by Marty Wingate
A reader settles down with the next book in her favorite mystery series. Whether it’s Book Two or Five or Twelve, the reader is looking forward to not only solving the book’s mystery, but also getting together with the group of old friends—and enemies—that weave their way in and out of this series. Those include not only the protagonist, of course, but also their sidekick, as well as the guy who runs the coffee shop/pub/bakery, the blogger looking for their next big story, and the police detective.
But what of the readers new to the series who by chance or design pick up Book Two or Five or Twelve first?
Will they be confused at the camaraderie or animosity among the characters? Will a new reader wonder what importance a library can play in a murder investigation, how adept a one-armed archer can be, or why the phrase “I’ll put the kettle on” can calm so many nerves?
Authors of series love both veteran readers and those who may dive in sometime after Book One. The tricky part is to avoid boring the former by repeating backstory, but we also must not confuse new readers with incomplete descriptions. We walk a fine line. To keep my own writing balance, I took a look at how I handle this and also checked in with two authors and a champion reader.
In The Bodies in the Library, Book One in my First Edition Library mysteries, my protagonist, Hayley Burke, has taken on the post of curator for a vast collection of books from the Golden Age of Mystery without ever having read a mystery. In Book Two, Murder Is a Must (to be released December 1), I allow Hayley to inch along in her knowledge, and highlight her lack of knowledge through her encounter with other characters.
Time can be on your side.
“A year passes between book releases,” says New York Times bestselling author Jenn McKinlay, “so even readers who’ve stayed with the series need a refresher on who is who.”
There are qualities that do need restating in every book. In my Potting Shed series, set in Britain, I need to remind myself as well as the reader that the protagonist, Pru Parke, is from Texas. Bumping up against differences in language—Pru “fixes” biscuits and her British friends always want to know if the biscuits are broken—is an easy way to show readers.
Weaving the past into a new story can be a way of connecting with regular readers as they think to themselves, “That’s right, I remember when she …” Just as long as we, the authors, don’t get carried away. It’s when backstory takes up a chapter or two “that it gets ridiculous,” veteran reader, reviewer, and blogger Dru Ann Love says. “It’s about the balance of teasing the new reader and giving a brief snippet to satisfy the long term reader.”
In Jenn’s cupcake bakery mysteries—now at Book Twelve with Pumpkin Spice Peril—she has meted out the interesting bits about Angie, sidekick to protagonist Melanie. That allows the readers to learn a little more about her each time: from feisty little sister of seven brothers to victim of poisoning.
Series often have character arcs in addition to the book-by-book story arc.
Mrs. Woolgar in my First Edition Library series is not exactly a sidekick, but an important recurring character. She is secretary in perpetuum to the society that runs the library and not the most forthcoming of people. That gives Hayley the ongoing opportunity to winkle out of the secretary something—anything—about her past. Her age? Vague. Was there ever a Mr. Woolgar, and if so, what happened to him? These overarching unknowns become a fun way to reveal more and more about the characters in subsequent books, satisfying readers old and new.
A time lag—in publication, not our character’s world—can lead to the need for gentle reminders. Candace Robb’s popular medieval York mysteries featuring Owen Archer paused between 2008, after the publication of A Vigil of Spies, and, at least in the US, didn’t restart until A Conspiracy of Wolves in 2019. (Between those books, Candace wrote a string of other books, including the Kate Clifford series, because there are always stories to tell.) After Owen’s hiatus, Candace found that she wanted to tell his story from the beginning, but said, “A crime novel filled with early scenes that don’t move the story forward is doomed.”
Instead, Candace “sketches backgrounds and connections when characters are first mentioned,” and hopes that readers new to the series will go back and start with Book One, The Apothecary Rose.
What have we learned—as authors and readers?
- We love our characters and even if they aren’t in the thick of every plot, we’d like to know what they’re up to.
- Don’t go overboard with backstory.
- Weave into dialogue and action those most important aspects of characters and their lives.
The goal is to make it all look easy.
What special challenges do writers of series face? Share your thoughts with us on Facebook.
USA Today best-selling author Marty Wingate shares her love of Britain in three mystery series. The First Edition Library mysteries (Berkley) are set in the lovely Georgian spa town of Bath. Marty’s first historical fiction book, Glamour Girls (Alcove Press, January 2021) is set against the backdrop of the Second World War in England and follows the story of Rosalie Wright as she goes from farm girl to Spitfire pilot. Marty also writes two other mystery series. The Potting Shed books feature Pru Parke, a middle-aged American gardener transplanted from Texas to England. The Birds of a Feather mysteries follow Julia Lanchester, bird lover, who runs a tourist office in a Suffolk village.
Marty lives with her husband and two cats near Seattle. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and the Crime Writers Association (Britain) as well as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Royal Horticultural Society.
Connect with Marty on Facebook (Marty Wingate Author) or on her website: martywingate.com. Also, visit www.jennmckinlay.com/index.htm and www.candacerobbbooks.com