By Ellen Kennedy (aka E.E. Kennedy)
One of the most gratifying things about being a writer with a series is now that there are three Miss Prentice cozy mysteries, readers are not only enjoying the third one (Murder in the Past Tense) as a stand-alone but are also going back and obtaining numbers one and two (Irregardless of Murder and Death Dangles a Participle). What’s more, I now get communications from readers saying, “C’mon! Hurry up with #4!”
To those dear souls, I say, I’m currently working away like mad on #4, whose working title is Incomplete Sentence, and in doing so, I’m learning that there are new challenges inherent in a continuing series that I never thought about when blithely tapping out #1.
For example, keeping track of seasons. The first book was set in the autumn because my setting was the Adirondack region, where autumn colors are particularly gorgeous. This made for nice, vivid descriptions. The story ended around Christmastime, before the snow fell. The book’s back cover sported a beautiful fall scene. So far, so good.
It’s possible to get so close to a story that you lose any realistic perspective. I learned that when I was giving a talk to a women’s book club shortly after the publication of Irregardless. During the Q & A, someone asked, “When Amelia visits Lily in the hospital after Lily’s fall from the ferryboat, why doesn’t Amelia ask her friend what happened?” I had to reply, “To tell the truth, I forgot.” It got a big laugh, but it also taught me a lesson: try to think like a real person, not a demi-god who manipulates wooden puppets.
In the second book, the action was to take place almost on the heels of the first one. However, as I wrote, I realized that because my story begins with two reckless high school boys taking their VW out on the ice of a frozen lake, there needed to be enough time for Lake Champlain to get that way. This required research, which can be dangerously time-wasting. I spent long hours surfing the net to learn whether anybody had actually crossed the lake this way (they had). Another rabbit trail that proved fruitful (please forgive the mixed metaphor) was the research into ice fishing and the equipment required. (A handy tip: it’s surprising how much jargon you can learn in an online catalog.) The cover of the book number two reflected the icy winter setting.
On to number three: this one was set in summer. For reasons that readers familiar with book number two will understand, it was important that I got the months right. My calculations placed the story in August, though the theater flashbacks that Amelia and Gil experience happen during one long-ago June.
In number four—currently in progress--I want to showcase springtime in the North Country and an unexpected blizzard that actually once happened, something that throws everyone off balance, because that’s what makes a story fun, isn’t it?
There’s a child in the picture now and it’s also important to have the baby be the right age and at the proper stage of development. After perusing a baby book for a few minutes recently, I learned that little Janet would be doing a lot more than I thought: eating solid food, walking, attempting to talk. Being a mother also puts a bit of a crimp in Amelia’s style. To return to work, or not? To make use of daycare or not?
There’s a rule of thumb that one shouldn’t have too many characters to keep track of. (Or “with whom to keep track,” as my character Amelia would say.) Still, in each book there have to be a few new people to get the story going. In Incomplete Sentence, I introduce a retired law professor whose son has been murdered. I realized a little later that there were two professors in my story now: Alec, the regular character and Brewer, the new one. Current events came to my rescue. In an actual news article, I saw that the Loch Ness Monster hasn’t been spotted in over two years and authorities (and souvenir shop owners) are getting worried. Alec’s field of expertise is the hunt for the Lake Champlain monster, so who better to fly to Scotland to consult with colleagues?
People sometimes ask me if I’m at all like my character Amelia. I have to say yes, we are alike in our ignorance. There’s a blessing in having one’s main character as clueless on certain subjects as the author is. For instance, when the furnace isn’t working at the B&B, I don’t have to know the technical reason why, because Amelia doesn’t either. That goes for fishing, police procedure, car repair and a host of many other subjects.
Another consideration of a series is remembering the details of the characters from book to book. Just the other day, I had to go back into book number two, Death Dangles a Participle, to find out what the character of Yvonne LaBombard would major in at college. In book four, I initially had her going to NECI, the New England Culinary Institute to become a chef. Unfortunately, I had earlier written that the young girl wanted to major in elementary education, so the chef thing was out, interesting as it might have been. I am constantly having to check to see if Hester Swanson’s husband spells his name Burt or Bert. (It’s the latter.) An organized person would have some kind of character “bible” or something. That person would not be me. I enjoy spontaneity in writing—that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.
Writing a series is a challenge and a joy at the same time. How else can you actually create a world, populate it and direct the lives of those who occupy it? I’m already thinking about a title for book number five. Of course, it must relate to Amelia’s chosen calling as an English teacher. Poetic License, The Village Idiom and Revenge of the Apostrophe Police are the top contenders. Any suggestions?
Ellen Edwards Kennedy (aka EEK) grew up in Miss Prentice’s region of far northern New York State and lived with her husband and children across the South and West. This has given her a deep love for these areas and a sharp ear for regional accents. Before becoming a mystery writer, she was an award-winning advertising copywriter. Along with the Miss Prentice Mysteries, she is the author of a Christian romance novella, "The Applesauce War," in the anthology, THE FARMER'S BRIDE, from Barbour Books; and ANOTHER THINK COMING, a mystery set in Texas.
Book Two in the Miss Prentice series, DEATH DANGLES A PARTICIPLE, follows the further adventures of Amelia as she tries to clear two of her students accused of a brutal murder, and book three, MURDER IN THE PAST TENSE, which introduces us to Amelia and friends as teenagers, was released in September, 2014. The fourth book in the series, INCOMPLETE SENTENCE, is in production.
Ellen writes weekly articles at The Wordsmith Journal Magazine, www.twjm.com She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Christian Author's Network, the Suspense Sisters, Light of Carolina Writers, Sisters in Crime and MurderMustAdvertise. She and her husband live in North Carolina, are born-again Christians, and the happy, blessed grandparents of five little answers to prayer.