Best-selling crime writer Sam Blake reveals how writing a series is like stepping into a bar with old friends, about characters that won’t let you go—and those moments that make the hair stand up on the back of your neck…
A web of ideas
Stories appear in the most unexpected places. Having written several books set in Ireland, an idea for a story began to germinate when I got onto the Tube one day in London.
I found myself sitting near a girl wearing a black leather jacket whose hair was neon pink and shaved up both sides in a double undercut. I had a lightbulb moment, and she became the inspiration for a new character—Brioni O’Brien. Brioni is a web expert and as just as the internet connects us, she became a vital connecting link in the Sam Blake world.
Writing a series
Writing a book in a series is like stepping into a bar with old friends: you know everyone, their hang-ups and their secret thoughts. These characters will still surprise you when you bring sub-characters and plot to the party, but essentially you’re on familiar ground. For readers, the characters grow with them, developing with each book and becoming familiar.
I’m a crime writer, and I love a twisty plot, but to me, character is king.
I want readers to put my books down feeling they know the characters personally, just like I do, as I’m writing.
My first three books were a trilogy focusing on a twenty-four-year-old kick boxing Irish police detective called Cat Connolly. After many years of writing, and four unpublished books in the drawer, my debut thriller Little Bones was a runaway bestseller that brought Cat and her DI, Dawson O’Rourke, to the bookshelf.
I loved writing Cat, I learned to kick-box to write her properly – she’s fit and passionate and very often follows her gut when procedure says something different. At the start of Little Bones, a novel that opens with her finding a baby’s bones concealed in the hem of a wedding dress, she’s just realised she’s pregnant – but is firmly single.
After the trilogy my agent suggested I work on a standalone.
With every standalone you are starting from ground zero again, getting to know new characters, discovering their personal stories as well the plot. I’d had lots of strange experiences on planes and when I started working on this new book, a random meeting started me thinking.
Keep Your Eyes on Me
Keep Your Eyes on Me is Strangers on a Train meets Dial M for Murder. It features two strong women who have had bad experiences with men, psychologist Vittoria Devine and recently graduated jewellery designer Lily Power. They meet in first class on the way to New York in a story involving forged art, stolen antiquities and some twists that the men definitely don’t see coming.
The Dark Room
Next came The Dark Room, with film location scout Rachel Lambert and New York crime journalist Caroline Kelly. They meet in a country house hotel called Hare’s Landing in West Cork, Ireland. Rachel is investigating the death of a homeless man with links to the hotel, but some ghostly goings on lead her to uncover far more than she expects. The Dark Room is out in paperback in early November and after hitting the bestseller list in Trade Paperback in January.
With each new book I’m discovering strong new women’s voices., three-dimensional female characters with lives and loves, hopes and fears who are as important as my twisty plots. I love writing women who know their own minds and go after what they want.
But some of them just won’t leave me alone.
Professor Anna Lockharte
Professor Anna Lockharte is a terrorism expert based in Dublin’s Trinity College who is a sub character in No Turing Back, the third Cat Connolly book. Her brother-in-law is the US Ambassador to Moscow and his wife, her sister, was killed in a terrorist attack in Paris. Many readers felt she should have her own book, and when I heard about Ollie Murs thinking that he’d heard gunshots in Selfridges in London and the chaos caused by his subsequent tweet, it started me thinking about the impact and power of social media – and how dangerous it could become.
Then I saw ‘Brioni’, and a story began to simmer, my thoughts around the potential misuse of social media falling into Anna’s area of expertise. Location is really important to me, it’s almost a character of its own in each book. I’d been to a Books Ireland reception, celebrating their 40th anniversary in 2016 in the Irish Embassy one very, very hot summer evening—it seemed the perfect place to bring Anna and Brioni together.
High Pressure became a story so full of serendipity as I was researching – during the baking hot summer when it’s set – that I couldn’t ignore it. I remember walking up in Oxford Street and going into Selfridges to wander around the Food-hall just as Marissa does in the story. As I left by the side door, I discovered that the No 13 bus that runs to the Irish Embassy and on to Victoria, stops right outside the door. It was one of those moments that, as a writer, makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
In High Pressure Brioni’s taking a gap year and when she gets attacked in Thailand, goes to London to find her sister Marissa. But Marissa isn’t returning her calls. Then, after a series of hoax terrorist threats, a bus blows up in central London (that bus!) and Marissa’s bag is found nearby. Fearing the worst, Anna and Brioni begin to investigate, quickly discovering that Marissa has got herself into a very dangerous situation, and they are about to get caught in the fall out.
Remember My Name
In the same way Anna stayed in my mind, Brioni was a wonderful character to write and she’s stuck with me for the next standalone Remember My Name which will be out in print, digital and audio in January 2023. Brioni’s internet skills become essential in finding out exactly what Laurence Howard is up to after his wife Cressida overhears a telephone conversation that sets a deadly chain of events in motion.
High Pressure, came out in September as a worldwide digital exclusive, and is a spider web book, it ties the three Cat books to the standalones. All my books are set in different locations but in the same world. For readers I hope this creates a sense of total immersion, that the world is real, and for anyone who has stuck with me, gives them extra insight. I feel like I’m still in the bar, but meeting new people, who all have stories to share.