Three minutes into sobbing over the ending of my first very long book, a new curiosity arrived about one minor character who pushed William Weldon from a hayloft in childhood. Now as I edit the final chapters of what has become a four book series (THE HOUSE on TENAFLY ROAD being a prequel to the series) I want to celebrate the joys of writing (and reading) multiple books about your characters.
I set out to write one small novella ten years ago, but life took hold of my muse and carried me along through at least 2,200 pages (and more lost to editing) of a series I never imagined when first dipping my foot in the pond.
I offer no hard and fast rules because my natural tendency is to resist such man-made limitations and trends. When I began it was to entertain myself. Quite early on I realized that the books I adored were often quite different from the ones I admired. Adoration has kept me going all of these years later.
LOVE: When a writer falls in love with a character the love is forever. The sad and lost John Weldon swept me through a thousand pages of addiction and the underlying terror of being found truly worthless. As a loving creator I set Weldon up with everything he needed to see his value, but being lost comes with a blindness to certain realities. I believed at the close of the book that my final gift to him was a glimmer of hope in a marriage he’d worked so hard to destroy, but my muse gave him a good and troubled son with a love interest in Thankful Crenshaw. I had to know what would become of them!
LAYERS: A series allows for unmasking the layers of a character or a whole town of characters. A chance remark on page two of a book sprouts a whole series of future events. In WEARY of RUNNING, the first in THE TENAFLY ROAD SERIES, a young girl stands up for Buck Crenshaw. Born with troubled eyes she hears the truth in Buck’s voice though no one else does. This small act of kindness hints at Lucy’s sudden emergence as the series heroine she will grow into in the last two novels. Life isn’t chocolate and vanilla. Some readers prefer easy answers, but in a series the writer can play with nuance, growth and regression. When Thankful Crenshaw makes her first bad decision with Lieutenant Fahy the reader knows it won’t be her last. There is a risk here for series writers. Will the reader follow lost characters for long? Will they love them enough to stand by and watch (and cringe) at the way these people seek love and redemption? The risk is well worth it if the author is being true to her muse. Critics be damned.
LAUGHTER: Gallows humor is my cup of tea. It’s not for everyone. “Only kidding” is a family mantra when so often outsiders look askance at the way we joke. The House on Tenafly Road can be a tough read for some. Can one really make addiction funny? Sometimes it is. As the characters grew and I grew to love them more I allowed for more fun and faster pacing. The House on Tenafly Road stands alone as historical fiction while The Tenafly Road Series is more an American period drama. We laugh best with people we know really well–and cry all the more bitterly when these people hurt themselves. William, Buck and Thankful carry a whole lot of hurt, but they make me laugh (especially when I forget what I’ve written and come back to something as if for the first time).
LOSS: Loss and love. The stuff of life. There is something so edifying when you kill off a character. Let me explain. To have a well-loved character die with a Victorian sense of dignity feels like doing what’s right by your kin. The author is the ultimate funeral planner, the writer of letters found tucked in the cubicle of a roll-top desk in the study. The laurel wreaths are hung and mirrors covered to prevent lost spirits. Oh, the many ways to explore grief as time passes! What does it say about Buck or William? How does it change Thankful?
LIFE: A day in the life of a character is sometimes all an author needs to make a novel. I’m not that author. I devour whole lives. I want the beginning, middle and end. I want a prologue and an epilogue. I want growth and maturity, death and rebirth. In writing a series, especially an epic family saga, I’ve lived so many lives in the last ten years. When the series is over (though ideas float around about a new direction in writing) I will be satisfied that I’ve lived life well. Before writing a series I couldn’t honestly say that.
And now a note for the READER of my books: Realize that life is a slow burn with sudden temporary gusts to enliven the fire. Yes, THE HOUSE on TENAFLY ROAD is a bit heavy and long, but (in my opinion) worth the buildup. And yes, there are terribly many mistakes made by Buck and friends in THE TENAFLY ROAD SERIES but if we take the blinders off we see so much of ourselves in the house fires and dampened reversals. I do believe that endings can be happy and well worth the wait. In the meantime there’s love, loss and laughter. I hope you enjoy the layers and the lives of the (fictional?) people I adore.
And now for the WRITER a quote by Thomas Merton to hearten you on your journey:
“Many poets never succeed in being themselves. They never get around to being the particular poet they are intended to be by God. They never become the person or artist who is called for by all of the circumstances of their individual lives. They waste their years in vain efforts to be some other poet. They wear out their minds and bodies in a hopeless endeavor to have somebody else’s experiences or write somebody else’s poems.”