Please join me in welcoming Daniella Bernett back to the blog, where she gives us the inside scoop on the challenges and joys of writing a long-running crime fiction series.
1. Daniella, tell us what has been the greatest challenge in maintaining a long-running series?
I’m a liar, as are all authors (if they’re honest). My stories are not the truth. They are born in the nether regions of my mind. The trick is ensuring that the lie has the absolute ring of truth to persuade readers that this could happen. Devising a web of intrigue to entice readers and provide an escape is the challenge I take up every time I sit down in front of my laptop. I want readers to be compelled to keep turning pages. My goal is to make readers feel that each book is better than the previous one. My greatest fear is that my imagination will fail me one day and I will be unable to come up with enough twists to sate readers’ appetites for adventure.
2. Do you maintain a series bible to help you keep the details of character and setting and history consistent from book to book? If yes, how do you organize/maintain it? If no, what method do you use to keep things straight?
I keep a two-page document with some information about the family background of one of my main protagonists; a brief sketch of one character’s jobs (officially he works for the Foreign Office, but he’s a MI5 agent); the description of my main protagonist’s home; and the descriptions of the offices of two of the characters. Those are the only details I maintain for reference.
3. Did you have a series in mind when you conceived of the story for the first book?
Yes, I did have a series in mind when the kernel of the idea for Lead Me Into Danger sprung to life in my consciousness. I wanted to write a series so that I could take time to develop my characters. Each book provides another nugget of information to peel back the curtain on Emmeline and Gregory, while also keeping something back. After all, the human species is full of contradictions that are begging to be explored.
4. Do you have any mystery/thriller role models that you read/look to for inspiration/guidance in your own work?
Agatha Christie is my hero. There are so many things I admire about the grande dame of mystery. She was truly a master at her craft. What I love the most is that Christie conceived such deliciously wicked and ingenious plots that appeal to the reader’s intellect. Jealousy, love, and greed are the primary motives for murder. Christie took these motives threw them into a pot, swirled them about, and in each book devised a new way to dissect these emotions. Her stories endure to this day because of her astute insight into human nature and all its foibles. I try to leave readers wanting more, like Christie did with such consummate skill. I hope I’m succeeding.
5. What advice do you have for writers who are considering starting a series?
Character is the engine that drives the narrative. Creating a character is a magical process. For a character to be believable, the reader must be given intimate insight into his or her thoughts and emotions, likes and dislikes. The reader has to understand the motives behind why a character reacts a certain way. Of course, for a character to be fully formed, the author must imbue her or him with both admirable qualities and flaws. After all, in real life nobody is perfect. So too must it be on the written page. Once readers make an emotional connection, you have them hooked because it means they want to know the story behind the character. When the author is satisfied with the character sketch, then the real fun begins: unfurling the imagination to spin the tale.
But my overarching advice to aspiring authors is to write the story that they want to write and not what others tell them or what the current market trends are. To write a great story, you have to breathe it, live with it, and nurture it in your dreams and waking hours.
6. Is there anything you did early on that, given your later experience, you would have done differently?
With my first book, my editor gave me some good constructive criticism that I took to heart. She said that the point of view (POV) in several scenes had a tendency to jump from one character to another. This is what’s known as “head hopping.” With the subsequent books, I made a concerted effort to put her advice into practice and to focus on one character.
7. I’ve read a lot of series fiction over the years and, for me, keeping the characters fresh and interesting over the long haul seems to be a major consideration in maintaining readership. What’s your secret?
I must confess my thoughts tend to meander toward the devious. Conjuring up trouble is a tantalizing exercise. While readers always want happily-ever-after, I find it quite boring. It’s a dead end from an author’s perspective because the story has petered out. On the other hand, revenge and betrayal are motives I can greedily sink my teeth into because they always circle back to the question: What if? Those are two of the most potent words in an author’s arsenal because the possibilities are infinite.
I enjoy weaving a nuanced and multilayered plot to give the story a certain richness. I like to get the adrenaline rushing through readers’ veins by taking them to the edge of a cliff, leaving them breathless for a few suspended seconds, and then at the last moment veering off in a different direction. Ultimately, the protagonists must provide an answer for why the crime was committed. To do otherwise would be unfair to the dear reader. But as for the secret to my literary life of crime, I find it devilishly good fun to dangle a little surprise—a soupçon of suspicion—on the last page to leave readers clamoringto know what happens next. It also sets me on the path of the plot for my new book.
8. Would you consider writing another series in parallel with the current one? If so, would it be set in the same era? Or how about writing a spin-off series featuring one of the characters from the current one?
I have several author friends who write two series concurrently and their books take place in different time periods. I marvel at their industriousness and the breadth of their imaginations. However, there are two reasons I would not follow in their footsteps. First, I want to devote all my attention to Emmeline and Gregory. And secondly, I work full time and it is already difficult to squeeze in the time to write. When the day dawns that I can’t come up with complicated puzzles for Emmeline and Gregory to unravel anymore, then I’ll start a new series. It may even be set in another era. As for a spin-off series, I never thought about it. Of course, it’s a possibility, too, since I’m intimately familiar with my characters. But for the moment, either scenario seems a long way off.
9. Would you consider adding another character to your series?
No, I believe my ensemble is nicely balanced. On the one hand, I have Emmeline and Gregory, who represent the amateur sleuth. To infuse the stories with the gravitas of the law and the world of espionage, I have Superintendent Oliver Burnell and Sergeant Jack Finch of Scotland Yard; Philip Acheson of the Foreign Office, who’s also a MI5 agent; and Laurence Villiers, the deputy director of MI5.
10. Have you ever contemplated going back in time and writing prequels of your protagonists’ lives?
That’s an interesting idea. It hadn’t occurred to me. As a writer, I’m always curious about people because everyone has a story to tell. As readers have discovered, Emmeline and Gregory do not lead humdrum lives. Far from it. Was it always so? How did they come to this point in time and become the people they are today? Hmm. You’ve given me some food for thought. Who knows? Perhaps in the future, I’ll delve into their beginnings.
Daniella, thank you for taking the time to give us the benefits of your thoughts. Best of with the new book, Old Sins Never Die, which comes out next month.
Daniella Bernett is a member of the Mystery Writers of America NY Chapter and the International Thriller Writers. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.S. in Journalism from St. John’s University. Lead Me Into Danger, Deadly Legacy, From Beyond The Grave, A Checkered Past and When Blood Runs Cold are the books in the Emmeline Kirby-Gregory Longdon mystery series. She also is the author of two poetry collections, Timeless Allure and Silken Reflections. In her professional life, she is the research manager for a nationally prominent engineering, architectural and construction management firm. Daniella is currently working on Emmeline and Gregory’s next adventure. Visit www.daniellabernett.com or follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100008802318282 or on Goodreads https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4450173.Daniella_Bernett. Old Sins Never Die, the sixth book in her series, will be released on September 19.
Daniella Bernett was interviewed for Murder Books by Roger Johns