“How do you write a successful detective series?” Well, first off - I don’t know the answer to that. But it is a question I’ve pondered for a while. I don’t mean successful in the financial sense - though that’s always cool and welcome - but in the critical one. What makes a good one?
Is it about the evolution of the protagonist? I’m not sure, because you see successful examples on both sides of the spectrum - from the never-changing cypher of Lew Archer to the constantly-evolving Moe Prager. Is it about a finite series vs. a long-running one? Again, pick a side, because both have winners - Nick Stefanos lasted three books and Matt Scudder went well past 10.
In an effort to explore the concept, I reached out to friend and fellow crime novelist (and DSD contributor!) Kristi Belcamino. She just published her fourth Gabriella Giovanni mystery, Blessed Are Those Who Mourn - the latest in what I think is a great, engrossing series. Heck, I blurbed one of the books. I feel like Gabriella and Pete have a lot in common, so it’d be interesting to talk a bit of shop when it comes to writing series characters and the craft in general. Thanks to Kristi for chatting.
Kristi, thanks for agreeing to this interview! I feel like we’re both in similar spots in our writing careers - and we both handle series characters. So, it’d make for a fun chat. How did Gabriella come to be? Do you remember it as a specific moment?
Initially, I sat down to write Blessed are the Dead as nonfiction. But I quickly realized the book wouldn’t hold together unless they had convicted the guy who kidnapped and killed the girls. At the time, he was only a suspect. So I decided to write the book as fiction. Of course I have always been a huge fan of Edna Buchanan, Pulitzer Prize-winning crime reporter for The Miami Herald and had loved both her nonfiction and fiction, so writing about a crime reporter protagonist had been a dream of mine for years. What ended up happening was as Gabriella Giovanni came to life she became my alter ego - the person I might have been in another life.
So, no specific moment, but I loved reading about crime fiction reporters and so it made sense to want to write my own.
I didn’t have a specific moment, either. So I feel relieved. It’s funny you mention Edna Buchanan, because she was an influence of mine. I wanted to really capture the seedy, dark side of Miami and I knew her work, of course, from my time at The Miami Herald. I also wanted to show the realities of working in a newsroom and how unglamourous it can be. But Pete didn’t appear fully formed for me. He came about because I wanted to write about a character that felt real to me, and maybe didn’t have everything lined up yet. A lot of the detective fiction I first started reading had protagonists who were, I guess for lack of a better term, fully formed? They were good at what they did. I was interested in telling an origin story about a flawed hero who may not even want to be a detective. I also thought that a newspaper setting would be helpful in terms of moving the story along and, more selfishly, because I knew that space and it made it easier to let that pour out than to research a whole new profession. I also wanted to follow someone who I could see - Pete is very much the kind of person I hung out with in college or worked with at the paper, so I had a very clear sense of him early on, even if I didn’t know I’d be writing about him for numerous books.
I think that’s what makes Pete so lovable. He isn’t perfect and we can all relate to him and like him and totally want to hang out with him and be friends. I would’ve totally wanted to hang out with him if we worked together at the paper.
For me, I chose to write about a reporter and her career as my love letter to the heyday of newspaper reporting. Those were the days when I’d come into work and they’d tell me I’d have to be on a plane in an hour and where I spent numerous nights at the fancy restaurant buying cops rounds of drinks -- it was a very exciting time to be a journalist. The newsroom was the most exciting world I could imagine. When I became a stay-at-home mom during the frigid Minnesota winters, it was a way for me to live vicariously in San Francisco, living this exciting life again. I wanted to capture that special newsroom energy on paper. Until I had a kid, I never dreamed for a moment I would ever stop being a reporter. Now, a decade later, I’m back - in fact, as soon as we are done here, I’m off to the night cop shift at the Pioneer Press. And let me tell you, those exciting days are over. I get a small glimpse of them every once in a while, but the newsroom is a graveyard of abandoned desks and, with the internet, there is no such thing as a scoop anymore. The reporters from the competing newspaper and I are pals. Horror!
I can relate to that a lot. I was a reporter for a short time - an internship for the Sun Sentinel that got extended for a handful of months. I did a lot of copyediting and website “producing” while at The Herald, too, so I spent a lot of time in newsrooms. But I imagine that the scene is completely different now. I feel like the romanticized version of being a reporter that’s in my head is gone now. I remember rushing out to cover a relatively boring community event in west Broward only to have the mayor collapse. So, there I was, a 19 or 20 year old intern, having to scramble to cover it. It was intense - but really fulfilling. The mayor ended up being fine and my story made the local front. I miss that rush, because there’s nothing like it. I’m not even sure it exists at newspapers anymore. So, yeah, part of the writing of Silent City was trying to recapture that feeling, but also showing the mundane side of it, too. Pete isn’t a reporter when we meet him in Silent City, but he has been, which I could relate to, having shifted from writing to editing. When I first started writing Silent City, I had just moved to NY for a PR job, so I was dealing with that transition and I think a lot of my longing for newspapers (and Miami homesickness) came out in the writing.
In your series, do you try to show a lot of growth or change from book to book? That’s something I think about a lot, and mostly because I think it’s important to show evolution. Though, some of the most beloved series are pretty static, in terms of what happens to the lead.
I agree. It is important and I did think about it a lot for all four books. I tried to show change and growth within each book but also through the four books. I think it worked. A reviewer wrote that I’m not afraid to take risks to do this. And one thing that needed to happen to show that growth was I did not keep the characters the same age in the same year, etc. There is time that passes between each book. When this fourth book begins, more than five years have passed. At this point, if I continue with the series, I’m obviously going to have to be more careful about that and think about how I want time to pass. And I am planning more books, but not sure how many. Right now I’m in love with a standalone I’m writing and then will go write book five. What about you, Alex? What are your plans? Riding the series out for as long as you feel it, or do you have other projects you are itching to write?
I just finished a first pass at 3 and I’m well into 4, which is kind of nutty because when I first started out on this trip, I figured I’d write three Pete books and move on to something else. But somehow he got stuck in my brain and I kept getting more ideas. I try really hard to show growth and the passage of time from book to book. I don’t know if that helps the books, because it does mean you should read them in order. But I also try to make each book as self-sufficient as possible, so it hopefully evens out. In Down the Darkest Street, the second Pete book, you find his status quo has completely changed from where we left off - some time has passed. But it’s also not totally out of left field, either. He’s evolved, his life has moved on. I also really feel like it’s important to show the wear and tear we put these people through. There’s a character from the first book who I kind of put through the wringer and then bring back for the second book, and it’s clear they’ve been through hell. I try to show that as realistically as possible. I think that also means that at a certain point, the series has to end - I don’t think anyone would handle these kind of things going on forever. I have to tip my hat to Reed Farrel Coleman’s Moe Prager books for being a great example of the evolving protagonist - from book to book, you see time jump months or even years forward, and part of the fun is figuring out where Moe stands and what’s going on with him. That was a big influence on me, as were the Scudder books. I find those kind of books interesting, which is why I try to reflect that in my novels. Book 3, not to spoil anything, is also a big departure because by the end of Book 2, you’re not really sure how things can proceed. Which I think is great, because it opens up a ton of story potential. I like torturing my characters and seeing how they react. But yeah, to get back to the original question - I’m much more interested in having the characters evolve and learn than just showing them taking on the “next case.” It’s more cable TV than Law & Order for me.
That is great. I love that you see it that way and think that is the best way to go. And what a great way to end a series book when you know there is another to write -- just not sure where it is going. The reader has to pick up the next book to find out. Also, I need to read some Moe. Gary at Once Upon a Crime said Coleman’s Moe is his favorite fictional protagonist. What an endorsement! His favorite! Also I love that you torture your characters and put them through hell without an ounce of guilt! Kidding. We need to do that to them!
Totally. It makes it interesting. Do you map out the entire series? I can’t say that I do. I’m working on the fourth and your fourth is already out in the world - but I never would have guessed this is what I was going to be writing about. I see each book as a season of a show, and while I kind of know where each season is going, they organically come together to create the over-arching story. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and thought “Well, by book 10 Pete is going to be a grandpa detective living in Boca Raton!” Though, that sounds vaguely interesting now.
I had loosely mapped out three books from the beginning. When my agent was shopping Blessed are the Dead, she wanted synopsis for three books to shop it as a series. When I realized I was writing four books, I had to stick another book in the middle, if that makes sense?
I feel like the series could be totally wrapped up now but I am very very lucky that most reviews left are asking for the next book so I think that will need to happen.
Right now, I’m about one-third of the way through a standalone and what I’ve found is that IT IS HARD. I can crank out series books quickly and it seems to work because most people have been saying my latest book is my best (does that sound like bragging, I don’t mean it to, I just mean that writing fast doesn’t mean writing a shitty book), but with this new stand alone, it is the hardest thing I’ve ever written.
The first book I wrote, Blessed are the Dead, took about four months to write and an ENTIRE YEAR to revise as a I taught myself how to write. The next three books took about four months each and I attribute that to already being intimate with that world and those characters.
This standalone is a whole new ball game. Someone told me recently that in a way I can look at all four books in my series as BOOK ONE and that this stand alone is actually my sophomore book. Which is scary, but it really feels like that.
That’s a really interesting way to look at it. I don’t think it’s bragging at all to say your latest is your best - that’s the hope, right? If everything is clicking, I can write pretty fast, but I do a lot of heavy lifting in revision. I don’t think I’m unique in that regard, but it means a longer runway for each book. I had two books in mind when I started writing Silent City - the debut and another, darker book that explored some of the themes that aren’t fully resolved in book 1. I figured I’d add another book to wrap it all up. When my agent started shopping the books, like your situation, she asked for a synopsis for a potential book 3, and that was the first time I got to thinking about it beyond a title - Dangerous Ends. It all sounds very ominous, right? But once I finished book 3 I felt like there was more to say, and I wanted to explore the new status quo I’d created, so I think the trick is to keep it interesting for yourself and hopefully that translates to the readership. I can’t imagine writing a standalone just yet, but we’ll see where I’m at after a few more Pete books. I’m having too much fun with him and keeping him on his toes.
AKA torturing him!
Come back on Sunday for Part II of the discussion!
Come back on Sunday for Part II of the discussion!