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…. [Read more…]