Caro Ramsay is the author of the Anderson and Costello series which includes Absolution, Singing to the Dead and The Suffering of Strangers. The Sideman, the 10th book in the series, is published by Blackthorn Books on 7 May 2020.
Caro discusses the ups and downs of writing a series.
There is something very comforting about writing a series. Starting a new book is like meeting old friends down the pub and finding out what they’ve been up to.
When I am plotting a new book, I appear with a new plot and my serial characters come to me as if they are actors and say ‘I’ll have that bit or I’ll do this bit.’ And to me my four detectives and my pathologist are real people. I’ve spent over ten years of my life with them and just like real people you might think you know well, but they can really surprise you. That can be both an advantage and disadvantage. If the plot dictates that Anderson, my lead detective, has to do something extreme, I can sometimes hear his voice saying that he would never do that, ‘I would do this instead’. I always give the example that my female detective, Costello, would never run through a graveyard at midnight in her underwear no matter who she heard screaming. So knowing your characters so intimately helps to keep the book on track.
Audiences do like to follow the criminal investigation as it unfolds, but they also like to follow the personal life of the characters; what the kids are doing now, how is the romance doing, do they ever get together. At the moment I am writing thirteen, researching fourteen, and doing the publicity for The Sideman. A lot can happen to my characters over three books so when I am doing an event and somebody from the audience asks ‘Do x and y ever get married, I love them as a couple?’ I have to tell them to wait and see without blurting out that I have just brutally slaughtered one of them.
The relationship between the character and a reader is strong, and when the reader is already familiar with the backstory, the writer can then move the plot on swiftly. However, the author must also write with the knowledge that some readers might be new to the series, so all the serial characters need their introduction. It’s a very fine line.
Life changing experiences are exactly that, the character should evolve. Colin Anderson was a young detective with an experienced mentor when I first wrote him. He was balancing a career and two small children. Now he is a senior detective and has two teenagers, and has just adopted his own grandson who has Downs Syndrome. Sometimes he does struggle, while the other detective, Costello, is just older and more sarcastic.
So while there is comfort in the setup of a series, it can be constricting. There will be plots that just cannot fit into that framework; the author cannot bend the narrative to fit every occasion. So when I had an idea that would not work as a police procedural, I offered my publisher a standalone called Mosaic. (I remember the look of horror in my editor’s eyes!). But it worked out well and the book sold out in hardcopy in America very quickly.
The whole process of writing without my serial characters was a bit odd and although I enjoyed it I won’t be repeating the experience until I have another burning plot that will not fit the series.
But the huge disadvantage with writing a long series is the passage of time. People get old. Careers can be short. Children grow up. In the book I am writing, Colin Anderson has had to get his faithful dog put to sleep. Nobody has read those opening chapters without crying their eyes out.
The huge advantage of serial crime fiction? They do sell rather well.
About the book
Inside a beautiful Victorian family home in Glasgow’s West End, a mother and her young son are found brutally murdered. DI Costello is furious and knows exactly who did it, George Haggerty, the husband and father. The only problem is that Haggerty has a cast-iron alibi – the police themselves caught him speeding on the A9 at the time of the murders. But Costello can’t let it go. Determined to expose Haggerty as a ruthless killer, she’s gone solo.
DCI Colin Anderson has no time to ponder his partner of twenty years going rogue, as his own cases are piling up. But Costello’s absence becomes increasingly worrying. Has she completely disappeared following the tracks of a dangerous man?
About the author
CARO RAMSAY is the Glaswegian author of the critically acclaimed Anderson and Costello series, the first of which, Absolution, was shortlisted for the CWA’s New Blood Dagger for best debut of the year. The ninth book in the series, The Suffering of Strangers, was longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize 2018.