The Best (and Worst) of Both Worlds
As much as I admire Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I also feel a certain pity for him. He came to detest his most famous creation so heartily that he decided to kill Sherlock Holmes off. This was in spite of the commercial success of the novels and short stories featuring the character; as Conan Doyle put it, in his autobiography, he was determined to do the deed, “even if I buried my bank account with him.”
He knocked off Holmes in a story called “The Final Problem,” and his legions of readers were outraged. “I hold that it was not murder, but justifiable homicide in self-defense, since, if I had not killed him, he would certainly have killed me,” Conan Doyle wrote. But the outcry was so overwhelming that the author was eventually forced to resurrect Holmes and go on writing about him until the end of his days.
This story was on my mind while I was writing my third novel, Evil in All Its Disguises, the latest installment in a mystery series featuring travel-journalist-turned-amateur-sleuth Lily Moore. Initially, working on that book felt as cozy as easing my feet into a well-worn pair of slippers. I know Lily’s voice so well that there are echoes of it in my mind even when I’m not writing about the character. But that sense of ease vanished while I wrote the first draft. I found myself shooting down ideas because they didn’t fit with the cast of established characters, and I spent too much time looking up details that I’d already committed to the page in the earlier books. I felt chained to the past in the name of consistency.
In the world of mystery novels, it’s an accepted truth that readers love series. They enjoy diving into a familiar world that’s populated by people they’ve come to know intimately. But, from the writer’s point of view, that sense of comfort can turn into a trap that limits creativity. No matter how many dangerous situations I put Lily in, the reader knows she won’t die. The novels are narrated from her point of view. More than that, there’s an unspoken contract a series author enters into with their readers. People don’t want the basic terms of that deal suddenly altered.
Writing my stand-alone novel, Blood Always Tells, was a thrilling contrast. At the start, it was terrifying. Who were these desperate characters? Dominique Monaghan, Desmond Edgars, and Polly Brantov, the three characters whose points of view are represented in the book, sprang from my brain, but that doesn’t mean I understood their motivations. It’s like meeting a group of new people. They’re not going to spill their guts to you at first—all three of them have secrets they’re guarding. Discovering my characters’ true natures is a process of coaxing them out.
The freedom was intoxicating. Who could tell what characters — if any — would still be standing by the end of the book? Because it’s narrated in the close third-person, the reader gets to see inside their heads, without the safety harness of knowing nothing really bad could befall them. There was no going back to check what I’d written a couple of years ago, just the white-hot rush of being in the moment with the characters in this story.
That bliss lasted until I got to the end of the book, when I realized I didn’t want to let these characters go. They’re alive in my mind, and I’d been living with them for so long that I didn’t want to part ways with them. It hit me then why some of my favorite writers—such as Walter Mosley, Tess Gerritsen, Harlan Coben, and Laura Lippman—write both series and standalones. A series is a long-term relationship littered with love-hate moments. A standalone is a doomed romance: you experience the intoxicating, all-consuming rush of falling in love, even though you’re destined for heartbreak.
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