Writing a series – The essential supporting cast

Delighted to welcome Helen Hollick back to give us some insight into series supporting characters. I know the value of them as I use them ruthlessly throughout the Roma Nova series!

Helen was first accepted for traditional publication in 1993 and became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen (titled A Hollow Crown in the UK) with the sequel, Harold the King (US: I Am The Chosen King) being novels that explore the events that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy is a fifth-century version of the Arthurian legend, and she writes a nautical adventure/supernatural series, The Sea Witch Voyages. She has also branched out into the quick read novella, ‘Cosy Mystery’ genre with her Jan Christopher Murder Mysteries, set in the 1970s, with the first in the series, A Mirror Murder incorporating her own, often hilarious, memories of working as a library assistant. Her non-fiction books are Pirates: Truth and Tales and Life of A Smuggler. 

Helen lives with her husband and daughter in an eighteenth-century farmhouse in North Devon, enjoys hosting author guests on her own blog ‘Let Us Talk Of Many Things’ and occasionally gets time to write…

Over to Helen!

So you’ve jumped into the realm of writing a series – it doesn’t matter what genre you write, historical, thriller/mystery, alternative, fantasy, romance… the principles are the same for all. Aside from the obvious requirement of a good plot, intriguing red herrings if it’s a mystery, and well researched background detail, you need one or two strong lead characters, usually a couple of some sort: husband and wife, or work colleagues (detective inspector and detective sergeant, maybe?). Mother and son, father and daughter, cousins… whatever you want as long as they are ‘good’ together as partners. This doesn’t mean they have to be friends – some of the best pairings in a series, be it for novels or TV, can start out being distinctly unfriendly towards each other, (although the reader will possibly guess that the two of them will probably end up as best mates, or even lovers.) What does matter is that these leading characters must be strong characters, with readily recognised passions and quirks, and an interesting background. Usually they are likeable people, although unlikeable ‘baddies’ are acceptable. The trick is to get your reader to become interested enough in your protagonists to want to know more about them… and then want more, and even more.

But there is more to a good story than just an engrossing plot, lots of action or romance, or whatever. A supporting cast is needed, and some of that cast will, perhaps, be required to make more than just an appearance in one book, so they need to be created as believably real as your main characters. You do run the risk of the sub-character becoming more popular than the lead though, so be warned! (I’m thinking Alan Rickman as the sheriff in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, or Han Solo vs. Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars movies).

Thinking about a TV series when creating characters can help here. You need the familiar sergeant behind the desk in the police station, the grumpy boss, or the nosey neighbour, characters who only have small scenes to play but are essential to move the story along. They provide a counterbalance, or can be useful for dialogue exchanges, and yes, they are another recognisable person, and therefore give additional interest and entertainment for your readers.

In my Jan Christopher cosy (cozy – US spelling) mystery series I decided on using a few ‘regular’ supporting cast members. Young library assistant Jan Christopher and boyfriend Detective Constable (later Detective Sergeant) Lawrence (Laurie) Walker are my two lead characters, along with Laurie’s boss, who is also Jan’s Uncle – DCI Toby Christopher and his wife, Jan’s aunt, Madge. They appear in the first episode of the series, set in north-east London in the 1970s and titled A Mirror Murder. Part of my cast are a few background characters who will pop up occasionally in further episodes – certain other policemen and Jan’s library colleagues, for instance. Episode Two of the series A Mystery of Murder, saw Jan and Laurie spending Christmas with his parents down in Devon, but cunningly I also brought Uncle Toby and Aunt Madge into the story, along with a few personalities from the village. Farmer Ralph Greenslade was only mentioned, but he was to play a bigger part in a future episode (#4 A Meadow Murder) and shopkeeper Heather, who will appear in most of the Devon-based mysteries because she is a useful character to boost the plot and to smuggle in those essential red herrings!

In A Meadow Murder, I’ve also introduced the Exeter Inn landlord, Steve and his wife Hazel – they will appear again, as will cheeky Mary-Anne, a child who is often where she is not meant to be. I will add that Heather, Steve and Hazel are real people from my village, my dear friends in fact. They are written as fictional characters but included with their full permission. They are, of course, 100% ‘goodies’, and I’ve promised that they will not end up as murder victims! (Well, unless they upset me, that is! *laugh*)

That is one area where, as authors, we can have complete control over a storyline. In a TV series you can usually guarantee that an appearance by a well-known actor as a guest character will probably never be seen again. In our books, character X can appear as often as we want him or her to appear. Until we decide to kill them off, of course. Fortunately, as authors inventing our own fictional world with its events and characters we are in charge and can do what we want. Except, think carefully about killing off a regular secondary character – you might be surprised at how fond of him or her your readers have become!

A bit of background to A Meadow Murder

A Meadow Murder is the fourth tale in the Jan Christopher cosy murder mystery series, the first three being A Mirror Murder, A Mystery of Murder and A Mistake of Murder… see what I’ve done there? Yes, I’ve created a proper puzzle for myself because now every tale in the series will have to follow the same title pattern of ‘A M-something- of Murder’ (Suggestions welcome!)

Based on when I worked as a library assistant during the 1970s, the mysteries alternate between the location of Chingford, north-east London, where the real library used to be, (the building is still there, but is, alas, now offices) and my own North Devon village, but slightly fictionalised. Chappletawton is much larger than my rural community, and has far more quirky characters, (and we haven’t had any real murders!)

The main characters, however, remain the same: Jan Christopher is the niece, and ward, of Detective Chief Inspector Toby Christopher and his wife, her Aunt Madge. In A Mirror Murder, Jan (short for January, a name she hates) meets her uncle’s new driver, Detective Constable Lawrence Walker. Naturally, it is love at first sight…

I had the idea for A Meadow Murder during the summer of 2022, while watching our top meadow being cut for hay. The cover photograph is my field – a real Devonshire hay meadow.

Making hay. (It’s a great scene in the book!)

A short extract from A Meadow Murder…

The shop door was propped open to let in a breeze on this hot afternoon. Inside, Heather, the shopkeeper and postmistress, was standing behind the counter looking somewhat frazzled. She flicked back a lock of damp, blonde hair from her forehead and puffed her cheeks as we walked in.

“Oh, it’s only you young Laurie, and you Jan dear. I thought it was those pesky children or Dotty Dorothy come back again. Did you not see her? She’s only just left. Driven me barking with her silliness.”

Laurie laughed. I looked blank.

“Mrs Dorothy Clack,” Laurie explained. “Lives in Meadow View, the first cottage as you come into the village. Her husband is a salesman of some sort, rarely at home. She’s a sweet lady, but…”

Heather butted in. “But she is as dotty as a polka-dot bikini. It isn’t surprising that her other half is rarely here with her. Quiet chap, I’ve only seen him once or twice since they moved here a few years ago. It’s my opinion that he’s got someone else on the side, if you know what I mean. Can’t say as I blame him, Dorothy must drive him up the wall. Yesterday, she was certain that George Dill’s scarecrow was following her around the village. Didn’t matter how many times I told her that George moves the thing about in an attempt to keep the crows from his crop. Now, she’s adamant that she’s seen a leprechaun in Windfall Woods. I quote: ‘A little man, sitting on a log.’ He apparently took one look at her, jumped up, shouted, ‘Begorrah!’ and disappeared.”

“Well, it is a lovely public footpath through those woods,” Laurie said, still laughing, “though she’s more likely to meet a poacher, not a leprechaun.”

“I don’t suppose you came up that way? Saw anything odd?” Heather queried. “Just in case it was a poacher hanging around? I’ve no objection to anyone taking a rabbit or pheasant for the supper table, or farmers keeping the foxes at bay, but shooting the deer this time of year when the does have fawns at foot? If I ever caught anyone, I’d shoot them myself.” She paused, grinned. “The poachers I mean, not the deer.”

Laurie advised that that wouldn’t be a good idea, and asked for two packets of tea, which Heather fetched. He added, “We walked up the lane, not through the woods, but we can go back that way.”

I selected some picture postcards of views of Exmoor and pretty thatched cottages with various straw figures decorating the ridges, such as hares, pheasants, geese and foxes, and followed Heather as she went to the post office counter to get the stamps to go with them. I was fiddling with my shoulder bag to get my purse out when a shadow blotted the light from the open door. I paid my money and Heather, noticing the newcomer, dramatically rolled her eyes. I put the stamps and cards in my bag and turned to see who had come in…


How you can get hold of your copy

Make hay while the sun shines? But what happens when a murder is discovered, and country life is disrupted?

Summer 1972. Young library assistant Jan Christopher and her fiancé, DS Lawrence Walker, are on holiday in North Devon. There are country walks and a day at the races to enjoy, along with Sunday lunch at the village pub, and the hay to help bring in for the neighbouring farmer.

But when a body is found the holiday plans are to change into an investigation of murder, hampered by a resting actor, a woman convinced she’s met a leprechaun and a scarecrow on walkabout…

Available as a paperback and e-book, including Kindle Unlimited

Amazon Universal Link: this link should take you direct to your own local Amazon online store https://mybook.to/AMeadowMurder

 Order the paperback from any reliable bookstore


My review

Jan Christopher and her fiancé Laurie are on holiday in Devon, staying with Laurie’s parents, But it seems that murder cannot leave them alone. Apart from a delightful mystery, the outstanding thing that a reader finds in all the Murder novels by Helen Hollick is the attention to detail. Every sentence pulls you back into the early 1970s with a mixture of feelings – nostalgia for a simpler life vs. the more communication and information focused time today; the Big Smoke vs. the slower, cleaner country life. A touch of The Darling Buds of May, only not Kent, but Devon.

But the author doesn’t shy away from her characters. Each is well drawn and each has his or her distinctive voice, strengths and foibles. The countryside itself is a character and Hollick imbues it with plenty of emotion, whether a striking sunset or a delicious pie in the pub.

The denouement is very satisfactory, although tinged with sadness. We cannot but feel sympathy. If you enjoy a cozy mystery, but one with great understanding of the human condition, treat yourself to this.


Connect with Helen

Website: https://helenhollick.net
Subscribe to her Newsletter:  https://tinyletter.com/HelenHollick
Main Blog:  https://ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/helen.hollick
Twitter: @HelenHollick  https://twitter.com/HelenHollick



Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series.Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. JULIA PRIMA, a new Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, is now out.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines and taste world the latest contemporary thriller Double Identity… Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email update. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

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