I don’t remember how I found Ann Cleeves’ Shetland Island series, but I started reading them before the BBC shows were created. Since then, however, my enjoyment of the books is very much amplified by having the setting and character visuals. I especially see Doug Henshall as Jimmy Perez when I read.
For more introduction to this series, see here:
You can read a sample of Cold Earth right here by clicking the ‘preview’ button below the cover.
I want to look at the four perspectives on writing that I’ve covered in the past: characters, setting, plot and emotional center.
Characters: Cleeves has constructed a memorable protagonist in Jimmy Perez. Even though we’ll often travel around the storyline with the supporting cast, we always want to return to Perez to find out what he’s thinking.
I realized recently that the entire Shetland series (which will conclude this year with Wild Fire, out this month) is an 8-volume exploration of Jimmy’s life. While each book has a standalone mystery as its frame, who Jimmy is and how he’s dealing with his life are the central concerns.
This approach has its benefits. The series becomes an extended single novel where readers develop loyalty to Perez and want the best for him, personally more so than professionally. Cleeves gets high marks for accomplishing this.
The realization then got me thinking about Father Ambrose, my series protagonist. Although I’ve only just started the second book, I see that I can increase the power of what I’m doing by conceptualizing a four- or eight-book series with a beginning, middle and end. I’ll be looking at that idea over the next week or so.
Setting: The books are all firmly embedded in the geography and culture of the Shetland Islands. Cleeves has done her homework, but she generally only reveals the background when it directly serves the story. If you want to get more oriented, the Wikipedia entry on the islands has lots of interesting lore. There’s also the tourist-oriented Shetland website.
The key elements which play large roles in the storyline are plane and ferry travel, the weather, the midwinter and midsummer light extremes, and the local agricultural structure of crofting. In Cold Earth, the heavy rains cause a landslide which effectively cuts off one part of the island and exposes the body of a woman who’d been killed in one of the crofts. Cleeves is skillful in using the drama of the weather and geography to further compress the ‘cozy’ scene. The characters’ range of motion is thereby curtailed, and interpersonal relationships made more intense.
The environs of my Father Ambrose mysteries have many of the qualities of a cozy that have to do with setting – his cloistered spiritual community embedded in a small town in a rural environment. Nevertheless, in preparing the second book, I’ve learned from Cleeves to work at making some element of it smaller still, so that tension can build from that compression.
Plot: As mentioned above, the story begins with a landslide during a funeral which Jimmy Perez is attending. Shortly thereafter, he finds an unfamiliar woman’s body swept out of a nearby croft. The plot revolves around finding out who she is, what she was doing there and who had a reason to kill her (yes, like all mysteries). If we set our standards for a mystery plot that it needs to achieve a certain kind of novelty, then Cold Earth doesn’t really break the mold.
But, if we recognize that the series is the story of Jimmy Perez, then the real plot is about him beginning to move beyond the death of his partner Fran and finding himself entangled in a relationship with his superior officer. I assume that Wild Fire will give us the denouement of that circumstance, as well as the other threads of his life that will need tying up.
In looking at my current work on book two, I’ve been feeling that both the plot and the character of Father Ambrose are driving it right now. If I step back and think of a closed-end series, and I construct a character arc that establishes Father Ambrose’s story and growth over that series, then, as with the Shetland books, the plot of each book will emerge out of that arc.
Since Perez is the central and most well-developed character, I’ve very little choice but to place the emotional center with him. He has a serious demeanor and expresses himself in very few words, so we don’t know that much about his feelings from what he says. However, we do learn much by his interactions with others and the decisions he makes in his personal life.
In addition, when Cleeves is working with Perez’s POV and is ‘in his head,’ so to speak, we see more about his emotions – he chastises himself for having romantic notions about the dead woman’s story, he shows us ambivalence and confusion about how Willow, his senior investigator, is affecting him. These inner expressions let us see how Perez is dealing with his own life challenges. It’s this inner thread that is the emotional plotline.
Cleeves’ success in giving Perez this inner plotline shows me ways in which to do the same for Father Ambrose. Like most men (as with Perez), Ambrose is loath to ramble on about his feelings. But his meditation practice gives him a rich inner life that needs to be organized and presented over the series emotional arc in a way to which readers relate.
Next month, I’ll be looking at Michael Connelly’s recent Harry Bosch novel, Two Kinds of Truth.
Leave me your comments below or write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
See you then!