Now that my poor grammar has captured your attention…
Any writer who keeps two or more different series going knows how difficult it can be, but it is doubly so when those series are dissimilar in tone. Two of Anne Perry’s series have differing police detectives as protagonists – William Monk and Thomas Pitt. Both series are dark, and both are set in Victorian-era London.
J.A. Jance went a little farther afield with her Seattle-based detective J.P. Beaumont, as well as her Arizona-based sheriff Joanna Brady, but again, both are professional crime-solvers, and the tone of both series fall well into the traditional mystery category.
Then along comes Rhys Bowen, with her early 1900s New York-set mystery series featuring Molly Murphy, who fights against social injustice. But Bowen also writes a much more light-hearted series set in 1930s England, featuring the misadventures of Lady Georgie, a scrappy heir to the British throne who is down on her financial luck. Lady Georgie considers it a life achievement that she has finally learned how to dress herself without a maid.
Of the three writers, my writing challenges most closely echo Bowen’s, but without the travails of historical research.
In contrast, my “Desert” series more resembles Bowen’s Molly Murphy books, which see my Scottsdale-based P.I. protagonist Lena Jones struggling against social injustice. These range from the death penalty in “Desert Rage,” polygamy in “Desert Wives,” female genital mutilation in “Desert Cut,” government-caused cancer clusters in “Desert Wind,” and the misuse of eminent domain in “Desert Noir.” As such, this series can be quite dark.
The writing difficulty in each of my series is about the same. Once I’m well into a book – say, around ten chapters in – it’s pretty much smooth sailing. The plot is coming along nicely, the characters are not fussing at me too much, and sometimes I may have even figured out whodunit and why. But those first six chapters…
Here’s the true difficulty with writing two vastly different series: settling into the right tone when you switch protagonists.
Let’s say I’ve just finished writing “The Puffin of Death,” with one hilarious scene after another. Teddy, my uncomplicated zookeeper sleuth, remained optimistic as she rode through Iceland on a shaggy horse, evading erupting volcanoes and murderers. She cracked jokes all the while. The months spent writing “Puffin” were a blast for me, too, and I’d been giggling over my computer keys for months. But now that the book had been sent to my editor, it’s time to start on “Desert Vengeance,” the next “Desert” mystery.
“Vengeance” (which I’m currently working on) is about the problems in Arizona’s foster care system, as illustrated by PI Lena Jones’ own history as a child being shifted from foster home to foster home. Starved. Beaten. Raped. A truly miserable life. But wait. As I read the first few chapters in the rough draft, the now-grown Lena is cracking jokes and having a high old time as she remembers her early travails. What?! What in the world is so funny about starvation, beatings, and rapes?
Nothing, of course.
What has happened is that I’ve let the tone of the Gunn Zoo series – which I’d just spent months writing – leak into the opening chapters of a much darker book. It happened unconsciously because I was still on a giggly high after finishing “Puffin,” and I was still writing in Teddy’s optimistic voice. But Teddy trusts the world; Lena Jones doesn’t.
So what I, as a writer, have to do now is bring my own mind and emotions back into Lena’s dangerous world and edge away from the cheery glow of my California zookeeper. It isn’t easy. In fact, it usually takes me six or eight chapters – sometimes as many as ten – before I hit the right note and begin seeing the world through Lena’s suspicious eyes. I have to keep slogging away until the miracle finally happens. Once it does, and I’m finished with the first draft, I have go back and rewrite those funny – and very wrong – first chapters.
The opposite problem happens when I finish a Lena Jones book and start the next Gunn Zoo mystery. Lena’s fierceness leaks into the beginning chapters of a zoo book, making my bubbly Teddy resemble a stern Valkyrie much more than she does the happy-go-lucky zookeeper I want to create. But that, too, always works itself out. Somewhere between chapters eight and ten, my happy girl comes skipping back, with her beloved anteaters, koalas, llamas, and puffins trotting (or flying) behind her.
Let me reiterate. Writing two vastly different series with two vastly different protagonists ain’t easy. But this is where trust – and patience -- come in. The writer must trust that her characters, although absent for a while, will eventually return in full voice. And then have the patience to give it time to happen.
Because it will.
Betty Webb is the author of 9 Lena Jones mysteries (DESERT RAGE, DESERT WIVES, etc.) and 3 Gunn Zoo mysteries (THE PUFFIN OF DEATH, THE LLAMA OF DEATH, etc.). Betty worked as a journalist, interviewing everyone from U.S. presidents, astronauts who walked on the moon, and polygamy runaways. A nationally-syndicated literary critic for more than 30 years, she currently reviews for Mystery Scene Magazine. She is a member of the National Federation of Press Women, Mystery Writers of America, and the National Association of Zoo Keepers. Her websites are bettywebb-mystery.com and bettywebb-zoomystery.com