Sunday, July 17, 2011

Keeping Series Characters Fresh by Melinda Wells

Melinda Wells is the author of 8 mystery novels published by Berkley Prime Crime, with a 9th scheduled for publication in 2012. As Linda Palmer (her legal name) she teaches novel-writing in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. In 2010, she was named Outstanding Instructor in Creative Writing. She is the program's only two-time winner.  She loves to hear from readers, and can be reached through her web site, 

Keeping Series Characters Fresh
by Melina Wells

"Pie a la Murder," number 4 in my Della Cooks mystery series, was published this month (July 2011) by Berkley Prime Crime. Someone in the novel-writing class I teach in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program asked, "Don't you get tired of writing about the same characters?"

My answer was immediate. "No, because I like getting to know my 'Della Carmichael' and her friends better as each new situation tests them." For example, at the end of book number 3, "The Proof is in the Pudding," the man in Della's life, the previously commitment-shy Nicholas, asks her to marry him. She loves him, but because she's surprised by the proposal, she jokes, "Louder, please, I can't hear you."  The scene ends with the strong implication that her answer will be "yes." But, a short time later, at the beginning of "Pie a la Murder," Nicholas tells her that he has an eighteen-year-old daughter, Celeste, whom he hasn't seen since she was a baby, and that she's contacted him to say that she's coming to Los Angeles to live with him. Nicholas is thrilled because he never wanted to be separated from his child, and hadn't done anything to deserve his ex-wife's whisking the child away to Europe before he could prevent it.

Della is genuinely happy for Nicholas, but Della's best friend, Liddy, sees nothing but trouble for Della, citing TV talk show hosts who say that the greatest threat to a romantic relationship is a man's daughter from a previous marriage. Liddy turns out to be right, but not even Liddy guessed that the trouble Della was going to face would involve murder.
Naturally, Celeste's presence in the story puts any marriage plans that Della and Nicholas might have made on hold. Nicholas and his daughter need to get to know each other, and Celeste needs to get to know Della.  Della doesn't feel there's any need to rush to the nearest minister.

Now, I'm writing book number 5 (called "Seven Layer Death," to be published in 2012) and in a scene between Della and Nicholas I discovered – and I have to admit that I was surprised as Della was – that Nicholas had been concealing his anger that she never said "yes" to his marriage proposal. She can't believe what she's hearing and tells him that he knows she wants to marry him; if he was upset about her not saying the actual word "yes" then he should have said something. What started as a discussion turns into a fight: (He accuses her: "Did you buy a dress?" She shoots back: "Did you buy a ring?")

I'm telling you about this because I didn't know consciously that Nicholas was seething. It's an incredible thrill for me as a writer when my characters become my collaborators. I knew that Della wasn't going to roll over and apologize for not being able to read Nicholas's mind. Calming down, she realizes that his anger is not really at her, but at a huge professional problem that has just hit him. Still, she's worried that a secret she's been forced to keep from him for twenty-four hours could damage their relationship when he finds out about it.
Della's best friend is happily married Liddy, but a couple of books ago I realized that Liddy's husband, Bill, was keeping a secret from her—about having had lunch with a woman he met outside his Beverly Hills dental office. It was just lunch, downstairs in the building. The woman tried to turn it into more, but Bill refused. Yet he made the classic mistake of not telling his wife about the lunch. As a result, he ended up being suspected of murder.
Can you tell how much I enjoy spending time with these characters? I really do!  In fact, lately I've been worried about twenty-two year old Eileen O'Hara (Della's unofficial "daughter" and her business partner) because Eileen had terrible luck with men in these books. And, is Celeste's desire to be an actress the real reason she came to Los Angeles to live with her father? If it turns out that she's using him, it will break his heart.
I hope this series goes on for years because I have many more stories to tell about Della and her friends. And, it's fun to add new characters to the mix in each book—people who make trouble. Legendary TV producer Aaron Spelling called this part of story-telling "putting a cat among the pigeons." He used that line to explain why he injected the Joan Collins character into his series, Dynasty.

In between writing cooking mysteries 4 and 5 I wrote the first book in what I hope will be another series. This is a novel-of-suspense with a male protagonist, a man who has lost everything that mattered to him and finds that he must re-invent himself. He doesn't know what he's going to do with the rest of his life, but on the day he's released from the hospital, an old enemy with a big problem offers him a job. In agreeing to help her, he begins to rebuild his life. I already know what the next book in this future series will be—what will happen to one of the characters from book number 1, and how the hero and his new circle of friends will be affected by sudden violence.
Thank you, Kaye, for inviting me to meander and muse. And Happy Reading to all.

Melinda Wells  (aka Linda Palmer)


Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Melinda, Hello and Welcome!!

I'm getting ready to start Pie a la Murder and am excited about your latest Della, and seeing what she's cooking up now.


Bobbi Mumm said...

I loved the cover of Pie a la Murder and your description of your character Della has me intrigued. I will definitely look for your books. Thanks for visiting Kaye's place!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Love your cover! And love your statement about characters becoming collaborators. They do, don't they? Well put!

Anonymous said...

Love a good cooking mystery