Seven years ago, I sold the first novel in a mystery series to Five Star/Cengage, a book that was supposed to be the first in what I envisioned as a series for 4-5 novels. A Gift for Murder is a mystery with romantic elements. The book is a self-contained story, settled at the end, but it also has some unresolved plot elements in the background that relate to the hero. Due to some family issues, it took a couple of years to get the next book written, edited, and ready to go out. It was accepted by my editor at Five Star and I waited for the contract. And waited. Then waited longer. Finally I got an answer, but it wasn’t what I wanted to hear.
Five Star was ending its mystery line. Rights to any uncontracted books were returned to the authors. After some thought and discussions with others, I’ve decided to self-publish the rest of the series. Book two is done. Book three is in progress. Book four is in the development process.
The second book is currently with an editor and I’m thinking about covers. A Gift for Murder already has three different covers (hardcover, mass market paperback, and ebook) but I think it needs a fourth one, since I want to create a branded look for the series.
I’m also doing a lot of thinking about what makes a series successful. I’ve read plenty of them, in various genres, some traditionally published, some indie-pubbed. I know that I don’t want to do an open-ended series, common in many mystery series, where each story is completely self-contained without any background plot. But it’s a hard trick to pull off having books that are satisfying to readers while leaving enough unresolved to bring people back for the next one.
Having read all those series, though, I’m convinced that while clever, well-executed plots are important for engaging readers, it’s really the characters that keep readers coming back for more. Here’s my analysis of what keeps readers buying the next books in a series and how I’ve tried to pull it off.
· There has to be something unusual about the main character, something that will intrigue readers and bring them back book after book. They may just be particularly smart or gifted in some way, but they may also be limited in some specific way. Think of Nero Wolfe’s size and his refusal to leave the house. In a different way, Jack Reacher’s size and inability to settle. The character doesn’t have to be good or likeable in the standard way, though I think most readers at least want protagonists who at least have some sense of honor they adhere to. There are characters who are irritating or in some cases even unlikeable, but they have to be utterly fascinating. Lizbeth Salander, from Steig Larsen’s novels, comes to my mind. I didn’t like her very much but I was riveted by her anyway.
I’ve tried with my Market Center Mysteries to make my protagonist more likeable but still interesting. She’s young, smart, and personable, with a slightly off-beat sense of humor, a thing for interesting pens and a coffee addiction. She’s also a superb listener, and the kind of person that everyone dumps their problems on. She’s likeable but she’s no fool and she can be snarky at times.
· Many series include a background mystery or question, something intriguing enough to bring readers back again and again because they want to know more about it. This isn’t the same as an open ended story or cliffhanger ending. I HATE those. I want a book with a satisfying ending, so the background question can’t be the main plot. It has to be something else, something possibly just hinted at. A mystery about a character’s background, what they’re doing on the side, their real motives, etc. All those and plenty of other possibilities can provide a continuing thread of plot that simmers in the background of a series until the author is ready to reveal the truth. Sometimes it’s a romantic through-plot: will two protagonists find a way to get together? Janet Evanovich uses a more complicated romantic tangle in her Stephanie Plum series where there are two romantic interests. It helps if the author drops a few clues or reveals bits of information through each book, just enough to whet the readers’ appetite for more.
With my Market Center Mysteries I’ve set up my heroine’s love interest as an ex-cop with a mysterious past that he doesn’t discuss. Through the next few books I plan to reveal what happened to make him so reticent and I have a way to resolve the heroine’s doubts about him and his motives.
· Plot is still absolutely essential. No matter how fascinating the characters, they won’t draw the reader through a plot that’s too thin, boring, obvious, incoherent, or incomprehensible. The author has to provide an enjoyable reading experience or there will be no interest in another book.
Hard to talk about this with my own stories. Of course I try to create an interesting, exciting experience for my readers.
· If there’s no background question to be resolved, an unusual setting or milieu that gives readers a peek into a world that is normally unseen. Historical settings rich in period detail work admirably for this purpose. Series where the characters have unusual jobs or inhabit a world not open to public view also work, which explains the enduring popularity of police procedurals and medical thrillers.
I feel this is one of the strong points of my series. The setting at a market/convention center provides a chance for a behind-the-scenes peek into events that a lot of people attend in one way or another, but rarely glimpse all the under-currents and human drama that goes on without the public’s knowledge.
· This one’s going to be controversial, but I believe the author has to promise that the background questions will be resolved and in a way that will satisfy the readers. I’ve dropped more than one series I was enjoying when I lost confidence that the author actually knew where the story was going or that the background plot would ever be resolved.
I want it to be clear that readers of my Market Center Mystery novels will eventually learn the truth about Scott Brandon’s background and his falling-out with the D.C. Metro Police Department.
I’m sure I’m missing a few things and I’d love to hear from authors and readers. Please tell me what things pull you onto a series and induce you to buy additional books.
Karen McCullough is the author of a dozen published novels and novellas in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres as well. She has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy, and has also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Daphne, Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the mystery, fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She has three children, four grandchildren and lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.
A Gift for Murder (Note: the cover here will soon be changed since I’m want to give the series a unified look. The price is likely to change as well so you might want to grab a copy right now if you’re interested.)
The Gifts and Home Decoration trade show provides Heather McNeill with the longest week of her hectic life. As assistant to the director of Washington, D.C.'s, Market and Commerce center, she's point person for complaining exhibitors, missing shipments and miscellaneous disasters. It's a job she takes in stride—until murder crashes the event.
Read an excerpt and get order links here: http://www.kmccullough.com/Murder.php