Some Thoughts on the Mystery Series

I’m Lea Wait, and, yes, like all Perseverance Press authors, I write a mystery series.  The sixth in my Shadows Antique Print Mystery Series (Shadows on a Cape Cod Wedding) will be published next spring — you can pre-order it now on-line .  I’m well aware that compared with masters of the series like Sue Grafton, Susan Wittig Albert, Dana Stabenow, Sarah Graves, Anne Perry, and so many more whose lists of series titles number in the high teens or above, my paltry “six” ranks me as a beginner in the field, though, so I’m always interested in learning more about how people see the mystery series and its characters. 

And recently that topic seems to be on other peoples’ minds, too.

Those who write mysteries set in small towns often joke about having to “avoid the dreaded Cabot Cove syndrome.”  Simply put, if your series runs long enough, and you don’t bring in enough strangers, eventually you’ll kill off everyone in town.  This month’s Down East, a Maine magazine edited by Paul Doiron, an acclaimed mystery writer himself, tackled the issue directly. It reported that in Honduras, the country with the highest annual murder rate in the world (who knew?) there are 86 murders for every 100,000 people.  In Cabot Cove, Maine, the setting for Murder, She Wrote, the annual murder rate was 149 per 100,00. (Not counting re-runs.)  (I wonder who on Down East’s staff had the job of counting.) 

After reading that, I spent the past weekend at Crime Bake, a wonderful mystery conference held annually in Massachusetts, hosted by the New England branches of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, and one I definitely recommend to any mystery writers or fans. Discussions about the series came up several times, in panels, and in side conversations among attendees. 

Agents, editors, booksellers and fans all agreed they loved a good series. They sold well and they were predictable: they were the bread and butter of the mystery world. Authors also loved the 3-book contracts most series authors were getting, even if there were some downsides to committing time and money years in advance.  

Most authors talked about the character and plot development needed to keep a series interesting; to keep a “story arc” going throughout a series of books. Others pointed at authors like Lee Child who never changed their protagonist from book to book, ensuring that their readers got the same person every time.  Clearly, that works for him.

Fans recalled authors who “killed off” their favorite characters. Some could forgive; some could not, and refused to go back to the series, or, indeed, to any other book by the same author.  Those readers were a minority of fans, but a vocal one.

Authors whose series were discontinued before their characters’ story arc had been completed talked of ways to finish the story, for themselves and their fans. Some had written short stories or e-book novellas to tie up loose ends. Roberta Isleib had one of the most creative solutions. The protagonist in her first series, a professional  golfer, was left debating whether or not she was going to marry when her series was discontinued. In Roberta’s next series, she had her new protagonist, a professional in a totally different field, turn on the sports news and see the large sparkling engagement ring on the golfer’s finger. Story arc completed. 

Perhaps what was most important, though, was that everyone at the conference was taking the subject so very seriously.  How to keep readers (and the writer) interested throughout a series. Most people agreed that the protagonist was more important than the plot of the individual mystery. That came and went. It was the protagonist, and the characters surrounding the protagonist who re-appeared in each book in the series, who pulled readers in and convinced them to buy another book in the series. The background of their lives, the way they lived those lives, and their relationships with each other, were much more important than the particular mystery that was solved in each book. 

People read for character; not plot. I heard it over and over, throughout the conference. Something to think about as I flesh out my next books. Because … I do have some interesting characters I want to tell you about.

One Response

  1. Interestingly, I wrote and posted my blog on “The Making of a Long Running Series” before I read your blog post. We both embarked on the same subject, though from different angles, and you bring up many of the same aspects that I do, though from a different point of view. One thing I always knew–whether or not I got a contract for future novels, I was going to continue writing my series until I reached my goal of a dozen books. Nowadays, with everyone self-publishing on Kindle, there’s no reason why an author can’t continue a series, even if the publisher drops it.

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