Tuesday, June 2, 2020

The River City Bible

Craft: Do you keep a “bible” for your series characters and stories? If so, what does it look like? What does it contain? Do you use a specific program or just Word or Excel files? What do you put in it, how detailed are you?

From Frank

I should. I really, really should.

My River City published "universe" is fairly expansive. There are six novels in the main series, as well as three more in the spin off Kopriva mystery series. My first co-authored work ever, Some Degree of Murder (with Colin Conway), is set in River City and features a number of prominent characters from the series.
On top of that, there are at least three dozen short stories that are set in River City. Some have "big" names in them, others are a vehicle for a minor character to get a moment in the sun. Some are only peripherally linked to any other element of the series while others are inextricably woven into the bigger storylines of the series. Most of these have found their way into one of three different collections.
These stories take place in-universe anywhere from 1992 to 2010, having been published anywhere between 2004 and 2020. So depending on the timeframe of a particular story, you might see a character at at various points in his/her story arc. That can get confusing, especially if you consider that the stories themselves may appear completely outside of the internal chronology of the series. The actual spiralling of a career might be featured in a 2004 story and the beginnings of that downfall only revealed in a 2020 novel. And before you ask - yes, I "knew" about almost all of these events way back when I wrote the first story. Sometimes I do discover new destinies within the River City framework, but some fates have been etched in stone since the very beginning.

A small, spoiler-filled example, you ask? No problem, but if you don't want any spoilers, then scroll forward to the next highlighted word.

Paul Hiero is a minor character in the main River City (RC) series, which is up to six novels now. He's a patrol officer who is on the same patrol team as main characters such as Katie MacLeod and Thomas Chisolm. He's pals with the brusque, unlikable womanizer James Kahn, also a minor player in the main series.

Here's a timeline of Hiero's published appearances:

2005 (set in late 2004/early 2005): In the short story "If Only" (appeared in Ascent Aspirations Magazine), we see Hiero on patrol, having an exchange with a prostitute with whom he's develeoped a rapport. In the course of the story, we see how dangerously close he is to stepping over the line of propriety, as well as a laundry list of all of the things that have gone bad in his life - betrayal, loss, and death.

2007 (set in summer 2002): In the short story "Running into Darkness," (appeared in the anthology Never Safe), we find out the details of one of the deaths that affect Hiero. He's on patrol, partnered with James Kahn. They try to stop a reckless driver, but the passenger bails out of the car and flees. Hiero pursues, eventually catches up to the Russian suspect, and promptly gets his ass kicked. As he limps back to the patrol car, he hears a shot. He finds a murdered Kahn bathed in the flashing blue and red lights.

Now we see part of the reason he is where he is in "If Only."

(The other side of this murder is related in "The Meatcutter's Wife", published in Mysterical-E in 2006. It's told from the point-of-view of a thug named Dominic Bracco, who takes on a murder-for-hire job. A cop named James Kahn is having an affair with another man's wife (the titular meatcutter), who hires Bracco to deal with it. Bracco subcontracts with a Russian named Valeriy Romanov, who is the leader of the most prominent Russian gang in River City. Thus, you learn that the murder of Kahn was an orchestrated assassination rather than a murder of happenstance.

Val, incidentally, is the main antagonist of the fourth River City novel, And Every Man Has to Die (set in 1998). In that book, he's not the main boss yet...but by the end, he certainly is. And as we see from "Running into Darkness" and "The Meat-cutter's Wife," he remains in charge six years later. That's a nice run.

As another aside, Dominic Bracco has a half dozen short stories of his own (collected together in Dead Even). One was even a Derringer finalist the year it was published. He also appears in the second Kopriva novel, Lovely, Dark, and Deep (set in 2006).

This Kahn/Val/Bracco connection and overlap is an example of how interwoven things can get in River City...

Okay, back to Paul Hiero).

2007-11 (set in 1995-98): Hiero has a minor role in RC books 2, 3, and 4, supporting the main storyline in small ways. His biggest scene is in Beneath a Weeping Sky (RC #3) when he serves as sniper coverage for Katie MacLeod as she plays decoy to the Rainy Day Rapist.

2012 (set in early 2005): In Some Degree of Murder, Hiero has a secondary (you could even argue tertiary) but pivotal role. The book follows Det. John Tower and mob enforcer Virgil Kelley as the men separately search for a murderer. Along the way, they both cross paths with many of the same people, including Hiero. We see that the potential danger of crossing the line is no longer - he's crossed it. He's involved with the same prostitute from "If Only." He ends up losing another fight and his gun to Virgil Kelley while poking around off duty in places he shouldn't be. Ultimately, he gets his gun back thanks to how events play out, but he's clearly still messed up.

As of this writing, this is the furthest point in Hiero's storyline - him in a world of hurt in the Spring of 2005.

2018 (set in 1999): In RC #5, The Menace of the Years, Hiero acts in a minor support role, same as in the other entries of the main series.

2020 (set in 2001):  Hiero gets a little more stage time in the sixth book, Place of Wrath and Tears (coming 8/12/2020! Pre-Order Now!). He is the sniper who is forced to pull the trigger on one of the suspects in an active shooter situation at a high school. The suspect is a teenager, and the event troubles Hiero deeply. It's something he can't shake and it wears on his resiliency. By the time we get to the events of "Running into Darkness" a year later, you could argue he's already primed to be fragile. Of course, you could also easily argue that his emotional reaction to both of these traumatic events has nothing to do with fragility and is entirely normal (I'd agree with you there, for what it's worth).

But here in 2020, we finally get the groundwork for what becomes a dark, spiraling out of control for Hiero...sixteen years after you got the first story about this precipitous fall. And in 2003, we'll see a further sign of this, when Hiero faces a difficult event under the strain of all he's been through, and fails horribly...but that's in Dirty Little Town (forthcoming).

To simplify matters, an in-universe chronology of Hiero's path would look like this:

1995-2000: Good cop on patrol, but friends with a boor.
2001: School shooting, emotional difficulty.
2001-02: Gets married. Struggles with PTSD but manages.
2002: Partner shot and killed while on patrol.
2003: Faced w/ sniper situation that goes terribly wrong (more stress). Bitter divorce.
2004:.Suffers from PTSD from multiple events. Engages in inappropriate relationship with a prostitute.
2005: Continuing relationship, getting more involved. Loses gun in off duty fight. Gun returned but admits that he doesn't know if he can pull out of the situation he's in.

Simple, huh?

Yeah, not really.

Now, keep in mind, this is a minor character in the main series. He's at best a secondary character in one book and has two short stories of his own. That's it. If I were to map out Officer Katie MacLeod (she's in at least 11 books and 3 dedicated short stories) in the same fashion, you'd still be reading this when Cathy's day comes around tomorrow (at which point I'd lose you to her far more interesting take).

So back to the original question of keeping a bible.

I wish I did.

I wish I had.

Right now, the official timeline is basically in my head. Ninety-eight percent of the time, I have no trouble keeping it straight. One percent only takes a quick bit of research to resolve. The final one percent, I cheat and retcon something to make it fit because I either blew it or decided to change directions. I figured one fix I have to make while I was doing some tabulating for this post! To be fair, we are talking about a journey that is sixteen years down the road now...

Given that,  the scope of the River City "universe" (it feels pretentious to use that word, hence the quotes, but I don't have a better one to encapsulate the concept...), I think readers would benefit from a quick reference document.

Some people have encouraged me to put something together for the website, and I think that's a good idea. Honestly, though, the time and effort to do that when I could be writing something new is a hard sell. I feel like it's probably a project for when I'm in a slump of some kind. Writing some "history" might be a way to break out of the slump while also serving a useful purpose.

The danger, of course, is having the tapestry of the River City meta story (does that phrase work better than 'universe?') be confusing to readers. To minimize this, I use dates a lot, and landmark or watershed events for reference, which I think helps. But I wouldn't blame someone for picking up the River City short story collection Dead Even or the first Kopriva novel Waist Deep and going, "Wait! Katie MacLeod's a detective now? I just read the latest book, and she's on patrol..."

(Spoiler: Katie MacLeod makes detective in 2002).

Man, I probably do need that bible, huh?


Blatant self-promotion this time is pretty much evident throughout...but my episode of A Grifter's Song, did just come out.

You can get Down Comes the Night by itself, or better yet, subscribe and get the whole season with stories from Eryk Pruitt, Asa Maria Bradley, Holly West, Eric Beetner, and Scott Eubanks as well as mine.

Not only does subscribing get you a break in price, but you get a subscriber-exclusive bonus episode. This season, it's one that turns a few things you thought you knew right on their head...

Speaking of which, I DO have a bible for this project, since it involves so many different authors. Maybe that's what I should've written about in this post. It honestly didn't occur to me until I looked at the date for this post and realized what my newest release would be.

Ah, well. Is anyone even reading this, anyway?


Jacqueline Seewald said...

The reason I keep a series character/plot bible for my Kim Reynolds mystery series is for the sake of consistency. As readers get to know the characters they expect certain characteristics. Blood Family picks up where The Bad Wife ends. The Booklist reviewer noted that on a previous book.

Paul D. Marks said...

I'm dizzy now, Frank. How do you keep it all straight?

Frank Zafiro said...

@Jacqueline, that's a perfectly smart reason - consistency. I've been fortunate not to gum up any events, and since I skimp on physical descrptions in this series, my danger level for messing that up is lower. But you're 100% right.

@Paul, I think it's a matter of having lived it these past sixteen years, having written the stories, planned and discussed the arcs...it's more like keeping family history straight for me at this point, which we all do w/o a pen and paper (except for the geneaolgy buffs).