A Pet Psychic, A Gentleman, and an Exorcist Walk Into A Bar

Jacqueline Vick is the author of over twenty published short stories, novelettes and mystery novels. Her April 2010 article for Fido Friendly Magazine, “Calling Canine Clairvoyants”, led to the first Frankie Chandler Pet Psychic mystery, Barking Mad About Murder. To find out more, visit her website.  

A Pet Psychic, A Gentleman, and an Exorcist Walk Into A Bar

It sounds like a joke, but it’s not. These are the characters who inhabit my head, along with a crime reporter, a mother and two daughters with a knack for stumbling into nefarious situations; and a few more who haven’t made it to print.

One of the difficulties with so many different characters is finding a common thread that runs through the various books that can be used to solidify an author brand. What is an author brand?

When you hear Joanna Fluke, you think mysteries and baking. And vise versa.

Is there a common thread among my characters? Well, Evan Miller is troubled, while Deanna Winder IS trouble. Frankie Chandler, Pet Psychic, considers the supernatural an intrusion in her life, while Father Gerald McAllister, exorcist, relies on it. And most of them would be left off the guest list of a dinner thrown by Edward Harlow, author of the Aunt Civility etiquette books.

An author, when coming up with a brand, also needs to consider his or her target market. I’ve never mastered that one. Most mystery readers are women, so I should try to determine who would like my books by age group and other demographics. Let see an example of how well that works.

I took a screenwriting class in Chicago. I wrote a scene that took place in a small town post office, and  a confused, elderly lady at the front of the line was driving the impatient protagonist mad. The person who laughed the loudest was a young, black man. I would have picked the suburban-looking white women as my target audience, but her slight smile seemed reluctant. So much for stereotyping your audience.

Another trick to finding your brand is to brainstorm words that come to mind when describing your books or characters. Unintentionally funny due to the circumstances and  people they are surrounded by. In other words, you and me. That doesn’t narrow it down very much.

Could this be the next
Agatha Christie?

You can always compare your books to others out there, but that’s too intimidating. When I put fingers to keyboard, I always hope to be the next Agatha Christie or Rex Stout, but the results fall far short. As for comparisons to current authors, each one seems so unique to me that I wouldn’t dream of holding my novel up next to theirs. I would feel like the gal on late-night television offering knock-offs for those who don’t care for the real thing.

JA Konrath has said that if you want to sell books, write more books. That I can do. I’ve slowly built up 4 novels, a traditionally published novella, and 4 short stories. Oh, yeah. And a children’s book.  If my timetable holds out, I’ll have Civility Rules, my Harlow Brothers mystery, and the third pet psychic mystery out before the end of the year, and the Father McAllister mystery out at the beginning of 2016.

So what should I do about my brand? I’d solicit feedback from other people on what words they thought best represented my books and characters, but if anyone used the word sassy to describe Frankie Chandler or Roxanne Wilder, I’d throw myself out the window. (It doesn’t matter that I live in a one-story. It’s the intent that counts.)

Do the Details Matter in Series Writing?

I remember an author on a panel saying that writers MUST get every detail right, from street directions to building descriptions. If not, readers would riot and complain.

I admit I’ve run into this scenario. I used bolero instead of bolo for a tie description. I didn’t catch it. The editor didn’t catch it. Three proofreaders didn’t catch it. But one reader caught it and left a nasty note on Amazon reviews. He said I was “just sloppy”. I immediately changed it and uploaded the revision, but I couldn’t thank the guy who had caught my mistake because he didn’t leave contact information. So, it does happens.

However, I would like put up an argument that, if readers love the books, they aren’t going to stop reading if they catch an inconsistency, and as my example, I’ll use Rex Stout, author of the Nero Wolf/Archie Goodwin novels.

In the course of reading every novel, novella and short he ever wrote, I’ve discovered many contradictions. Archie Goodwin smokes in one novel and says that he doesn’t smoke in another. He also says that he’s never seen  Inspector Cramer actually light his cigar, yet in earlier stories, Cramer puffs away.  The list goes on.

It gives me a giggle to be so immersed in his world that I catch these things. It seems as if Mr. Stout was so involved in the world of his current story that what came before (or might come after) didn’t hit his radar. I don’t consider them sloppy mistakes. They just feel like one more eccentricity of the characters coming down through the author.

One of the reasons that these changing details don’t bother me is that they don’t affect the core of the characters. Archie still complains about Wolf, while at the same time admiring him. He easily falls for females, makes smart-mouthed comments, and loves being the right-hand man of the smartest detective around. Wolf is still an Immovable Object  (Archie’s words, not mine), and he continues to take delight in cuisine and no delight women. (Though he claims to be neutral in the latter.)

I’ve put a disclaimer in the beginning of my Frankie Chandler, pet psychic, novels.  Breeds are not always capitalized, and grammar  aficionados would be quick to jump on how I capitalize all breeds. I do it intentionally out of love and respect for my furry characters.  I wouldn’t recommend that writers ignore the details, but if the world they create and the characters who inhabit that world are intriguing enough, I think that readers will let the occasional slip-up slide.

If your memory is a sieve (it will happen eventually to most of us), you can always keep those details in order by using a chart, or a style sheet. In fact, I recommend that you do. Track locations, names, dates, and anything else that you’ll need to refer to at a later date. If you have the skill of Rex Stout, discrepancies can be charming. For the rest of us, well, we might be considered “just sloppy”!