Steve Liskow  

On Writing: Series Romance

When I started writing mysteries, I read several other writers who eventually wrote themselves into a problem. I didn't realize that it was a problem until I found that I'd made the same mistake. Now I'm trying to find a way around it.

Robert Parker, Michael Connelly, Tess Gerritsen, Linda Barnes, and Robert Crais all had their protagonists pursue relationships with lovers they met during various novels, and those relationships eventually caused the same problem: how do you give a lover who no longer influences the plot something worthwhile to do in your story?

Robert Parker had Spenser meet Susan Silverman when she was involved in the case, and their relationship waxed and waned through the rest of the series. Susan left for further training on the west coast at one point, and in the following book, she needs Spenser and Hawk to rescue her from an ugly dilemma. But in several books, her only link to the story is her psychiatric training that allows her to help her lover with varying degrees of success. If it weren't for the expert consulting angle, she could have disappeared.

Michael Connelly commented on his Web site that he doesn't plan very far ahead and that he wishes he had thought more carefully about some of the character choices he made. I suspect that Eleanor Wish is one of those choices.

Connelly had Harry Bosch meet Eleanor Wish in his first novel, and that romance ended badly. Three or four books later, Bosch met Eleanor again, and this time they married, but then Connelly had a problem finding ways that LAPD cop Harry could interact with Eleanor, a former FBI agent who has become a professional poker player. During the next several books, Eleanor got less and less stage time and their marriage fared equally badly. Now Eleanor is no longer in the picture and Harry is raising their child alone.

Tess Gerritsen is straddling that same line now. Jane Rizzoli married Gabriel Dean, the FBI agent she met on a case, and now we see him for about three paragraphs per book. But he does share child-raising chores with Jane. I wonder how long that will last. And Maura Isles, Jane's co-protag medical examiner, finally ended her rocky romance in Ice Cold.

I don't remember if Linda Barnes showed PI Carlotta Carlyle meeting Sam Gianelli, the son of a Mafia family in an early book or whether they were already a couple when the series started. Either way, Sam has gained age and influence with his peer group and Carlotta, an ex-cop, is too much of an entangling alliance. The star-crossed lovers have gone their separate ways and Carlotta is looking more favorably on Mooney, the cop she's known from the very beginning. Sam is still an occasional reluctant information source, but that's about it.

Robert Crais introduced Lucy Chenier in the fifth Elvis Cole novel, and, again, Lucy, a lawyer, was integral to that plot. Crais solved part of his problem by having Lucy, a divorcee with a young son, live in New Orleans while Cole was in LA, so they could talk on the phone but had little interaction for the following books.

Then Lucy decided to move to LA, partly to take a job, but also to be with Elvis. Unfortunately, she could only give him so much legal advice without possible conflict of interest, and Crais finally ended their relationship in one of his best books, The Last Detective, where Lucy's son is kidnapped while Elvis is taking care of him. There's lots of painful emotional fallout, and the couple decides to part. Lucy still gets cameo roles in the succeeding books, but Crais figured out that a romance doesn't work well unless both characters have stakes in the plot.

I'm just learning that now. Beth Shepard, AKA "Taliesyn Holroyd," was a client in Who Wrote The Book of Death? and she and Greg Nines became lovers before that book ended. I didn't plan that book to start a series, though, and now working Beth into the further adventures is becoming awkward. When the girlfriend is a lawyer, a writer, or a former cop, it's hard enough, but Beth Shepard is half of a team that writes romance novels. Her expertise doesn't involve chasing bad guys.

In fact, much of the revision in my current WIP consists of cutting Beth's POV scenes and removing her from others that don't advance the mystery plot. I suspect that if the series continues, she's going to become more and more vestigial, which is a shame because readers have told me that they like her a lot. I do, too. Maybe I'll have to find more for her to do.

Dennis Lehane seems to be the only one who did it right, and I'm not sure he knew that when he did it. Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro were working together as private investigators in the first book and already had a history, even though Patrick was divorced from Angie's sister and Angie's own marriage was taking on water. Angie and her husband divorced in the second book, and her relationship with Patrick has had more ups and downs than the Dow Jones average. The fourth and fifth books in the series were especially painful. In Moonlight Mile, written over a decade after the previous installment, Lehane seems to be giving the married couple closure.

Unless both halves of the team are actively involved in a case, which means either a fellow sleuth or some kind of expert--lawyer, psychiatrist, forensic tech, reporter--there's a good chance that the outsider is going to become more of a hindrance than a help.

Now I'm learning.


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