What Makes a Good Mystery Series for the Author and the Reader?

While Jackie Houchin is on vacation (in Spain or France now) we have another Guest Author. (Thank-you, Elaine!)  Jackie hopes to return with her next scheduled post of June 8, 2022. 

by Elaine L.  Orr

Like most writers, I put words on paper because if they don’t get out that way I risk screaming on a street corner. I get those words into print because I think others would enjoy them.

When readers like the characters, they may clamor for more. Even if they don’t initially, we think they will. I consider several things when I start a new mystery series.

  • Is the setting or main topic interesting enough to keep exploring? My first series (the now twelve-book Jolie Gentil series) is set at the Jersey shore because I love small, east coast beach towns.
  • Can I connect to the characters enough that readers can too? This doesn’t mean does an author like the characters. Some of the most relatable ones are the evil ones.
  • Is the life of the main character part of a profession or hobby that makes discovering a lot of big problems (or bodies) realistic? Jolie is a real estate appraiser and runs a food pantry, both things that bring her into contact with many people in varied settings.
  • Is there a plan to have the characters evolve over time? If lead characters have the same strength and foibles in every book, they become predictable. That sameness can lead to reader (and writer) boredom.
  • Is the plan to write a certain number of books, culminating in a big event or life transition? Or can stories continue as long as the author has ideas?

I’ve used the Jolie Gentil Series as the example, so I’ll do it one more time. I envisioned three books, with the third being called Justice for Scoobie, a childhood friend she reconnects with as an adult. Wrong. He’s the favorite character. Couldn’t bump him off and have Jolie solve that crime!

 

My primary hobby is researching family history, a natural one seeing that I like U.S. history and finding my families’ links to it. Why did I never make that an important focus of a series? Beats me. It is now.

The Family History Mystery Series has the fourth book underway. And that tells me something. My other two series (River’s Edge and Logland) have three books each. I may start fourth books, but why not jump into them immediately after the third?

Did I not think through the first four questions above? I did, and I have more ideas. What was missing? Passion. Hard to define, but it’s another key component of writing. You have to REALLY want those characters’ lives to continue if they appear in a series.

Have you noticed I didn’t use the word plot once in this piece? All good stories need more than a beginning, middle and end. They need a compelling story and conflict, which doesn’t necessarily mean action. In mysteries, there are a myriad of criteria. For example, if the villain pops up at the end with very little role or foreshadowing, reviews may not be kind.

As in all books, plot matters in a series. But the characters (and their evolution) matter most. Main and even ancillary characters need to contribute to the story and have a clear purpose.

Reader reactions matter, but they can’t determine how your characters develop. They can, however, inform what you do after book one. Take them seriously, but don’t make them your guide.

Finally, enjoy writing the series. If you don’t, the series could meet an untimely demise.

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Elaine L. Orr writes four mystery series, blogs, keeps in touch with lots of family and friends, and tromps cemeteries looking for long-dead ancestors.

To learn more, visit https://www.elaineorr.com.

 

 

Author: photojaq

First, I am a believer in Jesus Christ, so my views and opinions are filtered through what God's Word says and I believe. I'm a wife, a mom, a grandma and now a great grandma. I write articles and reviews, and I dabble in short fiction. I enjoy living near the ocean, doing gardening (for beauty and food) and traveling - in other countries, if possible. My heart is for Christian missions, and I'm compiling a collections of Missionary Kids' stories to publish. (I also like kittens and cats and reading mysteries.)

12 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Mystery Series for the Author and the Reader?”

  1. Elaine, welcome and thank you for a succinct post that sets out so clearly a few rules for series authors to live by. Certainly, loving your main character is a prerequisite as is enjoying writing him/her so much you can’t resist sharing that person with readers but, as you point out, the story is quintessential. How you manage to write so many different series is beyond me, and right now, at 7.03 a.m. Eastern time, the very thought threatens to send me back to bed. Again, thank you, and congrats on all those millions of words

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  2. Thanks for joining us today, Elaine. You are so right about the author’s motivation. If there is no passion for the plot and the characters, there is no future for the book. And when a writer knows the characters, whatever plot confronts them will find an ending worth reading.

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    1. That’s a great way of putting it. I find I like to have at least one character with a dry sense of humor. It keeps me going. I’ve also had another character (besides the one I mentioned, Scoobie) whom I planned to kill but just couldn’t bear to be without them.
      Elaine

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  3. Elaine, thanks for your post which already has me thinking! If I’m interpreting correctly, the characters drive the plot, not the other way.

    I remember meeting you at Malice one year. Best wishes to you.

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    1. I think in series they do drive the story. They can go into “overdrive” if the mystery becomes secondary. I think you see that more often on TV series. I have to love my characters or I can’t keep writing. I remember meeting you. I enjoyed that conference and may go again some year.

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  4. Elaine, as a fellow mystery writer I really enjoyed reading your post! Thanks for being our guest today and for letting us know your thoughts on mystery writing.

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  5. Great meeting you, Elaine! All key and great points on writing…but the one that was new to me was “Passion.” Definitely worth thinking more about! Thanks so much for stopping by.

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    1. I’ve been more focused on the passion point lately. I seem to have even more of it for the family history series, so I’m trying to go with that flow. Happy writing.
      Elaine

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