Dave Zeltserman is the author of the Julius Katz mystery series, which began in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and has won the Shamus and multiple EQMM Readers Awards. Its next entry, “Archie on Loan,” will appear in EQMM’s 75th-anniversary issue (September/October 2016). The Boston-based author also writes in the hardboiled, horror, and thriller genres, and his 2008 crime novel Small Crimes, which was selected by NPR as one of the best crime novels of its year, is currently being filmed, with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in the starring role. Another Zeltserman novel, The Caretaker of Lorne Field, which was shortlisted by the ALA for best horror novel of 2010, is also in film development. In this post Dave talks about the planning that goes into series creation. He will have a new series out soon. Its first book is entitled Deranged, and will be released by Kensington in March 2017.—Janet Hutchings
Late last year I was talking with Michaela Hamilton at Kensington Books about writing a serial killer thriller series for them. I’d had eleven crime and horror novels traditionally published, but they’d mostly been standalones. I say mostly because Bad Thoughts and Bad Karma, which were both published by Five Star, featured the same protagonist. But even still, these were very different books, and could just as well have been considered standalones. Bad Thoughts is a grim mix of horror and crime that takes place during several winter months in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while Bad Karma is a hardboiled PI novel with a new-age twist that takes place during the summer in Boulder, Colorado. A funny thing happened, though, while I was writing these novels—I accidentally wrote a mystery series.
These were the eleven Julius Katz stories/novellas I wrote for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (additionally, also a full-length novel Julius Katz and Archie, and an original long novella “Julius Katz and the Case of a Sliced Ham” for The Julius Katz Collection). When I wrote the first story, “Julius Katz,” I had no plans to write any others, but after it won the Shamus and Derringer awards, I figured I should follow it up with another. When the second story “Archie’s Been Framed” won Ellery Queen’s Readers Award, I likewise felt the need to continue it. The same when the fourth story “Archie Solves the Case” also won the Readers Award. As I kept writing these stories, I discovered that not only could I write a series, but that I enjoyed doing so. It was fun revisiting and spending time with these characters, especially Archie. Which brings me back to why I was now interested in writing a thriller series.
When I wrote my standalone novels, the characters and the settings came about organically from the story I wanted to write. Now that I was planning a series, before starting the first book I needed to come up with characters that I’d want to spend years with, as well as a setting, and other decisions, such as the tone and style of the writing. Names of the characters are also something that I consider highly important—after all, would Sherlock Holmes be the same with a different name? Nero Wolfe? Or what if Hammett’s nameless and inimitable continental op had actually been given a name.
The first decision I made was the setting. Having lived most of my life either in Boston or within ten miles of the city, Boston might’ve seemed like a natural setting for these novels, but the city just isn’t big enough to support all the serial killers required for a long series. I needed a larger canvas. New York would be perfect but John Lutz’s terrific Frank Quinn series had already claimed that city. I decided to move the series across the country, and set the books in the greater Los Angeles area. Not only would Los Angeles be more than big enough to support the parade of twisted serial killers who were going to be passing through my books, but I also liked the idea of having a connection of sorts to Hollywood, films, and an insatiable desire for fame and notoriety.
Next came the series characters. As I’d mentioned before I wanted to have characters I liked and would want to spend time with, just as I have with Archie and Julius. The first thing I had to decide was whether to make my serial killer hunter a lone wolf or part of a team, and I went with the latter. By making him part of a team, I could have the team act as part of an extended family with the usual family squabbles, goodhearted jibes, etc. This was important—the serial killers featured were going to be an exceptionally nasty and twisted bunch, so I wanted these books to have plenty of comic relief and areas where the readers could take a breather and spend a few pages with characters they liked.
The name I came up for the head of this team is Morris Brick, whose first name I borrowed from an uncle who was a beloved doctor for many years in Berlin, New Hampshire, and whom my dad used to tell me in his younger days was an ornery and fierce amateur boxer. I came up with Brick because I wanted a name to relay hard and solid, and also Morris was going to be on the shorter side. I also gave Morris a bull terrier, who I named Parker after Richard Stark’s resourceful, very capable, and tough-as-nails antihero. The bull terrier, though, wasn’t going to be in the series as simply window dressing, and as it turns out, he’ll be saving Morris’s life in the first book, being put to good use in the second, and saving hundreds of lives in the third. But there was another reason for adding Parker—having the dog would help define Morris’s character, and owners can physically take after their dogs, right? Physically Morris will have the following characteristics: big ears, thick, long nose, spindly legs and short, compact body. Not good-looking by any stretch. Maybe even a little comical looking. But smart, solid, tough, tenacious. Someone you’d want in your corner. I further filled Morris’s backstory out by making him a former LAPD homicide detective who became a minor celebrity by stopping several serial killers, and recently starting Morris Brick Investigations (MBI). I also have Morris happily married to Natalie, a therapist with her own practice, and who, like the screen legend I named her after, Natalie Wood, is a beautiful woman. They have a twenty-four year-old daughter, Rachel, who is a second year law student at UCLA with aspirations to be a prosecutor. After that, I came up with the other investigators employed by MBI, each with their own backstories, personal connections with each other, and petty squabbles.
Finally, I made decisions on tone, style, whether profanity would be used, and whether I’d have explicit sex or violence. I’m always torn about using profanity. If Dashiell Hammett could find ways around it, every crime writer should be able to, right? On the other hand, if I were to put restraints on how my South Boston mobsters talked in Pariah, it would sound fake. Over the years I’ve written some books that are laced heavily with profanity so that my characters could act and sound naturally, while I’ve written my Julius Katz stories and other novels where I’ve avoided using profanity. For this series I decided to follow Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine’s general guidelines: Keep the language mostly clean, and keep the sex and violence offscreen. My serial killers are twisted psychopaths who are going to do very nasty things, and it would be too much for most readers to see their acts up close and personal. The reader will see glimpses of it after the fact, but in most cases, I’ll be cutting away before the killings happen, or describe the events in only the broadest possible terms. Also, while Morris and Natalie will be a loving couple, I’m never going to write about them having sex. Any sex in the books will take place off camera. Finally, as twisted as some of the action will be, there will also be a good amount of humor as a counterbalance. I want these books to be scary, full of surprises, and fun.
It was only after I made all these decisions and written all the characters’ backstories that I started working on the outline for the first book. After completing this book and coming up with ideas for the next two, I arranged with Kensington Books to publish the first three books in this new Morris Brick series using the pseudonym Jacob Stone (when to use a pseudonym is a whole other discussion!). Without the extensive planning that I did, I still would’ve been able to write the first book, but most likely would’ve had trouble afterwards turning it into a cohesive series!
That’s good stuff, man! I really liked the Julius Katz stories. Do you find that you stick closely to your outline or do you use it more as a planning tool or safeguard?
Thanks, Bill. That’s a good question. I need the outlines as a road map, and they tend to be very detailed. At some point the book the boo usually becomes an organic living thing (in a sense), and takes me places I wasn’t expecting to go. so there are always detours, but I always find a way to wrestle the book back to the outline.
Great piece, thanks for sharing. Love the Katz stories–somewhere in the universe, I’m sure Archie Goodwin is enjoying them as well.
thanks, Lou. Along with ‘Archie On Loan’, EQMM has 2 more JK stories waiting to be published.
Enjoyed reading this, and congrats on the new series—and all the good things coming your way!
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