Keeping Things Fresh in a Series by J.M. Hall | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Plotting and Planning
J.M. Hall

J.M. Hall

Living in a blizzard: keeping things fresh for series characters

On a foggy winter’s evening a stranded woman has an unsettling experience in an eerie charity shop. She returns the next day- only to find that the shop has vanished…

These events form the beginning of my new – my third – cosy crime novel featuring three retired primary school teachers who solve crimes. (My third! Momentary pause whilst I step back and have a pinch-me awake moment!). When I was telling someone about this, and about the other novels, they asked me how on earth it was that I find fresh stories to tell- not so much with the different crime aspects of the novels but concerning the recurring protagonists, Pat, Liz and Thelma.

It’s a good question, one that gave me pause for thought. Prior to writing the first novel, I’d only ever written standalone radio and theatre plays all with very different premises and characters. On the face of it the challenge of maintaining momentum and freshness in the personal stories of Pat, Liz and Thelma may seem a daunting one. Three protagonists means three stories to explore per novel; I’ve now just finished the first draft of my fourth novel- which makes a total of sixteen character stories to find. However, I have to say I actually found this aspect of writing to be quite straightforward. Please note I do NOT say ‘not daunting’ because writing for me is by its very nature daunting, but that’s a whole other essay!

There’s two reasons why it’s never a particular struggle finding stories for Pat, Liz and Thelma, and indeed for finding them mysteries to investigate.

A Clock Stopped DeadThe first lies in who these three ladies are; retired teachers who come from and are familiar with a world that was my soul and life for some forty years, a world that is an unparalleled source of stories- the Primary School. The reason for this is straightforward enough: people are stories and schools -primary and otherwise- are centred around people. In a one-form entry primary school there’s likely to be well over a hundred families, with their various ups and downs and ins and outs for the staff to witness and comment on, and that’s not even taking into account the various dramas being played out in the lives of the forty odd staff. Teachers will tell you that life in a school is many things- exhausting, frustrating, challenging, heart-breaking; one thing it never ever is, is boring. Any day in a school is likely to bring a whole blizzard of stories, ranging from the tragic to the comic to the sinister and yes, the downright mysterious- all set against a backdrop that is both vibrant and unique; powder paint and reading books and confiscated Pokemann cards.

Within this world, your average primary school teacher is something of an expert when it comes to understanding the vagaries of humanity. Over the years they will have seen and heard pretty much every variety of tale life has to tell, and this makes them adept at solving mysteries with abilities that are right up there with Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Morse. Of course, the mysteries they address are not your archetypal crime scenarios, the things that are the staple of so much crime fiction/ There’s no dismembered corpses, burnt out buildings or missing ne-er do wells. The stories they face are infinitely more parochial, but no less compelling. Why have scratches suddenly appeared on Mr X’s new Merc? Why has Mrs X suddenly traded her French plait for cropped, pink hair? Why did Mrs Y and Ms W fall out so violently after that shopping trip to Harrogate?

So, when looking for fresh stories for both the novels and for Pat, Liz and Thelma, I have some forty years’ worth of tales to sift through.
The second reason is more personal.

Pat, Liz and Thelma are me- the me I am, and the me I aspire to be. Like Liz, I get nervous about finding a parking space and have a black dread of confrontation. I certainly aspire to Pat’s flamboyance, and share her love of a glass of fruity red. And Thelma has a faith and wisdom I’d love to emulate. So, when thinking about these three and their stories I need look no further than my own life as I navigate my sixties with all the various challenges that brings.

I realise that I’m making this all sound easy which really isn’t the case. Writing, like teaching isn’t easy! But when you have a whole world of people and places to write about – it’s a little bit more straightforward.

(c) J.M. Hall

About A Clock Stopped Dead:

A Clock Stopped DeadRetired schoolteachers and amateur sleuths Liz, Pat and Thelma are giving up their coffee morning for a brand-new mystery.

Retired teachers Pat, Liz and Thelma are happiest whiling away their hours over coffee, cake and chat at the Thirsk Garden Centre café.

But when their good friend tells them about an unsettling experience she had in a sinister-feeling charity shop, they simply can’t resist investigating…

Because the entire shop has vanished into thin air.

Before long, our trio of unlikely sleuths find themselves embroiled in a race against the clock to get to the bottom of this mystery – but who has a secret to hide and how far will they go to keep it concealed?

Only time will tell…

Order your copy online here.

About the author

J.M. Hall is an author, playwright and deputy head of a primary school. His plays have been produced in theatres across the UK as well as for radio, the most recent being Trust, starring Julie Hesmondhalgh on BBC Radio 4.

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