Sunday, March 29, 2009
My first mystery, Bleeder, coming this August, features an amateur sleuth: Reed Stubblefield, a rhetoric/classics professor who reluctantly becomes involved in the mysterious death of a Catholic priest reputed to be a stigmatist. I won't go into details here (there's a plot summary at my web site). Instead, I'd like to open a conversation about writing a mystery series. As you might guess, I'm at work on a sequel.
If there are 'rules' for sequels/series, one is that the protagonist be interesting enough to carry on through more than one or two books. The second 'rule' would be that the character should have a believable cause to be involved in a sequence of crimes.
As to the first 'rule,' this is easy enough if the original character is compelling enough to spend a few hours with again and again. And it helps if the character has some personal or familiy problems that carry over naturally to a second and third book and don't get solved quickly. While it really isn't possible to know the plots of forthcoming books, especially if there might be several, there ought to be ways in which the character grows and changes - the character 'arc' we keep hearing about. While there are some series where the main character doesn't change - James Bond, Nero Wolfe, even Sherlock Holmes - most readers today want a character who ages, changes, and matures, like Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone.
As to the second 'rule,' this is easier to do with someone whose profession brings trouble to them regularly, namely law enforcement personnel (cops, FBI agents, DEA etc) and PIs, perhaps lawyers, journalists, and clergy. It is a bit of a stretch to see amateur sleuths always stumbling upon bodies. When Jessica Fletcher comes to town, someone surely will die.
These considerations have led me, in part, to make the protagonist of my second book a minor character from the first book -- Selena De La Cruz, the Latina insurance agent who assists Reed in the first story. When she first showed up, she jumped off the page. She's feisty, smart, and sexy (she digs stylish shoes). She drives (and maintains) a vintage Dodge Charger (it was her brother Antonio's before he died in a car accident while overseas in the army) and she knows how to handle a P226 Sig Sauer handgun - that's because of her former career in the DEA working undercover. With that, and with being raised with three brothers, she's accustomed to negotiating a man's world and asserting herself as a second-generation Mexican-American woman in a subculture that tries to limit her identity. Family is important to her even though her two living brothers are difficult and her mother meddlesome (her father, a PEMEX executive in Chicago, died when she was a teenager). She is rediscovering her faith especially because of a caring aunt and godmother who is her spiritual mentor. I could go on -- she is completely fascinating - much, much more than my quietly dashing professor with the low-key sense of humor, who continues as a love interest complicating her life and the case she's called back to undertake by her former DEA bosses.
I'd like to think that each of these two books could be stand-alones. The second book will look back to the first to provide context and orientation, to continue some plot strands and such. But it would be possible to read the second one first, and go back to #1 later.
Ideally, I suppose, you want readers to start with the first and work their way through in order. Publishers would certainly want this -- after all, the whole point of a series from a marketing viewpoint is to build reader loyalty, build a brand, build a fan following that grows and thereby build sales from one book to the next. If the sales really dip, then the series is done.
But I suspect this sequential reading is rare with readers. I'm guessing the usual thing that happens is someone reads book #3 and thinks, 'That was good; I need to go get #1 and see how it all starts."
Well, that's a start for a thread. Are you writing a series? What are some other 'rules' to keep in mind? What problems have you had to overcome? What cautions do you have for writers thinking about a series? As a mystery reader, what do you look for in a series? What keeps you going back for the second, third, fourth book? What makes you stop reading a series?