As a reader, it kept me up all night, turning the pages, trying to figure out who was behind all of the awful things happening too the main character. It was as if I was Jenny McPartland on that wintry Minnesota farm and my life, my well being, was at stake. How on earth could I even think about sleeping until I knew how things turned out in the end?
As a writer, it’s the book that made me decide to be a mystery writer rather than the children’s writer I’d always imagined. I liked the pace, I liked the notion of creating a character that my readers could root for from start to finish, and, quite frankly, I liked the image of taking those folks down one path after the other…until they finally find the right one.
I’ve had that yellowed and dog-eared paperback for nearly thirty years and, every once in a while, I take it out and reread it, finding myself to be every bit as enchanted with the characters and the story as I was when I was a teenager. Only now, right beside that book, are some of my own titles—books I’ve dreamed up and put on paper.
Five years ago, my first traditional mystery was released with a small, independent publishing house out of Maryland. I didn’t make a ton of money, but my dream was finally coming true.
That first book led to an Agatha nomination, a direct-to-consumer book club deal with a bigger publisher, and, eventually, an agent.
Two years ago, I signed a three-book deal for a new cozy mystery series with Berkley Prime Crime (an imprint of Penguin Publishing). A year later, that deal was extended to include three more books in the series—books I love to write for all the same reasons A Cry in the Night kept me up all night as a kid.
Because, you see, I learned something from that dog-eared book. I learned that while the story is critical, so, too, are the characters and the setting. Sure, a good story will keep your interest, but it’s when you create characters that leap off the page that you find yourself thinking about them long after the last page.
Why, you ask?
Because they became real.
Well-developed characters become a reader’s eyes and ears during the figuring out whodunit process, but, if you’re lucky, they also become the reader’s friends…
Friends they want to keep up with from book to book.
That’s what I love about writing the Southern Sewing Circle Mystery Series for Berkley. The characters have taken on a life of their very own. They have strengths. They have flaws. They have dreams and aspirations. Yes, they solve a mystery in each book, but they also grow and change right before your eyes, sucking you in as if you, too, are part of the circle.
When you create characters that suck your readers in, you’re creating the kind of book that may, if you’re lucky, find a spot of honor on a shelf in someone’s home. And, aside from fan mail begging for the release date of your next book, I can’t imagine a bigger compliment.
So no matter where you are in the writing process, no matter what fiction genre you’re writing, keep character creation in the forefront of your in mind. They truly are the life of your book. They are, in my opinion, what makes the different between a good book and a great book—the thing that makes readers seek out your books (series or otherwise) again and again…building that lifelong fan Mary Higgins Clark built in me.
***Elizabeth Lynn Casey is the national bestselling author of the Southern Sewing Circle Mystery series with Berkley Prime Crime. PINNED FOR MURDER, the latest book in the series, released last week. In addition to her work as a cozy mystery writer, she also pens romances for Harlequin American under the name, Laura Bradford. For more information, visit her website: www.elizabethlynncasey.com