Article published on February 29, 2012.
After two standalone novels – The Devil’s Playground and The Black Monastery – Stav has embarked on a new police procedural series, featuring DI Jack Carrigan and DS Geneva Miller.
A Dark Redemption introduces DI Jack Carrigan and DS Geneva Miller as they investigate the brutal rape and murder of a young Ugandan student. Plunged into an underworld of illegal immigrant communities, they discover that the murdered girl’s studies at a London college may have threatened to reveal things that some people will go to any lengths to keep secret …
Unflinching, inventive and intelligent, A Dark Redemption explores a sinister case that will force DI Carrigan to face up to his past and DS Miller to confront what path she wants her future to follow.
I never intended this to be a series but halfway through the writing of A Dark Redemption I realised that there was much more to my main characters, DI Jack Carrigan and DS Geneva Miller, than I could possibly hope to contain within one book. I was just starting to understand them by the end and I wanted to know where they would go from there.
A Dark Redemption mainly deals with Carrigan’s past coming back to haunt him and Geneva taking a new role she feels increasingly uncomfortable with. By the end of the book these issues had been partially resolved and it felt to me like the characters had broken free of their past and were ready to develop.
So, when I started the new book, Eleven Days Before Christmas (published next year), there was no question in my mind that I would continue using Carrigan and Miller, or that this would be the next instalment in a (hopefully) long-running series tracing their development and relationship over the course of time.
However, having written two standalones previously, I was unprepared for the challenges posed by a series.
One of the first things I noticed was that not having to spend the first 100 pages of the novel introducing and fleshing out the characters meant there was more room for other material. With Carrigan and Miller already established it was easier to go straight into the plot and to engender a much earlier sense of momentum and pace, something that can often be undermined by the demands of too much back-story.
What I wasn’t prepared for were the difficulties that writing the second book in a series created. I realised (far too late) that whatever I’d said about my protagonists and setting in A Dark Redemption, I would now have to stick to. A throwaway line about the type of music a character listens to, or the food they eat, becomes etched in stone. In a standalone, you create characters, give them attributes and emotional baggage, always secure in the knowledge that at the end of the book you can start all over again. With a series, whatever you wrote in the past has to be carried over into the next instalment; a bit like life, I suppose.
And there’s so much you have to remember! I was continually referring back to A Dark Redemption to see whether a certain character had green eyes or blue, and to make sure that continuity was preserved. If you suddenly have a great idea for a character, you have to fit it into what you’ve already said about them. I wish I’d known this when I wrote A Dark Redemption because I would have left Carrigan and Miller’s pasts much more vague, leaving me free to embellish their backstories in later novels. The trick is to get a balance between solid characterisation and not binding your characters too tightly to a history or timeline you then have to wiggle out of in subsequent books.
Once that was out of the way, the other challenges began to manifest themselves. You write a detective novel and there are certain scenes that will repeatedly crop up in the narrative – the discovery of the body, the discussion with the coroner, the briefings and investigative avenues. It made me acutely aware when writing these scenes that I would have to make them significantly different from the previous book. So, A Dark Redemption opens with the body of a young girl found raped and tortured. I knew that Eleven Days Before Christmas would have to start differently and that was why I chose to begin with a burning convent and ten dead nuns.
But the positive side to this is that readers have a certain familiarity if they’ve read the previous book and this gives the author much more scope to upset their expectations and create great twists that wouldn’t have the same impact in a standalone. Paradoxically, the fact that you are writing about the same characters in the same setting forces you to not write the same book over and over again.
Another welcome liberty in a series is that you do not need to wrap up subplots within the scope of one book but can let them fester and simmer over the course of several volumes.
But the thing which most appealed to me about a series was the opportunity to chart a character’s arc through a prolonged span of time. If you write ten books with the same characters, over each book those characters should change as you, the author, changes. They should grow old with you and suffer through the anxieties and hiccups of life as you do. And the same goes for the setting. London is an essential component of my series, as much of a character as the two detectives are, and I am interested and intrigued by how London will change over the course of the next decade and how my plots will have to adapt to accommodate this.
Of course, for every pro there is a con, and in a series your readers know that the main characters are likely to survive for another book so you have to create a different kind of tension and suspense to keep people engaged.
The challenge will undoubtedly get greater with each subsequent book, but I like to believe writing a series is a bit like playing jazz – think of John Coltrane performing the song My Favourite Things hundreds of times, over many years, each version going someplace different and yet rooted to the same initial chords. And perhaps it’s also a bit like Cezanne spending the last ten years of his life painting the same mountain repeatedly and in the process inventing Cubism and modern art. Art has always had at its centre the central paradox that the more strictly confined the artist is, the greater the chance of innovation and surprise, and this is perhaps best illustrated in the continuing crime series.
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