Stand alone books or series? That is the Question...
SINGLE OR SERIES?
As many readers of Black Horse Westerns, or westerns in general, might have noticed, Old West fiction is ripe with continuing characters.
From historical sagas to action-packed shoot-'em-ups, from adult westerns to Lonesome Doves, vicarious riders of the Wild West's dusty trails love saddling up with their favourite series characters book after book. There's a sense of familiarity, of old friends revisited, and of new horizons blazed. We live through these characters and with them. We understand them, at least we like to think we do, and their exploits fit as warm and snug as a favourite pair of boots.
Black Horse's own Gillian F. Taylor and Chap O'Keefe use the format's fast-paced stampede of prose wonderfully in their continuing series, as do numerous others who ride for the Hale brand. Some writers make a living writing various series under myriad pseudonyms.
Writing my own books under the Lance Howard name, I somehow missed the stage when it came to series westerns. Oh, I experimented with it a couple times early on in my Black Horse career.
First came Duel Winston from Wanted, a manhunter whom I brought back in Ghost-Town Duel. Then came Luke Banner from The Gallows Ghost, who returned for his last hurrah in The Last Draw.
But even continuing these characters was a bit of a struggle. When I reach inside a character's psyche and lay their innermost thoughts and motivations across the pages for all to read, I normally have no desire to revisit them. It somehow always felt forced, contrived.
With Banner, a bit was left over to explore, mainly because he was a sort of secondary character in Gallows Ghost, despite being the lead. The story centred more on the mystery and two other characters in that novel. So The Last Draw came naturally, but effectively ended much chance of Banner ever returning, due to the events in that tale.
Writing a series means living with a character until they become like an unwelcome relative who passes out on your living-room couch after imbibing too much at your alcohol-free party. At first it's funny in a way, then it's annoying and finally it's boring and frustrating. . . . That was the way I looked at series characters for my own writing, though I read others' efforts with relish and a sense of admiration and awe, and perhaps a bit of jealously. I decided I would never again try it myself.
Exit Luke Banner.
Until a few months ago, I've discovered, I'd made a common mistake with writing series characters. Basically, I shot my load in the first book and strained too hard to plan for another. The more I planned, the more the muse got hogtied, the less attractive a series character seemed.
Then I began writing Vengeance Pass, which should be in print some time in the last quarter of 2005.
I didn't plan this book as a series. In fact, I was fully prepared to kill off one of the continuing characters, possibly both. But a funny thing happened. The two characters didn't want to die. They became more real as the book went on, and once the story was over I discovered there was enough about those two folks left over that begged to be told. Their relationship to each other and to their missions was just being hinted at. It led naturally from the book. And therein came the series secret for me. Don't plan for it. If it's there, it's there. Tell the story that wants to be told and if there's more, so be it.
Vengeance Pass led comfortably into Poison Pass, which is leading into Ripper Pass, the third in the series. The lead, Jim Hannigan, has shown himself to be a multi-dimensional character who needs more room than one book to tell his tale. His partner — who shall not be named until Vengeance Pass is published because it would spoil the book's mystery — literally screamed to have her story told over multiple adventures.
I also found some characters need their backgrounds and motivations revealed in bite-sized bits, ones that develop concurrently, parallel to and respectively of the other characters. I couldn't have planned for this, because they told me who they were during the writing of the book. I didn't have to force them on to paths; they forged their own.
I now know the thrill other authors get from spending time with their repeating characters. And it's a comfortable fit. I am hoping others will enjoy riding with them, cheering for them, worrying over them, cursing at them — let's face it, even your closest friends get on your nerves sometimes! — but most of all waiting eagerly to be with them after you've closed the book.
Duel Winston's return.
With a series, I have come to believe in revealing just enough of the folks populating it to make a reader crave more. Like a budding love affair, you don't give everything you have right at the beginning. You open yourself in pages, and leave intriguing questions and suspense at the end of each chapter. With any luck, Jim Hannigan will find his way through numerous books yet (at least two more anyway, with Ripper Pass and Nightmare Pass already accepted).
And with even more luck, readers will saddle up for each and every trail ride.
Lance Howard's VENGEANCE PASS is an August 2005 release available from AmazonUK.