When starting a new book, a vital question is: how many main characters will take part in the story? This is closely linked with the question of how many murder suspects to include, although the two issues are not quite identical. I often give this a lot of thought, because it is vital that readers care about the characters, even if they don't like some of them. My latest reflections on this topic have coincided with reading a book by Ruth Rendell which highlights the dilemmas that an author can face.
I mentioned the other day that I pay attention to and try to learn from critical, as well as positive, comments in reviews, as long as they seem sensible, and supportively meant. In relation to a couple of books I've written in the past, a question has arisen about whether the early part of the book was challenging because of the introduction of a significant number of people and plot strands. (On this topic, Kate Ellis and I agreed at Blackpool last week that our tendency in this direction had been influenced by those wonderful early series of Taggart by Glenn Chandler.)
In The Frozen Shroud, I tried to address this by reducing the number of potential suspects. This made me worry that the solution to the mystery might be too obvious, but I'm reassured by the reviews that are in to date. With my new book, though, I'm going to tackle the issue in a different way.
Ruth Rendell's The Saint Zita Society boasts an unusual way of helping the reader disentangle what was going on. Rather than have a 'cast of characters' in the manner familiar from some trarditional mysteries (those fine writers Ngaio Marsh and Christianna Brand were keen on this device), the publisher included a diagram of Hexam Place on the endpapers of the book. This showed the houses and listed their occupants. A neat concept though I have to say that, even so, I found myself overwhelmed with the number of people who cropped up in the first fifty pages, not something I've ever experienced when reading with this gifted writer. Clearly, she too is continuing to experiment with her approach, and that is what keeps authors fresh..