Friday, March 8, 2013


          Now that my second Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mystery has been published (thank you, OTP!), I can officially say that I write a mystery series. 
          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.


Lorna Collins - Author said...

We also write series with recurring characters. In order to make them believable, there must be an organic reason for our protagonist to become involved. In our case, he's a retired NYPD detective who has been called in to help with crimes in Hawaii. We avoid using predictable crimes (like drug dealing) and to keep the plots new and fresh. It's a challenge, but we've found limits actually help us write more interesting stories.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Excellent post, Ilene. Because I write about people in law enforcement some of the problems you've pointed out I don't have to worry about.

Sally Carpenter said...

My protagonist gets involved because he literally trips over a body in book one and someone drops dead at his feet in book two. The books are set in 1993 so I do a lot of research to make sure the cultural references are time appropriate, including a book of American TV shows and their original air dates. Technology? No cellphones, Facebook or DVDs. I avoid the Cabot Cove Syndrome because my hero lives in L.A. and travels extensively in his work as an entertainer. Good thoughts on your post!

Stephen L. Brayton said...

All good points to keep in mind. I, too write series but with both I can do a little Sue Grafton and keep them near each other time wise. (the next month, two months since the last story) and avoid specific events (9/11, the Challenger destruction) and some technology. My character is only 29 so I have to watch the references to the eighties I remember that she might not.

Holli said...

Murders are easy to find here in New Orleans, and my protag is a prosecutor, so her involvement in crime is easy. Where I ran into a pitfall was the timing thing, in that between the time I wrote the book and got a publishing contract, Katrina happened. So my first two novels are set pre-Katrina and the third, which I am working on, is set during the hurricane. The rest of the series will happen after the hurricane.

I like the way Lee Child writes Jack Reacher as a sort of nomad who doesn't get the whole technology thing--my first thought when I read that was what a great way to make sure the story never seems dated by not citing to specific current everyday technology.

Jonette Stabbert said...

This post is very helpful to me. I'm only starting to write what I hope will become a cozy series, based in Amsterdam. Thank you!

jrlindermuth said...

Good blog, Ilene. Problems all of us who write series have or will have to deal with. Sometimes you can get a fresh angle by having your protagonist go out of town or even out of country for a legitimate reason.