IMG_1106I’ve just finished book five! Yes, by the end of November I will publish the fifth in the Beatrice Stubbs Series – Human Rites.

Writing a crime series is a curious endeavour. There’s all the tricky stuff of how much backstory, as each book is a standalone adventure, yet there must be an overall arc for those following the series. Each plot needs to be new and different, but bear the hallmarks of a Beatrice Stubbs novel.

As luck would have it, my Triskele Books colleagues and I have recently embarked on a creative writing course. We decided that amongst all the practical elements of publishing as a collective: writing, reading, critiquing, blogging, reviewing, marketing and networking, we had precious little time to focus on improving our writing.

So we scouted around and collected our favourite writing exercises to flex some writing muscles we might have neglected. We published one of the first in Words with JAM: A Character Interview

Not only has it been great fun, but interesting to see what the others thought and extremely helpful for my work. As I wrote the last scene of Human Rites, I reflected on the importance of character development over a series.

Despite the hefty cast of characters in each of these novels, only certain people remain constant in all. And they are the drivers of the overall arc. It is the interaction between individuals the reader knows and loves/hates that creates dramatic tension. I like Yvonne Grace’s visual analogy of a bicycle wheel, where you need to plait the spokes to make the characters’ stories intersect. Another successful writer I know uses grids to plot the development of character over a series. Maybe because I have a musician husband I found the system of musical notation a handy tool.

orchestral score

Like an orchestral score, each character has five horizontal stave lines while vertical bar lines represent the books. Usually, I allow three bars per book, indicating the three-act structure. I plot the emotional journey of every character over the course of each book, which gives me an easy overview. That enables me to see where one character is left stagnating in misery and needs some light relief. Or where I’ve played treble notes throughout and forgotten my bass line.

It’s also a good way of keeping track of the harmonies. Who’s up when the other is down? Where do they collide on the same note?

Another benefit of those whole book-in-three-bars system is the degree of change from the start of each adventure and the overall rhythm of ups and downs. If DI Stubbs starts each story full of enthusiasm and ends embittered and sad, the pattern becomes monotonous. Vice versa, where the reader leaves one book and begins the next should not have a jarring discord in character outlook.

Character relationships play a huge part in subtext. By doing in-depth character work, such as Beatrice Stubbs Box Set One_KINDLE KOBOthe questionnaire above for all your key players, you can use the detail only you know about these people to drop little breadcrumbs across the stories. So that when a secret emerges, the loyal reader is rewarded with a join-the-dots moment.

Lastly, how do they grow? What has changed between Books One and Two? How would s/he do things differently after the experience of Book Three? Use your reader’s emotional intelligence and memory. Of course he’s afraid of the attic after that spider episode in Book Four. Naturally she’s gone off rare steak because of what happened at the end of Book Two.

As I said, I’m curious. If you are writing a series, be it crime, fantasy, sci-fi or any genre at all, how do you track character development?

 

Orchestral score image courtesy of Creative Commons

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Fraumunster bookmark

Detail from the artwork for Behind Closed Doors

I took the decision quite early in the publishing process to have different covers for my ebooks and paperbacks. And for the latter, I needed a fine artist. My inestimable designer, Jane Dixon-Smith, who creates the covers and formats the interior, found just the right person.

James Lane. As soon as I saw his work, something felt absolutely right. He lives in California, I live in Switzerland, we’ve never actually met, but our creative collaboration has been a joy.

I asked James if he’d talk about the process, answering and asking some questions. As always, he exceeded expectations.

Jill: How does the artistic approach differ when trying to reflect 80,000 words, as to portraying a mood, or a moment in time?

James: When creating an image we’re working towards that “Aha!” moment that the viewer feels upon that first glimpse. It should spark someone’s interest quickly while remaining true to the content of the story. Having said that, the “Aha!” moment is exactly what I’m trying to avoid while working with an author because it behooves us both to know what to expect as we move through the process. It doesn’t make any sense to leave the author in the dark in the hopes of loving the image at the final stage because if it doesn’t work, it’s back to the drawing board for both of you. Once we have arrived at a basic idea of how the painting should turn out, I can have fun with it and let the inspiration come through.

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Detail from James’s original painting

Jill: Have you collaborated with other creatives from other media, such as graphic designers, musicians, dancers, etc? How did you find the process?

James: As a musician I collaborated often, but painting and writing can be very solitary endeavors, aside from the feedback we receive. Paintings and books are generally not co-authored. I would love to see collaborations by contemporaries like Gauguin/Van Gogh or Sargent/Sorolla. It can be helpful for painters and writers to sympathize with each other and realize that you’re often in the same boat from a psychological standpoint. While working on these book covers it has been a tremendous help to be given a specific passage with a lot of visual imagery from which to draw. This also shows me that the author has taken the time to think of their story in visual terms.

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Behind Closed Doors front cover

Jill: What were your initial concerns about a) working virtually and b) on a book cover?

James: Working virtually was never a concern for me because it’s so common these days. It helped to have a few skype chats so we could get to know each other. I think small talk, joking around, brainstorming and commiserating will always help any creative process, rather than simply emailing back and forth.

Working on a book cover poses specific challenges, especially when you are painting it because you can’t just hit the “Undo” button in Photoshop until you get back to a previous stage in the image. Again, as long as you both agree to a plan you can move forward without too much stress.

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Detail from Raw Material artwork

James: I appreciated receiving a list of influences from you, including other artists and works that you admire, the palette and general mood of the painting, even musical scores. How do you go about determining what you need for your covers and what recommendations do you have for communicating those expectations to the illustrator?

Jill: While pondering this question, I realised I approached working with you purely on instinct. I had no formula or experience of collaboration with a fine artist so I admit to a certain amount of trepidation. But I have previously worked as a theatre director – communicating concepts to lighting and set designers whose methods I don’t really comprehend – so I know that when different types of artist understand each other, it quite simply works.

I remember trying to find a designer for Cyrano de Bergerac. I interviewed many slick, classy, experienced people, but didn’t click. Then a young Edinburgh design graduate turned up, bursting with enthusiasm and just ‘got’ it. We finished each other’s sentences, extrapolated on our ideas and she created some of the most beautiful and evocative stage moments I’ve ever seen.

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Raw Material front cover

As for determining my covers, a key feature of all my novels is place. Art also plays a minor role, yet each reference is carefully chosen to play its part. I wanted my paper covers to have a fine art feel, a Golden Age quality which states: This Is Not Your Average Crime Novel. The covers should suggest depth, culture, location, and be something people want to look at, touch and pick up again.

So I think an author, director or any kind of collaborator can use random references to illustrate the image – music, art, fabrics, food, seasons, imagery and lines from the book which encapsulate its essence. If the artist is worth her/his salt, they can appreciate a synaesthetic vision.

James: Most authors and publishers work with illustrators who use Photoshop and Illustrator. What tips would you give to an author who is working with someone who uses traditional methods such as oil paints, pen and ink, etc?

Time. Give the artist space, time, and do not expect results in 24 hours. One of the things I loved most about the creation of the first cover is the video you created of its gradual emergence. That gives such a clear perspective on how much work and thought goes into such a piece.

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The original painting for Tread Softly

Also, and this goes for all kinds of media, be receptive to what the artist can introduce. The line between knowing what you want and micro-controlling is a tough one to call. Creative skill comes of talent, experience and training … and vision. If I hadn’t trusted you and followed your judgement, my books would look a great deal poorer. So I recommend openness and communication, with a healthy dose of respect.

Lastly, a reader pointed out how very dull and generic he found a lot of book covers. He picked up mine because it was different. As an independent publisher, thankfully, I am not dictated to by marketing departments or sales teams. That creative freedom is priceless, so should not be squandered. Finding an artistic partner who’s willing to take risks, who’s prepared to tackle new sets of parameters, who’s happy to cope with creative direction via email/Skype and who even reads the books first … it sounds a near impossibility. I guess I got lucky.

 

Tread Softly, in paperback and ebook, is released on 1 June 2013.

Tread Softly pb cover

Tread Softly – complete finished cover

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