“So Is This a New Series?”

by J.D. Rhoades


"So, is
this a new series?"

It’s the question at least a dozen people have asked about BREAKING COVER, once
they find out it’s not a Jack Keller book (despite the fact that several online
sites have called it ‘Jack Keller, Book 4." It took WEEKS and e-mails from
several sources  to get Amazon to correct it, and by then the error had
spread. Argh.)

Anyway, the answer is, "I don’t know." I didn’t plan it as anything
but a stand-alone, and the current WIP (working title: STORM SURGE)  is a
totally different (and I mean really different) character.

Then again, I didn’t set out to write a series when I wrote THE DEVIL’S RIGHT
. It wasn’t until nearly the end of the first draft of the manuscript that
I realized "hey, this character might have some legs."

Writing a series as opposed to a stand-alone presents certain challenges. For
one, there’s the question of stakes, of what’s at risk. If I know a book is a
standalone, sure the main characters stand a better chance than average of
being alive at the end, but there’s always the risk someone could pull one of
those Hamlet endings, or perish in a noble act of self-sacrifice like in A TALE

In a series, however, particularly  a long running one, you know the main
character is going to survive til the last page and beyond.  So, to a certain extent, you know how the
story’s going to end. They may not live happily ever after, but they will live,
and that takes one way of building suspense out of the equation. It takes away
the sense that everything’s at risk, even survival.  Some people seem to like the comfort of that, I guess, and that may be why series are so popular.

But then,  you have to find
other things to dangle over the abyss. It could be a beloved character,
although at some point, if you put the same character at risk book after book,
it starts to get ludicrous. Superman can only rescue Lois Lane so many times before people
start going “why doesn’t the silly twit just move the hell out of Metropolis
and stay away from that Kent character?”


God forbid, however,
you should actually follow through on the threat and kill off a favorite
character. An friend of mine did that and got roasted over the coals on a
couple of the  book blogs.

How I addressed that problem in the Keller books was by making it clear (I
hope)  that what’s at risk is Jack’s already tenuous hold on sanity and
his recovery from PTSD.  Even if Jack survives all the horrible stuff I
put him through, he may not be functional psychologically by the end. But
again, how long can that go on?  How much pain can I put the poor bastard
through before the reader screams "enough!"

Another challenge in a series, and this is one I really struggle with. is the
question of backstory. Older mystery series tended to be self-contained within
each book, with no reference to what came before or after. I read an interview
with Rex Stout, creator of the wonderful Nero Wolfe books, in which he said
that he did this deliberately, so that you could pick up any one of the dozens
of books in the series and not wonder about whether it was number one or number
twelve. This of course had one major advantage: you could read the books in any
order. The disadvantage to that is that it takes away a lot of the realism and
to me, the believability of the story. In real life, people are affected, often
catastrophically, by their pasts. They change. They grow over time.  This
is one of the reasons that I loved Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie/Gennaro series when I
first read them. They took damage that they carried with them from book to
book. But the challenge of that is to carry the thread of the long story from
book to book, while making the short story of each book self-contained so as
not to alienate the reader who may not have read the earlier books and who’ll
put the book down if they don’t know what’s going on or why the people are
acting this way.


And that’s
hard. You have to fight to keep from drifting into long expository passages, or
even worse, long spoken exposition by characters: "As you know, Bob. the
last time this happened, we…" Yecch.  It almost makes me wish we
could get away with one of those short synopses like they used to do in the
movie serials: "In our last episode…."

I will say that one of the people who does this right is our own Zoe Sharp. I
just finished Zoe’s SECOND SHOT, and she does a masterful job of weaving the
threads of the past into the story of the present. And it’s necessary to do so
because Zoe’s character Charlie Fox has taken some pretty severe damage of her
own that she’s trying to get over. I learned a lot about how to do quick,
concise backstory from studying the way Zoe does it.

Still, people do seem to love series. Hell, I may bring Tony Wolf back. Or Jack
Keller for that matter. Maybe I’ll put them in the same book, thus creating
some really tough problems of backstory!


So, fellow
‘Rati, both writers and readers, who do you know who handles these
problems–creating risk and weaving in backstory–particularly well? How do you
writers meet those challenges? Do you prefer series to standalones, or is it the other way around? And why?

12 thoughts on ““So Is This a New Series?”

  1. Jake Nantz

    Mr. Rhoades,Great questions, all! I agree that Zoe does a fantastic job of weaving in backstory. I’ve also really tried to study the way Connelly does it with his Harry Bosch novels. And if you look at the original Ludlum Bourne books, there’s some good stuff there. Not quite as concise, because well, it’s Ludlum. But quick nonetheless.

    As far as series or standalone, I enjoy reading both, for their own merit. Take Eisler’s John Rain. Great, fun character who grows and changes with each new adventure (another good one with backstory, btw).

    On the other hand, look at Robert Crais’s HOSTAGE, a fabulous standalone that Hollywood destroyed.

    As a writer, meh, I’ve only got the one WIP and a different MC for the next. Either could be series characters, but they could probably work as standalones as well once they make it out into the world.Just my $.02

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    As I’ve said many times before, I far prefer standalones and rarely read more than two or three books in a series. A major exception is Tess Gerritsen – one of the few authors I buy the first week she comes out. I think that while Tess never scrimps on her series main characters, Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles (and Jane is such a flawed, rough-edged character that I never get tired of her), what she does really brilliantly, in THE MEPHISTO CLUB, for example, is that she introduces a brand new character with a tormented backstory who is the real focus of the plot.

    I’ve read almost all of Michael Connelly’s series, because the plots are so uniformly interesting (and dark!) and Peter Robinson also is holding my attention through way more than my usual limit of books. He moves his Inspector Banks around to completely different areas, and also will give a lot of focus and personal conflict to new characters so Banks doesn’t have to carry every book, every time.

    Oh, and Karin Slaughter, too – her characters are so flawed and her plots so devastating that I find everything she writes interesting.

    Will have to get to Zoe sooner rather than later… it hasn’t been a great summer for reading, unfortunately!!!

  3. Wilfred Bereswill


    I’m not a big series reader. I did the whole Clancy/Jack Ryan thing and enjoyed it, well most of it. I’m currently in the middle of Vince Flynn’s, Mitch Rapp and I just picked up Killing Floor, Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher novel.

    I never really realized it before I started writing, but I think I’m more captivated by an intriguing plot than I am about characters. Blasphemy, I know.

  4. pari

    JD,I write a series and have just started another. What I love about this kind of focus is that I can develop a character on a large, large canvas. I hope I do it well.

    Later this year, when I finish the two books I’m working on now, I plan to write my first standalone. Can’t wait to do it. Then I’ll have an idea of the challenges so many of my fellow authors face.

  5. pari

    BTW,One of the intersting challenges in a series is to make sure that readers can enter it at any point. I love that aspect.

    I gained a lot of new readers with #3 and they didn’t feel at all lost — OR hit over the head with that pesky backstory.

  6. Kaye Barley

    I’m one who is partial to a series as opposed to a standalone. I love learning what’s up next in the lives of characters I love.

    I have a benchmark that I find myself holding others up to – Margaret Maron’s Deborah Knott. Hers are big shoes to step into, in my mind. Its tough to find anyone who surpasses her ability to seamlessly weave a backstory into new stories that retain a rich history, while at the same time are fresh and contemporary with a focus on today’s issues.

    Writing the backstory is one thing, weaving it seamlessly is a whole ‘nother deal.

  7. R.J. Mangahas

    Interesting post here, JD. I personally like stand alones more. True with a series, you really get to know the characters and they can really be developed. However, one of the things about series is that the longer it goes, it can sometimes be hard to come up with fresh storylines. As much as I like Robert Parker, Spenser has been going on for quite some time, some of the stories are redone with different minor characters. That doesn’t stop me from reading it. A good example of a series is Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels. Even though it focuses more on Steve Carella and Artie Brown, th Precinct is just as much of a character to the stories. Also, when an author is so associated with a series, if they want to break away from it for a little while, it may not be received as warmly (I know this isn’t a hard and fast rule). I also don’t like the idea of a character still going after the author is dead (ie Eric Van Lustbader carrying on the Jason Bourne series or Mark Winegardner writing more about the family Corleone)Then there’s the rabid fan factor. Remember MISERY?

    I also agree, Zoe does a great job with weaving in back story, especially since there were three other Charlie Fox novels before FIRST STRIKE, not to mention ROAD KILL between STRIKE and SECOND SHOT.

  8. Louise Ure

    I’d put Denise Mina in the pantheon of writers who weave in backstory but keep the suspense up beautifully in each of the series books.

    Until I can figure out how to do it that well, I just keep writing stand alones.

  9. Dana King

    Generally I like series. If I like the main character in a standalone, I’m always looking to see what he or she will od next. Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen are notable exceptions, but even they admit their main characters are essentially the same guy, with a different name.

    I also don’t midn picking up a series in the middle. It’s kind of fun to be reading along and realize, “So this is where he met Hawk,” or, “This is the book where he falls in love with Lucy Chenier.” If the effetcs of the previous books are fully integrated into the character, passing reference to what came before may be all that is necessary.

    I’m also in the tank for Robert Crais, John Connolly, Ed McBain, Dennis Lehane. The characters in their series all grow and change, yet remain true to their essentials.

    Excellent, thought provoking post. Thanks, JD

  10. Naomi

    I’m a sucker for returning characters. Whether it be J.D. Salinger or Louise Erdrich, my early mystery favorites, Chester Himes and Walter Mosley, or my current favs, I like to dip my toe in the same world that I visited before. Tana French, who only has two books out, is doing something interesting–her linked books will be from a different character’s POV at an epiphany point at his/her life. I’m also become a fan of Arnaldur Indridason–can’t wait to see what is next with Detective Erlendur. I’ll always be happy to read Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana series. I don’t keep up (Smith is just too prolific), but it’s comforting to know that the series will always be there when I have a long stretch of time. Time marches on in all of these series. I’m always eager to see what new developments, both good and bad, occur in the character’s life.

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hey Dusty

    Why thank you, kind sir ;-]

    This is a great post topic, because when you’re writing a series it is always one of the hardest things to work out – how much backstory do you include to inform first-time readers without boring the beejesus out of returning readers?

    Thank you to Jake and RJ, too – just to clarify, though, it’s FIRST DROP and THIRD STRIKE ;-]

    And if you think Charlie’s taken damage so far, Dusty, watch this space …

  12. j.t. ellison

    It is so hard to keep a series fresh and interesting while putting your character in danger that strains credulity. I think you do it wonderfully, as does Zoe. I can only hope to make it work as well.

    That said, I have several standalones that I keep thinking are great ideas until I sit down to write them. That’s when I start missing Taylor and walk away…


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