The third Pieter Vos book, Little Sister, is out in paperback in the UK today, and appears in the Netherlands with my great publisher there, Boekerij, next week as Het Derde Zusje. Book three in a series is when, in a way, things start to fall in place. An author knows his or her characters finally. They settle into their place in the various stories. Much of the shuffling and reworking of the first two books is done.
Next year’s title is already written and there, I’m happy to say, they really felt like a bunch of people working together naturally in an office, with all the minor difficulties and pleasures that entails. This is my second stab at a series, though, and when I set out to write the initial book I was determined to learn from the mistakes I made when writing the nine Nic Costa books set in Italy.
Like most series writers, you see, I never set out to go down this path. I wrote the first Costa book as a standalone and was then asked to turn it into a series by my publisher. After which I made it up as I went along, mistakenly sometimes though I’m pleased to report the errors I committed were by no means rare.
Here, when I set out to write the Amsterdam series, are some of the pitfalls I told myself to avoid.
This may sound daft — no, it does sound daft — but in the first instance lots of writers assume that the passage of time in books equates to the passage of time in the real world. If there’s a year between titles, a year must have passed in the lives of the characters in the books.
That may be fine for two or three titles. When you get to nine the whole thing becomes ridiculous. The older characters in your first book are now at retirement age. The younger ones should have been promoted, married, divorced.
When I saw this happening with the Costa books I slyly adjusted the time shifts. Costa gradually aged — part of the story was him growing up after all. But the older characters around him, people he looked up to, became frozen in time and barely changed at all.
Did anyone notice? Not until I pointed it out. Which supports my thinking here. Time, in fiction, doesn’t really matter unless its passing is a part of the story itself. In the Vos books people never age. They simply don’t need to in order to tell the story.
Boy is this a tough one. Costa is a nice, decent, generous human being so it’s only natural he’ll fall in love and, in book four if I recall correctly, get married. Big problem. Happy people do make for interesting stories but only in a certain kind of book, and that’s my kind. My sort of fiction, like drama, is about conflict, challenge, the testing of an individual’s mettle. It’s decidedly hard to do that if people are mulling over which washing machine to buy.
Some people manage to run domestic storylines alongside the principal narrative of mainstream fiction. Good luck to them. I find it a distraction. One way to deal with it is to have relationships disintegrate. The trouble with that in Costa’s case is he’s such a nice guy it’s hard to imagine him ever getting divorced.
The answer was, of course, obvious. In book six his wife died. The response from readers was fascinating. Half of the emails I got yelled, ‘You bastard’. The other half said, ‘I never liked her anyway.’
I deliberately write ensemble stories. Pieter Vos, like Nic Costa before him, is the principal protagonist, the moral focus of the stories to some extent. But he’s not working alone. The secondary characters, Laura Bakker in particular, are important. Vos is late thirties, easy-going, liberal, a city man through and through. Laura is younger, judgemental in the way only the young can be, and comes from an almost puritanical rural background. They’re chalk and cheese, both want to fix the other, neither will ever manage to do it. That relationship is a key sub-text in every book.
But it’s important in an ensemble piece not to make things too cosy. Characters need to come and go. You can’t allow them to settle comfortably. So at the end of Little Sister the ensemble cast changes, in a very big and unexpected way, one that will shape the beginning of book four too. Don’t let characters take for granted their place in proceedings.
I spend a lot of time and effort trying to make the world of the books as convincing as possible, whether it’s Amsterdam, Rome or, in the case of Little Sister, to some extent the fascinating rural area called Waterland, just outside Amsterdam. Readers connect characters to location. You play with that at your peril. You can take them some way from home — say from Rome to Venice, as I did in one book. But don’t take them too far or the connection you’ve established will be broken. In only one book did Costa and crew get on a plane — and looking back that was a mistake.
Those are some of the warning lights on my Pieter Vos checklists. I’m sure I’ll make lots more mistakes along the way. But these I don’t intend to repeat.