Today, the “Story Behind the Story” is MY SECRET TO WRITING A GOOD SERIES…
I came to the community of writers late in my life—signing my first book contract at age 68. So I honestly thought that publishing The Lost Concerto, a classical music romantic suspense novel, would be my first—and last—book. I never expected to write another.
But everyone, including myself, wanted to know what happened next to my Boston pianist Maggie O’Shea. Introduced in The Lost Concerto, Maggie is grieving the tragic death of her husband and devastated by the loss of her music. Caught up in a search for her missing godson and a haunting concerto, Maggie journeys to Paris, where she meets a take-no-prisoners Colonel, finds the courage to move on, and discovers what has been lost within herself.
But how did she move on? There are no better words a writer can hear than ‘I did not want this story to end.’ With those eight small words, I realized that Maggie had more story to be told—and so my second book, Dark Rhapsody, was born. But the birth was a difficult one. I was terrified that I had poured every emotion I had into The Lost Concerto, that I never would be able to write a story as good—or better—and, worst of all, that I would disappoint my readers. Frozen, I turned to author/publisher Patricia Gussin. Her advice for a series? “Readers love to get to know and care about a good character. The challenge is to give readers the character they’ve come to love but add new conflict, flaws and layers, making your character more complex in each book.” Best advice ever.
And so, determined to explore Maggie’s past, I began book #2, Dark Rhapsody. I knew I could give my readers the familiar main characters they had come to love—Maggie, Colonel Beckett and his Golden. But I had no idea how to propel them forward into brand new depths and stories.
Where had story come from in my first book? I realized that Maggie and the Colonel had come alive when I added three new characters who made their story so much richer—a missing child; a chilling Shakespearean actor; and a three-legged rescue Golden Retriever who gave my Colonel much-needed humanity, new layers and humor. For me, the best way to create richer, more compelling stories for my main characters was right in front of me—add new characters.
Adding compelling characters gave my second book, Dark Rhapsody, the perfect way to explore Maggie’s past. Gigi, an aging, legendary pianist; Finn, a vanished Maestro; a haunted cellist named Hannah; and the faith-challenged Bishop Robbie Brennan. Whether they played a small role or a larger one, all played pivotal roles by adding conflict and sending Maggie in new directions. These supporting characters each had a story to tell, a history, baggage, flaws, secrets—and inspired new challenges, relationships, and even unexpected romance. In any good story, Something Must Happen. New characters make things happen.
Which brings me to my third and most recent book in the series, Shadow Music. A life-changing message draws Maggie to Cornwall in a harrowing search for a missing Van Gogh and the truth about her husband’s death. Robbie Brennan returns, as this fallen priest’s story was far from finished. But for Maggie’s new challenges, I once again turned to New Characters. I created a rule-breaking nun with a child and a decades-old secret. I resurrected Yuri, a sinister Russian character from an earlier manuscript. And finally, I created one of my favorite characters ever—Dov, a Russian foster-care teen with a terrifying and heart-wrenching past. Dov not only shines a light on himself, but he allows the Colonel and his Golden to grow in new and surprising ways as well.
Unexpectedly, these characters also allowed me to explore larger themes of aging, grief, faith, courage, family and forgiveness. Moving on with grace, the consequences of our choices—and doing the right thing. I want my readers to ask themselves, “What would I have done?”
Sue Grafton, Cara Black, Michael Connelly, Louise Penny, Daniel Silva… So many writers have taught me what makes a series resonate with readers. Even after a dozen or more books in a series, there is no “Narrowing Corridor” of good stories for these authors. Their characters remain compelling, passionate, richly layered and deeply memorable.
I have learned that introducing new characters into the mix will expand those corridors, open unexpected doors, and give me all the stories I need. By now, of course, you know my Secret to Writing a Good Series—Character, Character, Character.
As for my Maggie O’Shea… well, after completing a trilogy, I thought once again that I was finished. But an unexpected surprise at the end of Shadow Music (yes, a surprise to me as well!) will draw Maggie back to France in a dual-time-storyline with unforgettable consequences—and several NEW characters to touch your heart. Apparently, Maggie is not done with me yet. ☺