New Light Through Old Windows

by Zoë Sharp

I find myself in a weird situation this week. I hope you’ll forgive a touch of BSP, but I have two Charlie Fox books coming out within a few days of each other – one old and one new – and it’s made me view the whole series in a new light. I look at where I started, and where I am now, and think about the journey that has taken Charlie from there to here.

In KILLER INSTINCT, which comes out in a spanking new trade paperback edition from Busted Flush Press around May 1st, my heroine is a very different person from the one she later becomes. By that, I don’t mean that she’s undergone any kind of radical personality changes in the subsequent books. The underlying traits and abilities were always there, but softer, more hesitant. Charlie still gets into physical altercations with people, but she probably agonises more before beating the crap out of them. In one scene of KILLER INSTINCT, for example, she is forced to dislocate someone’s shoulder in order to avoid being glassed in the face during a fight in a nightclub. She really doesn’t like the idea, but recognises she has little choice.

During that period of her life, she was certainly younger and more naive, still on her way back from being a victim and with her new-found resolve never to be put in the same position again untested. This is the book that joins Charlie at the start of her road back. It marks a turning point in her life, where she discovers the best and the worst of herself.

I don’t remember making a conscious decision to make Charlie into a killer, albeit one who stayed within the law. Violence comes easy to her, but that very fact unsettles her. It’s something of an unwanted talent. Only later does she realise that she needs an outlet for it that isn’t going to land her in prison for the rest of her life.

In KILLER INSTINCT, Charlie is making best use of those talents by teaching self-defence to local women in the northern English city where she went to ground after her disastrous ejection from the army. She stresses that the skills she’s imparting are to avoid or deal with trouble, not to go out and start a fight. But, almost inevitably, her abilities come to the attention of a man who is stalking, raping and killing women, and soon she finds herself the target rather than the teacher.

Even as I was writing the book, I had a feeling that this career was never going to fulfil someone like Charlie, and I knew almost from the start that I was going to take her towards a career in close protection. In some ways, the first few books in the series are the back story to her professional and personal life. It’s interesting to me that the American publisher picked up the series with FIRST DROP, which not only charted Charlie’s first visit to the States, but also her first proper professional job as a bodyguard.

Since then, of course, Charlie’s been through the grinder numerous times. She’s been shot, run down, beaten, TASERed and tortured, but that shouldn’t give you the impression she’s some kind of superwoman who leaps tall buildings with one mighty bound. She suffers just like anybody else, often carrying injuries – both physical and emotional – from one story to the next.

In FOURTH DAY, which comes out in the UK from Allison & Busby on May 6th, (but, sadly, not until next year in the States) Charlie is facing her most testing challenge. Infiltrating a possibly deadly cult in California, she has reached a crisis point in her life. By exposing herself to such danger, she is looking not only for answers about who and what she is, but also for redemption. As well as trying to halt the countdown to a massacre of innocents, which sees Charlie and her lover, Sean, fighting on opposite sides.

FOURTH DAY still finds Charlie living and working in the States, but still viewing the place as a slight outsider, a foreigner in a strange land. And, for the first time, she feels very isolated there, still reeling from the events of THIRD STRIKE, and unable to find a connection with the people who should be closest to her, she turns to a stranger instead. One who could have sinister reasons for wanting to harness her lethal abilities.

FOURTH DAY was an intense but satisfying book to write, and looking back at KILLER INSTINCT at the same time seems to highlight the changes in the character that have taken place in the intervening years. But I do hope that anyone going back to Charlie’s earlier life for the first time will still find her just as appealing.

So, ‘Rati. If you’re a writer with a few books under your belt, how do you feel when you look back at your first work with the benefit of hindsight? Does it still stand up to scrutiny? And do you think a series character should change and grow as the series goes on, or stay the same? How important is it to read series books in order?

NB. On Tuesday, May 4th, I will be hosting an evening discussion in the Brewery Books series at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal, Cumbria. The book in question is Lee Child’s latest Reacher thriller, 61 HOURS. I am thrilled to be doing this (if you’ll forgive the pun) as Lee was gracious enough to do a terrific Foreword for KILLER INSTINCT.

This week’s Word of the Week is mascaron, which is a grotesque face on a keystone or door-knocker, used as an architectural ornament. The origin is unclear, but it’s thought to be connected in some way with the Low Latin mascus, masca, a ghost, and with Arabic maskharah, a jester or man in masquerade.

25 thoughts on “New Light Through Old Windows

  1. JD Rhoades

    A few weeks ago, I re-read The Devils’ Right Hand for the first time in a couple of years. I’d been in love with it when I wrote it and first saw it in print, then I went through a horrified "oh my god, this is so clumsily written, how could I have unleashed this piece of crap on the world," then I just put it away and tried to forget about it for a while. Now I look back at it and go, "you know, I’ve gotten better, but this is really pretty good."

    While I do love the "old school" series, where it really didn’t matter which one you read in the order (think Travis McGee, Nero Wolfe, etc), I definitely believe a character in a modern crime series needs to grow and change, and that the damage they take and the damage that they do needs to be dealt with in a way that actual human beings can relate to.

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  2. Kaye Barley

    I’m so excited about your newest book, Zoe – I adore Charlie and can’t wait to read this one.

    I’ve enjoyed watching the growth she’s gone through since book one. Its been subtle and perfectly done (IMO), and brought about realistically. I can’t imagine not finding Charlie appealing, truly.

    Reading a series in order? I confess – I’m anal enough that it’s important to me. I may discover the series with a book written in the middle and if I enjoy it, I’ll go back and start at the beginning. And yes – I expect to see growth. Actually, I don’t think I think of "growth" necessarily as "change," maybe more as "continuation." (did that make sense?)

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  3. Eika

    Seeing growth of some sort is important. While the character should still be recognizable, watching them change is part of the fun. I love seeing the person who wouldn’t do something earlier go through enough that they’re willing to do it in extreme situations, then less extreme ones. Or change an opinion. Still essentially the same person, but newer, stronger.

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  4. Louise Ure

    When I look back at my first work, "Forcing Amaryllis," it’s both my love-child and groan-inducing for me (Ay yi yi. Beginner’s mistakes everywhere).

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  5. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dusty

    It’s very interesting to hear you say that you went through a love-hate-love relationship with THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND (which I thoroughly enjoyed, by the way). I must admit that, not having picked up KILLER INSTINCT for probably several years, I approaching the pageproof for the new edition with a certain amount of trepidation. It was a relief to find that I actually quite enjoyed it…

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  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Kaye

    Thank you for your kind words ;-]

    I see Charlie’s unfolding story as a progression as much as anything else. She is changed by the events she encounters, just as she changes the outcome of some of those events. For me, it’s one of the most interesting things about writing a series character.

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  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Eika

    With everything I’ve thrown at Charlie over the past few books, she’s certainly stronger, although I think she comes out of the new one feeling older than time…

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  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    Ahem. "When I look back at my first work, "Forcing Amaryllis," it’s both my love-child and groan-inducing for me (Ay yi yi. Beginner’s mistakes everywhere)."

    Might I respectfully remind everyone, in the face of Louise’s becoming modesty, that FORCING AMARYLLIS not only received starred reviews from Booklist and Library Journal, but also won her a well-deserved Shamus Award?

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  9. JD Rhoades

    Might I respectfully remind everyone, in the face of Louise’s becoming modesty, that FORCING AMARYLLIS not only received starred reviews from Booklist and Library Journal, but also won her a well-deserved Shamus Award?

    Indeed. Beat some stiff competition for the Shamus, as a matter of fact :-).

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  10. Nancy Laughlin

    Interesting post, Zoe. I find that the series I enjoy most do show a progression of change over time. Human beings change, whether we want to or not, and I like to see that reflected in series characters.
    As for reading a series in order, I seldom do. Most often I read the books as I’m able to find them. Occasionally, I find a connected series where I really do need to read them in order due to spoiler alerts, like the historical mystery series I’m enjoying right now. Then I have to decide if I’m willing to wait and collect the full series before moving on or dive into the most current book before going back to book one. Generally the most current wins. 🙂
    I’m looking forward to reading Killer Instinct!

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  11. toni mcgee causey

    YAY! A new Charlie Fox story, which is always a terrific thing.

    I went through that same thing, Dusty — I was proud of it (hey, it was finished! woot!) and then I was mortified by it (and I still have a hard time reading aloud without editing as I go on the fly), and now I can look at it more objectively and feel good about it, and yet, better about the growth afterward.

    I do think series characters need to grow in our times, and I think one of the fundamental reasons that we expect to see this is culturally–globally–everything’s moving at a much faster scale. We used to buy electronic components and worry and fret over the best warranty because we were going to have them for years, and they were so expensive, but now, two years out, if not faster, gadgets become obsolete because there’s already a newer upgrade. We all can interact instantly–none of this silly waiting for a postman to bring a letter–and we can skype over the internet. Etc. etc. When we see that sort of pace around us, then the suspension of disbelief becomes more difficult for characters who aren’t affected.

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  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dusty

    "Indeed. Beat some stiff competition for the Shamus, as a matter of fact :-)."

    Absolutely – and for those who aren’t aware, JD’s debut was nominated for that same Shamus. Wouldn’t have liked to have been a judge in such a stellar year!

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  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Nancy

    Deciding how independent to make the individual installments of a series is a very tough decision to make. When I started out, it was easier to write the books as standalone incidents, without giving away too many spoilers about what happened in previous books. I certainly didn’t name names. But, as I’ve gone on, the storylines have often overrun from one book to the next. The events are all wrapped up by the final page, but the repercussions have a much longer lasting effect.

    And I hope you enjoy KILLER INSTINCT!

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  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Toni

    Thank you for the enthusiastic response! And what an excellent point about the technological age. Not something I’d considered at all, but now I do, I think you have a point there ;-]

    There are times when I think Sue Grafton has the right idea by setting her series in the 80s, with no cellphones or internet or laptops or PDAs to worry about <sigh>.

    Still, it’s all part of the challenge, isn’t it?

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  15. Judy Wirzberger

    Dear Zoe (e is not silent)

    Louise just gets better and better, doesn’t she — and so does her writing –ha Louise.
    I really don’t read static characters. It’s the progression, the reaction they take today that they wouldn’t have taken before their last experience. Characters, too, carry emotional luggage, they learn or not from their experiences and you are a master at showing that. I read a book, a very long time ago where the female drank drugged tea not once, not twice, but three times. I think I would have switched to scotch.

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  16. BCB

    I just deleted a very long comment about series characters — because it sounded as surly and impatient as I feel. Sigh. You’re welcome. [Having a terrible horrible no good very bad (work) week here. Making me unfit for polite company.]

    But I don’t feel the least bit surly (just impatient!) when I say I am SO excited to finally be able to get one of your Charlie Fox books, Zoë. I’ve had the release date on my calendar for a very long time. And yes, this is one series I plan to read in order. Can’t wait!

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  17. JT Ellison

    Oh my. I for one can not WAIT to read your earlier work. I’ve been blessed enough to read FOURTH DAY, and I must say, it’s your best yet. But I’m really excited to go back and see how it all began. I look to you for guidance on how to build my own Taylor series, have been known to pull out your books to refresh myself on how it’s done. I think you’ve got it nailed, my dear.

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  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Judy

    Thank you!

    "I read a book, a very long time ago where the female drank drugged tea not once, not twice, but three times. I think I would have switched to scotch."

    You and me both! Of course, now I’m intrigued to know the circumstances that this character would swig down the drugged tea three times on the trot…;-]

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  19. Zoë Sharp

    Hi BCB

    When you’ve had a bad day – or week – at work, then escaping into a book is just the release you need ;-] Hope things improve for you soon.

    I’m SO pleased you’re looking forward to the release of KILLER INSTINCT, and I hope it was worth the wait when you finally get to read it!

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  20. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    I’m honoured, thank you. (shuffles feet and plays awkwardly with hem of shirt)

    Funny how I always find it easier to deal with criticism than praise, isn’t it?

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  21. Lil Gluckstern

    I like the ongoing development of characters in a series, and I must confess, I like reading them in order. that being said, I am haunting my UK website source of books looking for Fourth Day. I don’t like to wait until your books are published in the US. And I’m just a reader-love your books-and "Forcing Amaryllis."

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  22. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Lil

    Thank you for the kind words. I’m kinda excited about FOURTH DAY coming out, too. I love the cover A&B have chosen.

    If you want a signed copy of 4D – or any of the UK editions of the earlier books, for that matter – try Chris at loadsabooks@googlemail.com. I’m based close enough to Chris to sign books for him whenever he needs them.

    Reply

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