Sunday, March 25, 2012

How to Develop an Enduring Series Character

James Scott Bell
Twitter.com/jamesscottbell


Today, through the wonder of digital publishing, I am announcing the re-birth of my first series character. City of Angels, Book 1 in the Trials of Kit Shannon series, is now available for an introductory price of $2.99 on both Kindle and Nook.


Let me give you the background.


I was writing stand alone legal thrillers for the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) market, and was trying to think of a series idea. I noticed (it’s not hard to notice!) that the majority of readers in this market are women (even more than in the ABA market), and that the most popular genre of the time was “prairie romance.” This genre was set in the 1800s (think Little House on the Prairie). The usual lead character was a young woman of marriageable age, pluckily using her faith and grit to overcome challenges and find true love.

As I pondered that, it seemed to me that genre could move forward, historically speaking. One slice of history that has not been given its due is the story of my own home town, Los Angeles. It’s a great, rich tapestry, fascinating and colorful. Especially when it comes to courtrooms and the law.

So I came up with this concept: a young woman comes to turn-of-the-century Los Angeles with a determination to practice law. It was a perfect historical moment, rife with conflict, because at that time women were barely getting into the legal profession. There was a lot of male resistance to the idea. And Los Angeles in 1903 had all sorts of fascinating cross currents. It was moving from western boomlet toward urban adolescence. There was high society and low criminality. It was then (and still is) a city for dreamers and charlatans alike.

My idea, then, was to follow this young woman from her arrival in L.A. through the growing pains of the city. This would mirror her own growth and quest to practice law. I would include real, historical figures in the plots (e.g., William Randolph Hearst, Earl Rogers, Teddy Roosevelt, Houdini, John Barrymore).


Those are two key components for an enduring series character: setting and vocation. You need to know the nooks and crannies of your setting so it can take on the feeling of being another character in the story. And readers love to see authentic details about a character's work life.


Research, friends.  

I began to picture this woman in my mind. I wanted her to be of Irish descent, so she had some fire in her. I wanted her to have auburn hair and green eyes. And I wanted to name her Kit Shannon.

When I could see and hear Kit, that’s when I really started getting juiced about the project. Which is another secret of an enduring series character: you, the author, have to be truly and deeply excited about her. You ought to be thinking about her even when you're not writing. She must be someone you  have to write about. If she’s not, that lack of zest will be evident in your pages.

So I created a proposal and pitched it to an editor I knew who worked at the leading publisher of prairie romances, Bethany House.

Well, they liked the concept. But they saw a challenge. I was a male author entering a primarily female genre. So they asked me if I would consider co-writing the series with one of their popular female authors. She could, they explained, help me develop a voice for the genre and also introduce me to a good-sized readership.

I was a bit skeptical, but they offered to fly me and the other author to their home offices for a meet-and-see.

Which is how I met the wonderful, marvelous, humorous, generous Tracie Peterson. We hit it off immediately, and I mean right from the get-go. We signed a three book contract and off we went.

Tracie and I worked exceedingly well together. We brainstormed plot ideas, then I wrote a “lean” first draft. Tracie added her “layers,” a lot of which were descriptions of the era's dress and etiquette, and more generally a woman’s point of view and voice. I then did a final going over the manuscript, cleared up any questions, and submitted to our editor. (What was nice was, by the time the third book came out, I’d gotten the hang of the voice myself. So when it came time to contract for another three books, Tracie handed the series over to me to do on my own).

When Bethany House showed me the cover art for City of Angels I was absolutely gobsmacked. Because the model looked exactly the way I’d pictured her.



And when City of Angels came out, it hit the CBA bestseller list. Women readers told me they loved this updating of the prairie romance heroine. Which is another secret of an enduring series character: make them fresh. Give them some nuance or trait or drive that is original, not just a repeat of what we’ve seen before. 

I did make new readers from City of Angels, including among the younger set. In fact, Tracie and I got several letters from high school age girls who said Kit Shannon was inspiring to them. One wrote that the book helped her “not to be afraid of what others think if I’m sure of my calling.” Another wrote that Kit inspired her to pursue a dream of going to law school. 

Which is why it is now my pleasure to re-introduce Kit Shannon to a new generation of readers. I hope to have the entire series out by the end of the year:



The courtrooms of 1903 Los Angeles are a man’s world––until Kit Shannon arrives

With shoulders squared and dreams set high, Kit Shannon arrives in Los Angeles feeling a special calling to the law. Yet under the care of her socialite aunt, Kit quickly comes to realize that few understand her burning desire to seek justice and practice a profession known only to men. When her aunt adamantly refuses to support her unconventional career aspirations, Kit questions whether she is truly following God's will. And when her growing love for a man pledged to another threatens scandal, Kit knows her days might be numbered in Los Angeles.

A chance meeting with Earl Rogers, the city's most prominent criminal lawyer, garners Kit an apprentice position. And work on a notorious murder case. Someone has been killing prostitutes in Los Angeles, but Kit is certain it is not Rogers’ client. Determined to find the truth, Kit runs full on into forces that want to stop her, forces that stretch all the way to the citadels of power in the City of Angels.

"...a great story, historical fiction plus legal thriller in the style of John Grisham." - WorldHistoricalFiction.com

City of Angels is a full length (90,000 word) novel at the launch price of $2.99.


17 comments:

  1. I can't seem to avoid thinking in series terms with most of my novel concepts, so this post is very helpful.

    Thank you. I've downloaded my copy of the book to study.

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  2. Thank you, James, for the over-the-shoulder look at how the job is properly done. I particularly enjoyed your reaction to the proposed cover.

    The Christian fiction market passes under the radar all too often, unfortunately. My wife is a huge fan of the Christian romance genre and my daughter reads the teen/young adult Christian fiction as well. I'm going to point them in the direction of Kit and CITY OF ANGELS.

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  3. Isn't it wonderful you have the power to re-launch in digital format?

    I love the cover, and the premise sounds perfect - I'll bet Kit Shannon has some trials to endure, not just in the courtroom.

    Good luck with your project, Jim.
    I'm always thrilled to meet new characters from the authors at TKZ.

    Paula

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  4. Thanks, Joe. Indeed, the Christian publishing industry grew up and matured in the late 90's. Thanks for the mention of your wife and daughter. Do let me know what they think.

    BK and Paula, same thanks. Have fun going back in to the early streets of L.A. It was quite a time. You can still come to LA and ride Angels Flight, which began running in 1901.

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  5. Great post & good luck on the book. Love how you evolved this idea. Classic, on so many levels. Great insight into an author's mind.

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  6. Wonderful opportunity, Jim. I'll be reading all of them as soon as I get my first series completed. Would you believe I turn in Book 3 of The Ravensmoore Chronicles June 1st? I may write my own blog this Tuesday and connect it to this one regarding series. For you TKZ folks, Jim talked through some issues of my first book in this series at Mt. Hermon a few years ago.

    I have a couple of questions. First, my series also written for the CBA is set during Britain's Regency era with a hero lord of the realm who becomes a physician. Extremely unusual but not impossible. I love writing this series. However, is it unwise to continue a series these days beyond 3 books? There is so much competition out there and it's so hard to get noticed. I know I'll be addressing this with my agent but my gut says to keep going with a twist of some sort.

    Secondly, with books and movies like the Hunger Games is there any chance that historical novels will appeal to younger readers in 2012? And Joe H., if you are still out there I'd love to know if your wife and daughter read CBA set outside the U.S. That seems to sometimes be an issue too. I'm not sure why but I know for quite awhile CBA didn't want to publish novels set outside the U.S.

    This post perfectly timed for me and also an example of how the digital age can help authors with previously published novels. Do you own the rights or does Bethany House still own the rights?

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  7. I don't post here often but I read every single one every day. But I simply had to respond today. I have read the entire Kit Shannon series, all six of them. I bought the first one because I had met and knew Tracie Peterson. Had never heard of James Scott Bell. (But I met him one year at a writers conference in Colorado.) When Tracie dropped out of the next series, I was slightly dismayed, but Jim quickly became one of my favorite writers, and I started collecting his earlier books.

    It's wonderful to have this series revived with new life for another generation of readers.

    Good work, Jim.

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  8. Jillian, you are facing a decision all series writers face. In the traditional publishing world, it's all a question of numbers. If the series is on the upward swing, the publisher will want to keep it going.

    There's a slight difference when the stories are somewhat connected, as the Kit Shannon stories are (as opposed to a series character who can jump from adventure to adventure, a la Reacher).

    In the print world, the most common dynamic is for such series to head downward. There may be several reasons for that. Part of that may be the price of commitment consumers sometimes resist.

    I think in the e-world, that's not going to be so great a problem.

    So work with your agent and publisher first, and offer them that gut desire and twist. I think you'll find that sales is going to be the driver of the final decision.

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  9. Wow, Peggy! That's very nice to hear. Thanks.

    You know, when Tracie handed off the series to me (which was the plan all along), there were some of her readers who thought I had "dumped" her, or some such. Even though Tracie put the explanation up on her website and so on. Then the new books were shelved under my name, and many of Tracie's readers didn't find them. Which is too bad, because I really hit my stride on the next 3 books (Tracie and Bethany House thought so, too).

    Now they have new life, and that's very cool.

    Thanks again for the good word about the series and your humble correspondent.

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  10. What a great story and what wonderful advice. Your points about creating a series heroine and the importance of setting details are right on the mark.

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  11. Thanks, Nancy. I did like finding this niche, the start of women in the law, a chance to put Earl Rogers in a story. Rogers might have been the greatest trial lawyer who ever lived. Father of Adela Rogers St. John.

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  12. I'm really taken aback by your column today. Let me explain why. One piece of advice regularly doled out to writers is to not try and jump on the trend wagon, i.e. you might want to give the vampires a rest these days. Your narration of how and why you came up with this series comes across as doing just that: jumping on the popularity of the prairie romance genre. Did you look at this genre specifically because it was popular? Were you considering other genres (you were already writing another genre) and picked this solely due to its popularity? Was it a genre you personally enjoyed reading?

    The next surprise for me was this line: "I wanted her to be of Irish descent, so she had some fire in her." Do only the Irish have fire in them? Of course she has to have those glinting green eyes and auburn hair because so many fictional Irish characters do. A blued eyed blonde Finn couldn't possibly have gumption and passion. My impression from this description is that you were intending for your protaganist to be an easily identifiable stereotype. Was this the case?

    I don't meant these comments to come across as negative as they probably do. I'm just surprised as what you write in this column seems to contradict a lot of writing advice I have read, including from you. I'm interested in your thought process, whether you did intend to set up a stereotype and follow the trend, and if so why. Is that what you advise?

    It's also not meant as any sort of comment at all on the Kit Carson series as I have not read them. Bsed on your description of prairie romance I suspect the genre doesn't provide the mayhem and body count I relish, but each to their own.

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  13. catfriend, those are EXCELLENT questions. Let me see if I can clarify, because I don't think things are as you suggest.

    Trends: As I tried to make clear, what I saw a need for was to UPDATE the trend, find something original to do with it. There's nothing wrong with a professional writer doing this. It's not jumping on a bandwagon if you are re-designing the wagon. The key is to do it in a way that excites you.

    The idea of a young woman trying to practice law in early Los Angeles had NOT been done before, and it was right in my wheelhouse. I was also not opposed to trying to reach an established market. It's what every pulp writer whoever lived did. The good ones, the best ones, found ways to be original within the markets. They are my models.

    Irish: Well, I happen to be of Irish descent and all my ancestors seemed to have that fire in them, so that's what I went for. If I'd been a Finn, I might have gone with that. So I wasn't thinking stereotype. Besides, Kit breaks the mold by her actions. She has to in order to survive.

    Body count: Each story has a real legal issue to it, from murder to libel. I had a great time researching the law of the time, and rendering realistic courtroom scenes. But you're quite right. Not much mayhem and madness in this genre!

    Hope that helps. Thanks for the comment.

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  15. I am glad to see this new digital age allows writers to keep their works alive.No dust gathers on digital shelves!

    Jim,thanks for sharing your thoughts for developing a serial concept like this.I know you will attract a larger segment of readers by following this path.

    Best wishes.

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  16. Thanks, Mark. Indeed, it's a great time to be a writer, and being able to share a backlist is cool in the extreme. No more going out of print.

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  17. I love this post, Mr. Bell! I have the outline of a novel, but have had trouble starting it because I haven't defined my main character as well as I need to. Your post has inspired me! I had an awesome time sitting in on your sessions at The Write Stuff conference (I was the Texas gal). Thank you for being so generous with your knowledge and expertise.

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