There is nothing more gratifying, and terrifying at the same time, than publishing your first novel. Before getting that heart-stopping telephone call from your agent that, yes, some brilliant and forward-thinking publisher would be putting your work to print, you had but one litmus test for your story—publishing. After the call, the terror sets in—what if no one buys it? What if the critics hate it? Worse… what the hell will I do for an encore?
The answers to the first two questions—sales and critics—is fodder for a future blog. For now, the answer to “what the hell will I do for an encore” is easy…Write a sequel.
And therein lies the terror. Oh, so many terrors. What if I can’t capture the story and characters again? What if the first one fails and the second one is worse? Worse… what if the first one is great and the second one stinks? What if… And so goes the sleepless nights and reams of paper in search of the solution.
When Midnight Ink demonstrated their class and stature in the publishing world by signing me to write three novels in the Gumshoe Ghost series (note—this series title is not my doing…honest!), I had already penned two more murder, different mysteries—New Sins for Old Scores, which my agent is currently trying to place in the market (any of you publishing pros out there, here’s your chance… call my Kimberley Cameron!) and The Killing of Tyler Quinn, which is presently in rewrite. But Midnight Ink wanted two more Oliver Tucker stories—the Gumshoe Ghost himself—so I teed up Dying for the Past, which will be out January 8, 2015, and Dying to Tell, coming in 2016.
The first dilemma I had was how to transition from book one to book two, Dying for the Past. Let me set the stage for the difficulties I had. Book one—Dying to Know—is the story of Oliver “Tuck” Tucker, a detective murdered in the opening chapter who returns to help his wife, Angel, and former partner, Bear Braddock, solve his crime. Of course, there are a half-dozen other important characters, including Hercule, Tuck’s black Lab companion; Poor Nic, a loveable/hateable retired mobster; and several secondary characters of note, too. The story, as with all the sequels, intertwines a current murder with a historical subplot involving murder and intrigue. The two story lines weave and cross back and forth and conclude together. Always. Thus, there are two timelines surrounding the characters—the present concerning the murder, and the distant past surrounding the historical plot. Tuck can move between these timelines and does to solve the cases. It’s like playing three dimensional chess with dead bodies!
So, the dilemma was—do I treat Dying for the Past (book two) like a standalone story or write it as though it’s simply the next chapter of a longer story. In my case, I took an eclectic approach and wrote Dying for the Past as a standalone story, but let the storyline flirt with Dying to Know (book one) as though a continuing chapter in Tuck’s larger story. Thus, in Dying for the Past, I have an entirely new murder(s) and the historical subplot that includes 1939 gangsters, Russian spies, and the search for the book that has the key to modern day spies and traitors. I reintroduced my characters, periodically mentioned the plot and outcome of the Dying to Know—but sparingly—and created a new cast of fresh good guys and bad guys to support those returning characters from Dying to Know. And, much to my pleasure, it worked—having a dead guy solve crimes creates a lot of challenges!
Part of the allure of a good mystery is the characters. They have fears, strengths, weaknesses, and history to unravel. After exhausting myself trying to make Dying to Know a good mystery novel, I was again terrified about how I would keep my main characters fresh, interesting, and still a little mysterious to any reader who already read the first novel. The danger would be having nothing new for the reader to learn about them.
I found the solution by developing the second set of support characters for Dying for the Past. Each of the Gumshoe Ghost sequels will have new characters supporting the story—after all, it’s a murder mystery so not all of them will make it to “The End.” And these new characters allowed me to create new fears, strengths, weaknesses, and storylines for my main characters to evolve. Human nature is that way, right? How you act with one person is not always the same as with another. How you respond to one situation or crisis is not always the same as in another, particularly if new people are involved. I used these new characters to drive my main character’s new storylines and, in doing that, create new things for the reader to discover about them. In book one—Dying to Know— Tuck is learning how to be a dead detective. In book two—Dying for the Past—Tuck finds his family roots; and some are roses and some are deadly nightshade, let me tell you. Now, Angel and Bear are coming to grips with Tuck’s demise—after all, figuring out how to live and work with a dead guy isn’t easy. There are other key characters, too—like Poor Nic, the loveable/hateable retired mob boss—who has so many skeletons in his closet that Tuck can’t count them.
As Tuck’s sequels continue, Tuck will learn more and more about his family and with each one, have to investigate yet another historical crime along with a new one. Angel and Bear will find out that life with and without Tuck has a lot of twists and turns. The new characters in each sequel will bring along their own baggage, influences on the main characters, and body bags.
The biggest conflict I found in writing sequels was deciding which characters to keep around and which to send on vacation. In book one—Dying to Know—I received a lot of great comments about several characters—Poor Nic, the aforementioned love/hate mobster; André Cartier, Angel’s uncle; Detectives Cal Clemens and Mike Spence, the brilliant yet bumbling partners; and even Doc Gilley, Tuck’s spirit mentor. My problem was, in book two—Dying for the Past—I had a new crew of story characters to add and didn’t have room for everyone to return. The questions were: who would sit out the sequels? How do I explain where they went—not everyone can be sick or on vacation, right? Who would be most popular or have the biggest impact on the series? The answer lay in what I like to think was a brilliant strategy—I listened to my readers, asked my agent and publicist, and read who the critics keyed on. Then, I ignored all that and kept those characters who moved me. You see, certain characters came alive to me—other than Tuck, Angel, and Bear, that is. They presented so many possibilities for future stories and subplots that I had to keep them around and use them to stir things up. In the end, if they stirred things up in book one, they returned to book two. If not, they got the flu, moved away, were out to lunch, on vacation… you get the idea.
After all is said, there were so many challenges to writing my sequels, I cannot recall them all. But it suffices to say, they kept me up many, many nights.
Dying for the Past is a better novel than Dying to Know, and I hope Dying to Tell is better than both. You see, I think I’m learning as I go and my characters are teaching me. Dying for the Past was challenging, too, as it made me search for what I wanted from Tuck, Angel, Bear, and even Poor Nic. With each sequel, I will try to challenge each of my characters to keep my readers—and me—guessing. After all, I write what my characters tell me—resistance to them is futile.
I’ve just wrapped Dying to Tell—book three—and after explaining my process for dealing with sequels, I have some rewriting to do! I hope you enjoy Tuck’s cases in Dying to Know, Dying for the Past, and Dying to Tell… visit my site and drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you! Tj O’Connor lives in Virginia with his wife and three Labs. Dying to Know is the fourth of his eight novels and is currently available in bookstores and online. Dying for the Past is his first of two sequels to Dying to Know and will be released January 8, 2015—available now for pre-orders! Tj is an international security consultant specializing in anti-terrorism and investigations.
Learn about his world at www.tjoconnor.com and Facebook at www.facebook.com/TjOConnor.Author.