Series writing is serious business. Series writing encompasses the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The good? You really know your characters. You hear them in your head. You write without false steps because you know how they’re going to react in situations you throw them into. Your writing group knows them so well they speak of them as friends. Also, your readers come to expect certain reactions and dialogue. Characters’ foibles are adorable to your fans. Fans also like getting to know your setting and, if a real place, they revel in identifying where that particular gas station is.
The bad? Your characters’ foibles, so adorable to fans . . . Not so much for you after a while. Must she always open the door where everyone knows the bad guy is? Must he always ignore the advice of those who know better than he does? You’d think they’d learn, right? Also, if your setting is a small town, you are likely to encounter the Cabot Cove Syndrome, so named for Jessica Fletcher’s small town that no rational insurance company would ever provide coverage for, given the death rate per capita. And speaking of murder, can you run out of ways to kill people?
As an aside, I tackled that one for you. Go to April, 2016 in this blog and you will find 26+ Ways to Kill (in Mysteries).
And the ugly? Well, let’s just say the bad can deteriorate to the worst. Fans will berate you if you forgot he had hazel eyes in book two and by book four they’ve turned glacier blue. Much worse is that your concept is not big enough to last for several books. What are your themes that stretch across the series?
What to do about these and other limitations of series writing?
Surprisingly, a Google search turned up very few articles about issues in writing a series. Maybe people don’t have trouble with series writing and so there’s no need for such articles. Nah. That’s not it. There are too many series writers out there. I think it’s because we figure out what to do and don’t go hunting for or writing articles about troubles in series-land.
Across these articles and with my own experience, I’ve identified several major features to approach series so that you can be successful.
1) Consistency is a blessing and a hobgoblin.
Readers like consistency. They want expectations for characters to be met. They approach the series as encounters with old friends. However, don’t be so consistent that there are never surprises. In book two of my culinary mystery series, I have a character drop a bombshell. The revelation is consistent with some earlier clues planted in books one and two. However, this one would never have been predicted. So, be consistent but allow for new information and character changes consistent with the behaviors to keep characters fresh. And if you have someone being totally inconsistent, you should be able to explain it with the onset of dementia, for example.
2) Time can trip you up.
Both within and across books in a series, time is a lurking peril. Kinsey Milhone is a wonderful example. I believe I read long ago that Sue Grafton said if she’d known the alphabet mysteries she wrote were going to take off she wouldn’t have chosen the alphabet. She was committed to writing a series with 26 books! Is that a record? I can’t say for sure, but if not, it’s close to a record. And Kinsey is the same. It’s as if we are seeing her work on these crimes over the period of a few years instead of decades. If you have grand plans along those lines, avoid events, characters, car models and the like that will tie your book to a specific time. Within a book, make a calendar for your protagonist/antagonist so they don’t do too much within one day or week.
3) Expand your characters’ world.
Some series authors find the created world of the cozy to limiting. Especially in cozies, the death toll can be high. I took my cooks to the Aegean in book four. They were demo cooks on a high-end cruise ship and they could get into all kinds of foreign trouble. Some series authors have their characters in a job, like being a travel writer or airline personnel so they can be in different locales. Lots of times mystery writers kill off traveling visitors or itinerants instead of regular residents.
4) Keep a running log on characters, cars, and conflicts.
Oh, yeah, that 25-year-old silver Camry cannot become 20 years old and blue in book four. Eye color, body type, tics—all of these need to be logged so that you have a reference for checking. The running argument with Aunt Mabel in book two can’t be the same one your character has with Uncle Glenn in book eight. Make a spreadsheet (electronically is my preference, but paper works) and jot down everything that could conceivably be changed across books. Is this a pain in the sweet patootie? You betcha. But you’ll be so proud of yourself for not screwing up details.
5) Allow for some mystery. Not everything has to be answered by the end.
We’ve all seen movies that, as the final credits roll by, you say, “Oh, yeah. There’ll be a sequel.” Things left raveled, hanging threads, unresolved issues. That’s like real life. So wrap up the biggies, but don’t feel you have to let your readers know everything. And just like in real life, characters can change given the right circumstances.
6) Decide how much readers need to know if they read book five first.
This is the toughest one, frankly, for me. I want the reader to know EVERYTHING. But that is impractical and boring. Make character sketches for your ensemble, recurring cast. Those are the things that need to be known. Sprinkle them in here and there. Show personalities through actions and reactions. If there is need to explain the mystery in a past book, sprinkle that even more lightly. I ran into that problem in book two. How do I explain Alli visiting her brother in prison. Remember that each story must be able to stand alone. Someone reading the series gets value added by reading these connected standalones.
What have you had to deal with in your series writing? Comment below to share with others.
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