The short answer is: it’s a balancing act. I wrote the first four Forte books in a row. None sold (though two would earn Shamus nominations) and I have to admit I was about out of story ideas that didn’t seem to cover things about the character I’d done before. I wrote a standalone as a palate-cleanser (Wild Bill) then turned my attention to the semi-fictional town of Penns River, Pennsylvania. Therein lies what is, for me, the secret.
To say a setting is a character in a novel has become hackneyed, and, frankly, it’s bullshit. Locations don’t have crises. Locations don’t have epiphanies. Locations don’t make life and death decisions. They don’t crack jokes. Locations are what they are, and that’s enough. They provide their own obstacles and challenges to the people in the story—the real characters—and much of the story may revolved around what the locations allows or does not. No one writes stories about sugar cane fields in North Dakota.
By choosing three actual small cities as the inspiration for Penns River I opened the door for the ever-changing events in those chosen towns and the surrounding areas to plant seeds in my story garden. I subscribe to the local paper online and copy articles of interest to my hard drive for future consideration. Characters can come and go, as it’s the town that remains constant and gives the readers a touchstone. No one is indispensable—except maybe Ben Dougherty—so the level of tension can remain high. Will Sean Sisler or Rick Neuschwander get out of this tight scrape? Probably, but don’t be too quick to assume.
Having the second series to go to takes much of the pressure off of Forte. Bad Samaritan was written more than five years after its predecessor in the series. The idea for the story came to me and I wrote it when it was ready. It’s the first time I truly understood what Dennis Lehane said for years about bringing back Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro: when they come to him with a story, he’ll write it. I heard C.J. Ellison speak at a conference about why some woman writers have to use pen names. Forte was in the room with me before she finished speaking. “We’re not putting up with that,” he said, and we didn’t.
I confess this is easier for me than for a lot of writers because I don’t have a contract for the next book or three. I get to write what I want when I want and Down & Out is more cooperative than I could ever have asked. It will likely be a while before I write another Forte book, as I already have a three-book arc scoped out for Penns River, and the Western I’ve been threatening to write for a few years now has a definite shape in my head and half a journal of notes ready for use.
I’m also stealing a trick from the movies for Penns River. The book to be written after I finish what I’m working on now will serve as a re-boot of the series. After five books there’s a risk of stasis setting in, so I decided to actively work against it and shake things up a little. Some characters will go, some new ones will comes in, the dynamics of the police force will change.
To be fair, my lack of specific contracts is liberating. I have an idea for changing up, I can run with it, something I couldn’t do if I planned to pay the bills as a writer. This means you’re not going to hear me kvetching about my lot as a writer. A disadvantage in one area may well be a virtue in its own way. It all depends on why you write.
But that’s another post.