Writing a mystery series: tips and timing

Hey, kids–

Hope this weekend treats you well. I’ve been thinking about series. That is, the series of books that authors write — usually in genre fiction like mystery or speculative fiction. In addition to my standalone short stories and novella-length stories, I write two series. One mystery, one sci fi.

Like many writers (most, probably), I have a day job, which means I have to really budget my time and make schedules so that I get writing time in as often as I can. I generally try to write every day, but some days, I’m really tired so I don’t. I don’t beat myself up about that, because trying to write when I’m tired means I’ll be doing lots of re-writing later, and if I’m just too tired, I can’t be present for the writing session.

Point being, because I have a day job and can’t devote 8 hours a day to writing, that means it’s hard to do that book-a-year thing that many series authors do. I also had a bunch of other issues crop up over the past year that required my full attention, so I had to back-burner (for a bit) both my series. I’m finishing up the third in the sci fi, and I’m over halfway through the fourth in my mystery series. So I’m playing catch-up. But that’s not really what was on my mind.

I recently saw the movie Looper (which is completely awesome though if you’re fragile in certain ways, it is very violent and there’s lots of cursing), and because there’s time travel involved, it got me thinking about that and other time conundrums. And that, in turn, got me thinking about series.

Source: Nova (re-sized here)

WTF, you say? Read on!

Here’s what’s weird about book series. For the characters in your books, time is a whole different construct than it is for you personally. That is, for them, a month has passed. For you, a year or two. And then there’s a lag between finishing the book and actually publishing it. So what’s been a month or two for your characters is a year or two for you. Which raises the issue: how do you keep your series chronologically accurate without having to write historical fiction every time you sit down to do another installment in your work?

This issue, I don’t think, affects sci fi series the same way it does a mystery or perhaps thriller series, which for many authors is set in “contemporary times.” After all, for spec fic, you’ve made everything up, right down to the worlds your made-up cultures and characters populate. So whether you write a book a year or a book every ten years, it’s set in a place that doesn’t exist, so the series time conundrum, I don’t think, is an issue like it is for, say, writing mysteries or thrillers.

Now, if you’re the kind of writer who gets 8-10 hours a day all day every day for writing time, bully for you. You can actually churn out a book every 3-4 months. But for me, at least, I’m dealing with a lag time of about 12-18 months (occasionally more). So my job is to keep characters consistent within the context of their own chronology but to balance that with MY chronology, which includes updated technology, pop culture references, and material surroundings. And I have to do that in such a way that it’s not completely jarring to the reader and works with the characters and their context.

Authors do it all the time. Think about all the mystery series you’ve read over the years. How about Sue Grafton‘s Kinsey Millhone series? The first was released in 1982. The most recent is coming out this month (October 2012). That’s THIRTY YEARS. And think about Patricia Cornwell‘s Kay Scarpetta mysteries. The first was released in 1990. The most recent came out last year. Oh, and here’s another example (apropos since it’s the 50th anniversary of the release of the first Bond film, Dr. No): Ian Fleming‘s James Bond series. Think about the movies that have been adapted. The first were released in the 1960s. And the latest is due out next month (November 2012). Same character. But he’s been updated, along with the plotlines, technology, and the narratives to appeal to entirely different demographics as time passes (and in a visual medium — cinema).

So when I’m writing a series, I’m living in two separate contexts, two separate time lines. Mine, and my characters’. And I don’t want to be writing historical fiction by the time I’m on book 10 or something (If I go that long. . .HEH!).

So here are five things I recommend you do (if you’re writing a genre fiction series or even a more literary series):

1) Think about whether or not a series is for you. If you think it is, then develop a character that you can live with for a while. Think about whether you want to write a finite number of books (and plot accordingly) or if you want to leave it open-ended so if you do stop after a while to write other things and recharge, you’ve left yourself an option to write another installment. One of the pitfalls of writing a series is that you might get bored with the character(s). It’s like a relationship. One book, you’re totally in love and the next you’re pulling the “not tonight, I have a headache” routine. I’ve tried to mitigate this in my mystery series — I write two protagonists, and they switch off books. That is, even-numbered books star one, odd-numbered star the other, but they come and go through each other’s stories. But even that doesn’t mean I won’t have some frustration or face some “stale-ness” when I’m writing them.

You’ve decided a series is for you? Okay!

2) Keep files on your characters. What their houses look like, what they might be driving, little quirks they have, family members. Part of your job as an author writing a series is to not only keep your characters consistent, but to show their growth as people in a way that’s realistic to the reader.
NOTE: I’m ol’ skool in some ways. I keep actual paper files, and add to them as I go along. Author Stacy Juba notes that fellow author Leslie Meier, who writes the Lucy Stone mysteries based in fictional Tinker’s Cove, Maine, keeps index card files on each character in the fictional town. (link; it’s a .pdf on Juba’s site)

3) Keep track of the technology that your characters are using. In a mystery series, especially, your characters have to solve crimes with technology that’s available to them. If you’re writing in a way that allows you to adjust your technology with every other book or so, keep track of that, and add it to a “technology file.”

4) Keep track of TIME. How much time is going to pass in your characters’ lives book to book? If Sue Grafton aged Kinsey Millhone each book, she’d be pushing 60 by now. So keep track of your time line from book to book.

5) Update your character files each book. Include some of the issues they’re dealing with, because those comprise subplots in later books. Go through your character files when you start a new work in the series. It’ll help jog your memory (because you will forget some things, just like you forget stuff in real life!).

Here are some other authors on writing a mystery series:
Blaize Clement, blogging at Murder by 4.

Stacy Juba, with tips for writing a mystery series (it’s a .pdf from her site and yes, it’s the same link as above).

Camille Minichino, “10 Tips for Writing Mystery Series”. This one is available on author Eric Maisel’s site. Click HERE and scroll down to “Writing” (it’s Maisel’s “10 Tips” page, with bunches of other groovy stuff for writer- and artist-types).

Meg Mims, blogging at Astraea Press on what it takes to write/develop a mystery series.

There you go. Happy writing, happy reading, happy weekend!

3 thoughts on “Writing a mystery series: tips and timing

  1. Pingback: Writing Prompt # 037 « Writing@lasesana

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