There was a time in my mid-twenties when I contemplated creating a t-shirt that read, “If you can’t be a good example, serve as a terrible warning.” On the back it would say, “Terrible Warning.” Things were not good.
My first marriage (so far!) had failed, and I had moved from New York City back to my childhood home, where my parents would worry about me being out “late at night.”* I had to find a new job and a new place to live. Oh, and I was recovering from wrist surgery. Ah, memories! Spoiler alert. Things got better. However, there are times when I find myself wanting to haul out that t-shirt I never made. Because there are times I find myself thinking, “Way to be a warning, Gayle.”** Lately I have found myself thinking this because I am writing a mystery series and I have gone about it all wrong.
In the spirit of helping you, dear readers, to not be me, here’s what I have learned about writing a series.
Know that you’re writing a series before you do it
This will save you from many mistakes. I mean, when a publisher asks, upon wanting to buy your first book, “Is this a series?” you may be strongly inclined to say, “Yes! God, yes. Of course.” But look into your heart and decide whether you want to spend multiple books exploring the world and characters you created. Make sure you want to do this more than you want to write other standalone books before you commit.
Plan how many books you intend to write in the series
You writing a straight up trilogy? Cool. Want to write six books spanning fifteen years? Why not? You can even deviate from your plan, but having some idea of how many books you think you’ll write and what time period those will cover can help you map out what you want/need to happen in each book.
Choose a strong supporting cast
Main characters are important. I write a first-person police procedural, so my Chief of Police is key to the series. But you want to establish several characters that will continue to appear throughout the series. Think of them as witnesses or nosy neighbors, who can offer opinions and attitudes that advance the reader’s understanding of the story and, often, your main character. Readers often love a strong second character as much as or more than the main character.
Some, but not all, series have what we call series titles. Think of “A” is for Alibi by Sue Grafton or John Sanford’s “Prey” series. Be sure that your series title won’t run out on you before you’re done writing the books.
Decide your setting
Maybe your character is a flight attendant who will travel to a new location with each book, or maybe you set your book in a war torn country. Knowing where you plan to put your characters is good because it allows you to start researching those places. Making up your setting. Okay. Just know that you have to make it all up. You can’t Google your fictional town. Believe me, I’ve tried.
You need to convey information from earlier books, without spoiling them
One of the trickier elements to writing a mystery series is catching up readers who start at book #3 to the relevant information from the prior two books without awkwardly inserting exposition or spoiling the solutions to the prior books’ crimes. You want to introduce important information (I said important!) but do it with a light touch. Don’t shove it all into one or two paragraphs in chapter one or rely on flashbacks.
I’ve seen library patrons declare they will never read an author’s book again because said author dared to kill a series character. Don’t get me wrong. When you write a series, you spend a lot of time with the same people. You maybe start to feel about them the way you feel about your in-laws. As in real life, murder isn’t the solution. Unless it’s integral to the story, don’t kill a character.
Many series books contain romantic elements and that is well and good. However, it’s probably best to know if you plan to have a love triangle or some conflict and when and how you plan to resolve said triangle (in a threesome in book four!)
Write each book like it’s your last
Publishing can be fickle and publishing houses can go under or editors can move on. I’ve known writers who had their series cut short. Make sure you write each book as if it could be the last. This isn’t easy, if you have multi-book story arcs, but try to keep each book as complete as you can, so that no book feels cut as though it’s missing its partner.
Dear reader, if you take even two of these suggestions you will be doing better than me. And you will have made my time on this planet as a terrible warning worth it. Thank you.
*Late at night=after 9 p.m.
** Fun fact: When I give myself pep talks or scoldings I refer to myself by last name, like a coach would.