By Libby Fischer Hellmann
My latest thriller, Jump Cut, is the fifth Ellie Foreman mystery, and it’s been ten years since the fourth one came out. Ellie will tell you she’s been on an extended vacation, but I wasn’t so sure. I had to evaluate whether it was possible to bring back a series, a lead character, and her “supporting cast” after so long. Obviously, I went for it; here is some of my thinking.
On the positive side, bringing Ellie back was like reconnecting with an old friend. I quickly rediscovered Ellie’s voice, and the writing was familiar, even easy, something for which I was grateful. Despite the passage of time, she’s still essentially the same person: producing videos, interested in the world, worrying about her family. She still has a self-deprecating sense of humor and the need to see justice done that can put her in dangerous situations. At the same time, however, she has matured. Which surprised both of us. She is unwilling to take the same risks she did in previous novels, and she’s doesn’t act as impulsively. She tends to think things through. I hadn’t expected that.
Another benefit was that I didn’t have to introduce many new characters. Ellie’s father, daughter, best friend, boyfriend, and even her ex-husband, show up in every book, and I already knew their backstories. It makes the writing easier when you’re working in known territory.
I’m hopeful that familiarity extends to readers who have read Ellie in the past. They probably have expectations from past books as to what kind of story an Ellie book will be, and, hopefully, this story will not disappoint them.
However, there were, and are challenges. Characters need to be fully vested in today’s times, opportunities, and issues. They can’t feel dated. Which includes holding on to past incidents or ideas. In the first four novels, for example, Ellie had a volatile relationship with her significant other. It was a substantial subplot of each story. But that was ten years ago. Very few women would still obsess over a rocky relationship for ten years. So, except for one mention, she had to go.
Perhaps the biggest character-related decision, and one that every series author has to make at some point, is whether to age her characters. As fiction writers, that’s one of the only “poetic licenses” we have. Sue Grafton doesn’t age Kinsey Milhone; Sara Paretsky does age V.I.
I thought about it for a long time, and eventually came up with an answer: “Yes, sort of.” Ellie wasn’t a spring chicken at the start of the series, so I elected not to age her. Her father was a senior citizen, and while he does move from his seventies into his eighties, he remains mentally vital and alert. In fact, the only person who does age is Rachel, who was twelve-ish when the series began and is now twenty-six.
I did that for a reason. There is—or was—an old saw of not harming pets or children in a mystery. But now that Rachel is an adult, a wealth of new plot possibilities has opened up, and I capitalized on that in Jump Cut. And who knows? Maybe Rachel will have her own series one day. It happened to Georgia Davis, who was featured in the third Ellie mystery, An Image of Death. Of course, there’s always the chance that if Rachel keeps aging, she and Ellie will eventually be the same age…
The major challenge was creating a plot that readers would find exciting – yet credible. Although the crisis Ellie faces in Jump Cut seems surreal, the story had to develop naturally and incrementally. Each step had to be logical and believable, so much so that the climax seems inevitable. But that’s the challenge of any thriller, whether a series has been on hiatus or not.
The Implicit Contract
Whether a character ages, a series takes a time-out, or how much or little it changes, the bottom-line question is whether it still works. It’s the author’s job to bring a character up to date enough so they’re believable, behaving credibly and comfortably in today’s world. It might mean providing explanations of what’s happened to the characters in the interim, or leaving readers to fill in the gaps themselves.
It’s part and parcel of what I call “The Implicit Contract” between author and reader. A reader will suspend a certain amount of disbelief when they start a crime novel. For example, we know that video producers don’t trip over dead bodies on a regular basis. But readers are willing to accept that in a novel, because they know they’re in for a suspenseful ride. In return, I believe the author has a responsibility to create a story and characters that are as credible and authentic and logical as possible. No matter how much time has passed or how the world has changed.
What About You?
Do you think it’s OK to resurrect characters years later? Do you think it’s essential to bring them up to date or can you leave them as they are, frozen in literary amber and behaving as though time has stood still?
Libby Fischer Hellmann left a career in broadcast news in Washington, DC, and moved to Chicago 35 years ago, where she, naturally, began to write gritty crime fiction. Twelve novels and twenty short stories later, she claims they’ll take her out of the Windy City feet first. Her short stories have been published in a dozen anthologies, the Saturday Evening Post, and Ed Gorman’s “25 Criminally Good Short Stories” collection. In 2005, Libby was the national president of Sisters In Crime, a 3500 member organization dedicated to the advancement of female crime fiction authors. More at http://libbyhellmann.com