R. Franklin James grew up in the San Francisco East Bay Area and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. Her career path shifted to Southern California where she was appointed Deputy Mayor for the City of Los Angeles by Richard Riordan. After a career of public service she focused on her first love, writing, and in 2013 her debut novel in the Hollis Morgan Mystery series, The Fallen Angels Book Club, was published by Camel Press. It was followed by Sticks and Stones and The Return of the Fallen Angels Book Club. The fourth book in the series: The Trade List was released this past June 2016. James lives in Northern California with her husband. You can find her online on Facebook and her website: www.rfranklinjames.com.
R. Franklin James:
Birth of a Series
I didn’t start out wanting to write a series, but it was clear to me by the time I reached sixty-thousand words, that Hollis Morgan, my protagonist in the Hollis Morgan Mystery Series, had much left to say.
My first book was in first person, a voice initially I was not all that comfortable, except that it made me hear Hollis whispering in my ear. Her reactions, thoughts, and words all spilled out onto the page – her story was not only about fighting for a second chance, she wanted redemption. Once book one was launched, later books were written in third person-close and we get to see the world through Hollis’s eyes.
Book one, The Fallen Angels Book Club, poured out of my keyboard. The members of the book club were all white-collar ex-felons, and were as different and complex as any miscreant ensemble. The fact that they shared a love of books took precedence over their unfortunate deviation from the law. Now considered social outcasts, they fought hard to regain society’s acceptance and even harder to re-gain their own self-respect. Unfortunately, their efforts are discounted. They soon are obvious suspects when a member of the club is murdered mimicking the plot from one of their book club selections.
The story couldn’t end with the resolution of the crime. I wanted to know what would (or could) happen to Hollis Morgan. Would she tire of having to prove herself to society that she deserved to be trusted? Or, would her innate sense of helping those who, like her, just needed a second chance, cause her to confront risk, danger and her own worst fears?
The outline of a series revealed itself to me.
Books two through four, not only reveal the character development and growth of Hollis, the plot lines are more complex and darker. Hollis’s resolve to remain true to herself while resisting letting down the towering walls she has built up around herself, becomes harder and harder to do. Her encounter with others, who need her professional skills, but with whom she finds she must trust to share a part of herself—is her series character arc. While each book plot stands on its own, readers will enjoy experiencing Hollis’s evolution from a brash, standoffish ex-con into a thoughtful, confident but still brash young woman.
The trick for any mystery series (for any book, really) is to keep the reader engaged and vested in the plot, anticipating and eager to find out what lies ahead. A book club of ex-felons not only contains a caldron full of sub-plots, it creates the major opportunity to keep readers’ attention. Today’s world is full of distractions and short attention spans, but when your sub-plots are as intriguing as your main plot, readers will not put down the book until the last satisfying page.
Subplots are essential to a series. These stories within a story not only provide tension and multi-layered suspense, subplots weave dimension to characters allowing them to express themselves differently under potentially different situations. Hollis comes from a dysfunctional family that contributes to her isolation, but we see in how she reacts to confrontations with her family that she keeps hidden her vulnerability when responding to her clients. For them, she’s as “tough as nails”.
It’s important to write characters that readers care about. When you’re writing a series, the storyline has to be gripping for the long haul. In my case it had to be six books long. This is key not only for mysteries, but for any work of fiction, as well. Shallow or stereotyped characters are not sympathetic, they are boring. An antagonist has dimension when they have at least some redeeming qualities, and becomes a complex character that enriches the storyline. In a like manner, a flawed protagonist will keep readers turning the pages of your mystery, because it’s unexpected and if the flaw is an emotional wound—even better.
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