Friday, November 4, 2011

Writing a mystery series: golden arcs

Writing a mystery series: golden arcs
by Meg Mims

What does it take to write a mystery series? An eccentric detective like Sherlock Holmes? A domestic cat like Sneaky Pie (Rita Mae Brown) or a quirky dog like Chet (Spencer Quinn)? Maybe focusing on an interesting job like a coffeehouse barista, or a tea shop owner, a haunted bookshop owner, a minister’s wife, a clutter expert, a miniature house maker, knitter or a cleaning woman?

Ask Sue Grafton about writing her way through the alphabet with her PI Kinsey Milhone series (also Carole Nelson Douglas in her Midnight Louie cat series), or Janet Evanovich’s Plum by the numbers. What’s the key? Keeping a reader’s loyalty, for one thing, despite lackluster plots – but one major trick is to create a “series arc” for the amateur or professional sleuth, the featured animal who assists the hero/heroine, or for the entire cast of characters.

Take Stephanie Plum. Sure, you remember her escapades with Joe Morelli and Ranger – but readers also keep returning to learn what’s new with Grandma Mazur, Lula and her poor, suffering parents. Take Cleo Coyle’s Coffeehouse series which takes Clare Cosi, long post-divorce, back into her ex’s arms and then out again, flirting with the cop and then deepening their relationship. Or take Coyle’s Haunted Bookshop series, which explores a ghostly link between owner Mrs. McClure and the dead-but-not-gone detective Jack Shield.

Let’s examine the “character” arc vs. a “story” arc vs. a “series” arc. In every book, a hero or heroine should undergo a change – either learning something about themselves (besides solving the mystery, of course) or resolving an issue, or making a decision over the course of the story. The “story” arc is basically the mystery (or any genre) plot – from inciting incident to developments to twists and turns to the black moment and climax/confrontation with villain and the resolution. The “series” arc expands beyond that.

If your amateur detective has a secret past, one way to extend a series is to drop hints about it over several books before uncovering that secret. The character may not even be aware of that secret – take Kinsey Milhone. Part of her basic character is her “loner” status, yet Grafton drops hints of Kinsey’s dead parents, the aunt who raised her and then drops a bomb – she does have family after all. Cousins who drag her into their lives, and force her (indirectly) to deal with the past.

Why? Subplots deepen a story as well as round out the hero or heroine. The series avoids plodding through “the usual suspects” and storyline to give the reader a more realistic picture of the character’s life. Read S. J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin and Bill Smith series of PI mysteries for a masterful series arc. Even these two characters keep secrets from each other, due to their complicated family relationships and cultural differences, despite being partners for years.

One of the strongest ways to build a series is to choose a specific location, a la “Cabot’s Cove” in the Murder She Wrote series (just as popular with readers as with television viewers). JoAnna Carl created “Warner Pier” based on a small town in western Michigan for her Chocolate shop mystery series and explores interplay between the town residents. Charlaine Harris introduces readers to “Shakespeare” in Arkansas while Carolyn Haines explores “Zinnia” in the Mississippi Delta area. The writers mine their own experiences of living in these areas to infuse the flavor and hook readers.

Writers who are willing to invest their time, energy and loyalty to a series might find themselves weary after several books. Think Arthur Conan Doyle, who killed off Holmes and then had to resurrect him after he “died” at Reichenbach Falls! But you can’t knock reader loyalty.

It might just carry a writer all the way to the bank.


  1. Writers who create series arcs are awesome in my mind. I thoroughly enjoyed you post, Meg, and have discovered several new authors to try.

  2. Thank you for the good advice. I'm getting ready to start a mystery series so this is good stuff to know.

  3. It's not easy writing a series but can be very rewarding. My problem with the latest Evanovich Plum books is the rehashing of the car blow-ups and too much of the same old same old between her and the guys. Then again, other readers might love that repetition. It's a fine line to walk!