Monday, April 8, 2013

MYSTERIOUS MONDAY: How characters evolve over a series

by William S. Shepard

I have written the first four novels of my diplomatic mystery series, and am now halfway through writing the fifth. The idea for the series itself came naturally, as I was a career Foreign Service Officer, and I had noticed that diplomats have access to all sorts of information – diplomatic reports of course, but also intelligence matters and police records. They also work in two cultures at the same time – the American, and the foreign nation where their embassy of assignment is located. 

That is what the word “diplomacy” really means – “having two eyes,” one to watch out where you came from, and the other to monitor where you are stationed. The diplomat who can’t do both carefully at the same time is sure to be fired or reassigned!

 How do characters evolve? It is not a one dimensional decision. They grow, of course, and become more complicated. In Robbie’s case, his professional responsibilities grow from those of an American Consul at an out-of-the-way post, to those of a staff aide to the Secretary of State. But also, the back stories of several people who are close to him are etched in, as they become three dimensional.

My protagonist is Robbie Cutler, a thirty-something career diplomat at the beginning of the series. In Vintage Murder he is on his second foreign assignment, as Consul at the American Consulate General in Bordeaux, France. Here the reader meets several continuing characters. Many people’s favorite character is Robbie’s Great Uncle Seth B. Cutler, a nationally prominent educator whose shadowy background in the OSS gives him an opening to high level decisions in Washington. Sylvie Marceau is a reporter in Bordeaux who interviews Robbie in connection with the murder of a celebrated American wine writer. Soon they are a twosome, sleuths in practice who become romantically involved.

 Now, Robbie is bright, but for people smarts, Sylvie is the insightful one. She also passes the test by making a favorable impression on Robbie’s sister, Evalyn. Robbie’s parents, “Trip” and Lucille Cutler, were also a Foreign Service couple.

  In  Murder On The Danube, Robbie is transferred to the American Embassy in Budapest. Here the back stories begin. It seems that his father has been haunted for years by the memory of a young Hungarian Freedom Fighter whom he failed to save as the Russians crushed the Revolution. As murders start, Robbie’s task is to solve them, while finding out what really happened to his father’s lost romance. At the same time, his sister Evalyn visits him in Budapest and reads him the riot act for teetering on the verge of a romance with an available married woman. Chastened, he realizes the truth of what she says, and is relieved when Sylvie accepts his proposal of marriage.

Sylvie and Robbie are on their honeymoon in Murder In Dordogne. In that romantic French countryside, remains are discovered in a cave, which may well be all that is left of the fiancée of Uncle Seth, who was lost while on a mission with the French Resistance. But was her death really connected with the war, or with the disappearance, never solved, of a priceless Van Gogh as the war ended?

  In The Saladin Affair Robbie is working for the Secretary of State. He goes with him on a six nation tour of Europe, dogged by Al Qaeda. There is also that matter of the murder of the American Ambassador in Dublin. To surprise Robbie, Sylvie meets him in Vienna. She soon worms out of him the fact of the Dublin murder before it becomes public knowledge. Her insights prove crucial in solving the case.

            Robbie and Sylvie have now evolved into a diplomatic couple, and their family is more three dimensional, thanks to the evolution of their characters. As Uncle Seth says, “It’s good to have two sleuths in the family!”

Istoria Books's "Mysterious Monday" program features posts about mystery writing, reading, bookselling and more by writers from beyond the Istoria stable. Stop back on Mondays for insightful posts on the mystery genre. Check out Istoria Books's mystery offerings here.

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  1. Hello, William,

    I enjoyed reading your essay. You demonstrate why series mysteries draw readers. We get to know and like the main characters and want to continue with their lives as they solve mysteries. I've done the same with my Kim Reynolds librarian sleuth series.

  2. Many thanks, Jacqueline. I find it helpful to "plant" a characteristic, which opens the door to later development. For example, in the first book, "Vintage Murder," we learn that Uncle Seth is a lifelong bachelor. In the third book, "Murder In The Dordogne," we find out why - and what happened to his fiancee.