For writers thinking of writing a mystery series, I offer these tips and ideas:
Writing a mystery series is like being a circus juggler on a high wire, except instead of keeping three or four things in motion, you’ve got way more, and some of them keep changing shape. First, there’s the book you’re working on at the moment. Whether it’s the third or seventh or twelfth, the book has to have all the elements any mystery has — a murder or robbery or some other bad thing, an innocent victim that the bad thing shouldn’t have happened to, a determined seeker of justice relentlessly going after the person who did the bad thing, and a lighter side story to relieve the tension or goriness of the main story. The panic that comes from knowing you have to come up with all those things is enough to raise your heart rate, but this is a series, and those mystery basics are just the…well, the basics. A book in a series has to have all the basics plus a bunch of other things.
If a series is built around one person, like my pet sitter, Dixie Hemingway, the character has to grow a little bit in every book. Like real people, fictional characters who never grow are boring. In the same way that real people grow in slow increments, fictional characters have to do that too. If they jump from A to L without going through any of the steps in between, it won’t seem true. If they’ve always hated their next door neighbors and then invite them to Thanksgiving dinner just because they get sentimental over a Butterball turkey commercial, it will fall flat. Big changes have to happen in small steps, and in a series, each book becomes one of the steps. Inside each book, of course, even smaller steps have to happen in order to move the character toward a significant shift. And that doesn’t even involve the mystery plot.
The character’s environment is also crucial. I don’t mean an exotic subtropical place like Dixie Hemingway’s, I mean all the physical details of a character’s life. If you created an apartment for your lead character in your first book, and that apartment has pale blue bedroom walls, you can’t paint them pink in the second book. If the kitchen is to the right of the living room in the first book, you darn well better put it to the right of the living room in the second, third, fourth, and forever books because readers will expect it there and they will let you know in a nanosecond if you move it. Same thing with secondary characters who are in every book. You can’t give a guy blue eyes in one book and hazel eyes in the next one. If a character drives a Jeep in the first book, readers will expect that same Jeep in the next one, so if you put him/her in a different car, you have to provide a reason. Sometimes the reason can become part of your plot and make it more interesting, but you have to justify any change you make.
When you finish the first book in a series, you’ll think you’ll never forget all those details. Trust me, you will. For a series writer, a facts file is indispensable. In my facts file, I have a floor plan of Dixie’s apartment, the color of her living room sofa, the kind of car she drives, all the little details that are easy to forget. I also have nitty-gritty details about other characters, including pets: breed, color, apartment numbers, car makes and colors, which side of the street their business is located on. Since Dixie’s brother loves to cook, food is an element in every book, so I keep a file of meals consumed and which book the meal was in.
With every new manuscript, I go back to the file and refresh my memory. How long is the hunky lawyer’s hair? Are his eyes brown or black? And the homicide detective that makes Dixie’s heart trip, are his eyes gray or blue? And how about Dixie’s apartment? How many windows does she have, how large are they, and where are they located? Is her single bed against the wall by the living room door or on the other side? Even with all the details I’ve included in my facts file, I still sometimes have to go back to a previous manuscript and do a search.
Dixie Hemingway is a fictional character, but she seems real to me — and to my readers — because of the consistency of detail. With each book in the series, I do a high wire act while I juggle a lot of clues and characters. My facts file is the net that allows me to focus on the fun of plotting and pacing. Of all the things I’d recommend for series writers, a facts file heads the list.