Thinking of Writing A Mystery Series?

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.


Dressing for my mother

This morning as I reached for a faded T-shirt to go with my frayed jeans, I had one of those mother images that chill the bone. She was looking at me sadly and shaking her head, and you know what that means.

My mother was a true southern lady. She didn’t perspire, she didn’t wrinkle, she didn’t swear, and she never, ever dressed in anything sloppy. Clothes were important to her, not to impress other people but to uphold a standard of respectability. When she died, her sisters and I — all of us expert seamstresses like my mother —had already made smart black silk suits for her funeral. Turned out like fashion plates with shiny black straw hats to go with our suits, we eyed one another and nodded approval. We didn’t give a damn what other people thought of what we wore, we did it so my mother would approve.

For a long time, the fashion gene I inherited from my mother was dominant. I could get orgasmic over the feel of silk crepe or crisp linen, and things like cut and drape and line were extremely important to me. I don’t know if it was age or a change of profession that changed all that, but now that I’m a writer my only requirement of clothing is that it be comfortable, clean, and washable.

This morning’s mother-memory didn’t change what I put on, but it did make me wonder if I’m on a downhill slope. Will there come a moment when I have regressed into utter, irremedial slobbery? Will I show up at the supermarket wearing bunny slippers? I doubt that I’d be a better writer just because my jeans didn’t have shaggy edges, but I think I’ll toss some of the worst-looking T-shirts. I may even do a major closet overhaul and replace half the crap in there. Just in case Oprah wants me on her show and I only have 24 hours to get ready. Or so, if my mother comes back and looks at my wardrobe, she won’t be disappointed in me.

This Is Your Brain On Music

You know those pesky little commercial jingles that get stuck in your head and play over and over? Or the line from some old song that you didn’t even particularly like that keeps playing in the back of your head? I just found out those things have a name. They’re called “ear worms.” I learned that from reading This is Your Brain On Music by by Daniel J. Levitin. Dr. Levitin is probably the world’s only neuroscientist with a solid professional background as both musician and producer of musical records. He’s also funny and brilliant and offers up some fascinating information about the relationship between neural structures and music. Since I don’t have an iota of musical talent or musical knowledge, I understand about three words in every sentence, but even so I find the book intriguing.

One of the little gems of information has to do with what it takes to become a world class anything — musician, fiction writer, basketball player, plumber, poet, watchmaker, water skier, whatever. It isn’t innate talent or having a first-class teacher or mentor. It’s practice. Specifically, 10,000 hours of practice. Researchers have consistently found that 10,000 hours is almost a magic number in arriving at true mastery of a skill. Do something for 10,000 hours, and you’ll be one of the world’s best at it. Caring about it what you’re doing makes the time spent practicing it even more productive.

For beginning writers, that means writing three hours a day for ten years. Or six hours a day for five years. Or twelve hours a day for two and a half years. Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? But years are going to pass whether or not you’re on your way to becoming a world-class writer, so if writing is something you really love, why not set out to become a world-class master at it?