Most writers of mystery and detective fiction have at least one series associated with their names. A popular mystery series provides authors with a loyal fan base and a welcome income. But despite the lures of fame and fortune, mystery series writers can find the existence of an established pattern for their future work to be excessively confining.
What do authors of mystery series do when they can’t write one more word about their series protagonists? The degree to which they are willing to accept risk determines their response.
If it’s not broke . . .
The least risky technique used to combat the frustrations inherent in writing series fiction is simply to decide not to change what works. Writers in this category focus all their efforts on continuing the series that has brought them fame. For example, all of the novels by Nancy Atherton, author of Aunt Dimity Down Under (2010) belong within her Aunt Dimity series.
Showcasing series characters
A second low risk technique used by writers to combat series writing tedium is to use particular novels within their series to showcase specific characters. These writers often employ ensemble casts or write spinoff novels. Since both methods allow for broader development of characters already present in an established series, they result in minimal risk for their writers. In fact, these series frequently gain in popularity by satisfying their audiences’ desires to learn more about favorite characters.
The difference between series character development by spinoffs, as opposed to ensemble casts, is a matter of degree. Writers who create series featuring ensemble casts allow all major series characters their time in the spotlight. Lisa Scottoline’s Rosato and Associates series illustrates this form, since each associate in Bennie Rosato’s law firm gets at least one novel to herself. John Lescroart follows a similar technique to highlight the partners in Dismas Hardy’s law firm in his Dismas Hardy/Abe Glitsky series.
In contrast, writers who use spinoff novels develop a more limited group of characters. Jonathan Kellerman, for example, spins off only three characters from his Alex Delaware series – Petra Connor and the two half-brothers featured in True Detectives, Moses Reed and Aaron Fox.
Comfortable with slightly more risk, other mystery series writers continue their established series, but also write standalone novels that have no connection to their series work. Their only hazard is that their readers might consider such works as annoying interruptions to their series output. Laura Lippman, for instance, continues to write her Tess Monaghan series while also writing such well received standalones as Life Sentences (2009). Jan Burke has taken a similar risk with The Messenger (2008), by writing a paranormal romance that breaks away from her Irene Kelly detective series. Most recently, Borderline’s Nevada Barr departed from her successful Anna Pigeon series to write the standalone psychological thriller, 13 1/2 (2009).
Still other writers begin entirely new series while continuing with their established ones. While writing her Kay Scarpetta series, Patricia Cornwell began both her Andy Brazil series and her more recent Winston Garano series. Gillian Roberts, best known for her Amanda Pepper series, has also written the Emma Howe and Billie August series. The prolific Robert B. Parker added to his Jesse Stone and his Sunny Randall series even as he continued the always popular Spenser. Janet Evanovich began a Between-the-Numbers series featuring Stephanie Plum and the supernaturally gifted Diesel that she now intends to develop separately from her Stephanie Plum books.
Gone, series, gone
The most risky approach to dealing with the confines of writing a mystery series is, of course, to end the series. Although writers who make this choice risk alienating their audience, in some cases the outcome is worthwhile. Before embarking on her Judge Deborah Knott series, Margaret Maron wrote an appealing but lesser known series featuring New York police detective Sigrid Harald. Maron’s decision to halt the Sigrid Harald series in order to focus on Deborah Knott has clearly proven to be a profitable choice.
After his 2001 success with Mystic River, Dennis Lehane also chose to end his series featuring private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, which included works like Gone, Baby, Gone (1998). In a USA Today interview, Lehane explained his refusal to continue his series. “They were written from a young man’s perspective. I left Patrick when I was 33 and he was 33. I’ve tried, but his voice won’t come.” Lehane has since reconsidered that decision and will return to the series in 2010 by writing a sequel to Gone, Baby, Gone.
As has been seen, mystery writers generally avoid the extreme approach of deliberately ending a series. Deciding to continue to develop an established series rather than to abandon it is how most writers respond to the risks and rewards of their endeavor.
Carol Thomas originally published this article on Suite101 on April 9, 2009. She has updated it and provided links to her current beepwire.com articles.
For more info:
New series of articles on responding to the rewards and frustrations of series writing begins
John Rebus’s retirement is nearing its end claims author Ian Rankin
Ruth Rendell concludes her Chief Inspector Wexford series with The Monster in the Box
Hercule Poirot steps out from behind the Curtain in new Strand Magazine short story
Thomas Perry returns to Jane Whitefield series in ’Runner,’ CBS series possible