How’d That Happen?: Angela Zeman

The Blog of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine

Angela Zeman did such a wonderful job creating the world that Roxanne lives in for “The First Tale of Roxanne” that by the end of the story you are ready for more. And the title indeed suggests a second, and a third… So we asked Angela to talk to us about her creative process when starting out a new series.

A few days ago I was thrilled to read in the NY Times section of Unrequested Advice that dark chocolate is now healthy to eat all you want. Yes! Then my copy of AHMM came in the mail and my story was on the cover. I forgot chocolate. Nobody from AHMM had mentioned “cover” to me, so I was shocked and thrilled. And reminded of my very first story sale—my first sale of anything—to the late Cathleen Jordan, the editor of AHMM at that time. She phoned me to buy it, too, which made the event all the more stunning. Then, in the throes of my euphoria, I exposed the enormous amount of water behind my ears and requested that my name be put on the cover. She kindly said, “maybe another time.” From that sale came the Mrs. Risk story series and a novel, all now re-published as e-books by Mysterious Press.

Fast forward, many story sales later . . . AHMM editor Linda Landrigan chose my story for May’s cover. I’m thrilled and gratified, and enormously surprised now that my ears are drier.

For this blog, Linda asked me if I could explain why I often write series. She asked how I plan them. Plan? Tough question. I don’t know.

Right now, I’m in the middle of the third entry to another series, nothing to do with Roxanne. I call it the Trueden Falls series because that’s its fictional location in the Adirondacks. Also now, another magazine is mulling over whether or not to purchase the second in a newer series, which I call the Pete Murphy stories. (Pete’s first story is in Robert Randisi’s anthology, CRIME SQUARE.) That action is 1956 post war harsh and hungry Times Square. My narrator is Petey, an eleven-year-old boy forced by his father’s death in the Big War to take on adult responsibilities, and who manages creatively. Not a young adult series.

My characters are so alive to me that last year I combined heroes from three different well-received stories to create a thriller novel. (The main protagonist came from, “Green Heat,” chosen by Nelson DeMille for Otto Penzler’s Best American Mystery Stories of 2004, from that year’s Jeffrey Deaver anthology.)

How do these things result in a series? I know only a few things. People fascinate me, but boring people bore me. So if anyone catches my eye as “interesting,” chances are good that something about that person will appear in a story.

I’m a listener and a watcher. I strike up spontaneous conversations. I see feelings. How you feel, how you express your feelings, why you feel this way. No one is simple (even if simple-minded), things hit the fan, and life is short. All of which makes a good story.

Another thing. My story characters don’t function in my mind as “characters.” To me they’re people. As are the others in the story. All vivid individuals in his/her own way. By the time the story ends, I have collected an ensemble. All ages, backgrounds, income level, talents, or non-talents. Just like the people outside my door. But then, in imitation of real life, some people just won’t go away. They become a series.

My first series was about Mrs. Risk. Many never realized it, but I used those stories to experiment using various people’s voices. So the POV would always be omniscient, limited by one viewpoint character. And I made that one character be whoever came to Mrs. Risk asking for help. It was educational and fun to do for a while, and incidentally created a love for experimenting when I write.

Gary Provost, a late mentor I still obey said, “You’re like me, you want to write everything.” He nailed me. That’s the explanation for my forays into the lives of unusual people, into history, villages, stark plots, cute plots, and this latest thriller book. POVs of all kinds. I just gotta try it. At least once!

When I write, my goal is always to write a stand-alone. True. Then some protagonists’ personalities somehow invite odd or crazy situations, and I start writing it down.

Wait until you see Roxanne’s dilemma in her Second Tale! The Emperor Vespasian takes advantage of her integrity and gift for languages to ask a private favor that would keep him from embarrassment . . . See? I couldn’t resist. Maybe her Third Tale should involve chocolate. Seems healthy to me.

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