With this post, I am introducing a new feature on Mystery Sequels: author guest posts. These posts are exclusively written by mystery book authors and they focus on the art of writing, their creative process, their books, or any other relevant topic which allows us to learn more about our favorite mystery writers without the restrictions of a given set of questions that they have to adhere to.
The first author guest post is written by Susan Kraus, the author of Fall From Grace and All God’s Children, on her experiences creating a new mystery series at the age of 64.
From the time I was a little kid, I loved to read. “Get your nose out of that book and go outside and play,” my mother would chide. So I would hide the book under my shirt and go outside and climb my favorite willow tree and nestle down in the crook of her branches… and read. In retrospect, I can see that I was a nerdie little kid, maybe a tad Aspie. But I can also see that, from a very young age, I lived in a world where stories ruled.
I grew up in a home with few books, where going to college was not a given but something I had to fight to do. My sense of possibilities was constricted. I could be a nurse (not a doctor), a teacher (elementary to high school), secretary (my father’s first choice.) I picked ‘teacher.’ The other options for someone who loved language, like journalist or writer? They were as unattainable as astronaut.
I went to college. I got a B.A. in English and teaching certification. But along the way I discovered that the options were more expansive that I’d realized. I applied for graduate school and got a M.A., applied again and got a full scholarship to work on a Ph.D. But then I discovered psychology, and the challenge of helping people re-write the narratives of their own lives. The epiphany came at a time when I was finding academic life esoteric, less about loving language and more about picking it apart. So I did an about face and became a social worker, which is all about listening to people’s stories and helping them along the journey.
Now I’m married, live in a university town in Kansas, and primarily work as a therapist (marital, family, divorce, women’s issues, etc.) and custody mediator. But I never stopped writing… poems, stories, articles, book reviews, travel. Then, about 15-16 years ago, I managed to write a novel. I’m still not sure how. I had full-time work, plus being a mom and wife, and barely had time to pee and shower — and that was on a good day. Given the time constraints, I figured I’d better stick with “Write What You Know” instead of setting my book in 18th century Finland.
So I wrote a novel about a married, middle-aged therapist and mediator named Grace McDonald, set in a Kansas university town. I imagined what might have happened if one of my client’s ex-husbands had a personality disorder and got creepy-weird after she divorced him —what a real-life nightmare might look like —Pleasantville meets Presumed Innocent.
I love hands-on research. So, when a rookie cop character was going to be at her first autopsy, I called in a favor and spent a night watching homicide autopsies in the bowels of an inner-city morgue. And, no, I did not puke. It was terrifically sad and mind-blowing at the same time. I went to several murder trials and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation DNA lab. I talked to attorneys, detectives, private investigators and polygraph experts.
I finished Fall From Grace and found a good agent. The book received very polite, even enthusiastic, rejection letters. It was, I was told, a “genre crosser.” A good read, publishers concurred, but hard to place: too much character development for a thriller, too much suspense for a ‘relationship’ book. Then we woke up one morning to 9-11 — and publishing tanked. The novel went into the closet and I went back to my earning a living at my ‘real’ jobs.
Years passed. I did more travel writing, wrote a travel guidebook and lots of articles. In 2007, I started working part-time for the Department of Defense on military bases. It was a steep learning curve, a challenge, working with soldiers, spouses and families, pre-and-post deployment.
And somewhere during that time, I started hearing voices.
No, not those kinds of voices, but the voices of the characters I’d created, the ones I’d dumped in the closet. And then new voices joined in, like this soldier back from deployment, and some children who weren’t even alive for the first book. All the “What if…” possibilities started jamming up my head. “What if Grace returned… ? What if her daughter, Molly, was a single mom and needed help and Grace so moved back, even though she said she never would, and started up her practice again. And what if… “
I was not thinking “series” when I wrote Fall From Grace. In my mind, I needed a lifetime to do a series. Like Sue Grafton writing Kinsey Milhone through an entire alphabet of mysteries, or Sara Paretsky and V.I. Warshawski up in Chicago. I saw writing a series as taking decades.
But here I was in my early 60’s with these persistent voices. So I started writing a sequel. It had the characters from the first book plus new characters. There is a ten-year gap… All God’s Children begins ten years after Fall From Grace ends. Each novel can stand alone, but, if you read both, you understand more about the characters. You become a part of their history.
Since I did not intend book one, Fall From Grace, to be a series, the protagonist is not nearly as strong as most genre protagonists. In fact, she is a little too self-satisfied, somewhat naïve and trusting. She does not even solve the crime. By the end of the novel, everything in her life has come undone in ways she could never have imagined, and she will never be that woman again.
When I first realized that I was, indeed, writing a series, I thought about what I wanted as a reader, what I sometimes felt was missing in other books. I wanted a woman protagonist who is flawed … as we are all flawed. While I admire people who take 5-miles runs to clear their heads, I’ve never been one. So, Grace does not like to exercise… but she makes herself. She solves crimes and conundrums by using her intellect and intuition. Grace starts out respecting rules, and believing that bad things will not happen to good people. By book two, she is less scrupulous, less concerned about people might think, more outcome-driven. She is more sarcastic, less ‘nice.’ She cares about her family, has only one close friend remaining, avoids a ‘relationship.’ Love and hurt have gotten all mixed up in her head. But that will change.
Grace is in her mid-forties in Fall From Grace and mid-fifties in All God’s Children. With every book, she will age, experiencing the disbelief that we all feel in coming to terms with our aging bodies and accumulating years. She can be opinionated and impatient. She cares deeply about her therapy clients but sometimes wants to shake some sense into the mediation clients. In every book, readers are taken behind the closed doors of therapy and mediation sessions. Grace was married, has a daughter who is a single mom, and so is a grandma (not the doting type.) Grace feels what many women may feel but are uncomfortable admitting.
I did not want this series to be driven by genre. I decided to write in the third person rather than first person so readers could be inside the heads of more than the protagonist. And the novels are never just about a crime, or a murder, but tackle ambiguous and complex social, ethical or moral issues. They’re ‘genre-plus’ and will get Book Groups hopping. (Book Group Discussion Questions are included in each book.)
I started out assuming I was too old to write a series. I was completely wrong. I have a dozen books fermenting inside me.
In fact, I’ve come full circle: Now I believe that, if I want to keep writing novels, I have to write a series! I’m too damn old to write stand-alone novels, to have to attract an audience and readership for each new book. Once readers get hooked on a series, they keep coming back. And I believe in my characters. They may not be the best, but they are unique. Just like you. Just like me.
I hope you like them enough to become friends. That you will open to page one and breathe a deep “Ahhhhh” of anticipation, returning to a place and people for whom you’ve developed an affection — that feeling of sitting down with an old friend who is there to tell you a story.