How I Keep Characters, Locations, and Genres Straight

I’ve been wondering how you keep your series separate in your head. Do you find yourself writing and then saying, “Oops, wrong character/genre/storyline!” - Coleen

Thank you for the question, Coleen. It’s a great one!

Some authors use a ‘series bible’—a collection of data sheets on each character and location that they’ve written. I’ve considered something like that (I started one once), but I’ve stayed away from it so far.


Characters and Locations

Since I write daily, it feels like I’m in constant contact with my characters. I envision each role as I’m writing them. I’ve used people I know as ‘role models’ for some characters, and well-known actors fill that responsibility with others. While writing a character, I strive to stay in touch with their motivation. Why do they do the job? Why do they behave the way they do?

I occasionally go back and review what I’ve written about a specific character in earlier books—especially from the perspective of other characters. For example, Detective Andrew Parker will take a leading role in the eighth novel of the 509 Crime Stories. That’s a first for him. I needed to reacquaint myself with what other characters thought about Parker. How he looked, acted, etc. Then I developed a deeper backstory to support his behavior. I’m pleased with how Parker has turned out.

Regarding the locations, I’m lucky that the series is set in and around Spokane. I know the streets and neighborhoods intimately from my time as a patrol officer and later as a commercial real estate broker. Nearly all are actual sites, and I’ve only changed a couple, which usually modifies real places.

For example, the Clairmont Apartments in the John Cutler series are based upon the Fairmont Apartments. The Fairmont suffered a devasting fire in 1999, and they were renovated into the Morgan Loft Condos (I’ll write a blog post shortly about this location and share some pictures from the fire).

In the Cozy Up series, all locations are made-up, but I do my best to make them real, drawing little maps to make sure I know where the places are that I’m referring to. The next time I do one, I’ll keep it and post it somewhere for you to see it. 

Genre is the Umbrella

The crime fiction genre arches over everything. Understanding which niche I’m writing in is crucial because that dictates the story’s tone.

The 509 Crime Stories are police procedurals. This genre aims to accurately detail the investigative process that law enforcement officers take following the occurrence of a crime. It’s essential in this genre to accurately depict cops, their tactics, and their culture. Making light of the process or the cops moves it out of police procedurals and into another category. Think Law & Order or Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series.

My next two series are the John Cutler Mysteries and the Flip-Flop Detective. Cutler is a private detective and while Sam Strait (the Flip-Flop Detective) is known as an “amateur sleuth.” The tone of these books can range from light (Strait) to hard-boiled (Cutler). Think The Rockford Files on television or Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder series for comparisons. I can be a little loser with the law in these niches because neither man is a police officer. However, there must still be ramifications if the law is broken.

Cozy Up to Death cover

The final series I write is the Cozy Up novels, and they fall into (no surprise) the cozy genre. Several rails prop this genre up. Swearing is a no-no, and sex and violence occur off stage. Also, the setting of the story is a small community. Think Agatha Christie’s novels or the classic television series, Murder, She Wrote.

Whenever I’m writing in these genres, I must change my frame of mind.

My 509 Crime Stories force me to think more technically when walking through the solving of a crime. Most of the time, the cops in these stories don’t react emotionally to the stimuli of their environment. I need to approach them methodically and with a critical mind.

The John Cutler Mysteries and the Flip-Flop Detective still require good investigative work, but liberal emotions can be sprinkled in. Cutler is a bit of a loose cannon, and Strait is a bit of a jokester. Also, neither guy has the back-up of a department, so things don’t always work out for them.

And the Cozy Up series requires me to be light and funny.

As you can imagine, writing in different genres requires shifts in mental states. For example, I jumped from Cozy Up to Danger after finishing The Only Death That Matter, an incredibly heavy book to write. Talk about emotional whiplash! It took me half of Danger (about 30,000 words) before I found my funny. I had to restart the story over in a lighter and friendly tone.

Thank you for the question, Coleen!


A portion of this post originally appeared as a subscriber newsletter.

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