I’m honoured and excited today to have as my very special guest Elizabeth Spann Craig, best-selling author of not one, not two, but three terrific cosy series. As if being a highly talented writer weren’t enough, she writes an award-winning blog, Mystery Writing is Murder. I learn from Elizabeth every time I visit her blog, which is, erm, every day. Elizabeth is a model for us other writers out there, and I’m so grateful she was willing to stop by today on her blog tour to celebrate the release of her second Memphis Barbecue novel, Finger Lickin’ Dead. So please help me offer some Confessions of a Mystery Novelist hospitality to……Elizabeth Spann Craig!
8 things to consider when designing a series that sticks:
I’m a huge fan of reading series.
In fact, if I know a book is part of a series, I’m even more likely to read it. That’s because, if I like the writer’s style and his or her characters, I want to read more. Starting out with a new book is a big investment of time—it’s nice to know that, if I really like a book, there are more that are similar to it that I can enjoy without searching for a new author or novel.
But I’m sure we’ve all been disappointed by series that get stale. In fact, this is one of my biggest disappointments as a reader…I want to keep reading the series: I’ll love the characters, adore the setting, know all the inside jokes—but then something just doesn’t click anymore. The plots are recycled, the characters trite. The author seems stuck in a rut—and I sure don’t want to be stuck in it with him.
Since I’m currently writing two series, I’ve come up with some tips that I think ensures a series’ success:
Write a character that can grow in a realistic way over time. This growth could be professional or personal. When your character grows instead of being static, you end up with a more complex character—one that a reader will be happy to explore through a series.
Use subplots that continue from one book to the next. Although the focus of the main plot will be the protagonist resolving the book’s conflict, a subplot (like a slow-developing romantic interest, etc.) carried over the course of several books can keep a series reader reading.
Don’t bore with backstory. Weave backstory into the plot (don’t dump it at the beginning of the book) with dialogue, quick identifying tags for characters, etc. As long as the reader won’t be confused , then we should be on the right track.
Experiment with supporting or secondary characters. Sometimes the protagonist’s friend or co-worker (someone the reader is familiar with from previous novels) can become a central figure in a book or create conflict for the main character to resolve.
Write characters who are consistent, even while they show growth. Characters shouldn’t continue to make the same mistakes over the course of a series. And if your character has been written as a lighthearted, happy person, suddenly portraying him or her as grim or solemn without explanation will come as a shock.
Pull in readers by making them feel they know these characters. Would your reader recognize them if they saw them on the street? Do they know what they do in their spare time, how they approach problems, what their interests and passions are?
Have something fresh in each book. To keep your series from seeming stale, have some new element in each book—a new setting, relationship, new problems facing the character, etc.
Keep some consistency in your writing style. Risks are important, but there’s also a need for some familiarity. Do all your other books in the series employ some humor? If the next book in your series is a humorless tragedy, your readers may go along for the ride…they may not. It wasn’t, after all, what they were expecting when they bought your book.
Some authors can successfully write a long running series without sacrificing quality. Series like the Cat Who… series by Lilian Jackson Braun, and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone mysteries come to mind.
For most of us, though, there comes a point when it’s time for us to bring a series to an end—while it’s still satisfying for readers.
Are you a series writer or reader? Do you have any additional thoughts on important elements for strong series?
Thanks, Elizabeth, for your ideas about keeping the magic alive in series. It’s not easy to do, and you’ve got some terrific tips. Folks, Elizabeth’s newest release, Finger Lickin’ Dead, is now available!!!! It’s the second in her Memphis Barbecue series which she writes for Penguin/Berkley as Riley Adams. Elizabeth also writes the Southern Quilting mysteries (coming your way in 2012) for Penguin/NAL and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink. And don’t forget to visit her amazing blog, the award-winning Mystery Writing is Murder (named in 2010 and 2011 by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers). Elizabeth can be contacted at her blog or on Twitter: @elizabethscraig
Also, check out The Writer’s Knowledge Base – a real treasure trove for writers!