Sunday, May 27, 2018

Writing an Ensemble Series

Today I'm thrilled to welcome author Christine Carbo to Do Some Damage. Christine and I, after passing by one another at several different conferences, finally had a chance to officially meet and talk at Left Coast Crime this past March in Reno. And I'm so glad because now her Glacier Mystery Series is one of my favorite things going (The New York Times agrees, calling her writing "stunning ... it's in depicting nature's drama that Carbo's writing thrives.") The fourth in the series, A Sharp Solitude, comes out Tuesday. It's not your typical crime fiction series - here's Christine to tell you why that is . . .

As a new writer who knew so little about the business when I first entered it, my initial instinct was to get a book – one book – on the shelves. To be published, I had considered most of my life was about getting an agent, selling a book, and finally seeing the one book with my name on it sitting on bookstore shelves. So, earlier in my life, after writing two non-genre novels that I didn’t try very hard to get published, I decided to get serious and write The Wild Inside. I was thrilled beyond words to imagine my book making it that far.
hat I love to read. I wrote a mystery and tried my hardest to see my dream through. When things began happening, I was giddy with excitement. I flew from Montana to New York City to meet my agent and the two editors who had both made offers on my debut, The Wild Inside. I was thrilled beyond words to imagine my book making it that far. 
Then, within fifteen minutes of conversation of each meeting with the editors, each one asked me, What’s next?
I was completely unprepared for the question. Because I had concentrated on simply publishing one book for so long, I had not considered how I would follow up. But once I began contemplating it, one of the first things that came to my mind was how much I enjoyed Tana French’s approach to her Dublin Murder Mystery Series. I loved the concept of plucking a side-character from one book and developing that character’s point-of-view in the next. When I write, I tend to follow the advice of Michael Connelly when he says that “the best crime novels are not how a detective works on a case; they are about how a case works on a detective.”
And although Michael Connelly has written one character over an entire traditional series, the sentiment also applies particularly well to the ensemble series, in which the author can focus on a dramatic event or theme in the protagonist’s life and play out his or her full character arc. In my first book, The Wild Inside, once I teased out the central dramatic theme, the protagonist’s character arc had been completed and it seemed like it would be hard to revisit the same character in a follow-up novel without him feeling a bit flat. I began to think that the best approach to additional novels for me were ones that felt like stand-alones; but I knew I needed to appease my publisher in terms of having continuity. Where I live and how crime butts up against the wild is what my agent and both editors loved. So I decided to establish my setting, which is Glacier National Park and its surrounding area (titled the Glacier Mystery Series), as the common thread. The best way to achieve this was to follow that ensemble series formula, and I’m so glad I made the decision to do so because it's worked really well for me.
I am amazed at authors who can make one lead character fascinating to follow through an entire series. I would have a lot to learn if I tried to follow the traditional formula, and I hope to try at it some point, but so far, through the ensemble approach, I’ve been able to develop a strong, dramatic sense of place and explore fascinating new characters with each book. My first features a lead detective from the Department of the Interior who is called to Glacier to investigate a serious crime; however, Glacier is the last place he wants to be because he witnessed his father get mauled and killed by a grizzly bear while camping there one night when he was a teenager. While he is in Glacier, one of the law enforcement officers helps him with the case. It is this character that I spotlight in my second book which involves a fictional therapeutic wilderness school located near Glacier. In my third, I pluck the county forensics’ team leader who has helped out in both the first two. It involves a missing boy from one of the campgrounds, so the local resident FBI agents are involved as side characters. It is one of these characters that I pull to star in my fourth, A Sharp Solitude, which comes out on May 29th.
Going this route has not only allowed me to delve into different characters and various traumatic events in each of their lives, but it has enabled me to avoid the Cabot Cove syndrome of tripping over dead bodies in Glacier. The world I create around each of these players expands and allows me to explore all sorts of problems people might encounter in differing factions of law enforcement. I have had to do a bit of research with each one, but I enjoy learning about the various branches of law enforcement around the area I live. Lastly, it allows me to write stand-alones while working within the continuity of a series, which is where I presently feel most fulfilled as a writer. Therefore, readers can start anywhere they like, just like in French’s series, but they don’t have to feel like they’ve lost out on anything crucial involving the main character by not reading earlier books.
So, if you’re in the position where someone is asking you, What’s next? consider the ensemble series. It’s a great way to write stand-alones while still tapping into the fan base that organically grows a series.
Christine Carbo is the author of an ensemble series set in and around Glacier National Park. Her books include The Wild Inside (2015), Mortal Fall (2016), The Weight of Night (2017) and A Sharp Solitude (2018, Atria Books). She is a recipient of the Womens’ National Book Association Pinckley Prize, the Silver Falchion Award and the High Plains Book Award. After earning a pilot’s license, pursuing various adventures in Norway, and working a brief stint as a flight attendant, she got an MA in English and taught college-level courses. She still teaches, but in a different realm as a Pilates instructor. She and her family live in Montana. Find out more at A Sharp Solitude is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local independent bookseller.

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