Keeping a series fresh and fun is a challenge—and it does not get any easier. As I sit down to write Book Four in my Mercy Carr series, I find myself rethinking everything I’ve learned about writing a series so far—often the hard way—and reminding myself of key take-aways:
“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.” —Ernest Hemingway
Start with a complex protagonist.
The more complicated your heroine, the more conflicted, the more fabulous and flawed, the more she’ll develop over the course of the series. Seed your early books with intriguing bits of backstory and personality and psychology, providing the plots and sub-plots and arcs and aha! moments that take root and grow from book to book. You yourself may not even know how this person you breathe life into will walk through the world of your stories over time, but that’s okay. Half the fun is finding out. I find things out about my heroine Mercy Carr with every book, thanks to the seeds I’ve sown (however inadvertently). In Book Three, THE HIDING PLACE (coming in March 2021), the story is built around a cold case Mercy’s grandfather never solved—an idea suggested by my editor, because her grandfather is described in the first book, A BORROWING OF BONES, as a sheriff who died in an arrest gone wrong. That’s all I knew—but that was enough.
“Place isn’t just a pretty backdrop to the action.” —Ann Cleeves
Give us a setting worthy of multiple stories.
Ann Cleeves has made a career of writing setting, from Jimmy Perez’s remote Shetland islands to Vera’s wilds of Northumberland to Matthew Venn’s villages of Devon. She understands that landscape shapes the character of the people as well as the place—and inevitably plot as well.
So much so that writers are often advised by their publishers to keep to the same general setting for the first several books in a series. My editor told me, “You’re not leaving Vermont.” So it’s just as well that Vermont is a unique place with a long and intricate, even knotty, history, landscape as beautiful as it is (often) dangerous, and citizens who run the gamut from cheese-making hippies to gun-toting survivalists.
“In Mr. Stout’s The Right to Die, a character makes a return appearance as a college professor thirty years after his first appearance in Too Many Cooks as a college student. Mr. Wolfe and Archie Goodwin (the two detectives in the series) haven’t aged a day.” —Jane K. Cleland
Decide how to handle time.
In some series, the author ignores time. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe doesn’t age at all over the course of the series. (Stout once wrote in a memo that Wolfe was 56, but never said so directly in the work itself.) In Jane K. Cleland’s Josie Prescott Antiques Mysteries, some characters age and others don’t. Josie never ages.
In his bestselling Bosch series, Michael Connelly ages his Vietnam vet turned LAPD homicide detective in real time. After nearly thirty years, Bosch is aging out and Connelly appears to be focusing on other series characters now, namely Renee Ballard and Mickey Haller. (But I wouldn’t count Bosch out.)
In my series, which is set in New England, I decided to set each book in a different season, starting in summer and working my way through the year, book by book. So my heroine Mercy Carr is aging, but more slowly than in real time.
“When you create a series, having a reference file for your characters is extremely helpful.” —NYBookEditors.com
Write a series bible.
When you write a series, you create a whole world—a world whose many facets may be forgotten once the book is out of your hands. That’s why you need a series bible to capture all the information related to your stories so that you can provide continuity from book to book.
I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t do this right away, but the copy editor who worked on A BORROWING OF BONES did, and so I’ve built on that framework. Even so, I still end up rereading the previous books in the series to remind myself of the details about characters, settings, backstories, and the like that have slipped my mind.
“Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare has perhaps 20 players. … I have 10 or so, and that’s a lot. As you get older, you become more skillful at casting them.” —Gore Vidal
Grow your supporting cast.
It takes a village to support a series: parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, colleagues, friends and frenemies, rivals and outright enemies, cops and lawyers and politicians, doctors and priests, restaurateurs and innkeepers and shop owners, billionaires and bookkeepers, coaches and librarians and teachers—all with their own sins and secrets and backstories.
And animals. Readers can rarely resist loyal four-legged companions, be it dogs or direwolves. The smartest thing I ever did was pair Afghanistan war vet Mercy Carr with her late fiance’s bomb-sniffing dog Elvis. Readers love Elvis.
“Writers are always selling somebody out.” —Joan Didion
Throw in a surprise. Or two. Or more.
George R.R. Martin does this every time—often by murdering his darling creations. In his A Song of Ice and Fire series, he kills off characters we as readers think we can’t live without—but we keep on reading. Martin keeps on surprising us—and we keep on coming back for more.
You may not want to kill off your characters, but in lieu of that you might add new characters that upset the status quo and challenge your hero in unprecedented ways. Find a way to shake things up—from natural disasters to flying dragons to serial killers—and see how your protagonist rises to the occasion. I’m still working on the surprise for Book Four. And no, no title yet. Sigh….
“Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.” —Annie Dillard
Go for broke with every book.
This is the Catch-22 of writing a series: You have to knock it out of the park with each story. And then do it all over again. Go for broke—or the book you’re writing will be the last one in the series. I’ll remember this as I write Book Four. Starting with the title.
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