There is much about a series that makes writing easier for an author. The biggest is that I don’t have to invent an entirely new cast of character. The protagonist remains the same, as do her relatives (with the addition of an occasional newborn or a long-lost cousin) and friends. A minor character in one novel can be elevated to major status in the next, as innocent victim of judicial wrongdoing or bad guy or even corpse. The setting has been created, along with the protagonist’s favorite haunts.
Of course, as with most things in life, there is a downside. For mystery writers, it’s how to avoid the “Cabot Cove Sydrome,” especially if the setting is a small town. Cities have more opportunities for murders, not just from the permanent populace, but from tourists. But small towns, unless they rely on seasonal resort residents to augment their potential pool of corpses, will soon find themselves with no tax base if all their inhabitants no longer are alive. And who wants to move to an area where the life expectancy is low?
For that matter, who wants to be friends with someone whose friends and acquaintances, seem to wind up dead? In fact, the more casual the relationship, the more likely it is that one won’t make it past page 10. Fans don’t like seeing a character they’ve grown to like wind up on the coroner’s slab. I doubt if Typhoid Mary had a large number of neighbors once people began to notice that anyone who went near her came down with a fatal illness.
There’s also the problem of continuity. The protagonist and other continuing characters, unless a female (or, these days, a male) in love with cosmetic surgery, hair dye, or colored contact lenses, should have the same facial features, hair color, and eye color from book to book. Worse is when a character’s height changes, unless the character is a preteen entering puberty. Weight, on the other hand, can change, but the author should explain that Jane Doe became a fan either of Weight Watchers or of Dunkin’ Donuts.
Another problem is the external vs. internal time line. I am currently reading the latest book in a twenty-year-old series by a well-known and respected author. The internal time line, in which the protagonist refers to events from early books as having occurred ten years previous to the time of this book, make it seem that the current book is taking place around 2002. But the author has the characters using technology that didn’t exist in 2002 and listening to music by artists that were forming their first garage bands or singing in their high school productions then.
So how do I avoid these pitfalls? Or, rather, how do I plan to, as I have so far written only two books in the series, with the next two in the planning to just beginning stages? First, my protagonist doesn’t trip over bodies. As a rabbi, people come to her with their doubts as to whether the police version of suspicious deaths is accurate. Also, my third book will be taking place in a different locale, and the third will be a “historical” mystery, in which my amateur sleuth tries to figure out how some human bones wound under old books in a trunk forty years earlier. Second, I keep a list of all the characters’ names, their relationships with each other, and physical characteristics. Third, and I thank Sunny Frazier, the OTP acquisitions editor for this tip, I don’t refer to specific movies or TV shows or technology in the second book, Unleavened Dead. And before I submit the manuscript of the first book, Chanukah Guilt, to OTP for reissuing, I will edit it not just for continuity errors (like the wrong name of a town) and typos (“off” instead of “of”), but to change the name of a specific movies to generic one: “a medieval fantasy movie” instead of “The Two Towers.” And the “PalmPilot” will now be a nonspecific “cell phone.”
And finally, I’ll make sure I continue to mention, as I did in the second book, that people are wondering why Rabbi Aviva Cohen can’t accept the easy explanations but has to look for complications. And be right.