Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Writing a Series.

Ah, yes, the old naked dead girl body in the retro kitchen ploy.

Louis Shalako

Writing a series becomes easier to write as you go along, in that you have already invented the core characters.

You’ve become pretty familiar with their environment. When you need a new case, in the mystery series for example, you invent a new character—the killer. You invent their victim, their friends, family, home, their place of employment. Yet the core milieu of the series remains. In the case of The Inspector Gilles Maintenon Mystery series, the milieu (hopefully that’s the right word) is centred on Paris, France, in the period roughly between the end of the Great War, until the mid to late thirties.

With only one novella and four novels written, right now the series goes from about 1924 to 1930. The book I’m working on is set in 1931. Maintenon isn’t at retirement age yet. He could have a career going right up and then into World War Two.

It’s an interesting and turbulent era of history, and yet the detective novel is so rarely political.

Yet even in the pulp novel, the atmosphere, the feel of the thing is important. I want a certain noir flavour to the books. It’s fun to work with the interiors. The fashion, the hairstyles, the music and culture are fascinating. There is the whole feel of the city as it might have been at that time, and much of it still is. Thanks to the technological singularity that is the internet, I can do all kinds of research without ever leaving my home.

So on the one hand, it really does get easier to work in that milieu, with those particular characters. At the same time, as the series progresses, it becomes a lot more complex as a work of art.

By early or mid-May, there will be the original story, which spawned the whole series and five books in the 60,000+ word class.

The thing has structure—each book has its own internal structure, its logic. And the series as a whole has its greater structure. It’s a series of stand-alone books on the same subject, the homicide cases of a detective named Gilles Maintenon at a certain place and time in history.

In this book, Sergeant Andre Levain mentions his wife. I’m pretty sure his wife’s name is Nichol and his daughter—an infant in some other book, is named Maelys. The thing to do is to go and find that other book, use the ‘find’ feature in Word, and make darned sure of their names. Otherwise it’s an error of logic in terms of the series—in the individual book, it’s fine if a reader never reads another Maintenon mystery or if enough time goes by between reading different books in the series.

The internal logic of the series must be true to itself.

In using the newspaper as a prop in a certain scene, I called it Paris Match. Okay, but checking the sources revealed that Paris Match wasn’t around in 1931. Each individual book, as well as the whole series, being historical, must also be true to some external logic—let’s call it history.

In this story I simply said, ‘a prominent Paris daily’ and left it at that. If I was smart, I would go back to the other books and simply search for the term ‘Paris Match.’ If it’s in there, I might want to take that out. In modern digital publishing it’s much easier to do that sort of thing. In the old days people noted little inconsistencies in even their favourite authors’ works. As a critical and fairly professional reader, I see things I question in books all the time. It’s doesn’t mean I’m an expert, it doesn’t mean I have all the answers. I merely have questions.

As an artist, I need to be pretty finicky here. Details are important and our own memory isn’t all that trustworthy.

The mystery genre also follows certain structures, a certain logic. Having thrown a few clues out there and gotten the fifth book started, I really wasn’t that far into it before I sort of got what we call the writer’s willies. (A strong feeling of nervous apprehension and discomfort. – ed.)

It’s a recognized predicament, and hopefully some author far, far more competent than I could ever be, will blog on that subject. Basically, you just work through it, and maybe slow down and think it through. Something will usually come to you. Take out some bad clues and put in some good ones. Search through the book and take out any reference to Darryl, or whatever. Smooth out the transitions and it’s like poor old Darryl never existed.

The way things look now, the ending of this book had better be a doozie. Either that, or it falls a little flat.

Hopefully I will be able to pull it off. Agatha Christie would often resort to wigs and female/male impersonation in order to make a plot work. I’ve often wondered how much of that was planned in her head. Did she know what she was going to do, before she started writing, or was it a desperation ploy, just trying to make something boring or unmanageable work?

So far I have resisted that urge. As for the future, I can’t promise anything, but that might be a fun story to do.

The thing must work on some level or it just peters out into nothing—a really bogus ending that no one likes. The other thing is that the more mystery novels a person does, the more knowledgeable they become. They get some experience, and the best way to learn is by doing anyways. It always has been.

My mother drops off bags of old books sometimes. When I read a mystery, a thriller, a spy novel, you can bet I’m pretty analytical. If you see something you don’t like in someone else’s book, the answer is pretty obvious: don’t do it in your book.

From the point of view of the artist, if you’re not a hundred percent happy with the latest book, there’s always a next time. There will be some variety over the course of a series, as the stories are not all carbon copies of one another. Some of the books may be faster-paced, some of them may be more graphic in the violence, more sexy, or political as time goes on. The stories in this series tend to be fairly funny, with a note of sadness playing softly, the monotonous languor of the violins in the background.

If the writer gets an idea, the basic premise of a book, then it’s just a matter of slotting it in along the time-frame. This book goes here, in 1935, or whatever you decide as an author.

I have to finish this book before I worry too much about the next one.



  1. Great post! As someone who's also writing a series (book #9 is out next month), I can related very well to all of this.

  2. Thanks, James. Hopefully it's the right track.


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