In the weeks running up to the launch of a book I think I reflect on that book in a different way to at any other time. The point has passed when any changes can be made but, it is too soon to know how it will be received; maybe this ought to be the nerve wracking bit, but it isn’t. For me it’s probably when my thoughts on being a writer are their most clear.
My latest book, The Promise, will be released on 4th February and is the sixth in a series. That’s far enough in to know where the series is heading and to look back on its origins, it’s also a good time to consider its strengths and pitfalls.
The first thing to confess is that I never set out to write a series. I had one idea for one book, it wasn’t a police procedural but the story of a woman anonymously calling an incident hotline to tip them off about a murderer. Part way through I realised that I did, in fact, need a police officer to follow up on these leads and created DC Gary Goodhew as an incidental character. He slipped into a second chapter, then a third. By the time I completed the final pages I was crying, partly in relief that I’d actually reached the end, partly through exhaustion as it was my third night with no sleep, but mostly because I had grown attached to Goodhew and couldn’t bear the thought of saying goodbye to him. As I wrote those last few hundred words I decided that I needed to make him the lead character in a series.
In the first book, Cambridge Blue, Goodhew is twenty five years old, he’s the youngest DC at Cambridge’s Parkside Station and working on his first murder investigation. I liked the idea of following a character from the start of his career. Many of the crime novels I read early on seemed to ‘reset’ the characters at the end of each story, but I find it hard to believe that there wouldn’t be a cumulative emotional effect from each difficult case and Goodhew does change over time. This is also why each book in the series has become darker than the last.
Luckily for me Gary Goodhew has endeared himself to many readers who have loyally followed him through some disturbing cases and have been waiting for him to be put through new traumas in the sixth instalment. And it is precisely that which is the beauty of writing a series. The longer story arc allows the reader to experience better paced and more emotionally complex character development, and from the writer’s point of view there is the opportunity to gain a readership that is loyal to the series rather than just the writer. At the launch of my fourth Goodhew novel, The Silence, I suddenly realised that a high proportion of the guests were people I didn’t recognise – and not because my patient friends and family had abandoned me after loyally turning out for the three previous launches – but because people had turned out for Goodhew.
Just as I’m glad I chose Goodhew as my protagonist I’m also relieved that I chose to set the books in Cambridge rather than a fictitious town. There is a long tradition of inventing locations for novels but there aren’t many situations when I can see an advantage to this. Many readers are attracted to locations they know and Cambridge has worldwide renown. I could never invent somewhere as diverse and still make it believable. I spend time walking around the areas of the city that I choose for each book and end up with a view of the city that’s very personal to the way I see it.
Writing a series has worked well for me but with every upside there must, unfortunately, be a downside too. I guess most writers have more ideas than they ever have the time to write. I think of plots that won’t work for Gary and scenarios that can’t happen in Cambridge, I can’t switch to another era or tackle the kind of crime that doesn’t involve the police. At this point there are other books I know I’ll write, but I’m not leaving Goodhew behind yet…
I write in a shed in my garden, it’s cold in the winter but if I put the heating on I doze off, so I sit with my legs in a sleeping bag, wearing hat, coat and blankets, and type wearing fingerless gloves knitted by my friend Claire. Other friends gave me shed warming gifts too: a mug carrying the slogan, Don’t worry about my browsing history – I’m a writer not a serial killer, my Post-it Notes shaped like corpses and the Agatha Christie mug mat that was delivered in an evidence bag. To one side of the desk is a book shelf containing copies of the Goodhew novels. At some point this week I’ll be adding number six to the collection as I continue to work on number seven. I know Goodhew better than all but one or two real people, I know he’s fictitious but, at the same time, have to admit that he’s great company and my workplace and everything in it has come about because of him.
So I’ll be sitting in my shed with all six books beside me and reflecting on how it feels to be at this point in the series. Of course I hope Goodhew’s fans enjoy The Promise, and of course I hope there are new readers who discover the series for the first time but, most of all, I think I’ll take a moment to toast Goodhew and all the adventures we’re having.
You can order The Promise here
Follow Alison on Twitter: @Alison_Bruce