Writing other people’s characters

Recently I tweeted to ask my followers if there were any topics they’d like me to blog about and @JanetOkane (follow her on Twitter) wanted to know what it was like writing novels based on pre-existing TV characters.  (I write the books based on the popular Scott and Bailey ITV1 cop series.)  When Transworld editor Sarah Adams  approached me to do the prequel to the show I’d three instinctive reactions: delight at the prospect, fear that I’d get it wrong and panic that I wouldn’t be able to do it by the deadline.  Delight because I was already a fan of the series and loved the characters and tone.  Fear for the same reason.  We all assume that we are seeing a character on screen in the same fashion but what if my interpretation on the page turned out to be way off kilter?

After an initial meeting with Sally Wainwright and Di Taylor, the show’s creators, where we discussed the three central characters (Rachel, Janet and Gill) and agreed on the back stories I would cover and what my murder case would be, I began work.  The first line came instinctively and captured the flavour of the book but was it too rough?  Too blunt?  A confab with my agent Sara set me right.  But the fear for the rest of it remained and the only way to deal with this was to seek some reassurance before I’d completed the draft.  Once I’d written a few chapters I sent them to Sally and Di for comments.  They gave me a resounding thumbs up which was a massive relief and I carried on at full pelt.  Every so often I emailed Sally with queries about the characters: did either Rachel or Janet like football (no), is Rachel’s dad alive (yes) and how long has Janet been married (25 years); to make sure I wasn’t veering off track or writing something that would demolish continuity with the television series.

The fact that I really liked the show was a huge help in writing the characters, they were three dimensional for me already.  It wasn’t hard to imagine how they’d respond to the new traumas I dreamt up for them.  Or what they’d say.  Another advantage was that we share the same Manchester territory (one of the reasons that Transworld thought of me in the first place).  So the local references, the landscape and the atmosphere are familiar to me as are the rhythms of speech and the things people say to each other.  There was no need for research visits or hours spent online looking for locations or dialect words.  No time either!  Remaining true to the original also gave me licence to swear much more than I usually do in my work which was immensely enjoyable.  Thankfully I must have been doing something right because after receiving delivery of the prequel, Dead To Me, Transworld commissioned a further two Scott and Bailey books.  So I best get cracking…