Judith Mehl writes upbeat traditional mysteries with cozy twists and suspenseful turns. After a journalism career, she parlayed her writing experience and handwriting analysis expertise into the Kat Everitt handwriting analysis series. Her new herbal sleuth series beginning with Fountain of Death, features the protagonist Lizzie Ort. Learn more about Judy and her books at her website.
Have you discovered characters that leap off the pages of books and grab their own fans? It happened to me, and it wasn’t my protagonist. Lizzie and her sister Delia were supporting characters in the third book of my handwriting analysis mystery, Murder Most Floral. Fans fell in love with the elderly duo and they caught my attention, too. Lizzie became the protagonist in my latest book, Fountain of Death, a new mystery series. Her sidekick—sister Delia.
They exemplify scene stealers that morph into other roles. But corralling a whole new series and making it their own? Where did that come from? I discovered they fit into the world of literary spin-offs, where favorite characters were often resurrected from the tombs of stories gone dead.
Supporting characters that take on a life of their own because readers found them so intriguing, abound in literature, movies, and TV. Thus, we have reimagined classics—books that were so loved that they were retold in many ways, were also called retellings, continuation literature, and modern day twists.
Reimagined classics thrive in movies with one of the earliest appearing in 1941. Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve, from the comedy show Fiber McGee and Molly, moved into his own program, The Great Throckmorton.
In books, there is the Gothic retelling of Jane Eyre, the original by English writer Charlotte Brontë in 1847. The retelling was Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye in 2016. And don’t forget dozens of rewrites of famous novels like Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. Plus, there was the continuation literature with Old Friends and New Fancies in 1913 by Sybil G. Brinton, the first sequel to Jane Austen's novels, one of many offshoots.
Where does my dear character, Lizzie Ort fit? She is an 82-year-odd enigma, an octogenarian whose concealed expertise leaks out as she attempts to solve her friend’s problems.
Her herbal sleuth mysteries are certainly not a continuation or a retelling of my first series, the handwriting mystery series starring Kat Everitt. She’s her own woman, with her own supporting character, sister Delia, and definitely, her own problems.
Was Lizzie’s book, Fountain of Death, continuation literature? Well, she does carry the love of herbs and their medicinal uses into the new series, becoming somewhat of an herbal sleuth with a bang. But her world was rich with new characters, settings and motives. So not a continuation. She happily settled for the term spin-off and moved on.
Examples of modern day outgrowths include TV programs like All in the Family, rated one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, followed by Archie Bunker’s Place a continuation of the original show after it ended. Sally Struthers returned as Archie's daughter, Gloria, in a spin-off of a show in her name.
Eventual spinoffs from Archie’s world included The Ropers, with Three’s Company, another American sitcom, and Three’s a Crowd, considered a spin-off and a continuation.
The science fiction genre was a natural for offspring books with its extensive world building. Orson Scott Card’s short story, Enders Game, became a full novel of the same name, followed by numerous sequels. Card transplants characters from one novel to another, as in Speaker for the Dead with the Hive Queen, from the earlier book, Ender’s Game.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., not satisfied with the original version of Timequake, re-conceived it by combing it with personal thoughts, and produced the so-called Timequake Two, most often referred to as only Timequake.
This all leads us to believe that authors should work to craft good characters. If as writers we spend time and energy on characters, readers will tune in and become inspired by these characters so much so that they develop a fan base of their own. Those characters may lead to a whole new story line.
What do our readers think? Who are your favorite scene stealers in contemporary literature?
Fountain of Death
A fountain of youth discovery leads to murder at a Florida herbal conference. There’s no shortage of suspects, including Lizzie Ort, who springs into action to protect friends, and find justice for the victim. At the same time, she seeks redemption from the questionable activity of her past life. With wit, and mumblings to God and herself, Lizzie pursues leads, follows her instincts, and hunts the murderer.
Did the killer steal the victim’s controversial formula for a telomere lengthener—that elusive herbal solution to old age? Was it one of the hundreds of conference exhibitors, or attendees . . . or someone else?