Or, Falling out of love with a character
“What on earth did you do to Nick?”
The question came from a friend who’d read early drafts of my first novel, Death and the Informant*, a cozy murder mystery on the edgier side of cozy. Back in the early drafts, my sleuth, Abbie Adams, a disgraced historical researcher, catches the eye of the newest cop in town, super-sexy Nick Preston (of course, he had to be super sexy, and of course he had to be a cop). Abbie’s and Nick’s paths cross when a suspect she interviewed for a cold case turns up dead.
And, to throw a potential romantic twist into the mix, Joss Freeman, a narcissistic college buddy who names recipes after himself and has more followers on Twitter than Abbie can count, joins her in her sleuthing duties.
Back to Nick. As I started thinking about my sleuth’s romantic interest, I suppose it was natural that he would take the shape of a small-town cop. After all, I’d crammed my bookshelf full of cozies featuring female heroines and their cop boyfriend/lover/husbands. There was Earlene Fowler’s Benni Harper series (love interest Officer Gabe Ortiz). Mary Daheim’s Alpine Mysteries, where newspaper owner Emma Lord finally marries Sheriff Milo Dodge, takes up one entire shelf. And, of course, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum can’t ever seem to make up her mind between Detective Joe Morelli and the mysterious Ranger (both of whom are super-sexy, by the way).
So. Cop. Check. Super-sexy. Check. Available but elusive. Check.
Detective Nick Preston of the Hunts Landing Police Department has it all.
Back to Joss Freeman. The story didn’t start as a love triangle. In fact, my introduction of Joss Freeman was more of a thorn in Abbie’s side, a distraction she didn’t need. He shows up on her doorstep, an old friend demanding her help with a historical project that could save his career. He guilts her into helping him.
First-draft Joss was annoyingly superficial, belligerent when Abbie didn’t give his project equal time, subconsciously competing with Nick. With each revision, Joss became peskier and Nick became more super-sexy perfect (although, to be fair to Joss, he thought he was super-sexy perfect).
Finally, my manuscript was ready for beta-readers. And, almost unanimously, they despised the Abbie-Nick-Joss triangle.
There were a couple who favored Nick. But most favored the pesky, pain-in-the-butt Joss who wouldn’t get out of Abbie’s hair.
I stuffed the manuscript–and the beta-readers’ comments–in a drawer for over two years.
After enough time and distance, I took everything out of that proverbial drawer, manuscript and emailed comments, and looked at the story fresh.
My beta-readers were right.
Cop-boyfriend-of-the-sleuth had been done, and redone, and then done again, as evidenced by my own selective bookshelf. There was nothing new in the dynamic, nothing fresh. But, like Stephanie Plum, I couldn’t decide between my two leading men. Do I keep super-sexy Nick? Do I keep thinks-he’s-super-sexy Joss?
I got halfway through a draft that featured Nick in various occupations (he seemed to change jobs every chapter or two, but heck, it was a draft). And I realized I wasn’t that interested in him any longer. And neither was my protagonist, Abbie. Nick didn’t thrill her as he had in earlier drafts; in fact, when he accuses her of murder, she got downright ticked. And that’s what decided it for me. When my character, in her own words, was no longer enthralled by Detective Nick Preston, I knew the reader wouldn’t be.
But the dynamic between Joss and Abbie fascinated me. Old friends, they didn’t just meet in the series. Thus, they knew plenty about each other’s quirks and hurts, and ambitions, and dreams, and failures.
A story that had stalled for me was suddenly alive with new creative possibilities, with characters that appeared more true-to-life than the idyllic world where a girl meets a super-sexy cop.
I probably never would have reached that point, however, without the crucial feedback from my beta-readers and “resting” time in the drawer, where the love of old characters could fade, and the appreciation of new ones could percolate.
Late last year, I took that five-year-old manuscript and revised it with an eye towards making this a series about Abbie and Joss solving crimes instead of just Abbie with a couple of dudes in the periphery. Instead of being flat, the characters now had depth and more meaning behind their ultimate actions. The story was actually easier to write in that final revision. And that was the revision that was accepted by my publisher.
So, that’s what happened to Nick. I explained the evolution of the story to my friend whose phone call prompted this post. I’m not sure she’s forgiven me. She was one of the beta-readers who’d rooted for Nick. But, as I told her, it’s been more fun to write about Abbie and Joss now. I’m busy drafting outlines for the next books in the series, a series where the arc is so much easier to envision.
She elicited one promise from me, though, that Nick wouldn’t go away.
Note: even as I write this, I anxiously await my editorial letter from my assigned editor at CamCat Books. The editorial letter is the first step in an author’s journey with a traditional publisher and is going to be the document that shapes future edits and rewrites of Death and the Informant’s chapters. My editor might take all my new and exciting ideas about these characters and chuck them out the window. Who knows? Stay tuned.
* to be published by CamCat Books in the fall of 2022