Evolving Characters In A Series Of Novels
By Bill Shepard
My area of writing interest, based on my career in the Foreign Service of the Department of State, was diplomacy. It occurred to me that a diplomat would be in an ideal position to solve international crimes. Working in an American Embassy, he would know visiting American citizens, for example. Should one be murdered, my protagonist would have access to information that might help solve the murder. And so, my main character would be an American diplomat, starting on his career. As the series developed, he would progress through a diplomatic career, from assignment to assignment.
And that is how Robbie Cutler emerged, early in his diplomatic career, in “Vintage Murder.” By the way his name, John Robinson “Robbie” Cutler, was a very personal choice, for Robinson is a family name on my side, while Cutler was my mother in law’s maiden name.
The best advice I received when I began novel writing, was to get to know my main character. Write down a few pages with his or her characteristics, I was told. The main personality points, I soon found, would suggest other areas where the main character was a more flawed human being, or simply, not as successful as in other areas.
Why is this important? It struck me that other characters, particularly family members, would be aware of the protagonist’s personality. They might be strong in areas where he was not, for example. And so it emerged. Robbie is very intelligent, and at home in foreign cultures. He is not, however, very people smart. And so his girl friend Sylvie Marceau supplies that characteristic, as does his sister Evalyn. Fortunately, the two women get along, to the point where Evalyn once tells Robbie off when he starts seeing women other than Sylvie!
We now have a protagonist, his girl friend (who becomes his fiancée in the second book, “Murder On The Danube,” and bride in the third book, “Murder In Dordogne”), and the potential for a growing record of crimes solved. We also had a small but growing number of other diplomats, both American and foreign, who are Robbie’s Embassy colleagues, and whose path Robbie will cross in future assignments.
So far, so good. But as a career diplomat, I knew that Robbie needed access to information that would be denied to a midlevel career diplomat. In fact, I wanted him o have access, directly or indirectly, to the highest levels of American political and diplomatic intelligence. This access would supply missing areas of motivation and background that would be essential to his crime solving.
Enter Great Uncle Seth B. Cutler, a former OSS agent during the Second World War, and a nationally prominent educator, with connections from his former colleagues and his students to the highest levels of American intelligence. He has, however, a sad history, for his fiancée, an SOE operative, parachuted into Occupied France and disappeared. Solving her murder in “Murder In Dordogne” makes every character in the family more three dimensional. And in later novels, “The Saladin Affair Murders” and “The Great Game Murders,” insights provided by Uncle Seth are essential to warding off attacks by Al Qaeda as Robbie becomes a trusted staff officer for the Secretary of State.
Reader reactions to these created characters have been interesting. Many readers have written that Great Uncle Seth Cutler is their favorite character. People tend to like Robbie more because he has areas of weakness. Many empathize with his wife Sylvie, or his sister Evalyn. A new character, a diplomatic colleague and Native American assigned to the American Embassy in London named Joshua Running Deer, has now appeared, and already has fiercely loyal readers who have urged me to make sure that he reappears – as he will, in the sixth novel, to be set at the American Embassy in Nicosia, Cyprus.
It is like an interesting family of characters, and as they evolve, more writing possibilities occur to me. The more I get to know them, the more interesting they become. I don’t think that attachment would be present in the same degree if this were not a series of books. Begin with “Vintage Murder,” and follow the characters. They grow on the reader, and have more facets to offer from book to book. I hope the same will be true for your books, as your readership grows.
Now residents of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the Shepards enjoy visits from their daughters and granddaughters, fine and moderate weather, ocean swims at Assateague, Chesapeake Bay crabs, and the company of Rajah and Rani, their two rescued cats.
Prize winning mystery writer William S. Shepard is the creator of a new genre, the diplomatic mystery, whose plots are set in American Embassies overseas. That mirrors Shepard’s own career in the Foreign Service of the United States, during which he served in Singapore, Saigon, Budapest, Athens and Bordeaux, in addition to five Washington tours of duty.
His diplomatic mystery books explore this rich, insider background into the world of high stakes diplomacy and government. His main character is a young career diplomat, Robbie Cutler. The first four books in the series are available as Ebooks. Shepard evokes his last Foreign Service post, Consul General in Bordeaux, in Vintage Murder, the first of the series of five “diplomatic mysteries.” The second, Murder On The Danube, mines his knowledge of Hungary and the 1956 Revolution. In Murder In Dordogne Robbie Cutler and his bride Sylvie are just married, but their honeymoon in the scenic southwest of France is interrupted by murders.
The Saladin Affair, next in the series, has Robbie Cutler transferred to work for the Secretary of State. Like the author once did, Cutler arranges trips on Air Force Two – now enlivened by serial Al Qaeda attempts to assassinate the Secretary of State, as they travel to Dublin, London, Paris, Vienna, Riga and Moscow! And who killed the American Ambassador in Dublin?
The Great Game Murders is the most recent of the series. There is another trip by the Secretary of State, this time to Southeast Asia, India, China and Afghanistan. The duel between Al Qaeda and the United States continues, this time with Al Qaeda seeking to expand its reach with the help of a regional great power nation. And Robbie Cutler’s temporary duty (TDY) assignment to Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, carries its own perils. Fortunately, Uncle Seth helps unravel his perilous Taliban captivity in time!