Friday, February 24, 2012

Keeping a Series Alive and Lively

Elaine L. Orr

When we think of popular fiction mystery series today names such as P.D. James, Sue Grafton, Robert Parker, Janet Evanovich, and Margaret Maron come to mind.  I consider Adam Dalgliesh, Kinsey Milhone, Spenser, Stephanie Plum and Deborah Knott to be close literary friends. 

I have read mystery series since the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew (yes, both) and then Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.  I can't cite Sherlock Holmes as a favorite; there wasn't enough opportunity to solve the murder along with the sleuth.  After absorbing these and many other mystery series, I began formulating my own series in the mid-2000s.  Though I learned from many authors, I learned the most from J.K. Rowling, though most would not put her in the mystery genre.  The clues and foreshadowing she planted in The Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets show how clearly (and early) she thought out the evolving mystery of Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort.

It is daunting to create characters you will work with (if you are lucky) for a decade or more.  As I developed the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series, I spent a lot of time considering what would be consistent in each book and what would change.  Consider these points as food for thought.

  1. Readers need to care about the characters as much as the mystery they solve.  Sure, that's Writing 101, but it takes a lot of thought.  Will your characters maintain the same characteristics and perspectives throughout, or will they evolve?  You're going to work with them a long time, so consider if you want to spend time a lot of time with a hot head or practical joker.  On the other hand, Stephanie Plum's  Ranger is hot -- it would be a shame to have him change too much.
  2. Will your characters move around the county or globe or stay firmly rooted in their home town?  You explore Boston with Spenser and Hawk, and after you read a couple of Margaret Maron's Judge Knott novels you can smell North Carolina tobacco.  The Murder She Wrote mysteries offer a mix of Cabot Cove comfort and global tour opportunities. `
  3. If there is something to learn in each book it can pique your own as well as reader interest.  Since a series' lead characters are the same, new settings or information can help keep them fresh.  Sand Sharks gives Deborah Knott fans a chance to learn about the culture of the North Carolina shore rather than the fields of Colleton County.  On the other hand, in Killer Market the level of detail on the furniture industry in North Carolina seemed as much like a data dump as part of the story.  
  4. Is there a love interest?  It's almost everywhere these days.  Sue Grafton does a great job of interjecting Kinsey's love life in some books but not others.  As with television shows, if your hero or heroine enters a committed relationship or marries it changes more than how they interact with people other than their partner.  There is no longer "relationship tension," plus they have to keep someone apprised of their whereabouts.  
  5. If you want to express a point of view -- political, religious, cultural -- consider writing an editorial.  If a particular opinion or piece of information is not integral to the plot or character it adds nothing and can sound like a sermon.  On the other hand, a book can contain a well crafted message.  Children of Men is different than most P.D. James' novels, and the broad message (to me) was that we humans are fallible and can be pretty intolerant of each other, and we better change.  P.D. James never "tells" this, she "shows" it through the story.
  6. Will your characters age?  Early into the series, Sue Grafton decided that Kinsey Milhone would stay in her mid-thirties.  This has served Kinsey well.  For one thing, if Kinsey got older her good friend and landlord Henry (and others) would soon be out of the picture.  Henry has survived well into his nineties, but it would be pushing belief to have him baking his breads at 105, and his loss would be a big one for the series.  Nancy Drew stayed the same age for decades, but she did eventually evolve.  Though she did not initially age, the original books were revised in the late 1950s and early 1960s to eliminate racial stereotypes and other outdated views.  The Nancy Drew Files presented her as an older sleuth, starting in the 1980s. 

After considering such alternatives I created a beach town for Jolie Gentil and populated it with diverse residents and a strong dose of humor.  After you think about these points for awhile, it just might make developing a plot seem like a walk on the beach, or haunted house, or dark and stormy night…

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Resource note:  If you think you've missed a book in a series or want to see what authors write in your favorite genre, the Kent, Michigan library has done you a great favor.  To search by series name or Author (by genre) go to  If there is a better resource I have not found it.  You'll need to go elsewhere to easily read book synopses.

Copyright 2012 by Elaine L. Orr

Elaine L. Orr authors fiction and nonfiction.  The Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series was introduced in 2011 with Appraisal for Murder, followed by Rekindling Motives.  The third book, When the Carny Comes to Town, was released in February 2012.

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