Good for Sparks, good for N.C.

“My books are all different,” Nicholas Sparks, the No. 1 New York Times best selling author who lives in New Bern, told a group of 500 fans at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Alumni Center last week.

Except, he says, for two things. One is that there will always be a couple in love.

The other is that the story will be set in North Carolina.

With Sparks’s books selling more than 100 million copies worldwide, a lot of people have learned a lot about our state. Then there are the movies and television programs based on the books. These have put millions more in touch with North Carolina.

The state government agencies responsible for boosting tourism and bringing economic development should put Sparks on the payroll. He may be doing more to bring attention to us than anybody else.

The event in Chapel Hill was hosted by Flyleaf Books as a part of the launching of Sparks’s twentieth novel, “See Me.” The new book is set in Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, with a few side trips to Brunswick County and Jacksonville.

Maria Sanchez, the female lead character, is a UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke Law graduate, who practices law in Wilmington after spending a few years as an assistant district attorney in Charlotte. Her family runs a popular Mexican restaurant in Wilmington. She is Sparks’s first Latino lead character.

Colin Hancock, the male lead, is a heavily tattooed, muscular “hunk” with serious anger management issues and a criminal record for violence. He is trying to take a different turn. He tends bar at the beach to earn money to fund his courses at UNC-Wilmington and his plan to become a third grade teacher.

Getting these two people together is Sparks’s first task, and it is the key to all of his stories, as he explained to me a few years ago.

It is not complicated, he said. First, he gets his main characters in mind, usually a man and a woman. Then he figures out how he is going to get them together, or get them back together if they had a past relationship.

Finally, he figures out how the story will end. “For me it’s either happy, sad, or bittersweet.”

There are only these three possible endings, he says.

If they are going to be happy in the end, Sparks says, something sad has to happen along the way.

“Then,” he told me, “I have a story.”

But “See Me” is more complicated. In addition to the developing romance between Maria and Colin, there is a looming threat to Maria and her family. It could be someone in Wilmington or someone with a grudge based on something that happened in Charlotte while she was prosecuting criminals.

Sparks has added a mystery to the story and made it a thriller.

He confesses that weaving in the mystery made writing “See Me” more challenging than his earlier books. He found himself backtracking and rewriting to be sure the mystery worked. In addition to being sure the clues to the mystery were properly disclosed along the way, Sparks wanted to build a sense of danger that grew as the story progressed.

He wants his readers to be able to solve the mystery, but not until a page or two before it is revealed in the book.

Will Sparks’s fan base support this combination of romance and mystery? Will the extra work he put into the new book pay off?

We will know in a few days when the “best seller” reports are published. Preliminary sales reports are positive. And the enthusiasm of the crowd at Chapel Hill is a good indication that Sparks has hit another home run.

Good for him.

And good for North Carolina.

Take a tour of sites featured by Nicholas Sparks in his books at:

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.