Jessie: Enjoying the contrast between the snow outside my window and the amaryllis blooming on the windowsill.
This month we’ve decided to all chime in on the process of writing proposals for book series. Mystery series are often sold this way, in fact all of us have sold series in this manner, some of us more than once. The format for doing this is fairly standardized in the publishing industry and each Wednesday this month we will dive into one aspect of the process. This week we are talking about writing character sketches for your proposal. Wickeds, how did you introduce your characters in something as short as a sketch?
Edith: Now that you mention it, a big part of the series description portion of my Country Store Mysteries proposal was the character sketch of Robbie Jordan. I had to make her different from Cam, the tall geeky farmer in the Local Foods Mysteries, and from Lauren, my Quaker linguistics prof in the Lauren Rousseau mysteries.
So Robbie (Roberta) Jordan, originally a Californian, has fallen for the rolling hills of southern Indiana and also fell in love with all the vintage cookware available. Robbie, 27, is 5’3″, has curly dark hair from the father she never met, and struggles with her weight because of her love of cooking and eating what she cooks, although she’s fit from a bicycling habit and strong because of the carpentry she learned from her mom. She was also a puzzle champion in high school and still does difficult puzzles every day to relax, which helps her solve mysteries, too! I also love some of the secondary characters, including her tough old aunt Adele, who raises sheep and can also handle a gun. And when I realized how much work running a restaurant was, Danna popped onto the page full blown, a nineteen-year-old tall local daughter of the mayor with gold-red dreadlocks. She wants to cook instead of going to college and turned out to be a great sidekick. Robbie’s African-American friend Phil popped in, too. A singer and an artist, he also bakes all the desserts for the restaurants and is a loyal friend.
Barb: Thanks for this trip down Memory Lane, Wickeds! Unfortunately, I think I’m the Wicked with the least recent proposal and my memory isn’t all that good. It’s hard to remember where the characters in the Maine Clambake Mystery series came from. I do know it was a conscious choice to make Julia Snowden thirty years old. The protagonist in my first book was my age when I started writing it, married with two kids, like me. I wanted something different for this book. I thought making her an age where hard decisions about the future press in would make for an interesting series.
I knew I wanted an antagonist for the series, and that’s where Julia’s brother-in-law Sonny comes from. He’s a traditionalist, so he fights every change she wants to make to the clambake. I don’t know where Julia’s sister Livvie came from, but all of the female protagonists in my novels have sisters. I do not have a sister. Paging Dr. Freud! Chris Durand and Gus Farnham are to some degree modeled on real people. With Chris, not so much the hunky, sexy part, but the having three jobs and scrambling to make a living in a resort economy. We do have a friend in Boothbay who works as a bouncer and drives a cab, and I’ve always found the idea of taking away some tourist’s keys and then loading him into a cab you own and charging him for the ride to be the ultimate small town situation. Gus’s I’ve described pretty much as it was. Julia’s mother Jacqueline, niece Page, and cop friend Jamie round out the cast. The state cops, Binder and Flynn, weren’t in the original proposal. They came later.
Liz: When I wrote my original character sketch for Stan Connor in the Pawsitively Organic Mysteries, I had a pretty good picture of her already. Aside from being blond and tall (think Blake Lively) I wanted her to be someone with a lot of contradictions, like the fact that she’d thrived in corporate America but really didn’t have a lot of the cutthroat traits that people in those positions usually possessed. I wanted her to be financially independent, not poor and struggling. And I knew, just from exploring her upbringing and comparing that with the person I’d created, that she’d have a lot of relationship baggage. I also wanted her to find some really great people when she moved to Frog Ledge – unique but loyal friends like Char and Ray Mackey and her love interest Jake McGee. Her best friend Nikki, a dog transporter and animal activist, is my “say anything” character – the person I can assign all those lines that Stan would never say. I love her.
In my upcoming series, I knew immediately that Maddie James would be very different from Stan. Where Stan is polished and tends to live on the quieter side, Maddie is more in-your-face. She’s a born leader and entrepreneur, and has very strong opinions. And, she’s a brunette. Her sidekick is her Grandpa Leo, who’s the former police chief on Daybreak Island, her hometown and where the series takes place. I’m having a lot of fun in her head.
Jessie: For me the character sketches are easiest to write after I’ve done the first 50 pages of the manuscript. I write in scenes and I generally know what bit of business I am trying to accomplish at any point in the work but I don’t necessarily consciously know what the characters are like until I start writing them. Like Barb, with her realization that she wanted to provide a strong antagonist, I usually have a clear sense of the roles I want and need to fill to tell the story. What I don’t know is the voice they will use or the attitude they will have about any of it. I find that I end up blocking out action and goals and then I sit down and start writing. Mercifully and magically the people seem to show up, mostly full-blown on the page like they are talking right into my ear.
In my Sugar Grove mysteries I knew my main character, Dani Greene, was the youngest in her family and that she lived on her family’s farm with a lot of relatives. By the end of the first 50 pages I knew everyone in her immediate orbit and I could backtrack and write a synopsis of each of them. When it came to crafting the character sketches themselves I tried to adhere to the advice I heard somewhere once that such things should create impressions rather than conduct inventories. I try to succinctly convey the emotional temperature of the characters and their goals and fears rather than their physical descriptions etc…
Barb, my books always have sisters too! But I have sisters of my own so I wonder if we would get the same diagnosis?
Barb: Jessie, interesting you wrote the pages first, then the proposal. I did it the other way around. How did others do it?
Sherry: Writing character sketches is a great time to show not tell what your story is about. How is your character different from other authors characters? How do they add conflict to the story? I wanted to have a protagonist who had some connection to the military because I loved being an Air Force wife. I also wanted to make sure Sarah couldn’t run to someone on the police force for help. So Sarah is newly divorced from a husband who was in the Air Force. Her ex is now the police chief of the small town they live in. It was one way to create conflict in the series. I might have mentioned this before but about a month before I wrote the proposal I’d edited Clammed Up for Barb. I loved her character Gus — he was funny, gruff, and wise all at once. I created Angelo. I borrowed heavily from the personality of a neighbor of ours in Bedford, Massachusetts but amped him up from the original. Angelo has a lot of opinions but they usually have a point. He’s one of my favorite characters. I wrote the chapters first and then the sketches from there.
Julie: Again, different perspective since I was hired to write according to a bible. I had a list of characters, and a couple of sentences about each. For a proposal, you don’t need much more than that. But, in order for me to write my sample chapters, I needed to really understand each of them a bit more. So I visualized them. “Handsome guy next door” became Robert Redford in THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, for example. Just remember, you need a victim, a protaganist/sleuth, a sidekick, a foil for the protaganist (maybe someone who seems guiltly, or creates tension in a subplot.) Casting your cozy is important. It helps people understand that you understand the form. And it lets them know that you are creating a world they all want to visit over and over.
Edith: For the Local Foods proposal, Barb, I had a draft of the pages from fifteen years earlier, and I’d already created the world, so that helped. For the Country Store series, I kind of went back and forth. I sketched out the characters, wrote some, and then went back and made sure my character sketches matched who had emerged on the page.
Readers–do you have questions or comments about character sketches in proposals?