For ten years and eight crime novels I worked inside Jack McMorrow’s head.
McMorrow is my first series hero, a battle-worn ex-New York Times reporter who has fled to the woods of Maine but still can’t resist a good story. His inquiries inevitably stir up more than just a story, and I’ve chronicled his encounters with marijuana growers, abusive boyfriends, ex-girlfriends from New York, runaway kids, and rich summer people who think they are above the law in Maine.
And it has all been told, as they say in the movie biz, from POV JACK.
With Jack as first-person narrator of these tales, I’ve learned a lot about my hero. I know what he thinks of his significant other, social worker Roxanne. I know what bird songs he recognizes, I know what he thinks about as he traverses the state, I know what question he’s going to ask next, and why. And when Jack doesn’t know what is coming next—a gunshot, a fist—I can’t forewarn readers, not with an aside. I’m inside McMorrow, the camera is mounted on his head.
For readers who like McMorrow and his perspective on things, each book is like getting back together with an old friend. At least that’s what I hope happens. He and I have gone through a lot together, his fall from grace in New York, his difficult relationships, his close calls, the self-destruction in the early books, his darkest years. But there are constraints in this sort of narrative and I occasionally would slip away from McMorrow with a parenthetical passage. A murderer burying a body; a child being locked in a dark closet, a flashback through old news clips. And I found that writing those parts was a lot of fun.
So when I started a new series (just kicked off with PORT CITY SHAKEDOWN, featuring a young boat bum named Brandon Blake), I decided to go with third-person narration. It was interesting, liberating, and challenging as hell.
A first-person novel has a built-in narrative, and the plotting is simplified. What just happened dictates what will happen next. Did Jack get an interview or did he get a gun pointed at his head? Given that, what will he do next? Of course, I, as the author, decide who the supporting actors are, how they are motivated, whether they talk or fight. But once they’re set in motion, Jack and I are both strapped in for the ride.
With Brandon Blake, I found that the choices in plotting were expanded—and daunting. For instance, I was able to explore the motives and psyches of the villains much more easily in the third person. I could step in and out of their heads at will. I could write, not only what they said, but what they thought. There are a couple of thugs in PORT CITY SHAKEDOWN, one the brains, the manipulator, the other the blunt-trauma sidekick. How do they really feel about each other? When they say or do one thing, what are they really thinking? What really makes them tick? As someone who has both respect for and fascination with criminals (fifteen years in the newspaper business will do that), it was interesting to be able to develop them more fully as characters.
There were potential pitfalls in the third-person form. One, it’s easy to get lost in any and all of the characters. I had to be careful to not let secondary characters upstage the leads. Two, the ability to change point of view at will was tempting. I had to be careful not to jump around too much. Readers like twists and turns; they don’t like whiplash.
Three, I had to make sure that the series “hero” was as and preferably more compelling than the other characters. If you hang a series on a character, you don’t want readers wondering why.
I’d love to hear what readers and writers think of the two structures. I’m still weighing both, and went back and wrote another first-person McMorrow novel (DAMAGED GOODS, February 2010). In some ways it was odd, going back to a single camera; the secondary characters had to reveal themselves in dialogue or action. But in other ways it was like a phone call from an old friend. We started right where we left off, didn’t miss a beat.
About the author:
Gerry Boyle is a crime novelist best known for his acclaimed Jack McMorrow mystery series, featuring an ex-New York Times reporter transplanted to Maine. Boyle is a former reporter and columnist who spent nearly two decades covering Maine crime. He continues to write as a freelance journalist for magazines, and is editor of the alumni magazine at his alma mater, Colby College. Boyle lives in a lakeside village in Maine where he and his wife Mary have raised three children. This summer he is applying the last touches to DAMAGED GOODS, the ninth McMorrow novel, due out in February 2010. He reports that research for the second Brandon Blake mystery, is almost done.