The Making of a Long Running Series

by Laura Crum

I think I’m entitled to say my mystery series is “long-running” at twelve books, yes? In any case, I had some thoughts about what I consciously did to get through twelve books featuring one protagonist and her cast of friends and critters…without getting bored with her. And even more importantly, without (hopefully) causing my readers to get bored with her.
I have to admit that a lot of my thoughts are concerned with what I DIDN’T want to do, based, sadly, on things I had observed in other series. And the first thing I determined was that I would not keep writing the series into infinity, even if I was highly successful with it (fortunately this was never a problem). Too many series trickle to a sad end after their former glory, and it is quite clear that no one, including the author, had much interest in the last three or four books. This was a fate I decided to avoid. From the very beginning, I set a goal of writing a dozen books, which seemed to me to be a goodly amount, and planned to quit when they were accomplished.
I did not know, to begin with, exactly what would happen in each of those dozen books, but I did sketch them out many books in advance. I had the titles neatly listed out. And before I got around to the last three or four books, I knew what they would be about and how they would round out and complete my series.
Because I wanted my twelve book series to have a “form” as a whole, as one super-long story about a particular woman and her life. And for this to happen, I needed to be clear how the series would end, and lead up to that ending appropriately.
Another thing I was clear about is that my protagonist would change and grow throughout the series. If there is one thing I don’t care for in a series, it is the device of keeping the protagonist in the same “place” for book after book. You know, that place where she has a romantic interest that hasn’t quite come to fruition. Because, of course, that is the easiest phase of life to write about. All that glorious sexual tension, but you don’t have to deal with the actual bedroom. No messy details to work out concerning how your heroine can remain independently solving mysteries and still be a good partner. Yep, it is SO tempting to just stall your protagonist out in that one handy romantic space and leave her there for book after book. And a great many authors do exactly this.
I’m sorry, but that seriously doesn’t work for me, no matter how talented the author and engaging the books. If I am reading a series, I want the thing as a whole to be going somewhere. To that end I was clear that my protagonist would change and grow. Grow older for one thing. Go through some major life changes, for another.
In order to make this work I kept careful track of the chronology of the stories. My horse vet is thirty-one in the first book, Cutter, and just beginning her career. She ages one year per book for the first ten books, which gets her to forty. At this fine age I presented her with a baby. (And yep, it was seriously challenging to create exciting mystery plots wrapped up with first pregnancy and then a nursing baby, and yep, some former fans did not care for my turning my vet into a mom. The battle lines seemed clearly drawn between those who were parents themselves and liked this development, and those who weren’t parents and didn’t. But if there’s one thing I know about writing, it’s that you can’t please everybody and its best to please yourself. However, I digress.) In the last two books, Going, Gone and Barnstorming, I allowed five years to pass between stories, thus effectively getting my gal to fifty, which was more or less my age when I wrote the last book.
The whole thing fit together nicely. The series covers twenty years in the life of one woman, and I spent twenty years of my life writing it. The series begins with a thirtyish protagonist, and I was thirty when I started the first book. It ends with us both being fifty. Throughout the books I gave “Gail” many of the life changes that I went through myself, which kept the books interesting to me, and (I think) gave the ring of truth to her various adventures.
Another thing I did to keep the series interesting was to take on a different aspect of the horse world in each book. Horses were the main theme of the books, and, since horses are a main theme in my life, I wanted to stick to that. But I did not want to write about the same things over and over. Fortunately I have done a lot of different things with horses in my life, so the books ranged through cutting horses and western show horses to ranching and roping and horse packing and breaking a colt…etc. I tried not to repeat myself in either the horse aspect or the plot.
I characterized each plot with a theme. There is the “noble villain” and the “murder for greed,” the “murder for jealousy” and the “crazy serial killer.” You get the idea. Once again, I tried not to repeat myself.
I also tried to show Gail aging. She is described differently as the books go along, and her way of thinking changes. In this I was aided by the fact that I was aging right along with her. So in the earlier books she is much more interested in clothes and what people look like physically than she is in the later books. In the course of the series she goes through a breakup and a depression as well as finding a life partner and having a child and raising him. At the end of the series, she contemplates retirement. I’d say I put her through quite the gamut of life changes. And that’s exactly what I set out to do from the beginning.
So there are a few ideas I used to create my (reasonably) long running series. I’d be interested to hear what devices others use, or what you like and don’t like to see in a series character.

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2 Responses

  1. Laura, this is an excellent piece. I’ve three series, but none as long-running as yours. 12 books–congratulations! In my six-book Vermont dairy farmer series, I, too, let my protagonist and her kids age, grow, and change, It seems to me the best way, as you suggest. I used a theme as well,for each book, or I should call it a social issue.

  2. Thanks, Nancy, glad you enjoyed it. And I think having three series would be MUCH more challenging than taking one series through twelve books. I’d get mixed up, I think. I found it reasonably challenging to stay accurate with the characters and chronology in one series(!)

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