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Friday, December 16, 2011

How to Keep Series Novels Interesting



How to Keep Series Novels Interesting
by Jacqueline Seewald

The November 2011 issue of THE WRITER featured an article by Anne Perry entitled “How to Keep a Series Interesting.” Since I write a romantic mystery series, needless to say, I read this article with thoroughness. Perry, a well-known mystery writer, discusses setting, character and theme.


Readers enjoy a consistency of setting in a series. My own opinion is that the setting should be one the author knows well whether it be a city he/she has lived in, a rural community, an exotic place visited, or an historic location that has been researched in detail. This lends authenticity to the novel. For instance, in the first mystery in my Kim Reynolds librarian sleuth series, THE INFERNO COLLECTION, I chose a university setting because it was one I was very familiar with. I had not only received several graduate degrees, I both taught English and was an academic librarian (at different times) at Rutgers. However, intending to keep the series fresh, I provided each of the three novels with a different local in Central N.J. where I lived for forty years. THE DROWNING POOL is set in a luxury apartment complex. The main locale for THE TRUTH SLEUTH is a NJ high school.

Perry writes that a series should have characters you will want to return to again and again. I agree that this is crucial in a series. We enjoy reading Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series because we know the characters and they make us laugh. We enjoy reading the Number One Ladies Detective Agency series because of the wonderfully charming characters Alexander McCall Smith has created. In THE DROWNING POOL, the second mystery novel in my series, Kim Reynolds and homicide detective Mike Gardner return to solve another set of murders. They are joined by a new character, a woman of color, police detective Bert St. Croix. The three main characters are very different in personality and background but each lends something unique to the novel.

A wonderful article on mystery series detectives “The (Really) Long Goodbye” appeared in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, July 1, 2011. The theme of the article was that some well-known series detectives are cash cows that have become long in the tooth. The article emphasizes the popularity of this form of mystery.

In her article, Anne Perry also discusses theme as an important component in series fiction and offers the example of disillusionment. In mysteries, people are not as they would appear and so there is an element of disillusionment. That can also be true of society in general and the legal system in particular.


I believe that plot is also key in the mystery novel or any series. In the Kim Reynolds series, there are connected murders that need to be solved. The main characters may even become personally involved as in THE TRUTH SLEUTH when Kim initially finds the body of a murdered boy and discovers another at the high school.

I am pleased that THE INFERNO COLLECTION and THE DROWNING POOL are now available in less expensive e-book formats from L&L Dreamspell. You can check them out at:


http://www.lldreamspell.com/JacquelineSeewald.htm

Do series novels have an advantage over stand alone novels? As a reader or as a writer, which do you prefer?

In keeping with the holiday spirit, I am offering to send a review copy of THE TRUTH SLEUTH, the third novel in my Kim Reynolds mystery series, to a commenter who will be chosen at random. If you want to be included in the giveaway, please leave either an e-mail address where you can be reached or a website address. It will only be used for purposes of this drawing. Happy holidays to everyone!

32 comments:

Betty Gordon said...

Jacquie, thought provoking blog. I can't say I actually have a preference between series or stand alone as a reader. If I had to say, I would probably say -- stand alone.

As an author I have only carried characters forward from one manuscript to another, but I have been requested by readers to do so more often. Part of the reason may be that as I think of a new plot, I think of new characters -- part of the excitement for me.

T.W. Fendley said...

Hi, Jacquie--I'm a big fan of series because I love to get immersed in a world and really get to know characters. When I find a new author I like, I can't wait to read more from them. My latest infatuations were Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden series and Cindy Sample's Dying for a Date series. Please include me in the contest--I'd love to be in the running for a copy of your book! twfendley@gmail.com

elysabeth said...

Hey Jacqueline,

Interesting post. I'm guilty of writing both but I write short stories. My state mystery series has my four main characters vary in appearance. Since this is a children's series and they are playing a game to solve which state is being described from a series of clues, the varying of the characters adds a little depth to the story. If it is the brother and sister playing the game, it has an undertone of sibling rivalry. If it is the game owner (Matt) and his friend playing the game, the tone is friendly competition (sometimes they will make small bets but no money involved - just if I win you have to do this or something to that affect). I've had Matt and his mother play the game because no one was around and Matt was bored and Mom just happened to be willing to play the game with him. In an upcoming story, I will have Matt, Guy (the best friend) and Jolene (the fourth character - the girl both boys like) - and the whole class (sort of) do a quick run through for the new teacher to their class who accuses them of cheating on their test and they have to show him the game so that they can explain how they've been playing it for a while and learning different facts about the states. The plot basically stays the same - play the game and figure out the state based on clues (facts and trivia) before the other person does. I also challenge my readers to figure out which state is being described against the characters - just to see when they are figuring out the state.

In my standalones, most have been written for contests and have placed 1st, shared 2nd, 34d and runner up. I'm just now republishing them as ebooks for 99 cents on Nook, Kindle and Smashwords. I have a YA paranormal mystery which was kind of a vision I had and was written during National Novel Writing Month (NaNo), sort of. You can follow the journey of Finally Home on my blog (http://elysabethsstories.blogspot.com) and see that I didn't actually write it from the 1st of November to the end, but did write it in 30 days, from the middle of November to the middle of December, topping out at about 56,000 words.

I think because I write short stories, that stand alones work best for me for writing but as far as reading, I'm open to either - I've read some pretty interesting stand alones as well as some great series.

Are you books available on Kindle? If so, I may have to go pick up a copy of your first two and check them out since they involve a librarian as the sleuth (we love our librarians - lol). Thanks for sharing this topic with us - E :)

Elysabeth Eldering
Author of Finally Home, a YA paranormal mystery
"The Proposal" (an April Fools Day story), a humorous romance ebook
"The Tulip Kiss", a paranormal romance ebook
http://elysabethsstories.blogspot.com
http://eeldering.weebly.com

Ma America, The Travelin' Maven
Author of the JGDS, 50-state, mystery, trivia series and "Train of Clues" (a mystery destination story/predecessor to the state series)
Where will the adventure take you next?
http://jgdsseries.blogspot.com
http://jgdsseries.weebly.com

eeldering @ gmail . com (no spaces)

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Betty,

Thanks for stopping by. I honestly believe it's easier to write stand alone novels. Keeping a series fresh and continuing its momentum is very challenging.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, T.W.,

I like Cindy Sample's writing too.
Getting humor just right in a mystery novel is a challenge and Cindy accomplishes it. There are many series writers I enjoy, the list is long.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Elysabeth,

It's really great to learn about another writer's work. Thanks for stopping by.

In answer to your question, I now have three novels on Kindle thanks to L&LDreamspell. STACY'S SONG is a YA novel for teenage girls which has received excellent reviews. New on Kindle are THE INFERNO COLLECTION and THE DROWNING POOL.
Both novels received excellent reviews from BOOKLIST among others when they were released in hardcover and large print.

Pauline B Jones said...

I used to read a lot of series. I enjoyed the familiar and the sense of spending time with an old friend. I guess the thing that has made my interest in series books decline is that often a series requires very small character change. You mentioned the Plum books. What drove me off was the sense that her personal relationships "reset" at the beginning of each book. I liked the romance and from what I hear, it is still not resolved!

Authors who weave in a romance seem to be afraid to let it have a happy ending, fearing it will snap something for readers, but Laurie K King has done a great job of showing a romance, marriage, etc within the framework of the books.

Still, I had have to say I prefer stand alone, or a series of connected books about different characters within the story world, rather than the singular focus on one set.

The Laiden books (SF) are an interesting mix of both forms, connected books and a series of books about the same characters. The world building is amazing.

I am glad to see your books going into digital! I love libraries, too! Have got to grab The Inferno Collection. (Was that my TBR I heard scream? lol)

big congrats to you!
Pauline Jones
www.paulinebjones.com
STEAMROLLED

Radine Trees Nehring said...

I am another one who prefers series, because I enjoy getting to know people in novels! If I like the characters I will do my best to continue reading the series. Only one problem -- if the series is ended for one reason or another. I am still lamenting the death of Anne George and the end of the "Southern Sisters" mystery series.

I write non-fiction more-or-less stand alone, though all of it has an Ozarks theme. However my mystery novels are in a continuing series, with number seven in the Carrie McCrite and Henry King "To Die For" mysteries set for release in 2012. Do I like the people in these stories? You betcha!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Pauline,

I agree that keeping a mystery series fresh is a challenge. I'm working on the fourth book in the Kim Reynolds series. It's not hard to do so far because the lives of the main characters are progressing just the way the lives of real people do and there is also a new murder mystery in each novel of course. But for me, romance has to enter into each novel because relationships are part of real life. I don't like cardboard, dull characters--won't read them and won't write them.
Thanks for coming by to comment.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Radine,

It's great to learn about your mystery series as well. I don't know much about the Ozarks but consider the area rich in history and culture.

Maryann Miller said...

Good points, all, Jacqueline. If any of those elements gets stale it is time to consider retiring the series.

As a reader I have no strong preference between a series and stand alone books, although sometimes I meet a character in a stand alone and wish I could visit her again.

As a writer, I also have no preference. I have several stand alone books and just started a series. All have been fun and rewarding to work on.

maryann (at) maryannwrites.com

Marilyn Levinson said...

Jacqueline,
I like reading and writing mystery series. I follow two of Anne Perry's series, both of which take place in the Victorian era. Your series sounds appealing. Who doesn't love the university setting?

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Maryann,

I look forward to reading more of your work. Congrats on the excellent reviews OPEN SEASON received.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Marilyn,

I also read Anne Perry's mystery series. She does the Victorian era beautifully. I hope you do get a chance to read my mysteries as well.

Linda Lovely said...

I'm a fan of both series and stand-alones and write and read both. I think series have a definite life cycle. There's no magic number. I've read some, like Kathryn Wall's Bay Tanner series, which is now at (I think) a dozen books, and each new mystery is a fresh treat. However, other series tend to get stale after four or five books and seem to continue for economic reasons only when the author herself has tired of her characters. Stand-alones let readers and authors explore characters and plots that are intriguing to visit once, but would lose their excitment with a repeat.

Cindy Sample said...

Hi Jacqueline. First, I want to compliment you on a very thought provoking post. Second, thanks to you and T. W. for the lovely compliments on my own series. I personally enjoy both stand alone mysteries and series mysteries. I think the biggest issue is that series mysteries become stale after 4 or 5 books. I love the humor in the Stephanie Plum series but sometimes I want to tell her to "Grow up and pick a guy!" I decided the third book in my series, DYING FOR A DAIQUIRI would move the action from the California gold country to Kona, to avoid the "Cabot Cove" syndrome. We'll see how that works.

It's a heck of an excuse to go to Hawaii and sample daiquiris and Mai Tais!

Jan Christensen said...

I love series, Anne Perry's in particular, and Jonathan Kellerman's, Westlake's Dortmunder. And I've written two (yet unpublished) with the same characters, and another two, also unpublished, with some of the same characters, partly in the same setting, but different main characters. And a standalone, published, which several readers have asked me to make into a series. I even have a short story series being published by Untreed Reads--the second story should be out any day now, and two more are scheduled. Bottom line, I like to both read and write just about anything as long as it's in the mystery genre. Great post, Jacquie--made me think, always a good thing. (smile)

Warren Bull said...

Very interesting blog to me since I am contemplating developing a character who could be in a series. You offer helpful advice and I really enjoy the "Monk" series. I have written two novels about Abraham Lincoln but I don't think two is enough to be called a series.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Linda,

I won't mention the writer, but she's well-known. She told me that her publisher, one of the "big" ones, didn't want to publish her literary novels, only her series and she was tired of writing it. So you're right; a lot of them do get stale but monetary considerations force the writer to continue. Somehow, I don't think I'll have that problem!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Cindy,

Thanks for dropping by. I know you're rather busy yourself today. Hawaii sounds awfully good to me too. Beats NJ in the winter!

Mary F. Schoenecker said...

I agree that series do test your skills. I'm content to be wrting a fourth book for the Maine Shore Chronicles series that was supposed to be a trilogy, so you can tell what my preferences are!Thsnks for this post -extra special as usual.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Jan,

You're obviously a very accomplished writer.

I read both of the Kellermans myself. I actually prefer Faye Kellerman to her husband. But both write interesting series mysteries.
My husband and I both like Joseph Wambaugh, Sara Paretsky, J. A. Jance, and John Sanford as well.

Carole Price said...

Jacqueline, your article was timely as I'm about to address the topic of a series to update my website. Twisted Vines, first in my series, comes out in August and takes place in the real town where I live. I assume locals will question my accuracy. I've heard some weird stories. Friends say they want to stay in touch with characters they like.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Warren,

I enjoy the Monk series too. A unique protagonist with an unusual backstory makes for a great series.

Abraham Lincon: Vampire Hunter did awfully well. Maybe he could be a super sleuth.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Mary,

Your series is definitely popular.
Obviously, you're keeping it fresh.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Carole,

Did you use the real name of your town? I didn't. I wasn't certain if there would be a problem. I only use actual city names.

Conda V. Douglas said...

Useful post, Jacqueline, for me as I am working on the second in my mystery series. The first, STARKE NAKED DEAD, comes out from L&L Dreamspell this summer.

Thanks!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Conda,

Glad you found the post useful. Very intriguing title for novel!

Lisbeth said...

Thanks for putting this thought provoking blog up today. It got me taking a more serious look at the differences between stand alone and series - as a writer.

As a reader, I loved Nancy Drew, I was a child. As critical adult I'm searching for a series that doesn't have something off-putting in the writer's style - i.e. predictable humor, or unrealistically humorless, villian without a single good quality - even a rapist might offer a stranger a cigarette who asked, or the writing causes me to suspect the writer is a sicko assualting people through his writing and etc.

I've only started reading mystery seriously in the last few years because as a depressed person I couldn't bear the cruelty of all this murder, murder, murder. I've only found one series thus far that seems hopeful though I'm only on the first book so give me time - but the good news - I've tried reading so few series at this date.

Again, thanks Jacqueline for getting the thought machine turning and for giving us the opportunity to win a free mystery.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Lizbeth,

I'm glad you dropped by. Myself, I dislike grusome serial killer murder mysteries for the most part. I do like some humor and some romance in novels in general and that includes mystery fiction. I hope it doesn't sound shallow to say that one reason I enjoy romantic suspense is because I know there will be a happy ending.

D'Ann said...

I like both stand alone and series books!
Good posst!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, D'Ann,

Glad you enjoyed the post!