We're very lucky. Julia Spencer-Fleming found time in her busy schedule to do a guest post here. Her new Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alsytne book, Through the Evil Days, is due out Nov. 5. I'm looking forward to reading the new book. And, it's wonderful to welcome her to Lesa's Book Critiques. Thank you, Julia.
I am somewhat famous in the mystery community for two things: winning a bunch of awards and proclaiming to anyone who would listen that a crime fiction series should have a natural conclusion and that I, therefore, would wrap up the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series in five books.
Well. Turns out that was very like a first-time parent saying, “My child will never watch TV.” Everybody knows it's hogwash, they're just too polite to tell you. And in fact, when I reached the end of book five in my series, I was already steaming ahead with the I Shall Not Want, because I just had to get my protagonists out of the terrible emotional mess I had put them in. And then I had to write the seventh book, because I was dying to tell a story about veterans of the Iraq war returning to their hometowns, and I had to follow that with Through the Evil Days because I had dropped a (metaphorical) bomb into the last sentence of One Was a Soldier and I desperately wanted to see what was going to happen next. (I really write because I want to read the story myself. If someone else would start authoring my books, I could retire.)
Reaching the eighth book in my series has been akin to moving to a foreign land as a student, only to discover ten years on you've become a resident. At some point, you have to recognize reality and adjust accordingly (US Congress, I'm looking at you...) For me, that means having to deal with how keep a long-running series fresh, how to keep myself growing and expanding as a writer, and how to convey the complicated backstory that's built up for almost everyone residing in the fictional town of Millers Kill. How do I do it? I have a few pointers:
Trust your audience. Nothing is worse than getting into the fifth or sixth book in a series and encountering the “As you know, Bob,” exposition dump. Sometimes it's a character needlessly recapping the events of the last novel(or two), sometimes the character has a long, introspective walk down memory lane. Meanwhile, the first-time reader is wondering if she ought to stop until she can pick up an early book in the series, and the long time reader is yawning. Trust the readers. There's actually a lot of backstory that simply doesn't have to be given. In my books, for instance, Russ Van Alstyne has been shot, nearly drowned and has broken his leg. None of these exciting events are mentioned in Through the Evil Days. If characters casually drop in references to a past event, people are smart enough to figure it out. If you really need to revisit the past, use a flashback. Just don't, for God's sake, put it all in italics.
Take chances with the structure of the book. In my series so far, I've written a twenty-four-hour ticking clock thriller, a mystery that runs backwards in time through seventy years, a story set within the framework of therapy sessions, and now, a book where every character is on a life-changing deadline of one week. The architecture of a novel affects the way the story unspools, which in turn affects what kind of story the writer tells and what sort of elements within the story are emphasized. (And now you've all gotten the intro to my lecture on “Story Architecture” that I do when teaching writing.) Long story short: switching up the books keeps them fresh and interesting.
Write about issues that genuinely interest you. I tend to write about literal issues: migrant workers, vaccination, corporate malfeasance. It takes me a year (or longer!) to write a book (sorry, everybody) so I need to find what I'm writing about compelling. However, a story doesn't have to be ripped from the headline, to quote L&O. In Through the Evil Days the issue is how to deal with a surprise pregnancy, and, more deeply, what people will and won't do for their children. Of course, I'm getting older, so look for my eventual novel based on a scathing denunciation of Denny's Senior Special.
Don't be afraid to let genuinely life-changing things happen to your characters. No, I'm not advocating having your beloved heroine die in childbirth. But real people grow and change and the world keeps moving. Be willing to have someone leave his job, leave her marriage, leave town. A talented editor once told me good authors keep their characters at arm's length, so they can bear to let bad things happen to them. For those of you who have read my series so far, don't fear: Russ doesn't leave town and Clare doesn't leave the marriage. But there are some big changes in the wind in Millers Kill.
Finally, leave 'em with a cliffhanger. I am the queen of cliffhangers, it's true. I love them unabashedly. And I'll continue to use them to keep readers charged up about the next book and the next. Why? It works. Want proof? Here, never before revealed on the internet, are the penultimate sentences in Through the Evil Days:
“I just wanted you to know. I'm tendering my resignation.”
What keeps a series fresh for you? Let me know in the comments and one lucky reader will get an Advance Readers Copy of Through the Evil Days.
Julia Spencer-Fleming's New York Times bestselling books have won multiple awards, including the Anthony and Agatha, and have been Edgar and RT Reader's Choice nominees. The next Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne novel, Through the Evil Days, comes out on November 5th. You can find Julia at her website, her readerSpace, on Facebook and on Twitter as @jspencerfleming. She also blogs with the Jungle Red Writers.