Saturday, May 8, 2010

Character Building!

"Martin has a winning formula and it shines through again here. Readers follow the money and travel back in time to meet fascinating characters, while in the present, Fallon and Evangeline prove to be thoroughly compelling protagonists."
Booklist on City of Dreams

"Can I interest you in saving America?" That's what a Wall Street bigwig asks Peter Fallon. Before long, Peter and Evangeline are chasing a mahogany box containing $20,000 worth of Continental bonds from 1780--bonds that represent the unretired debt of the American Revolution. With interest, those bonds are now worth over a billion dollars.

Do you know Peter and Evangeline? To millions of readers, William Martin's creations are as familiar as Nick and Nora, as Tommy and Tuppence, as Tracy and Hepburn in Adam's Rib.

Series characters are our entry into each new mystery world. Our guides and our pals through each adventure. We root for them, and wonder what will happen in their relationship. William Martin's latest adventure with his series characters might be called a treasure hunt through time. The story drops into Manhattan history at the end of three centuries, in the midst of three financial crises, as three September disasters loom for the City of Dreams.

Listening to eloquent and compelling historian William Martin is always mesmerizing--go hear him if you get a chance! But today--he's all about his characters.


Two Lovers and a Series That Spans Thirty Years

On Tuesday, Peter Fallon and his girlfriend, Evangeline Carrington, will be back for their fourth adventure in City of Dreams.

They met thirty years ago in Back Bay.

Peter was a graduate student writing his dissertation on the life of an old Yankee shipper named Horace Taylor Pratt. Evangeline was a Pratt descendant living on a trust fund that the old shipper had built over century before.

They both had what you’d call issues. Peter’s father thought his son had wasted his time earning a history PhD. instead of a law degree. So Peter was out to prove something to pa. Evangeline thought Horace and her other male ancestors had made money the old fashioned way, amorally, and she didn’t want any part of their tradition.

They got together, got into trouble, and got me onto the New York Times Best Seller list at the age of twenty-nine.

I never intended to revisit them. I went on to write five other books, only one of which, Cape Cod, was at all like Back Bay – a lost treasure, modern characters hunting for it, and in alternating chapters, the story of the treasure’s passage through history to the present.

But about twenty years later, my agent and I were brainstorming over lunch: How about a novel on the history of Harvard? Written like Back Bay. Contemporary suspense-thriller meets historical novel. The treasure? A lost Shakespeare manuscript from John Harvard’s collection of books. And maybe it’s time to revisit the protagonist of Back Bay in midlife? Make him a guy who hunts for rare books and documents, or as his ex-wife calls him, “Indiana Jones in a monogrammed shirt.”

About a quarter of the way into the book, Evangeline appeared in Peter’s office. She hadn’t seen him for fifteen years, and they started cracking wise right away.

I knew then that I had a series, with a smartass couple who argue a lot but take care of each other, too. Think Nick and Nora Charles for the twenty-first century. In some ways they’re opposites that attract, but they’re very similar, too, just like the best couples.

Harvard did so well that I gave them a wider scope in the next book – locations in all six New England states. The Lost Constitution made the Times list, too. Then I wanted to write something completely different. But the pubs said, “You’re on a roll. Two more Peter and Evangeline books, please.”

And when your publisher says that, don’t complain. Write. And realize that a series can give you all the freedom you want and a kind of liberating discipline, too.

You don’t have to worry so much about the main characters, because they are already there, already alive, already doing what they’ve done in other books – investigating, treasure hunting, whatever. Just make sure they do it well. That’s the discipline part.

Make them like old friends to your readers. But don’t let them go static as human beings. In each story, add something new, some bit of tension. Make them evolve.

In Back Bay, Peter and Evangeline meet. In Harvard, they re-connect after twenty years. In Constitution, they are split up and must re-connect. In their latest, City of Dreams, Peter’s old girlfriend shows up and it’s… big trouble.

At the end of Constitution, Peter and Evangeline had decided to get married. As this novel begins, Evangeline is in New York, her city of dreams, in a rare book store. She’s shopping for a wedding present for Peter. She’s advancing their relationship, to use the writing-class term, when something larger intervenes: she overhears a conversation about a box of ancient bonds that may still be accruing interest.

She calls Peter, and the story takes off into the history of New York. Readers return for the familiarity in a series, but they stay for the new complications. The love relationship between Peter and Evangeline is the glue that holds the books together.

Hitchcock made the greatest thrillers, but they were always about the love relationship. Remember Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint?

I’ll only tell you that at the end of City of Dreams, Peter and Evangeline haven’t gotten married yet. My editor likes it that way. He thinks it gives more tension to their relationship. (What, Mr. Editor, sir? You don’t think there can be tension in a marriage?) Not sure what will happen. I’ll just have to wait till their next adventure to see. But that’s the fun of it.

HANK: Thanks, Bill! And now, Jungle Red will give away a signed copy of City of Dreams to a lucky commenter! Just tell us your favorite series character! (Peter and Evangeline count of course! And so do Charlie McNally and Josh, Rebecca, Cassie Burdette, Peter Zak and Annie, Hallie Aherne, Lady Georgie, Molly, Paula Holliday...) But tell us your choice!


  1. Hi Bill, thanks for stopping at JR. The series sounds wonderful! I love your comment about the editor thinking there's no tension in a marriage:).

    And of course I adore all the characters you mentioned Hank-couldn't possibly choose only one. Though I would add Harry Bosch, Cork O'Connor, Alex McNight, Lydia Chin, Rei Shimura, Joe Pickett, and Clare Fergusson:). Oh and Diane Mott Davidson's Goldy.

  2. I've always wondered--how did you get Harvard to allow you to use their name (rather than some awkward evasion like "the big university that dominates Cambridge")? I've heard they're very sticky about giving rights.

    It's certainly a pleasure to see history and the present so well combined.

  3. I have a huge crush on Inspector Morse. (I know, doomed.) And Peter Wimsey. And Inspector Alleyn. Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott is terrific. Kinsey Milhone.There are so many!

    Hey, Bill! Any big book launch plans?

  4. SO hard to pick a favorite, but here goes: I really enjoy the character of Saul Panzer in the Nero Wolfe series. He's an additional investigator that Wolfe frequently brings in when a case gets too big for Archie Goodwin to handle by himself. Archie has respect for Saul's abilities, but also finds him a little annoying. I always had a sneaking suspicion that Saul was after Archie's job, and I think Archie had that suspicion too.

  5. Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin by far for me with Stuart Kaminsky's Toby Peters and Steven Saylor's Gordianus the Finder my favorites of the lesser known characters. Can't leave out Spenser/Hawk/Susan or Bernie Rhodenbarr.

  6. This sound like a series of stories I will love--I am a big fan of links between past and present.
    Good luck with the book.

  7. Hank--you and I really are soulmates. I also adore Morse (and feel sorry for him. I always felt he just needed some good sex and he would quit the morose drinking!)

  8. Would I be too uncool to list Miss Marple? I'd also add Jack Reacher, Kinsey Milhone and V I Warshawski to my list.

  9. Carol-Lynn RosselMay 8, 2010 at 2:13 PM

    Please put my name in the hat for the book drawing. Okay, my favorite series character is ... Nancy Drew. She got me started reading mysteries.

  10. How about a brand new character? Hermes Diaktoros by Anne Zouroudi.
    The first book of her series arrives state-side in June. The books are set in Greece--each based on one of the seven deadly sins. Hermes is described as "the mysterious fat man whose tennis shoes are always pristine and whose investigative methods always unorthodox.."

  11. This is such a delightful blog! I'm turned on to new mysteries and series and Bill Martin's is next on my list.
    Favorite character detective? Right now it's Flavia deLuce, Alan Bradley's 10-year-old sleuth, who is always ready to deal with poisons in her very own chemistry lab. She's spunky, intelligent, and often reminds me of me, as I was also 10 in 1941.

  12. Tammy--Miss Marple is NEVER uncool. and of course, Reacher. How could I forget?

    Terry--send Anne to Jungle Red! We'd love to feature her and her books!

  13. Oh, Rhys. My sentiments exactly. On all counts!

  14. Thanks for letting me be part of the conversation here.

    If two books constitute a series,which they probably don't, I'd pick Si Morley, the ad man who travels back into the past in the Jack Finney classics, Time and Again and Time AFter Time.

    To Sheila, I'd say that Harvard can't control everything. Fair use on the title.

    And in answer to Hank, I hope you'll check my website,, to see my upcoming events, starting with the book launch Tuesday, May 11, 6PM at the Boston Public Library (all are invited).

  15. Bill, Hi. I haven't had the pleasure of reading you (yet) but I love that your characters have been together so long without being killed off etc. So I guess I'll have to correct that and get a copy of your book. Or hey here's an idea maybe I'll win one.
    Hi Hank, you know who my fav is, it's Charlie. I love Charlie she's a take no prisoner kind a gal, she's tough and yet insecure in herself at times. And I love her
    And you of course.

  16. annoxford, I just recently read the first of the Flavia DeLuce mysteries. Wasn't she a hoot. Gosh I loved her too.