Why I’ll Stop Reading a Long-Running Mystery Series

NEWS flash: Ginny JC is the winner of Wendy Tyson’s audio book. Ginny, please check your email!

by Barb, traveling back to Key West after a lovely wedding in Vermont

As I explained on Maine Crime Writers on Thursday, as soon as I turn in my current book, it will be time to write a new proposal for books seven through nine of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. This got me thinking about the positive reasons why I stay with a long-running mystery series. I wrote my answers here.

In my post today, I’m looking at the opposite side of the question. What causes me to drift away from a series? I don’t mean read one book and decide,”This isn’t for me.” I mean to either consciously or unconsciously stop reading new books in a mystery series I’ve previously been invested in.

Here’s what I came up with.

(1) I don’t care what happens to anyone. There are a lot of discussions, most of them not fruitful in my opinion, about whether main characters have to be “likeable.” For me, the answer is no. I don’t have to like them, but a do have to care what happens to them, because the entire point of reading a book is to find out what happens to them. There may be some standalone thrillers with plots so compelling you’ll read them in spite of the cardboard characters, but that isn’t possible for a series.

While this might seem like a reason not to start reading a series in the first place, I have often started series with interesting characters only to have them turn into people I wouldn’t want to share a cab with, much less get stuck on a desert island with. Patricia Cornwall’s Kay Scarpetta series became this for me. I wasn’t put off by the blood and gore, or the marital infidelity per se, or even the crazy politics. But a main character making terrible life decisions, sitting in judgey-judgment on all the other characters, who are also making terrible life decisions… It was too much. I let it go.

(2) The series story doesn’t move forward. There’s a lot of talk about whether protagonists in crime series need a character arc. Whether they need to somehow be different at the end of a book than they are at the beginning. Whether they need to grow over a series. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher famously doesn’t.

I find I don’t care so much if the character changes, but I need the story to move forward. I need the character to choose the good guy or the bad boy, to make peace with her mother or decide she never will. I need the hints about that thing that happened in the past to be revealed if not resolved. I’m really patient. Milk it for as many books as you think you can, but I need it to happen.

Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series was this for me. I loved the humor and I loved the portrait of life in the Burg. But it all became a little rote–sassy dialog, car crash, fail to make choice between two men, crash funeral with grandma, car cash, car cash. She made a lot of money off of me. I took this series for a long ride, but eventually I gave up.

(3) Every single character from every single book moves forward with the series. I like the introduction of interesting new series characters, especially if they have a personal or professional connection to the main character. But I don’t need every character I’ve ever met, many of whom I can’t remember, to be involved in each new investigation.

I stopped reading Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury series for this reason. When there got to be dozens of characters, all introduced in the first chapter of the next new book, I gave up.

(4) There are too many books, too frequently. Okay, I know this is idiosyncratic to me and that the only viable business model for a lot of self-published series right now involves frequent releases. It may be because I read slowly, or I have reading I have to do for my writing, or I have so many favorite series, but if an author writes so much that I get way far behind, I’ll give up.

Readers, what makes you stop reading new books mystery series?

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Influences

By Sherry Harris

IMG_3578As I was trying to think of a topic to write about my eyes landed on two books in our family room The Riverside Shakespeare and British Literature Volume B — not that I think my writing is anywhere close  or influential as Shakespeare, Keats or Barrett-Browning. Both books are from my college days but I still pull them out to read. It made me reflect on other influences that have shaped my reading and writing life.

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It started with fairy tales and went on through the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew. I devoted a whole blog post to my favorite childhood author, Maud Hart Lovelace. When I was young I wanted to be Pippi Longstockings — strong, brave and adventurous — and maybe a dose of Pippi creeps into my protagonist Sarah Winston.

 

IMG_3585I was lucky to grow up in a houseful of readers and books. Our bookshelves were full of everything from the classics to current literature. Also I had wonderful teachers like my third grade teacher, Mrs. Kibby, who noticed I was falling behind in my reading skills and worked with me and my family. I think she instilled my deep love of reading. My senior year of high school I was editor-in-chief of my high school yearbook and wrote a lot of the copy. Mr. Stedwell, the young journalism teacher, was patient and managed us, but he didn’t micro-manage us. I probably learned more through that experience than almost any other in high school.

IMG_3671In college I took as many lit classes as I could — thirty hours — a lot considering the college I attended didn’t have a literature major. But I loved every minute of them. A whole class on Mark Twain — the first time I read Tom Sawyer was when we were visiting family friends in Hannibal, Missouri. We visited the fence, island, and cave Twain wrote about. I did an independent study on women authors — Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor, Edith Wharton and so many more. And of course my class on Shakespeare — one of my proudest college moments was getting an A on my paper about Queen Gertrude.

My outside reading consisted of Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt, and Mary Stewart among others. Then I discovered Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovich, and Sara Paretsky. I’ve been lucky enough to meet all three of them. I know reading them has influenced my writing and reaffirmed my love for mysteries.

Readers: who are your writing and reading influences?

Wicked Wednesday: The Passage of Time

Hi. Barb here. Wondering about the passage of time.

Four of the Wickeds are writing the third book in their series. And Sherry just handed in her first (Yay!). So I’m wondering how the Wickeds are handling the passage of time in their series. Clammed Up, the first book in my Maine Clambake Mystery series takes place on the first day of Clambake season in the “undefined now.” (Actually, if you checked the moonrise and tides tables they would jibe with 2012 when I wrote it.) Boiled Over, the second book takes place in mid-August of the same year, the height of the season, and Mussled Out, the third, on Columbus Day weekend as the clambake shuts down.

calendar flippingBut what happens if I’m lucky enough to get the series renewed? Do I “gently” move the next set of books forward to 2015 or so? Authors of long-running series (okay, I wish!) handle time differently. Sue Grafton has famously kept Kinsey Milhone in the 80s. Ruth Rendell has slowed down time, so her Inspector Wexford, who was 52 in “From Doon with Death,” in 1964 finally retired from police work in “The Vault” in 2012.

Wickeds, have you thought about how you’ll handle the passage of time in your series? How do you like to see it handled as readers?

Liz: Lots to think about with this question, Barb! In my first book, Kneading to Die, the story opens in present day, summer time. The second book, A Biscuit, A Casket, happens right around Halloween (my favorite time of year!). I struggled a little bit with the setting for the third book. I’m not a huge fan of winter and I thought it might be tough to have things happening on the town green if it was buried in snow. But since it’s a New England setting, I thought it might be odd to have them skip winter altogether. So I compromised and set it in February, hoping we’d hit only the tail end of bad weather.

If, as Barb says, I’m lucky enough to have the series renewed, I think I’ll continue on the path of each season. One of the things readers seem to love about New England is the change of seasons, and with different weather comes different challenges and situations for the characters. Stan is in her mid-thirties, so she’s got plenty of time!

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Farm to Table dinner at Cider Hill Farm (http://www.ciderhill.com/) cooked by Phat Cats Bistro (http://www.phatcatsbistro.com/), both in Amesbury, Mass.

Edith: Great questions, Barb! I’m marching through the seasons in my Local Foods mystery series, too. A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die opened at the start of the farming season in New England, on June 1. ‘Til Dirt Do Us Part starts at a fall farm-to-table dinner. Farmed and Dangerous, which I’m writing now, takes place in snowy January. I love using the feelings of the different seasons. And farmers, of course, are very attuned to the changes in not only temperature but also day length and the slant of the light. I’d love to see my contract renewed, and think a spring book with Cam frantically trying to nurture seedlings and getting the early tilling done would be a natural.

But the other question about the passage of book time versus real time — that’s tricky. Sure, I set Book One in 2012. So in book time, Book Three takes place seven months after Book One, but will release two years later. I suppose we can ignore real time until some major technological or news event changes the way people live their lives. For farmer Cam, maybe genetically modified seeds will be outlawed, or non-organic produce will be made illegal. Okay, don’t all laugh at once. She’s also a former software engineer, though, so there might be a leap in some kind of software that assists growers. In that case, I’d have to catch her up with the present. I am pretty careful not to tie anything very closely to real events, so the time setting is pretty fuzzy, given that there are cell phones, web sites, and texting.

Barb: I have to admit, as a reader, I love it when series “skip” some time and something significant–a death, a retirement, a promotion, a divorce, a birth–happens off stage and the series characters are dealing with it as you start the new book.

Jessie: I’m moving slowly in my Sugar Grove series. Drizzled with Death takes place in late November and Maple Mayhem is set in January. While I realize that adds up to a high body count for a small town I enjoy allowing relationships to unfold slowly. If I jump ahead in time too much that can’t happen. It is funny though that it makes more sense to me for bodies to crop up here, there and everywhere than it does for my characters to form attachments quickly or resolve difficulties in their personal lives at a fast clip.

Julie: This is such a great question. I am not just a cozy writer, I am a cozy reader. I find that I am OK with seasons passing, but I don’t like to get stuck in a year. And with technology you have to be SO careful, because it can/does date you. I have a few manuscripts that live in a drawer. One was dependent on floppy disks and having to buy a program in order to break a code. Hello? Between the internet and flash drives (never mind DropBox), the tension no longer works. It is like cozies work in a magical reality, where everyone stays the same age but keeps going through seasons, but I am OK with that.

Sherry: I just sent in the first of my Sarah Winston Garage Sale Series, Tagged for Death. It is set in April. The third is set in the winter so number two will be set sometime in the mid to late summer. I have to figure out exactly when soon. I mention Facebook in my novel which will date it at some point, however if people are reading it that long after publication I will be very grateful. I like how Janet Evanovich has handled time in her Stephanie Plum series. Stephanie remains about the same age in all the books, but as times and technology changes so does Stephanie. I wish I could remember the name of the author I saw  several years ago at the National Book Festival who said he wished he’d aged as well as his series character.

Readers: How to do you like to see time handled?

The Voice

By Sherry Harris

The Voice is a reality singing competition on NBC. The premise is that judges build teams only through listening to a singer without being able to see them. In writing a reader hears the characters voices and after reading Barb Goffman’s collection of short stories, Don’t Get Mad Get Even, I wanted to talk to her about voice and where her unique voices come from. Thanks so much for joining us today Barb!

BarbgoffmanWhat do you think voice is? What creates it? 

Voice is attitude. I don’t mean that a character has to have an attitude (be rude), but a character with a strong voice has thoughts and feelings that make her jump off the page instead of lying there flat.

Voice is one of the hardest things for a writer to learn. Point-of-view, in contrast, is technical and can easily be taught and learned (easy of course being a relative term). The importance of using strong verbs to convey action is another concept easy to show and understand. But voice—I once had a teacher say that your writing either has a voice or it doesn’t, that there’s no manual on how to create voice. I don’t know about that. I think everyone has a voice, some people just don’t know how to show it. And it’s hard to learn how to give your characters their own voice if it doesn’t come naturally, but all hope isn’t lost. A writer can develop her voice. My best suggestion for doing so is to read writers who do it well, writers whose characters feel as if they are alive in the room talking to you. Read and read and read and maybe your own voice will find its way out, too.

What comes first the voice or the character?

It’s hard for me to separate the two. A character without a voice isn’t developed. But if I had to choose, I’d say voice. I’ll often suddenly hear a voice in my head, a snippet of dialogue or monologue, and I’ll think, Ooh, she sounds interesting. But I don’t know who she is yet or what her story will be. All of that will develop based on the attitude (see above) of the character’s voice.

Do you prefer first or third person narrators?

I prefer writing in first person. It comes naturally to me. That said, I’ve written fiction in third person, too. I have an unpublished novel in third person and an unfinished story in third person. I hadn’t even realized I’d been writing the story in third person until I was a couple pages into it. First person and third person don’t have to be that different if you’re writing in close third person, so that we’re in the main character’s head. If done correctly, the reader shouldn’t even notice which narrative device you’re using.

As a reader, I’ll happily read both first person and third person. Again, if done well, the manner of the storytelling shouldn’t matter because I’ll be so engrossed in the character’s story (and head) that I won’t notice if the writer has used first person or third person.

It’s worth noting that some writers use an omniscient point of view. That’s a difficult thing to do well because it can make the reader feel removed from the main character. I’ve never written in the omniscient point of view.

What does each bring, does it depend on the story?

Again, I don’t think first person and third person have to be that different, so—for me—it’s not a matter that one type of story should be written in first person and another type should be written in third person. It’s whatever works for the author. Even when I write in third person, it’s in such a close third person, there should be virtually no difference to the reader. An example:

First person: I walked into the bookstore, and my heart drummed. Oh, my God. It’s him. My favorite author.

Third person: Jane walked into the bookstore, and her heart drummed. Oh, my God, she thought. It’s him. My favorite author.

don'tgetmadDo you use voice/narrators to fool the reader?

No. I’ve tried to fool the reader with word choices and what a main character says and thinks (and doesn’t say or think). Good examples of this approach are my stories “Volunteer of the Year” and “Ulterior Motives.” I’m not sure how to use a character’s voice to fool a reader if that character is one whose thoughts the reader is privy to. Even with an unreliable narrator, whose judgments and reactions might be skewed, the character is who he is.

How did your voice or in your case multiple voices develop? They’ve developed naturally from reading and writing. As many have said before: practice, practice, practice. I also am what I call a method writer (similar to a method actor). When I’m writing a character, I am that person, with all her background and issues and knowledge and fears. (Or at least I try to be.) So as a plot develops, I write what my character would think and feel in each instance because those are my actual reactions. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but that’s my process.

Did you model it on anyone or did you always hear your own unique voice? I generally don’t model my voice on anyone. I just let myself go on the page. I once had a friend tell me that no matter which of my stories she was reading, she could hear me saying the words. I hope that’s a good thing, that even though my characters are different, my unique voice shines through.

That said, sometimes I need to do a little research to get a voice right. For instance, when I wrote “An Officer and a Gentleman’s Agreement,” I was writing from the point of view of a narcissistic Army general. I couldn’t get the voice right, so I watched the movie “A Few Good Men,” in which Jack Nicholson played just such a character. Nicholson helped me get my voice right.

Whose voice do you admire? Wow. So many authors have voices that shine. Here are a few:

Janet Evanovich – Stephanie is funny. Her reactions are real with spot-on timing.

Laura Durham – The sidekick in her Annabelle Archer series, Richard, is so full of personality, I want more and more.

Spencer Quinn (aka Peter Abrahams) – The narrator in his Chet and Bernie series, Chet, is a dog. Quinn puts the reader in Chet’s head so we see Chet acting and thinking like a real dog, yet he’s also a great sleuth. Chet is a wonderful character.

Julia Spencer-Fleming – Her characters are distinct and really come to life. Her characters are also funny but in a quiet way, so that when a character says something funny, it can come out of the blue and literally make me laugh out loud.

Craig Johnson – Ditto everything I said about Julia Spencer-Fleming.

As you can probably tell, I admire writers who write humor. I love reading it and writing it myself, and I appreciate others who do it well. Some of my stories have touches of humor, such as “Have Gun—Won’t Travel” and “Christmas Surprise,” both of which are new this year, published in my collection, Don’t Get Mad, Get Even.  I’ve written other stories with the goal of creating a funny mystery, including “Biscuits, Carats, and Gravy” and “Murder a la Mode.” Stories designed to be funny require a lighter touch and writing with a strong voice allows me to achieve that.

Barb Goffman is the author of the recently released short-story collection DON’T GET MAD, GET EVEN (Wildside Press). Barb’s stories often focus on families because the people you know best are the ones you’ll most likely want to kill. Or at least that’s been her experience. DON’T GET MAD, GET EVEN contains fifteen stories, ranging from funny to dark, and from amateur sleuth to police procedural. It has all of Barb’s award-nominated stories and five new ones. Barb has been nominated for the Agatha Award five times, and the Anthony Award and the Macavity Award twice each. Her story “The Lord Is My Shamus” (available in DON’T GET MAD, GET EVEN) is currently up for the Anthony and Macavity awards, to be given out at the Bouchercon mystery convention in September. In her spare time, Barb serves as a co-editor of the Chesapeake Crimes series (Wildside Press) and as program chair of the Malice Domestic mystery convention. She’s an avid reader and a doting mom of a very cute dog. You can learn more about her and her stories at www.barbgoffman.com.