February 17, 2014

Daring a Mystery Series

By C. Hope Clark

Agents and publishers love series, as do most readers. I’m chomping at the bit for suspense author Lisa Gardner to release another Quincy and Rainie crime story. Gardner’s one of the few mystery/suspense authors I’ll pre-order and not care what her new release costs.

Many readers become comfortable, friendly, even intimate with repeating characters, and remain anxious to see what calamity an author can concoct for them next. That challenge represents both the good and the bad of writing a series.

Initially, a series seems the simplest way to go. You spend the first book introducing and defining the basics of your protagonist: her relationships, upbringing, strengths, and weaknesses. This is ground level construction where you’re laying the foundation, and to your reader, it’s a honeymoon phase. You define her environment, her habits. And with a mystery comes dictating the degree of crime, level of gore, type of law enforcement, and the capabilities of your sleuth to dance in and out of the confines of the law.

Then comes book two. Your protagonist grew in the initial story. She’s different now, changed. You now pen an intriguing plot nothing like the first, but more challenging than the last, because your character has evolved. She’s wiser. Those around her changed as well. Just like in the real world, they applied what they learned to their new conditions. And they grow again.

Book three tests you. Even if you have a bumbling sleuth, she won’t bumble exactly the same. She reacts based on her history, and how it altered her. Here is where many authors fall short. They forget that the reader has grown along with the character. He won’t be deceived quite so easily, and reading inside your protagonist’s head now for the third time, he’ll expect more from her, giving her less benefit of the doubt.  She can’t make the same mistakes. She can’t use the same tactics.

By now you also have a slew of characters to keep up with. If you’ve read a long-lived series comprised of people like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse, or Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, you keep up with a huge host of people who step in and out of the stories. Some appear once in a great while, others in every other scene. People age or die. They change professions or get divorced. They earn accolades and they screw up with long-lasting effects. You must get the facts right, maintain the time line, preserve the history, because your readers keep track.

The reader may know you better that you know yourself now. Remember, mystery is the only genre where the reader is pitted against the author, each trying to outguess the other. Each book makes you up your game, because the reader is buying with an urge to best you before you reach “the end.”

The quirks have to get quirkier.

The needs have to feel keener.

The love has to grow deeper.

The past fears have to scar.

The twists turn more complex.

A series gets harder, not easier, in spite of how well you think you know your players. It’s a difficult balancing act, but in the end not only do you amass a loyal fan base for the effort, but you also achieve a satisfaction in knowing you still have what it takes to keep that reader guessing. And that’s the addiction that keeps an author shrewd, savvy and alive.
C. Hope Clark’s new release is Palmetto Poison, the third in The Carolina Slade Mystery Series, from Bell Bridge Books. First in the series is Lowcountry Bribe followed by Tidewater Murder. Hope is also editor of, voted 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer’s Digest Magazine for the past 13 years.

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