Hi, David Corbett here. This month I’m handing the wheel over to Laurie R. King, a dear friend and the New York Times bestselling author of 27 novels (two series and several stand-alones) and other work, fiction and non-fiction. She has some excellent advice to share for those of you considering a mystery series.
Laurie’s fiction includes the Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes stories (from The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, named one of the 20th century’s best crime novels by the IMBA, to this year’s Riviera Gold, due out this week), as well as a modern-day series featuring Homicide Inspector Kate Martinelli of the San Francisco Police Department. She has won an alphabet of prizes from Agatha to Wolfe, been chosen as guest of honor at several crime conventions, and is probably the only writer to have both an Edgar and an honorary doctorate in theology. She was inducted into the Baker Street Irregulars in 2010, as “The Red Circle.”
Take it away, Laurie.
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Ah, there’s nothing like writing a mystery series. Standalones require so much work—reinventing the world each and every time. New characters, new situations, like moving house with every Page One. But a series is like a family reunion (even, as these days, a virtual one), right? You make yourself comfortable, you settle down, you prepare to catch up…
Well, it is true that devoted readers like to revisit familiar characters. And it’s true, some bestselling series novels are more or less interchangeable, with the ritual of the plot and fight scenes and banter giving precisely what people want.
Still, sometimes the reader (and more often, the writer) wants a change—but one that isn’t a change. Something in the same general world, yet new and enticing and fresh. I know that the times I’ve found myself writing the fourth novel in a row about the same exact characters are the times when I’ve started hurting them, a not-so-subtle vote of resentment. But how to keep a series from turning into a family reunion where That Uncle makes the same joke over and over? Well, here’s half a dozen things that have worked for me.
Hurt your characters. You can try resentfully upping the stakes by doing damage to your central characters. You might even be tempted to do a Conan Doyle and kill off your protagonist (though that was a temporary demise.) But you need to remind yourself what happened to Nicholas Freeling’s Arlette Van der Valk series, which began when he killed off her policeman husband after eleven successful outings. What, you don’t remember Arlette’s series?
Maybe we should look at less drastic ways of keeping your readers, and yourself, eager to start a new book.
Travel your characters. I started writing a series about a girl who meets an ageing detective on the Sussex Downs. Which made for a great meet, since that was where Sherlock Holmes retired, but there’s even less scope for dastardly murder on the Downs than there is in Cabot Cove. So beginning with that first book (The Beekeeper’s Apprentice), they wandered. And in subsequent volumes they went far afield: Palestine, Lisbon, Morocco, India, Japan… Each of those places, particularly in the 1920s, had a distinct personality and a new set of problems—political, social, economic, criminal. They also gave me a rich choice of true-life personalities to drag into the mix, letting me give walks-ons or major roles to everyone from Dashiell Hammett and the leaders of the Rif Revolt to the Emperor of Japan and the poet laureate of Portugal. There’s even a glimpse of Lawrence of Arabia.
(This has the added benefit of giving you an excuse to travel, with even a bit of tax write-off…)
Vary the point of view. In Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, six of the twenty-five are told in the first person (#s 1, 7, 8, 13, 16, and 19). Only four of Conan Doyle’s sixty Sherlock Holmes tales are from Holmes’ point of view (granted, not among the best). When I first started writing the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes stories, I wanted the intimacy (and limitations) of her first-person voice, just as the contemporary Kate Martinelli series needed the apparent objectivity of third person. And yet, portions of the Russells are now written from the third-person viewpoints of other series characters, while a recent Martinelli novella—one more personal than the previous stories—is in first.
“Limitations” and “apparent” are key here, in a writer’s tool-box. If you’re writing a third-person series but your plot requires that we question the reliability of the protagonist, a shift to first person can let the reader’s doubts seep in, triggered by the character’s vehement claims and loud protestations. Similarly, moving a normally-first person POV into third, which would appear to give greater objectivity, in fact permits a writer to show exactly what is going on, rather than presenting only truths that have been filtered through the eyes of the protagonist or narrator.
Shift the time. A story that takes place entirely or partially in the past of the series characters also gives the chance of a new perspective. A prequel is often a “How did they get here?” book, showing who the characters were before page one of book one. And don’t imagine that this prequel is the story that should have come first: just as new writers often find their novel stronger when they rip out Chapter One and dive into the action with the original Chapter Two, so does a prequel novel work better when readers know the characters. Or, think they know the characters….
A couple of books ago, I wanted to bring the character of Mrs. Hudson to the fore. Sherlock Holmes’ landlady-turned-housekeeper always struck me as having unexplored depths to her, so I wrote a story centered around her mysterious past (The Murder of Mary Russell). Which nicely set up matters for the current volume of the Russell “Memoirs,” Riviera Gold, where Mrs. Hudson’s past comes up to slap Russell and Holmes in the face.
Thus, old matters keeping things new.
Focus on other characters. I’m now writing the seventeenth book in the Russell series. Add in various short stories and novellas, and we’ve had some 7000 pages to meet new characters. Some of them walk off, lines performed, but others linger, even become central to later tales. I’ve mentioned Mrs. Hudson, but there is also the pair of “Bedouin” nomads we meet in Palestine and who later show up in England; the Baker Street house-boy now grown to manhood; and a shadowy, unknown son who is central in a linked pair of novels, then in a novella, and may well return elsewhere.
Emphasizing new characters, even if the story is not told directly from their point of view, gives a way to reflect on your usual suspects. Bringing in a child, for example, can surprise us with the softer side of a character, whether it’s an ageing historical detective or a young modern-day homicide inspector. Mrs. Hudson’s old-lady attitude towards her long-time employer, which holds more than a trace of amused disdain, casts a new light on The Great Detective. (And I hope that by the end of Riviera Gold, even devoted Holmes admirers will be rooting for the landlady’s triumph.) Chapters in which Dashiell Hammett, himself a Pinkerton detective, watches Sherlock Holmes at work makes the Conan Doyle character feel more true-life by contagion.
Play with flavor. Ten books into the Russell & Holmes series, and following a pair of relatively dark novels, I felt the need for a re-set button. So I wrote a farce: a novel about a film crew, making a movie about a movie about The Pirates of Penzance. Ridiculous, and not universally acclaimed by my readers (though the Gilbert & Sullivan fans among them adored it) but it certainly hit the re-set button in my own mind, so when I wrote the next adventure—a far more typical Russell & Holmes story that opens in an exotic setting and plays with that old crime trope, the amnesia victim—I had fewer problems finding the light tone of the early books.
Obviously, this can backfire, if not as catastrophically as killing your protagonist. You can see, in Harlan Coben’s light-hearted series about sports agent Myron Bolitar, when he began to feel constricted by the character, because he started to introduce themes and events that were an uncomfortable fit for his established mood. His answer lay in moving into more substantial standalone thrillers, rather than stretching the seams of what his characters could address. I did the same thing when, rather than trying to fit a somewhat more serious plot-line into the basically whimsical conceit of Sherlock-Holmes-with-girl-apprentice, I started a modern-day police procedural series where that theme worked just fine.
Mood shifts and changes in a sub-genre can be invigorating, but go too far and you risk alienating your readers. If you’re writing a cozy series set in a knitting shop, what will a reader’s face look like when they find you’ve introduced a sex-trafficking ring to the village? And the opposite applies if you write a gritty, action-packed protagonist without attachments: would Lee Child’s readers be pleased if Jack Reacher fell in love, settled down, and started driving a Volvo and changing nappies?
If you want to write books of a different flavor or mood, it might be a good idea to have two different series. (Or three, she said guiltily.) Catriona MacPherson does historical humor brilliantly, but she also writes dark, contemporary standalones: two flavors impossible to mix in a single dish, but delicious taken separately, and each offers the writer a palate-cleanser from the last effort. Or to return to the analogy we began with, makes a reader—and writer—all the more eager for the next family reunion.
What questions would you like to ask Laurie: Are you working on a mystery series and have some questions concerning the ongoing challenges of character, setting, or plot? Wonder what it takes to have a long-standing career like Laurie’s? Any general questions about the mystery genre specifically or writing in general?
And for those interested in the just-published Riviera Gold, here’s a brief overview:
It’s summertime on the Riviera, and the Jazz Age has come to France’s once-sleepy coastline. Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes find themselves immersed in the social scene of American expatriates. Despite the luxury and leisure, a new mystery arises. Mrs. Hudson, Russell and Holmes’ former housekeeper, hasn’t been seen since she fled England under a cloud of murder accusations. But she proves elusive, managing to avoid even the great Sherlock Holmes as he and Russell try to figure out what new trouble she is in.