THE CRAFT OF WRITING — FEBRUARY 2023
THE CRAFT OF WRITING — FEBRUARY 2023
Kristy Montee (P.J. Parrish) on writing a series
I’m excited to continue this year on the CRAFT OF WRITING blog by focusing on authors who write series. This month, we welcome P.J. Parrish, the award-winning author of the Louis Kincaid thriller series.
For those of you who don’t know, P.J. Parrish is the pseudonym of the writing team of sisters Kristy Montee and Kelly Nichols. Kristy is a fellow contributor to the Kill Zone Blog, and she is my guest today. (You can read more about these exceptional sisters in the author bio below.)
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Welcome, Kristy, to the Craft of Writing blog and thank you for joining us!
First things first: Why did you and your sister decide to co-write books? Do you have a process for writing (e.g., alternating chapters) so you don’t get in each other’s way?
We decided to join up mainly because my career in romance was dead and my agent suggested I had a good sense of mystery and that I should try that. Ha! What hubris I had. My first effort was abysmal and my agent told me to go home and read some Connelly and PD James. (I hadn’t read a mystery since Nancy Drew.) Unbeknownst to me, my sister Kelly was trying to write her own first novel and was struggling (raw talent but no grounding in craft). My husband suggested we team up and it worked from the start.
Our process is to brainstorm together (we’re pantsers) and work out basic plot about 3 chapters forward. (the famous E.L. Doctorow method: You’re driving down a dark road with only your headlights to guide you, but you can get to the end that way). Then we “take assignments” based on who might have a better feel for the chapter’s needs (i.e., Kelly loves doing the action scenes; my forte tends toward character development and description. Though over the years we’ve both gotten stronger vice versa, although Kelly still considers doing description to eating broccoli. I force her to do it! We write our chapters, exchange them, edit them, discuss and rewrite if needed then move on down the dark road.
Why did you choose P.J. Parrish as your pseudonym?
Ha! Try to make a long story short. Our editor at Kensington suggested we come up with one because two names on a cover take up a lot of space and readers tend to be suspicious of books written by committee. We tried Kris Kelly. Editor said it sounded too Irish. (Ah, aren’t they great storytellers?). And because we write a male biracial protag, they wanted us to use a gender-neutral name. Remember, this was back in the dark ages of 1999 – women writing crime fiction, let alone with a male hero, well, it wasn’t as accepted as it is now. We were under contract with a pub deadline looming when Kelly and I went off to England. We were tooling around the Cotswolds, getting frantic calls from our agent. We bent a few elbows at a pub one rainy night and came up with the name PJ Paris (because we were flying there the next day). We ran out to one of those red phone booths and called our agent. She loved the name. When we got the contract it said “PJ PARRISH.” I guess I slurred my words during that phone call. True story, I swear.
This year we’re concentrating on writing series, and your Louis Kincaid series has been very popular. Why did you decide to write it?
Louis is Kelly’s creation. The book she was trying to write was a very rough version of our first published book “Dark of the Moon.” Louis was born of her own experience living in a small town — Philadelphia, Mississippi — and having biracial grandchildren. I think of Louis as my adopted son.
There are eleven books in the Kincaid series. How do you keep the series fresh, book after book?
It is difficult, as any series writer knows. Doubly so since we age Louis with each book and we pay strict attention to his character arc over the course of each book and the entire series. I think that is what keeps readers coming back – that they have been witness to Louis’s life journey.
How do you handle the situation where a reader jumps into the middle of a series without reading the first book or two?
Good question. It’s a tightrope walk. You have to give a new reader just enough backstory so they don’t feel lost, yet not bore loyal readers who’ve been with you for the whole ride. This would make a good post for The Kill Zone.
Do you have plans for future Louis Kincaid books?
Well, this is as good a place to announce this as any. Right now, we have no plans for another Louis book. There are many reasons behind this decision, but foremost is that the changes in the industry in the last five years or so have not been kind to any author who is not a bestseller, especially for series. Publishers are very reluctant to pick up a series in midstream because they can’t access your backlist. Which is partly why we did our stand alone thriller “She’s Not There” with Thomas & Mercer. And you know, going back to the keeping a series fresh question: We feel that with our most recent Louis book “The Damage Done” that we left him in a very good place as far as his arc goes. As TKZ readers know, I’m not a fan of prologues. Bad epilogues are even worse.
What other books are you working on?
Working on a sequel of sorts to “She’s Not There” involving the secondary protagonist. He wasn’t supposed to be such a dominant force, but, well, sometimes characters surprise the hell out of you. Our editor (and readers) have asked us to tell his story. Problem is, he’s rather recalcitrant. And I’m getting old and am easily distracted by things like gardens, my dogs and pickleball.
What advice would you give an author who’s considering writing a series?
- Give your protagonist a lot of thought before you write one word. Figure out if you’re going to advance him or her in age with each book. Work out details of age, background, family, etc. and give yourself enough latitude for growth over the course of a series. It’s a marathon.
- Keep a record of every trait you give your protagonist. Every detail you commit to paper, record it somewhere: height, weight, siblings, where he was born, shirt size, how he takes his coffee. Record all the dates and years. BELIEVE ME, you will need this record. You will go insane trying to go back and find these details in your books. And your readers will be quick to call you out for errors. (“Hey, you said his middle name was Alvin in book 3, so why’d you call him Ervin in book 5?”)
- Keep similar records for all characters in each book. Because you will probably find they show up in future books. You don’t want to waste time getting to know them all over again.
- Give great thought to the character arc of your protagonist that you would like to cover over the course of the series. I know this isn’t always possible from the start, but the sooner you begin weaving this into your plot process, the more compelling your hero will be.
- Find a great co-author. Just kidding.
Tell us more about you. What interests do you have outside of writing?
Well, I’m blessed to have retired to two homes: Tallahassee FL (Nov.-May) and Traverse City MI (May to Nov.). In Florida, I am obsessed with tending my garden and watching my birds. In Michigan, I switch to active mode and do a lot of hiking in the woods, biking, kayaking, and pickleball every morning. We’re traveling a lot now – just back from France and gearing up for Italy and we go for about a month at a time. So, I’m also into languages big time, getting pretty proficient in French but now just learning how to order a coffee in Italian. Io sono di Florida! (Learned that today.) Am also trying to find more time to read just for pleasure.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
PJ Parrish.com but be kind. We’re awful about updating it.
Thank you, Kristy, for being with us today.
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P.J. Parrish is actually two sisters, Kristy Montee and Kelly Nichols. Their books have appeared on both the New York Times and USA Today best seller lists. The series has garnered 11 major crime-fiction awards, and an Edgar® nomination. Parrish has won two Shamus awards, one Anthony and one International Thriller competition. Her books have been published throughout Europe and Asia. Parrish’s short stories have also appeared in many anthologies, including two published by Mystery Writers of America, edited by Harlan Coben and the late Stuart Kaminsky. Their stories have also appeared in Akashic Books acclaimed Detroit Noir, and in Ellery Queen Magazine. Most recently, they contributed an essay to a special edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s works edited by Michael Connelly.
What a great interview! I really enjoyed reading about your experience, and it made the whole process seem like more fun. Writing is so much work that it has to be better with a partner, especially your sister. I’m curious about the age difference between you. Also, how you handle disagreements about your fiction. Surely you have disagreements from time to time. Thank you again. I really enjoyed this.
Morning, Lisa: We’re two years apart, me being the oldest. We were always close as kids but as sibs do, we grew apart as adults. The coauthorship brought us back together again. So it was a blessing. Strangely, we don’t disagree often because our thinking is pretty in sync regarding what we want from our plots, and we know our hero Louis Kincaid so well. We often say that there is a third entity in our partnership and that’s the story. And the story always wins.
How lovely that you found a grown up bond as writers. A blessing indeed. Oh, and I meant to say that it seems like the best ideas happen in pubs! Thank you again.
Good morning, Lisa.
Like you, I’m curious about writing partnerships. Kristy and Kelly have made it work, but I suspect they’re special. Maybe shared DNA helps!
Thanks for stopping in. Have a great week.
You too, Kay!
Good advice for series writers. Had I but known I was going to be writing a series, I might have paid more attention. And now, I’m too lazy to go back through so many books to create that “bible” so I’m always skimming through previous books to get the details right. Or mostly right.
For sure, Terry re the “bible” or dossier. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to go back and research something about our characters’ pasts.
Good morning, Terry.
“Had I but known I was going to be writing a series, I might have paid more attention.” I can identify with this. I accidentally renamed one of the characters in the third book of my series, but thankfully caught it in the draft. Gulp. So now I have a “series bible.” Trying to keep it up-to-date.
Terry, you have multiple series, right? How do you keep them all straight?
How do I keep them all straight, you ask. With great difficulty. Thank goodness for digital books, as it’s easier to do searches rather then leafing through print editions. I had a “great” time writing Deadly Options, which was a crossover between my Mapleton and Pine Hills Police series. I do keep spreadsheets with character names and notes, but not nearly enough detail. I recall a conference where one of the presenting authors said one of his fans took it upon himself to create a series bible for him. Ah, to have fans like that!
Good morning, Kristy, and thank you again for being my guest today.
Your advice about giving thought to the arc of the main character is so important, but I suspect many of us wrote the first book intending it to be standalone, then had to retrofit our decisions about character arc. You’ve given us a lot to think about.
I loved “Island of Bones.” I believe you posted something about it on the Kill Zone once which sent me scurrying off to buy it. The description at the end of the book was beautifully rendered. I’m guessing you wrote that.
Yes, very true that sometimes you don’t know if your book is a first in the series or a stand alone. We knew from the start we wanted a series (hoping, of course, someone would buy into that idea!). We’ve done only two stand alones, and both times we instinctively knew they were one-offs. Still, after “She’s Not There” came out, we got emails from fans asking “Well, what happened to Clay?” (he’s a sort of dual-protag that we hadn’t intended to make central to the story). So now we’re working on telling his story. The idea, as you say, of “retro-fitting” is interesting. All stories should feel complete in themselves, but on occasion, you might find a character dictates that there is more to be said about they life.
P.S. Thanks for the kind words about the end of Island of Bones. Yes, I wrote that. I tend to get all the opening and closing chapters, and I sweat mightily about each. We all know the need for a great opening. But a satisfying closing is just as important imho. Your final scene is a coda-sentiment. You should give the reader not just of closure but also mood. And I hadn’t realized until I went back just now and read it, that I had put in dialogue Louis admitting he got a girl pregnant in college, which was a seed for another book. That scene in the last chapter of “Bones” was a transition to another Louis story two books later.
I had forgotten the part about Louis getting a girl pregnant. What I remembered was the description of the sunset. It took my breath away.
Thanks for a great interview, Kay and Kris!
Kris, you’ve mentioned series bibles before. Such a great idea. How I wish I’d started one back in 2017. Like Terry, the thought of going back to the beginning after multiple books is daunting. One of these days, in my spare time…
good to see you here, Debbie. And if you find any of that spare time, could you send some this way?
Have a great week!
What a great post! Kay I’m so glad you interviewed P.J. Paris! I love the ending of Island of Bones. I don’t live that far from Philadelphia, MS…
Hi Patricia. Thanks for stopping by. I enjoyed this interview immensely. Kristy Montee has such a wealth of experience and her advice is golden.
that last scene in Island of Bones is one that stays with you long after you’ve read it.
Have a good week.
Oh, good, grief! P.J. Parrish! Not Paris…lol