Dark Nights Ahead
One of the joys of writing a series character is getting to keep her around. Mine is New Orleans Police Department rookie Maureen Coughlin. Deciding where to take her with each new book is a challenge. And I don’t just mean in terms of plot, but where does she go emotionally, psychologically, even spiritually? What is her future, and what is her past? As a reader, I lose interest in static characters who don’t age, who don’t carry forward any lessons, scars, regrets, dreams, or ghosts. For me, it’s hard to connected with a character who only asks and who only cares “Whodunnit?” I call it the Batman vs. Superman conundrum. I’m on the Batman side. Give me a conflicted, complicated, and compromised character like the Batman any day over a simple and flawless hero like the Big Blue Schoolboy. Superman gives answers: truth, justice, and the American Way. Batman asks questions: When is it justice and when is it revenge? Is justice even possible for the dead? Can there be honor in lawlessness? How much violence is too much? Is any too much? Can one person make a difference? Addressing tough questions, maybe unanswerable questions, is a powerful source of tension.
As the author of a new series, I’m left to wonder sometimes who is asking and answering the questions about Maureen’s life. I haven’t quite figured it out yet. Sometimes I’m sure it’s me. Sometimes I think it’s her. Between the two of us, somehow we’ve gotten her all the way from waiting tables on Staten Island to policing the streets of New Orleans.
I remember the night Maureen decided she wanted to be a police officer. The scene happens in Maureen’s debut adventure, The Devil She Knows. Late at night, draped over the back of her mother’s couch, she gazed out the window at a police car parked outside. The car was there because she and her mother were in trouble with a crooked politician and needed protection. Looking down at that car, Maureen, a career waitress, starts to get an idea – what if she became a cop? She gives some thought to how her life, with its long nights and rough customers, is already halfway like a cop’s life. She thinks maybe she’d be good at it. She thinks maybe she could get more from and do more with what she’s learned about the underside and the dark side of life.
I look back on that moment for Maureen as quite a moment for me, too. It’s the birth of an idea for her that becomes fully formed later on. For me, it was more of a lightning strike. I knew she would do it. That lightning strike was the beginning of Maureen as a series character – which was not the plan when I sat down to write her story. The Devil She Knows had been planned as a stand-alone and I continued to think of it that way until deep into the writing process. That moment of creeping revelation for Maureen caused a fatal crack in the plan. It’s gone on to become one of Maureen’s character traits. She does blow up the best-laid plans, usually starting with her own. She usually figures out what she was thinking at the time of explosion after the damage has been done. Sometimes she learns her lesson, most of the time she doesn’t. Not the first time, anyway.
Maureen’s unpredictability is one of the most fun things about her. If I knew all of her, knew her plans, and her future, knew everything she wanted, how she planned to go about getting it, and how it would all end up I don’t know how interested I’d be in continuing the character.
As much as she loves New Orleans, and her chosen career, I see dark times ahead for Maureen. Dark forces are on the move, from without and within. There is a darkness inside her awakened by the events of The Devil She Knows and The Devil in Her Way that has only begun to emerge. She certainly doesn’t understand it yet, though she feels it. I see an enduring nemesis on the horizon. And I know the siren song of vigilantism calls to her in the future. What I don’t know is how she’ll answer it, only that she will.