By Alex Segura
Writing a series is challenging. You have to keep momentum and reintroduce your character, setting, core cast and “world” each time for potential new readers while trying to not alienate older readers who just want to get to the meat of the next adventure. It’s a balancing act that, added to the already tough task of writing a novel, can be very daunting.
I’m not saying this because I write one - though, that helps. But because I’ve read a lot of them, and I feel like the good ones do certain things very well, while the ones that...aren’t as good, maybe forget to do.
I’ve got two Pete Fernandez Miami mysteries in the can - Silent City and Down the Darkest Street, hitting in March and April via Polis Books, respectively. I’ve got a second draft of the third novel and I’m chugging along on a fourth. Each book poses unique obstacles and surprises, some of which I expected because I’ve read many a series, some that came out of nowhere because I hadn’t even considered it possible.
I’ve cobbled together some topics that bounce around in my head when thinking about series writing - not saying what people should do, but bringing up a few things that I’m curious to hear other writers talk about.
Actual Change vs. Perception of Change. The term “perception of change” is thrown around a lot in comics. Robin never (well, rarely) gets old, Spider-Man never dies or ages beyond 30, Batman doesn’t get married, etc. At least not permanently. These concepts are stuck in a weird limbo, and “changes” happen - but are soon undone to revert to the perceived (and preferred) status quo. Some detective series are like that, too. Some, like the Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer books, are less about overt change and more about tone and style. Other, more recent series, like Reed Farrel Coleman’s Moe Prager books, take actual leaps of time between books and have drastic things happen to their protagonists. Dave White’s Jackson Donne books are also a good example of a series that features a protagonist that changes in a big way from book to book. George Pelecanos’s Strange and Quinn books move along the same lines, but for fewer books. On the other end of the spectrum is Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly’s excellent series character. Like classic comic heroes, you have the perception of change - Bosch getting kicked off the force, retired, quits, etc. - these things happen from time to time, but we usually see him returning to the LAPD in some way, reestablishing a similar, if not identical status quo.
I can’t say I have a preference as a reader. It depends on my mood. I enjoy a good, timeless book that doesn’t require me to know anything going in as much as the seventh book in an excellent series. As a writer, I knew I wanted Pete to evolve. I figured the series would be finite, so I wanted each book to feel like a season of a great show, with major beats happening to create the sense that a corner had been turned. The challenge with that is there are only so many things you can change so many times - you can’t kill a friend each book, you can’t move your hero each book and you can’t have each book be the same level of “unstoppable” threat. So you have to spread out the “major” changes and try your best to make the surrounding elements of the story - supporting cast, villains, setting, conflict - as interesting as possible.
Open-ended vs. Finite. Going back to Pelecanos for a second - I loved and hated that the Nick Stefanos books (3) and Quinn/Strange books (4) ended. Loved and admired the author for being brave enough to put a successful character on the shelf to go try something else and hated the idea that there might not be another Stefanos or Strange/Quinn book in the offing. Some authors aren’t as definitive - Laura Lippman, for example, has a solid number of bestselling, engaging standalones. These wouldn’t have been possible without the Tess Monaghan series she launched her career with. She’s gotten to a great spot where she can do a standalone or two and come back to Tess when the mood strikes. That seems to be the ideal, if you don’t have a set number of books locked in for your series. It gives you the option to go outside the confines of your series while being able to return whenever you like. When I first set out to write my books, I figured it’d be a trilogy and then I’d move on to other things. But by the time I put a draft of the third book, Dangerous Ends, to bed, I had ideas for the fourth. So, keep your options open, I say.
The only limits are the ones you set for yourself. Sometimes you get a sense that maybe authors do standalones because they feel constrained by their series work - and that’s fair. As writers, it’s normal to want to write about a different kind of protagonist, place, era or what have you. But series themselves are only as limiting as you let them be, I think. This great New Yorker profile of novelist Michael Nava’s Henry Rios PI series got me thinking about how wonderful it is when a series character, and a series in general, becomes more than what you thought it’d be when you read the first book. It was also something I thought about while re-reading Ian Rankin’s first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses and Ross Macdonald’s first Lew Archer, The Moving Target: these series both started off so strongly, and it’s so interesting to read them knowing where not only Rebus and Archer are headed, respectively, as characters, but where the books are heading in terms of the entire series. Macdonald’s books, while still PI fiction, become much more layered and complex - touching on familial secrets, delving deeper into the minds and desires of Archer’s villains and giving complicated motivations to the foes Archer faces - while still managing to be what it set out to be.
My point is - I like series that don’t feel limited, and push the edges of their own creation to keep things fresh and unexpected. Not necessarily from a plot perspective, but tonally. The best modern examples (aside from Nava) I can think of on little sleep are Sara Gran’s amazing, underrated Claire DeWitt novels. Both books are bursting with personality, mood, tone and a rhythm all their own. It’s Twin Peaks instead of Law & Order. It’s something that strikes me as rare, but is also something I try to accomplish in my own way. You can be the judge of success there.
What do I know? Do what works for you. Write the book(s) you want to read or the stuff that gets you jazzed. That’s the best bit of advice I ever got - from a handful of people I trust and admire. The rest is going to be a byproduct of hard work, talent and a little luck.
What are your favorite mystery series? What do you like/dislike in series books? Share your thoughts below...if you dare!