12 December 2022

When the Characters Run Away with Your Series

DorothyL, the mystery lovers’ e-list, is often the source of inspiration for me in thinking about why I write what and how I write. A while back, a DL reader was “disconcerted” when an author who had written the first few books of a series from the sole point of view of the first person protagonist brought out a new book with multiple POVs: some chapters from the protagonist’s POV as before, and others from the third person POV of other characters.

original 2008 hardcover

In the case of my Bruce Kohler Mysteries, a series which includes both novels and short stories, I intended to write from the POV of a first person protagonist. But it never happened. I also intended to have a bestselling hardcover series with a major publisher that sold for $27.95 that appeared in paperback a year later and continue writing it forever, but that never happened either. How the world has changed in the twenty years since I finished the first draft of Death Will Get You Sober.

In fact, my Bruce Kohler short stories, starting with “Death Will Clean Your Closet,” have been solely in Bruce’s first person POV until recently. That first novel originally had two alternating first person protagonists, Bruce, the sardonic recovering alcoholic with an ill-concealed heart of gold, and Barbara, the nice Jewish codependent from Queens who can’t resist helping and minding everybody’s business. When an editor finally showed interest in publishing Death Will Get You Sober, the first thing he said was, “Bruce is a terrific protagonist, but Barbara would be better as a sidekick.” So I rewrote the book, putting her chapters in third person. I also fixed some awkward scenes, like having Bruce tell us what Barbara told him she overheard in the ladies room. Sometimes you really need another POV.

Every writer hears the starting bell for the next work differently. In this series, I start with the title. I had Death Will Get You Sober in my head for years, though I didn’t write it till I quit the job on the Bowery that I fictionalized in the novel. And then, I wait for Bruce, Barbara, Jimmy, who’s Bruce’s best friend since childhood and Barbara’s boyfriend, now husband, to start wisecracking in my head. I take my marching orders from them.

Over the years, each character has developed. I haven’t developed them, any more than I planned for my son to grow up to be a decent man and a terrific husband and father who wears his hair very short and earns a six-figure income in the fantasy sports industry. (Take that, hippie parents!)

An e-publisher changed the titles
but the artist got Bruce's wry grin

Bruce, with his distinctive first person voice, is at the heart of the series. He once described himself as “ham on wry.” He’s still sardonic, but his compassion is closer to the surface as his sobriety continues. The main character arc is that of his recovery and personal growth. As he said recently, in “Death Will Take the High Line,” “At seven years sober, I’d be a sorry excuse for recovery if I still thought about alcohol all the time.” The main characters are his circle of friends.

Barbara has agency. As the series goes on, she’s become the one who pushes the others to investigate and instigates the moments of confrontation. She’s also funny. She works on her codependency issues, but if she ever recovered completely from being nosy and bossy for the good of those she loves, she wouldn’t be funny anymore. Luckily, she keeps backsliding.

Jimmy provides stability and serves as a foil for the others. His passions are AA, the Internet and all things tech, and Manhattan. He can get culture shock in New Jersey, if you can get him there, or even in Brooklyn or the Bronx. He and Bruce have some Mr Jones-Mr Bones routines they’ve been doing since they were kids in Yorkville. They keep coming up with ones I’ve never heard before, usually when I’m lying on the floor doing my stretches.

The unified e-series edition –
this novel is an e-book only

Cindy, Bruce’s NYPD detective girlfriend, became necessary when the device of amateur sleuths in New York City became harder and harder to pull off realistically, even in the mystery story context of suspension of disbelief. When she first appeared in the trio’s clean and sober group house in the Hamptons in Death Will Extend Your Vacation, Bruce didn’t know she was a cop. And I didn’t know she would become a permanent member of my cast of series characters. But it was time for Bruce to have a serious relationship. We both needed Cindy. So there she was again when we needed her: in Death Will Pay Your Debts, “Death Will Help You Imagine,” and “Death Will Finish Your Marathon.”

But Cindy really sprang to life when I gave her a story of her own in “Death Will Give You A Reason.” I absolutely didn’t “flesh her out.” Cindy and I went through the process of discovering who she was in depth together. In that story, Cindy’s about to celebrate her tenth anniversary of sobriety, a very big deal in AA, when a case pulls her back into a painful part of her past. Solving it, we found her essence. Cindy belongs to two tribes, NYPD and Alcoholics Anonymous.

Bruce appears briefly at the beginning and end of “Death Will Give You A Reason,” because I thought fans of the series might object to a “Death Will” story that left him out. After her big evening at AA, he falls asleep beside her as she thinks about all that matters to her.

Besides taking [the murderer] in to be booked yesterday, she’d had to trace the knife, mobilize a social worker … and fill out a ton of paperwork. In a couple of days she’d be able to think about her anniversary, the love that had come pouring in when she’d told her story. It was nice to take a break from being a cop, if it didn’t last too long.


  1. I do like your titles! Best of luck with the new volumes.

  2. Great post, Liz.

    It's funny the decisions we make and then get changed somehow, isn't it?

    I thought Zach Barnes and Beth Shepard would be in one novel while I tried to sell another series, but reviews and readers showed up on my website wanting more, so they became a series. Woody Guthrie and Megan Traine, my planned team, got over 100 rejections before I published the first one (my 6th novel) myself. And I wrote that series in past tense until I discovered that Megan's scenes felt more natural in present.

    Ditto the Roller Girls with Trash and Byrne. I started the first novel in past tense and it slogged to a complete halt after about 50 pages. When I shifted to present tense, it took off. Again, that first book was going to be a standalone until readers wanted more.

    I've tried short stories with both sets of characters, but none have quite worked. I've placed a couple of novellas, but they tend to leave out some of my supporting series characters, and those characters add both depth and color to the stories as they reveal more of themselves, much like what you discuss.

  3. Good point about tenses, Steve. I used it for the first time in "Vice Cop" (Black Cat MM this year) to keep a father and daughter's voices from sounding too similar and confusing the reader--first person for one and third for the other wasn't enough. But these days I think almost half the books I read use present tense, especially if there are two protagonists and/or two timelines. I just read the latest from our good friend Rob Lopresti's bestselling sister, Diana Chamberlain, which had both, and it started right in in present tense (for the more current timeline, which isn't always the case. Good book! It's about freedom riders in the Sixties not as far South as you might think.

  4. That reminds me– we haven't heard from Diana in a while, have we, Rob?

    I enjoy your writings, Liz, and even here, I get a kick out of your wording– ham and wry, culture shock in Jersey, and so on. I still haven't forgiven the state for tearing out Palisades Park. Come to think of it, has Bruce solved a case in Coney Island?

    1. Leigh, Coney Island has changed so much over the years that I wouldn't dare use it as a setting. At this point, each of the novels is what one writer friend called "a period piece" years ago, and I have to draw attention away from Bruce & Company's ages to make the timeline work from the beginning to the current stories.

  5. I, too, love the titles. I think we all work in a never-never land where ages are irrelevant. Unless the mysteries take place in a character's past (which a lot of Linda Thompson's do). And I think most readers don't care, as long as you don't rub their noses in it.

  6. Eve, I was thinking today about your fictional South Dakota town and the challenges it must present in managing the timelines of its varied population. There are always some readers who complain. Btw, I noticed this evening that Acorn has the Dalgleish TV series classified under "Period Drama." Yikes, that made me feel old.


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