But the secret to his longevity is that I created a sleuth I enjoyed being with; yes, he was flawed and infuriating but always passionately on the side of right. I, and by extension the reader, could care about whether he succeeded, and cringe for him when he messed up. Life with Green was never dull. Furthermore, I had him grow and change over the series, as each new case brought new challenges to his life, and changes to his personal life as well. My motto in this was, never let him get comfortable. What new struggles can he face, and what new challenges can I throw at him?

A hero who has a real life outside work that we can all relate to; a hero who stumbles and yet, with our encouragement, overcomes; a hero whom the writer is happy to spend three hundred pages and fifteen years with—this is a successful series hero! Cedric, with his more modest aims but equally heroic challenges, is also a worthy keeper. I love to come back to him, leaving Green in the city and immersing myself in Cedric’s bumbling, quirky life.

Barbara Fradkin_1
Barbara Fradkin

I have learned a thing or two about what makes a sustainable character over the years—real life struggles, flaws, a passionate heart, a determination to overcome—but in the end, there is a little magic to it. I can only hope Amanda Doucette will have that spark of magic in her too.

Next week is Canadian Thanksgiving, so I’ll be eating Turkey with my family and Mystery Mondays will have to wait.

But then you are in for a treat. Phyllis Smallman, author of the Sherri Travis Mysteries and the Singer Brown Mystery Series, will be here to talk to you on October 19th.

Thanks for reading. And as always…

If you’re looking for something to read and you haven’t read DESCENT yet, now is your chance before BLAZE comes out. Find it at: myBook.to/Descent

And if you have read DESCENT, I’d be very excited if you pre-ordered BLAZE.

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13 thoughts on “Mystery Mondays: Barbara Fradkin on Writing A Crime Series

  1. Barbara’s books have always been on my shelf too, read thoroughly and treasured, even one of two with the author’s signature! As both a voracious reader and a writer, I am torn about the series – love them as a reader, not so much as a writer. Barbara is my hero in keeping her series fresh and exciting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for posting this. I’ve wondered how novelists feel about writing a series. From a creative perspective, I resist the idea but, as one seeking to make a living from writing, I’m drawn to it. 🙂

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    1. Eve, I love to write a series. I have a stand alone novel too. The thing I like about the series is the time involved in setting up new characters. That’s where my creativity seems to flow. And as you can see, Barbara has been very successful at it.

      Like

  3. A great blog, Barbara! I’m one of those who has mixed feelings about writing a series. I took a break this year to write a novella with new characters, and then went back to work on my 6th Casey Holland mystery feeling refreshed and eager to tackle the third rewrite. There’s so many good things about doing something different and stretching creativity.

    Liked by 1 person

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