Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Who’s This Spade Guy, Again? a guest blog by E.J. Copperman

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: E.J Copperman, the author of the popular Haunted Guesthouse series, remains an elusive figure in the crime fiction world, swathed in mystery (or in an old bathrobe, it's hard to tell) difficult to pin down (especially by authors owed drinks.)  What we do know? First, the Haunted Guesthouse series, featuring single mom/innkeeper Alison Kirby and ghosts Maxie and Paul, has been called “Funny, charming, and thoroughly enjoyable," by people unrelated to the author. Second, the fifth book in the series, THE THRILL OF THE HAUNT, is coming out this November 5th. (A specially priced e-novella, AN OPEN SPOOK, is available to download right now.) And third, EJ always has some wise words for readers and writers.

On those rare occasions when I’m not writing about ghosts, murder, the Jersey Shore (sans Snooki) and did I mention ghosts?, I sometimes teach writing of various kinds at various colleges. And the students are lovely people (most of them), eager to learn, more eager to get a good grade, and at least pretending to be interested in the subject matter.

Still, it astonishes me how much they don’t know.

I’m not talking about writing. Some of them can write walking in the door on the first day, and others are timid at first but learn to spread their wings (and other clichéd metaphors) as the term progresses. No, teaching them about writing is my job, and I don’t expect them to know much coming in. 
It’s the important stuff. (I’m getting there, mystery fans; just hang in a bit). I teach screenwriting at one college, and after showing a clip of Laurel and Hardy have been asked, “What’s up with that guy in the hat?” I have assigned an essay at another college that at least peripherally deals with the shootings on a New York subway by Bernhard Goetz in 1984. My students asked who this Goetz guy might be. 
The one that tore it for me was when mentioned a bowling alley in one class and the student raised a hand and asked what a bowling alley might be.

Personally, I blame their parents. Wake my 24-year-old son up at three in the morning and ask him which studio made the Marx Brothers classic DUCK SOUP and he’ll stare at you with pity in his eyes and say, “Paramount. Why?” And then roll back over and go to sleep because it’s three in the morning.

We raised that boy right.
My daughter, now a 20-year-old senior at one of the colleges where I teach (she was a student there before I started teaching there), is a fan of Aaron Sorkin. A fan of a screenwriter. I’ll give you a moment to let that sink in.

What touches us, what we take with us, from any experience is random and subjective. There are people who truly believe that THE ENGLISH PATIENT is one of the greatest films ever made. I remember having a good nap, and then noting that the configuration of an airplane meant the whole movie didn’t make any sense. That doesn’t make either of us wrong; we have differing tastes. It’s what we remember about the experience that counts, finally.
And that, mystery lovers (you knew I’d get to you) is why I think character is more important than the most devastating plot twist in fiction history. I believe that a character who gets into the reader’s head and (better) heart is the key to a memorable story.

Sometimes when I talk to groups about writing, I’ll survey the audience and ask for a show of hands: “How many people here have read, or seen, THE THIN MAN?” Many hands will go up; in the right audience (over 40), almost all the hands will go up.

So I’ll go on: “Now, how many people remember who the killer was revealed to be in THE THIN MAN?” On a strong night, two hands will remain raised.

Okay,” I’ll say then, “who remembers Nick and Nora Charles?”

Every hand goes up.

Characters are our surrogates in the story sometimes. They are our nemeses. They are our companions in tough times, our compatriots through difficult but exhilarating adventures, our guides through unfamiliar territory. Characters in series sometimes become like old friends, or family—we’ll read the book or see the movie just to see how they’re doing these days.

I’m not saying plot isn’t important; of course it is. You can’t write a weak story and say, “Well, the characters will sustain it.” (Actually, sure you can. You can write that. I don’t recommend it, but you can.)

But come up with the twistiest, juiciest, most intriguing plot in the world, populate it with cardboard, dull characters, and even if you manage to draw an audience, the experience won’t be what you’d hope to create. Ask those people in a year what happened in that book, and they’ll ask which one that was, again.

But ask them about Indiana Jones, or Spenser, or Miss Marple, or Superman and they’ll respond immediately. Some will get a dopey smile on their faces. That’s what I hope for as a writer; it’s the face one puts on for a lost love from decades ago, a favorite, a special memory.
Where was the body hidden and how did the killer manage to keep the police from finding the gun? Go remember.

Nick and Nora Charles? You should see the dopey grin on my face right now.

Nick and Nora? Lord Peter and Harriet? Who are your most memorable characters, dear readers? Let us know, and one lucky commentor will win a copy of CHANCE OF A GHOST, the 4th Haunted Guesthouse mystery!

E.J.Copperman is the author of the Haunted Guesthouse mystery series, whose latest entry THE THRILL OF THE HAUNT will be poltergeisting its way to your bookseller on November 5. E.J. lives, teaches and writes in New Jersey (and teaches sometimes in Philadelphia), and can be found at www.ejcopperman.com. You can read more from EJ at the blog Sliced Bread, friend EJ on Facebook, and follow EJ on Twitter as @ejcop.


  1. November 5th, huh? A day long ago marked on my calendar to denote the next appearance of a couple of my favorite characters, Clare and Russ . . . .

    I must agree that it’s the characters that keep the reader coming back, but I’m also a fan of that twistiest, juiciest, most intriguing plot in the world. I’m looking forward to reading “The Thrill of the Haunt” . . . .

  2. The first characters I fell in love with were Spenser and Susan, not Hawk, as my precious daughter Jeanie and so many of my friends feel I should love more... But I love Boston and Cambridge and Spencer and Susan always seemed to be where I lived.

    Then it was Leaphorn and Jim Chee. So distant and close...

    These were the first books I read for fun after graduate school. They're my virgin reading. Nothing can compare to that experience, that switch from the academic to the pure joy of the real, real world that can only be portrayed in fiction.

  3. Welcome EJ--your son sounds a lot nicer about being woken up at 3 am than anyone in my family:)

    Congrats on the new book! Love the cover...and I totally agree about character--it's what keeps me reading the best series.

    Joan--you will LOVE Clare and Russ's latest outing!

  4. First of all, I object to the idea that I disappear when I owe someone a drink. That is filthy slander. It's true, mind you, but I object to it anyway.

    Thanks, Lucy. My son is very nice about being rousted at 3 in the morning, largely because he'd only have been in bed 15 minutes by then anyway.

    Yeah, I like this cover a lot, too. I can say that because I had nothing to do with it.

  5. All drinks were scarce at Bouchercon, but I don't think you're as bad your friend Jeff.

  6. Characters are definitely what make a series work -- the continuing cast that we want to come back to, their story outside the context of what happens in the novel.

    Congratulations on the book "EJ" - and a pleasure to see you at Bouchercon. (Bar? What bar??)

    On "what they don't know" - don't get me started. On the other hand, what **I** don't know is growing daily. Including most new movies and anyone on the cover of PEOPLE. It's no fun reading about the scandalous affairs of people I've never heard of.

  7. Hi EJ. I look forward to reading your books. They've been added to the TBR list.

    My first favorite characters were those in Helen Macinnes' books. I adored her stories and ransacked the library constantly for one book after another. I was devastated when she died. She didn't have the same characters but each one was a fave.

    Ahh, Nick and Nora! Every so often I'll have a Thin Man marathon and go through as many of the movies as I can find. I should see about reading the book.

    Now, of course, there's Russ and Clare and Duncan and Gemma. And Georgie and Darcy. And Jane and Jake. And Matthew Claremont and Diana Bishop. Sigh...

  8. Annette - annettena@yahoo.comOctober 15, 2013 at 9:51 AM

    Amelia Peabody and her Professor - who cannot love them?

  9. I agree with Annette - Amelia Peabody and the Professor will stay with me forever. Armand Gamache is a close second along with Russ and Clare and Duncan and Gemma. First watched The Thin Man as a child and my children (40 and 35) have seen all the movies since they were children. I raise kids right!

  10. NIck and NOra, of course! And Lord Peter Wimsey, upon whom I had a huge crush. HAve. ANd you all know my love for Inspector Morse.

    Thank you, Marianne, for mentioning Jake and Jane! xoxo

    Oh, thank you for lovely morning! WHat fun to think about those folks..and yeah, you are a great dad! oxo

  11. Kinsey Milhone, Nick & Nora (in the movies), Archie Goodwin, the nameless heroine in Rebecca, Mary Russell, Harry Bosch, Spenser, Morse, Marlowe.

  12. Yes, we have to include Asta!

    One of my favorite characters of all time is my childhood idol Freddy the Pig, of whom I have written here before. Freddy was a little Sam Spade, a little Nero Wolfe, and all his own pig.

    I agree with EJ about the role of characters - we were discussing just this thing recently on our Four-Jungle-Red-Writers in Massachusetts mini-tour last month. As someone said, no one ever rereads a mystery to find out whodunnit.

  13. Hey! Who said people could stop talking about my books?

    For me, it started with Encyclopedia Brown and Sally Kimball. Later, Spenser and Hawk (not as much Susan, although I don't have the detestation some do), Sam Spade, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, Claire and Russ, Ceepak and Danny.

    I could go on...

  14. How could I forget Lynley and Havers? And there's a brand new book out today.

  15. Hallie, I totally agree--I have no clue who the starlets are anymore. They all look alike to me!

    Hello, mysterious E.J. I wonder if I met you or bumped into you at Bouchercon and didn't know it. :-)

    Characters all the way. I managed to plow my way through the Stieg Larsson trilogy only because of Lisbeth Salander.

  16. Several of my favorites have been mentioned already - Duncan & Gemma, Inspector Morse, Lynley & Havers. I would also add Commissario Guido Brunetti, Deborah Knott, and Tess Monaghan.

    And Lisa Alber, I couldn't plow my way through more than one of Stieg Larsson's books even for the wonderful Lisbeth.

  17. Not sure Lisa I was wearing a name tag.

  18. I'm with Hank on Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. (I knew we were soul sisters.) I loved Mary Stewart
    characters, and long before Elizabeth Peter's Amelia Peabody, there was Vicky Bliss and the mysterious John. And every Dick Francis character. And Morse...

    But you're so right, E. J. I have trouble remembering my own plots, much less anyone else's!

    As for what our kids know, I have to thank Nickelodeon when my daughter was growing up for introducing her to all the shows I watched when I was growing up. I'll say, "Oh, you won't remember so-and-so," and she'll give me THE LOOK, roll her eyes, and say, "Of course I do."

  19. Who doesn't love Nick and Nora. . . EJ, I loved the first book of your series and intend to read more. It is true, I will reread books because of the characters: Deborah and Dwight, Laetitia and William, Julia and Brisbane,to add to the list.

  20. Today I am hooked by Gamache, but tomorrow it may well be Clare or Gemma, a character I identify with for some unknown reason... there are too many I love like friends. I wouldnt want to hurt any of them.

  21. E.J., Don't be a tease. What was wrong with the plane in The English Patient?

    (I actually have a copy of the screenplay...)

  22. So many good candidates ... but I'm with the Peter and Harriet fan club. I like the pace of their lives, and I think that reading about them can be a lesson in good manners. And I've never had, nor understood, the dislike some feel for Harriet.

    I've love to write more, but right now Clare and Russ are in trouble, and I'd better go see if I can get them out of it. I like them too much to leave them at risk any longer!

  23. It's so hard to pick favorite characters! I don't want any living authors to have their feelings hurt :-) so I'll stick with characters created by authors who are deceased. I love William Tapply's Brady Coyne, and miss reading about Brady. I also love and miss Philip Craig's J. W. Jackson and his wife Zee. Then, there's Tony Hillerman: I miss Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, and I intend to see how Tony Hillerman's daughter is continuing the series.

    And You (Yes, I know you're still alive but I'm making an exception for you!): I like your characters, and recently finished the first of the Haunted Guesthouse books. I plan to continue with the series. I like all the characters very much! Oh, yeah, and then there's the guy named Jeff something or other, another NJ author, who writes books with characters I enjoy. (You might know him:-)

  24. Commissario Brunetti from Donna Leon's books leads my list, along with Barbara Havers from E. George's series. Two intelligent caring detectives with integrity and quirky personalities.

  25. Think about it, Deb: As I recall (and it's been some years), the idea at a critical point in The English Patient is they're supposed to be going to pick up someone in the desert (I'm trying not to spoil for those who might care). Pilot in back, Mrs. Pilot in front seat. There's no third seat.

    There's no third seat.

  26. Harriet and Peter, natch-and what's that about people not liking Harriet? The bums! Roderick Alleyn and Troy. And also, the Brother Cadfael books always included a romance and I miss those as much as I miss Morse. Poor Morse and Richard Jury--always keep reading to see if they'd finally succeed in a romance that lasted more than one book. But, yes, I'm always engrossed in the plot again, rediscovering it when I reread a favorite book--and I go back because of the characters. I second also Helen MacInnes and Mary Stewart. Joan Aiken Hodges' Marion Frenche and her professor.

  27. Oh wow, it's lovely to read all these comments from other people who love the same characters/writers that I do. Helen MacInnes - oh my goodness, I read all her books over and over. Amelia and Emerson, Nick and Nora, Lord Peter and Harriet, all characters from Dick Francis. Characters make the story. The best plot will go nowhere without great, sympathetic characters

  28. Add to the list P.D. James' Adam Dalgliesh, Susan Hill's Simon Serrallier and the late and much missed Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe.

  29. All of the above and probably I will think of more when I am falling asleep tonight. Dee

  30. Preston and Child's Pendergast, he is such a great mysterious guy, you can't help but be intrigued and want to know him better. Also, Sean Dillon, for the softness inside that hard exterior!