Tune in For the Next Exciting Adventure…
The stories I most loved when I was a child were series. The Oz books, Kipling’s Mowgli stories, and the exploits of Sherlock Holmes were the armature around which my inner life was built. Later, in middle school, I avidly followed the adventures of John Carter on Barsoom (we will NOT discuss the film version!), and in high school, of a Cold War British spy named Tommy Hambledon, hero of a series by Manning Coles. I loved other books intensely, but those with which I felt most comfortable were the equivalent of TV series. I didn’t read them for story, so much as I read them for company.
When I began to write genre fiction – particularly mysteries – I discovered that editors really like series, too. Part of this I assume is because other people also read primarily for company, but mostly, publishers want a guaranteed pre-sell. If A is good, A-mach-1 is a lot safer than B, or, God help you, Ω.
So what advice do I have to those who, like me, write (or would like to write) 10 books about the same bunch of people? (By my definition, a series is different than a trilogy or quadrilogy that has an multi-book arc. There’s a difference between a series that has three books in it – so far – like my Abigail Adams mystery series, and a trilogy that tells one story in three volumes.)
Your mileage may differ – you may prefer to do things another way. This is what works for me.
A memorable main character is even more important in a series than it is in a stand-alone novel. James Bond. Sherlock Holmes. Over the years I’ve run across half a dozen mysteries involving a homicidal woman-hating maniac with a torture-chamber in his basement (What, again???), but only one of them has Lisbeth Salander. In a series, though, he or she should probably be in a position to believably keep fielding awful situations, or you get readers wondering why none of Miss Marple’s friends seem to notice that everybody she knows keep finding corpses in their houses. (Or, in a fantasy, why the world or the universe is threatened so repeatedly by unspeakable forces.)
Series that seek “new angles” and “plot twists” by destroying or damaging the hero’s life or world don’t appeal to me, so I’m not much of a judge of them. All good stories are about redemption, but it doesn’t have to be the hero’s redemption in order to be a good story. If there’s a secondary character (either a “regular” or “the guest star,”) I’ll usually try to find an emotional resonance between his or her situation, and the hero’s, a mirror in which the hero can find peace with some aspect of his or her past or present. In some books I’ve written, the hero’s main conclusion about events is: I did my best in a sucky situation, let’s go home.
This isn’t to say that your characters don’t grow and change. For one thing, if you’re writing about any time before mid-twentieth century and your female hero is heterosexually active, at some point in the series you’re going to have to deal with the baby issue. Either she has one, or you have to explain why she doesn’t.
And of course, having a fascinating background helps any series. A school for wizards. The silent, deadly power-plays of the Cold War. Oz. Barsoom. The Chancery courts of Lincoln’s Inn. And road-trips always make for a nice change. I’ve taken the heroes of the Ben January series to Mexico under the dictator Santa Anna, to the wilderness rendezvous of the Mountain Men, up the Mississippi on a steam-boat and to the most frightening place of all, Washington D.C.
Generally in a series, it helps if the hero has interesting friends: you can always hang a story on one of them. (And I don’t mean by killing them off, either). Or a massively dysfunctional family. Philip Marlowe seemed to get along without either, but after about four books I kept wanting to tell him, “For God’s sake, get some therapy!” Real people have friends and family.
In many ways, it’s easier to write a stand-alone. It’s always fun to get to know a new bunch of characters, to explore a new world. It’s great to write a story that wraps up with a resounding Happily Ever After, without reservations about what’s going to happen in the next book.
Only even when I write stand-alones, and the hero gets the girl (or the heroine gets the guy) and we’re all set to live Happily Ever After, I find myself thinking, “Oh, wait, they could go do this…”
When it comes right down to it, I really like these people – and this place – too much to say good-by.
Because the point of the story has never been whether Colonel Moran murdered his step-daughter. The point is to see Holmes and Watson in action. And to know they’ll be back next time.