Sunday, June 21, 2009

Guest Blogger Hannah Dennison

Once you've written several installments of a series, how do you keep your facts straight? I am so pleased to welcome our Sunday guest blogger, Hannah Dennison, author of the hilarious "Vicky Hill" mystery series.  Or perhaps I should say I'm chuffed.


When Donis invited me to muse on the wonders of writing a series, her timing couldn’t have been better.

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to be the guest author at a local book club’s annual tea party. A book club had picked A VICKY HILL EXCLUSIVE! I felt chuffed and more than a little special since that meant they must have made choices

Ignoring my mum’s warning that “pride goes before a fall,” I couldn’t wait to spend a whole hour eating a delicious cream tea and talking all about Vicky Hill. However, it’s one thing to do book signings and chat to readers before they’ve read your novels but quite another to be in the hot seat and grilled by thirty intelligent women who had taken the trouble to really study the book. 

One member brought photographs downloaded from the Internet referencing certain quirky British elements in my plot; another asked really excellent questions as to character motivation and why I made particular choices in my plotting. As the questions kept coming, my seat got hotter and my heart sank lower. You see, I couldn’t remember a single thing about my first book! I knew that chickens featured in there somewhere. I vaguely recalled the sex of the killer, but more mortifying, I couldn’t remember why she did it. There is only so much one can attribute to having a senior moment. I am currently writing the fourth in the Vicky Hill mystery series. My second, SCOOP!, was out in March. The third, EXPOSE, will be published in December. 

I had moved on. 

The moment I got home, I created a Vicky Hill “bible.” I chose Power Point software mainly because I can view the sidebar which doubles as an index and allows me to see at a glance all the “ingredients” in my series.  In the bible I’ve included interior descriptions of houses, makes of cars characters drive, every method of murder used in each book and even a list of what Vicky ate on her first date and whom she has kissed. I realized that no matter how much I thought I knew the fictional world of Gipping-on-Plym—after all, I created it—my readers knew more!

It would also appear that my characters know more than I do, too. Donis wasn’t exaggerating when she said characters become alive and often refuse to die. I tried to kill off two in A VICKY HILL EXCLUSIVE!  The first was supposed to drown in a canal; the second had a fatal nut allergy and was actually lying in the morgue after eating a chocolate Brownie when he made a miraculous recovery. He—Steve, such a dear man albeit hugely overweight—has gone on to great things in subsequent books. 

When one’s characters become alive, it’s exciting. My editor at Berkley Prime Crime believes readers are far more likely to remember character-driven scenes rather than specific plot points. Even though I struggled to answer plot questions at my tea party that afternoon, most of the book club members easily recalled certain situations that Vicky found herself in, savoring the conflicts and humor rather than the why. 

Mystery series are chiefly character driven for this very reason. Readers want to return to a familiar world with trusted characters that have become friends—though this presents many challenges for the author. On the one hand, it’s wonderful to spend months with your characters. The writing really does get easier. On the other, there is the need for continuity but with enough change that the reader sees you are not writing to a format. Whatever characteristics you give your protagonist in the first book, have to stay. In the TV world, the term to avoid is  “jumping the shark.” Characters have to act in character otherwise readers will feel cheated. Somehow you have to present your protagonist in a different way each time so that a reader who has read all your books learns something new. At the same time, someone who is meeting your hero for the first time must be able to understand him or her completely. 

Having a theme often helps. In the Vicky Hill mysteries she yearns to belong and have a real family. On a general level, I like to explore the concept that falling in love at seventy is as painful as when you are a teenager. 

There is also a danger that a series can become stale. How many murders can happen in a small Devonshire town without the population being wiped out? When has a series run its course? How on earth do you keep it fresh? Developing the secondary characters often works though hopefully they won’t steal the limelight from your protagonist. The most effective way is to make sure the protagonist is evolving. 

To this end, I gave Vicky two personal challenges. As the daughter of the infamous silver thief, The Fog, currently on the lam in Spain, she’s worried that her father will demand she give up this “reporting nonsense” and work for the family firm. Or worse—Vicky will inadvertently betray him. On a romantic level, Vicky remains pure and unsullied. If she finds Mr. Right and experiences the fireworks of carnal love (she’s ever hopeful), the intrigue for her search for love will be over.

I strongly believe that when a character’s life problem or personal challenge is resolved in a series, some elemental pizzazz vanishes. And what about the question of aging? I deliberately put the timelines of my books close together. It’s feasible that Vicky will still be searching for Mr. Right in six months to a year, but in ten? Just how old is Miss Marple? Really? 

I feel lucky to be writing a series and although I’m already worrying about Life After Vicky Hill, I’m more concerned for Vicky’s immediate future. As I feverishly write her fourth adventure, my editor insists Vicky keep all her options open. If this one is the last, then my poor heroine’s worst fears are realized. 

Not only will she be left on the shelf—literally—she will die a virgin.  And that would be a tragedy.


Hannah's web address is


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

This is a wonderful post. I've faced the same problem myself and felt so silly when the book club knew my book better than I did! Very good points.

Mystery Writing is Murder



Excellent, excellent points. I especially like the visual of documenting details in PowerPoint. I published my first mystery in January and am writing book #2 of what I hope to be the second in a series and your thoughts and insights were truly helpful.


Clare said...

Hi Hannah - love the powerpoint idea (why didn't I think of that!) and the book club grilling is only too familiar:)

Anonymous said...

Hannah, what a great idea to create a Vicki's World document. Sort of like G is for Grafton which gives even the tiniest Kinsey Millhone detail. Your wonderful sense of humor comes through in the post and I love hearing your mum's words of wisdom. I hope you're having a wonderful holida with her now. Lovely to see you in Pasadena.


Hannah Dennison said...

I have returned at last from a blissful 3 week vacation in the UK with no internet. It was great! I'd love to hear of other ways to keep track of series etc. I am also relieved to know that I am not alone in the Book Club hot seat under the spotlight. If only I could have phoned a friend ...