Keeping a Series Fresh

Edith here, increasingly hunkered down north of Boston, and hoping to give away a couple of books.

NEWS FLASH: Betty Tyler and Judi Purcell are our lucky winners!

As a beginning writer ten years ago, I longed to have a successful long-running mystery series one day. I imagined writing the tenth book, the eighteenth, the twenty-second, all because readers demanded it. What could be better?

I now seem to be slowly getting there, book by book. I’ve finished and polished my sixth Quaker Midwife Mystery, and this spring I’ll write my ninth Country Store Mystery. I’m not up in Victoria Thompson (22 in her Gaslight Mysteries), Katherine Hall Page (25 Faith Fairchild Mysteries), or Deborah Crombie (her 18th British police procedural just came out) territory – yet – but, knock on wood, it could happen. Wickeds Barb, Sherry, and Sheila are getting up in the higher numbers with their ongoing series, too.

So now I realize the challenges that come with writing about the same characters in the same setting. Are people in Indiana starting to mutter to themselves, “Don’t go near South Lick – their rate of homicides is horrific!” Are the 1889 residents of Amesbury, Massachusetts, backing away every time they see Rose Carroll, because they know how she is a magnet for murder?

One way to get around Cabot Cove Syndrome is to take the story elsewhere for one installment. In Nacho Average Murder (Country Store #7 and up for preorder!), Robbie Jordan heads back to Santa Barbara for her tenth high-school reunion.

My editor wanted to be sure book #8 would return to South Lick again, though. He says it’s the town that is the big draw. Taken Too Soon, the Rose Carroll book I just finishedpolishing, takes place in West Falmouth on Cape Cod, which was primarily populated with Quakers in the late 1800s. Rose will be back in Amesbury for book #7.

Another trick is to kill off strangers who come to the village instead of local residents. It doesn’t do much for the Tourism Bureau, but it prevents decimating a small town’s population.

We also need to keep the recurring characters fresh. That can happen through evolving relationships. Will Rose and David ever get to wed? Are Robbie and Abe going to continue unattached? Maybe a formerly prickly relationship starts to ease, or new obstacles are thrown in the path of an amateur sleuth.

Making sure the protagonist grows and changes in relation to herself, too, is crucial in a long-running series. She needs to regularly reassess her world and what she’s doing in it. In Jess Lourey‘s Murder by the Month series, her protagonist realizes she is getting really good at amateur sleuthing and decides to become a licensed private investigator.

Julia Spencer-Fleming has used different story-telling techniques in her Clare Fergusson Mysteries. She’s said it was to keep the writing interesting for her, and it certainly keeps it interesting for the reader. In one of the books, the story goes back and forth between the present and two different times in the past. In another, the entire book takes place in a twenty-four hour period with a ticking clock.

As I head into writing my 24th novel, I need to be sure I don’t get tired of my three series. It’s a challenge to not re-use a murder weapon, not to get lazy about telling the story. I want to continue to grow as an author, to keep learning and improving, as I add book after book. I never want a reader to throw down one of my books and say, “She’s phoning it in.”

My 2019 shelfie

I love my job. What could be more delightful than sitting alone in an office – with no commute – making things up for a living? But any job needs goals, and getting better at what I do is always one of mine.

Readers: Have you given up on a series? Why? Writers: What do you do to keep a series fresh? How do you challenge yourself in your craft? I’ll give away my two latest books to two commenters (one each): Judge Thee Not and Christmas Cocoa Murder.

91 Thoughts

  1. Well, you know how I feel about your books. I don’t have any issues with any of the books I’ve read in your various series and since I’ve finally gotten all five of the Local Foods books, I get to start reading that series now.

    As for the question about whether I’ve given up on a series, I’d have to say for the most part series usually end before I get bored with them. However, the one series that I have pretty much given up on took me 24 books to get tired of. That last book (though the series continues) was simply terrible and such a rehash of the previous 23 books that it woke me up to the fact that there’s been little to no growth in the characters. Calling things stale is being kind.

  2. Yes, I have given up on a long running, very popular, mystery series that is still being published. The mysteries themselves weren’t the issue for me, but the problems in relationships of some of the major characters got old to me. And, as that story line didn’t seem to be resolving or moving on (in at least 20 books), I did. I never really thought about this from the author’s perspective until I read your article.

  3. I’ve given up on a few. Some just got to be the same old, same old. Main character is accused of something, town turns against her, then she’s cleared and everyone is her friend, but then the same thing happens all over again. If those people were really her friends, they would know she wouldn’t do something like that. The other series I’ve given up on was the main character was just unlikable. She was bossy, narcissistic and made it obvious that she was the only one who could solve the crimes, never mind the police. I can’t relate to a main character that I don’t like.

  4. I gave up on a series when the author carried a love triangle through the entire series and resolved it by havign the main character marry an entirely different character. I want authors to stay true to their characters/storylines and not take the easy way out.

  5. I have given up on a series when it seemed like the new books were just a replay of the older books or they got too far away from the basics that made me like them in the beginning

  6. I may be more disloyal than I want to admit because I have given up on reading some series. Sometimes they become too formulaic, or the characters’ personal lives become tedious, and probably because I have changed a lot myself through the years as a reader, and many other ways too.

  7. I have givin up on a few series. I don’t like when love triangles get drawn out.

  8. Reading a series is such a pleasure for me because it feels as if I’m visiting old friends. That said, if they don’t grow and evolve, is visiting them much fun any longer? I have stayed with several long series because characters generally remained true to their nature while growing and developing. Relationships come and go, but if it makes sense, then I’m still there with them. As a writer, I hope to be able to achieve that.

  9. Such good advice, Edith. I don’t like it when an author changes verb tenses (for example), just to be “fresh”–or possibly to stretch her writing skills. And in every long-running series, there’s a book or two that don’t reach the mark, and readers are quick to point it out. I give authors who write long series lots of credit and hope to follow their example!

  10. Can’t think of a series that I gave out on before the end. For me, it’s been more of in love with the series that I’m sad when it ends. I have, however, had a series that the first book was good but didn’t quite have the WOW factor where your asking how long before the next book. It was good enough for me to read the second book where it seemed to all click making me glad that I kept going. I think it would be hard in a series as the writer to keep it fresh and flowing while trying to make each as a stand alone book. It must be hard to not bog down the series reader with a lot of detail information so that the first time reader isn’t lost on who is who, friends, the town, etc.

    Love your books and can’t get enough of them!

    Thank you for the fabulous opportunity to win one of them. There will be two very fortunate people with early Christmas presents.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

  11. What a great post! And Edith, congrats on the continued success of your series! As a writer, I try to find new twists in my plotting plus inject plenty of surprises. I want to have fun when I write. I also try to keep things things fresh–which means to me that plots and character growth are “organic” not forced.

    But that said, there is a life cycle to just about everything and sometimes a series needs to be retired. But that just means a shiny new series can come to life!

    As a reader, I agree that cozy series are worlds we love to return to, almost as if the characters are friends. That’s the best.

    1. I see a series through..For me it puts me in the book of the town and people that are in it.I look forward to what is going on with the town and what the people are up to.

  12. Yes, I am sad to say I have given up on a couple of series, both of which still continue and as far as I know are still very popular. The first one I gave up on was because there was so much repetition. We kept seeing the main character walk around thinking about what he should do. After a lot of that he magically solved it. Huh? With the other book things just got too stale. The locales changed so there was that, but nothing else had changed. Enough already since there are plenty of wonderful books out there I need not waste my time.

  13. Yes, I have given up on some long-running series. The most common reason is that the author for some reason thinks they have to bring every character ever introduced into the next book, until as the number of books builds the number of characters introduced in the beginning is crazy. Even if I love the books, I can’t remember more than a handful of characters from book to book.

    1. I know what you mean, Barb. With every book I usually send even one regular character away for the duration of that story so I don’t clog the character list.

  14. I have given up on a couple of long running series for the reasons listed above – no growth in the characters or the relationships, rehashing the same story each time, and for some reason in one of them, the need to have ever stranger things happen in very bloody ways that are not necessary for a good story. If you can’t come up with a way for your character to grow and develop, even at an older age, then it is time for the series to end.

  15. I’ve given up on several series. One because it felt like the author didn’t care what she was writing anymore, one because of a never ending love triangle, and one (not a mystery series) because the main character changed so much that I didn’t like her anymore. But I love reading a long series when it’s done right because you get to keep revisiting favorite characters over the years.

  16. I’ve only ever given up on one series. I just didn’t find the dialogue believable. Still, I have the last book sitting here thinking that I really should finish. I am usually sad when a series comes to an end. The characters become friends and you really want to know what they are doing. I love the Country Store Mysteries!!!

    1. I’ve realized I don’t have enough time in my life to finish books I’m not liking, Alice. And I’m delighted to hear that you love my stories!

  17. I depend largely upon my neighborhood library’s holdings, so if they don’t continue a series, I usually don’t either, but I do buy the Quaker Midwife series, and you’ve kept them fresh so far.

  18. I stopped reading a series that I had really enjoyed because of a love triangle that went on for way too many books and then was dealt with in a very unsatisfying way. Maybe the author realized that they had written themselves into a corner and instead of resolving it, brought in a new character instead. After that, the series just kind of lost its appeal for me.

    I like the idea of taking the story elsewhere on one of its installments — that’s always fun and interesting ~

  19. What a nice post this morning. Your love for writing and the care you take to keep your readers satisfied shows through. You are in pretty good territory, right up there with those you mentioned, and even with Cabot Cove Syndrome good writing and interesting characters and events will keep the readers (and viewers for Cabot Cove) coming back. I have stopped reading series here and there, but there was one that really made me sad and then angry when I finally had to give it up after three very unsatisfying books, about #15, 16 and 17 in the series. It’s the one about a not-to-be-named female bounty hunter and a love (if you can call it love) triangle. Absolutely loved it for years and then little by little not so much, until I realized and checked to be sure – actual cutting and pasting of descriptions of relatives, the town . . . . Talk about phoning it in. The one about the cookie maker in snow country has gotten pretty old, too. Anyway, thoroughly enjoyed your post and look forward to all your new releases.

  20. I’ve given up on series with never ending love triangles. I don’t really like them to begin with, but when one of characters is constantly doubting the relationships, I get disgusted. I’ve also given up on a series that kept getting darker and darker. It isn’t a cozy series, but even so….. It’s still going, by the way. And when a series gets too formulaic, I give up. There are so many wonderful books to read (like all of yours, Edith) that I’m not going to waste my time reading dreck.

  21. As a reader I haven’t given up on a series. I always look forward to see how the characters develop. There are always new facs, new places and new adventures to keep me invested in the story lines and looking forward to the next book in the series.

  22. Yes to having your own”routine” and not answering to someone else’s schedule but you pose the interesting problem of needing to answer to your readers and to imagination. You are good at it and prolific. Keep up the good work!

    1. In my experience, all of us writers have such different schedules and ways to approach our work. Thank you for your kind words – no danger of me stopping, that’s for sure!

  23. You could always do a mystery that doesn’t involve murder – there are a lot of ways to make a really good mystery. You could also try solving a “cold case” from the past. As a reader, I don’t like it when a relationship/romance drags on too much before they get together, some authors throw way too many obstacles in the path. Hope this helps, love your books. As for the weapon, think outside the box – anyone have a boat ? have it spring a leak too far from land, anyone a swimmer ? a scuba diver pulls them under

  24. I rarely think about what goes in to keeping a series fresh. I’m glad you do, however.

    I’m trying to think of a series I had stopped. There’s one series I should stop, but at this point it is like a train wreck, and I have to see how bad each book is going to get. (It’s not a Wicked series, and that’s all I will say.)

  25. I have never really given up on a series. I have been sad to see some end.

    1. I know the sadness thing. I remember when I read the last Dorothy L Sayers – and realized I would never read ANYTHING else by her because she was dead. ;^(

  26. I’m working on book 30 and can definitely relate to the challenge of keeping a series fresh. I try to make sure whatever mystery I use hasn’t been done already in a previous book, and there are new characters (suspects) in every book so hopefully readers don’t feel it’s the same old, same old.

  27. I have stopped reading a few series…most of the time because the books seem to be the same or the main character doesn’t seem to be growing. Fortunately, none of the Wickeds fall into this category. I wonder if writing more than one series helps keep all the author’s series fresh. I think coming back to a series as an author makes you reacquaint yourself with the characters and gives you a fresh approach…if that makes sense.

  28. I love series! I really feel like I get to know the characters in the book and I want to know what’s going on with them. I have given up on a couple of series when I really can’t get into the first book, but there aren’t too many I’ve given up on.

  29. It takes a lot for me to give up on a series, but I have had to a few times. One was a fairly punny one where the characters just became caricatures of themselves and the author just seemed to be phoning it in and not bothering with any kind of plot or character growth. I gave up on another series by the same author after a few decades because I kept wanting to shake the main character and tell her to evolve already. In another series, the authors political/social monologues have taken over too much, but I still check her books out of the library and skim because the characters are interesting still and it is like checking in on old friends.

    There is so much more available to read now that I’m less patient with dated and draggy stuff even if I have been reading it for multiple decades. Then there are the writers who consistently crank out great work – a recent book by one of my favorite writers was probably my least favorite in the series (she did the location change thing you referred to), but it was still great with vibrant characters and a family that grows and evolves and is utterly delightful. Though I do wonder if the plight of one of the writer characters in the book was her way of venting about the challenges of keeping it fresh.

  30. I don’t think there are any I’ve given up on yet. I always want to see what’s going to happen next. With anything, I enjoy certain books in the series more than others. But even if there are several in a row I didn’t care for, or they’re taking a direction I don’t enjoy, I still hope maybe it will get back on track and get better.

  31. I gave up two series that didn’t have any real mystery stories just telling about a group of friends. There are too many authors who write great mystery plots and interesting characters. I stopped a few that got silly or stupid. A little dog in a purse that was trained by the aunt to stay there was OK but a little dog in the sister’s bra was animal cruelty and had to be uncomfortable! I’ve dropped a lot of series after the first book or maybe didn’t even finish it. Like is too short to read books that you don’t like. There are too many good books out there, including all of the Wickeds.

    By the way, my library takes requests so I ordered one of the Midwife series that was taking forever to show up in the library’s catalog.

  32. I have dropped a few series. One or two were because for some reason the cozy series decided to get into talking sex instead of just having it off the pages. Another one started talking about nothing but softball. And another one became the same book over and over, added cussing, added sex and was just not what I wanted. All three of those were books that I read early on in my journey into cozy mysteries. Thank you for the chance to win. (kayt18 (at) comcast (dot) net)

  33. I can’t think of a single series I’ve left because I didn’t want to read further. I did get away from a few series because I just couldn’t keep up, but that’s on me, not on the writer. Yes, I’ve come across a volume here and there that seemed stale or derivative. I’ve gotten to the point where I want to grab the main character and yell, “just get on with it, will you?” but usually if I stick with it, the next book will liven things up again, and I’m back on pace. K.C. Constantine’s Mario Balzac mysteries were excellent at character development. Constantine (pen name for ??) was wonderful at bring in family stories and conflicts outside of the world of the police department.

  34. One thing that causes me to back away from a series is the “cliffhanger” ending. I don’t mind a few loose threads to set up the next in a series, but I want resolution of any major problems, not the introduction of new trauma at the end.
    I have found myself tiring of a series (a friend’s family coined the term “Michener number” for that sense that, no matter how good it might be, they just don’t want to read another). My prescription for that is a break, and enjoying something different for a while, but when the author is clearly tired of the series, recycling plots, not finding conclusions, but perhaps unable to turn down a contract . . . well, that’s when I might not come back. I will also abandon a book if there are just too many errors. I had to read clumsy writing when I taught, but I don’t have to any longer. 😉
    Thanks for keeping it fresh and for the careful editing.<3

    1. Writing for the sake of the contract – I don’t think so. So far I love my successful stories and as long as the publisher keeps offering me contracts, I’ll write the books, doing the best I can to stay fresh.

  35. I can’t think of any series I’ve given up on. I just always figure that if I find I’m not getting into one book in a series that doesn’t mean the next one won’t totally grab my attention. I’ve had plenty of projects that I’ve worked on that just aren’t as perfect and as easy going together as I would like, and I figure writing a book could be the same way. That being said, if the last book I read in a series has a hard time grabbing my attention and holding it, that series may get moved to the bottom of my TBR pile! Renee

  36. So far, I haven’t given up on a series, although I’m likely to take a break. I sometimes tire of the same voice. I haven’t had the opportunity to read any series to the end, or to the latest entry.

  37. I love series the only time I didn’t like a book was because the main characters husband dies. He was a main character too. It was the end of the series. The main character is alone with her dog walking by the ocean. I guess the author was in a mood to have him die. Most people complained about it. It seemed so real to me. What a sad ending to the series. He gets shot. The only other one the main character married someone else not one of her two suitors. Then he takes off. I’ll still read it maybe she’ll end up with one of her old boyfriends. Thank you for the chance

  38. I love your books! Just wanted to get that out there! Your writing is always fresh and new, I don’t feel like you are repeating yourself or getting stagnant at all.
    Anyway, although I haven’t published any of my series….yet….. I try have at least one character surprise the other characters. It sounds simple but it makes it feel real, we don’t always act or react the way people think we will. Changing things (with a reason) keeps it fresh for me. 😊

  39. I gave up on a long running series because it got increasingly ridiculous. I think the author didn’t know what to write anymore and found it easier to write about crazy events and unrealistic situations. It turned me off to the series. I started to dislike the characters and decided it wasn’t worth my time to continue the series. Yes, having a large number of murders in a small town does get problematic to explain after a while. But who says it has to be a murder mystery? I’m fine with mysteries that don’t always involve murder.

  40. I can think of 4 series I tried that I didn’t continue with, but they just weren’t for me. I gave each one 3 books to hook me because the mysteries were very strong & they were well written & edited But the MC was just too serious for my taste .
    My favorite series were discontinued due to the deaths of their authors (RIP & many thanks to Joan Hess & Anne George). I was a huge fan of Jill Churchill’s Jane Jeffry series too. I have no idea what happened with Ms Churchill.

  41. Yes, I have given up on a few series. I loved this one series in particular, but then it started getting bizarre. I thought it was just a bad book, so I gave the author the benefit of the doubt, and bought the next book in the series. That book was even worse than the previous one. Thank you for this chance!

  42. News Flash: Betty Tyler and Judi Purcell are our lucky winners! Please check your email, ladies. Congratulations, and thanks to you all for sharing your experience with series.

  43. I’ve given up on a series when the books start to put the mystery second, and the romance first. I like a little romance in my stories but not when it becomes more important than the mystery itself.

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