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Writing Both Standalone and Series Characters: Sleeping Beauties by Jo Spain

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Character
Jo Spain

Jo Spain

Last year, at the launch of my second book, I pulled a stunt on my husband. He was approaching a big birthday, his fiftieth, the following December. The launch was in September. I surprised him with a cake and one hundred odd people joined me a chorus of Happy Birthday.

He’s back talking to me now.

I did it both to mortify him (he loves it!) but also to pay homage to the role he’s played in helping me to create the series protagonist in my detective novels, DI Tom Reynolds. In my second book, Tom too is turning fifty and his long-suffering wife, knowing how much he hates his Christmas birthday, throws him a surprise party in October.

Life imitating art imitating life imitating art.

Here’s a simple truth. When I wrote my first novel, my detective was very influenced by my husband. He was a man in his late forties and I was a woman in my early thirties. Who could pass up the opportunity of live research? It’s not that I was following him around with a notepad but . . . let’s just say, he’s probably never been  studied as closely as I was watching him those days.

So, Tom and my husband share many characteristics. A love of late night telly, a distaste for early mornings. A fondness for cigars and red wine, a laid-back sense of humour, an unfortunate penchant for unreliable cars.

That’s where the similarities end. As I often joke, my husband couldn’t solve the mystery of where I keep the iron, let alone puzzle out a serial killer.

Like most writers, I take a lot of my character inspiration from what’s around me. Sometimes somebody will ask me if any of my characters are based on people I know in real life. This is usually followed by, Do they recognise themselves?

Well, you haven’t recognised yourself, I reply in my head, grinning manically.

(I’m exaggerating, please don’t sue me, family members!)

But while I might pick up on little foibles or habits, once they’re formed, I do find my characters take on a life of their own.

I’ve written six books now, four in a series and two standalone thrillers. I’m also writing for TV. At any point, I have a cast of people living in my head and I like to think I know everything they’re thinking all the time (yes, you can call me God), but sometimes my keyboard takes me by surprise.

I do realise this makes me sound schizophrenic, but the voices in my head tell me that’s completely normal in an author.

Sometimes, a character will react to a situation in a way I never would – and that’s when I know I’m breathing real life into the personality. If all your characters are mini versions of you – let’s face it, that book is not going to be the most riveting.

Series characters have the most tendency to go off script. In my detective novels, the plots are standalone but the recurrent characters have all manner of dramatic events happening in their home and work lives. That’s important, to bring back readers, but also to move the cast along. I sometimes plot them getting together, or somebody getting ill or dying, but often, it just happens. Thank you, magic typewriter!

I didn’t realise how familiar and relaxed I’d become with my series characters until I branched out into thrillers. Here, I could write a cast that appear for the story and then . . . poof, they’re gone. They exist only on those four-hundred-odd pages. And no matter how much I enjoy them, I don’t want to bring them back. One series is enough. I live with the Reynolds clan. My standalone characters are exciting and refreshing and their fleeting existence keeps them that way.

I wonder, frequently, if I’ll run out of characters. In my latest thriller – not due out for a couple of years, contain yourselves, there are a large number of in-depth personalities. When I began the novel, I really worried that they wouldn’t be distinct enough. It was really challenging. My early readers tell me they are all unique – hopefully the public will agree.

But that novel paled in comparison to writing for television. TV eats drama, I was told, and to fill a series, your characters have to go far beyond novel depth and further again in terms of quantity.

If there’s a plural of schizophrenic, that might be the point I’m tipping into now.

It’s okay.

We’re happy we have enough ideas to keep writing and not run out of stories any time soon.

(c) Jo Spain

About Sleeping Beauties:

A young woman, Fiona Holland, has gone missing from a small Irish village. A search is mounted, but there are whispers. Fiona had a wild reputation. Was she abducted, or has she run away?

A week later, a gruesome discovery is made in the woods at Ireland’s most scenic beauty spot – the valley of Glendalough. The bodies are all young women who disappeared in recent years. D.I. Tom Reynolds and his team are faced with the toughest case of their careers – a serial killer, who hunts vulnerable women, and holds his victims captive before he ends their lives.

Soon the race is on to find Fiona Holland before it’s too late. . .

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Jo Spain’s first novel, top ten bestseller With our Blessing, was one of seven finalists in the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller Competition 2015. It was named as an Irish Times crime fiction book of the year by Declan Burke. Her second novel, bestseller Beneath the Surface, was released in September 2016 to further critical acclaim. The 3rd book in the Tom Reynolds series, Sleeping Beauties will be released in September 2017.

A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Jo lives in Dublin with her husband and their four young children. Jo has worked as a political advisor on the economy in the Irish parliament and has been vice-chair of the business body InterTrade Ireland for the last five years.

Jo’s debut novel, the first in a crime fiction series, is set against a background of the infamous Irish Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby homes. The author’s own father was born in one such home in Dublin and the novel’s backdrop was constructed based on the in-depth research she undertook while attempting to trace her family roots.

Her favourite writers include Pierre LeMaitre, Fred Vargas, Louise Penny, Jo Nesbo, Ann Cleeves, Val McDermid, Karin Fossum and Agatha Christie.

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