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Do you know the difference between cozy mysteries, amateur sleuth mysteries, traditional mysteries, romantic suspense, romantic mysteries, police procedurals, detective stories, and noir mysteries? If not, educate yourself. Different sub-genres have different conventions and different reader expectations.
In a limited series the story arc and characters’ goals, motivations, and conflicts develop over a set number of books and are resolved at the end of the last book in the series.
Set long-term goals for your protagonist and place her in different settings to keep your series fresh. Anastasia’s moonlighting enables me to place her in different locations where she stumbles upon other murder victims. It also gives me the chance to introduce different antagonists, murder victims, weapons, and ways in which Anastasia solves the murders, keeping the stories different enough that readers don’t feel as though I’m recycling plots.
If you’re writing about a professional investigator, this is a given, but the amateur sleuth needs a career where she isn’t chained to her desk in a cubicle forty hours a week, then goes home to spend her evenings watching TV with only her cat for company. She has to be able to get around to investigate the murders and interact with witnesses and suspects. Having family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers for her to interact with will give you more opportunities for additional plots in future books.
Decide whether your books will take place in a real town or city, a fictional town or city, or a fictionalized version of a real town or city. I’ve set my books in and around New York City and its New Jersey suburbs. I find it easier to keep track of locations when I’m familiar with them. It’s also fairly simple for me to go to the locations to check them out (or it was before I moved to Tennessee!) Some authors will take a real town or city but change the names. Others will create completely fictional locations.
For fictitious locations create a map to use as a reference while writing your books. You don’t want to make a street one way in one direction in one book and have it going in the other direction two books later. Savvy readers often catch such errors and let you know about them.
Three of the most popular sub-genres of cozy mysteries are culinary cozies, crafting cozies, and pet cozies. Culinary and crafting cozies generally include a recipe or craft project. In pet cozies, the pet becomes a secondary character in the series, one the sleuth will often view as almost human. Sometimes the pet will even play a role in solving the mystery.
Most cozy and amateur sleuth series will have a sidekick that becomes Watson to your protagonist’s Sherlock. This can be a coworker, a relative, a best friend, or a love interest. The sidekick often provides certain character traits that complement your sleuth. In my Empty Nest Mystery Series, which is a modern-day twist on Nick and Nora Charles of the classic Thin Man movies, my sleuth’s college professor husband is forced to tag along to keep her out of trouble when she insists on sticking her nose into murder investigations. But in Anastasia’s world, depending on the book, her sidekicks alternate between several people in her life, including her best friend, magazine food editor Cloris McWerther, and her tenant-turned-love-interest, Zack Barnes.
Juggling the number of characters in your sleuth’s world can be a delicate balancing act. Too few characters won’t give you enough possibilities for plots to keep your series going, but too many can become confusing to the reader.
If you plan to write a series over many years, it’s essential that you keep accurate track of all series details—descriptions, ages, professions, back-story, relatives, hobbies, street layouts, shops, etc. Don’t rely on memory. Create a database. Each time you add a character, mention a characteristic, or describe a location, add it to the database. Routinely refer to the database to avoid errors.
Most authors write a book a year. Will your characters age a year between each book, or will each book take place days, weeks, or months after the preceding one? This is something you need to decide before you begin writing the second book in your series.
It’s far too easy to lose track of the time elapsing in your story as you work on it, especially if you’re a writer who often goes back and tweaks scenes. And you can’t always rely on editors catching every mistake you make. The easiest way to avoid such mistakes is to keep a scene calendar for each book in your series. Print out blank calendar pages. Decide on the month and day your story will start. Record the scenes that occur on each day to keep your timeline accurate.
It’s important that each book in your series can be read as a standalone. This is important because most bookstores will not carry many or all of your previous titles in a series unless you become a famous bestselling author. If a reader picks up a book from the middle of your series, you don’t want her to feel confused about the characters in your story. You want her to have an enjoyable reading experience, enough so that she’ll search out your prior titles and purchase future ones.
An Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery, Book 11
Lois Winston: USA Today and Amazon bestselling and award-winning author Lois Winston writes mystery, romance, romantic suspense, chick lit, women’s fiction, children’s chapter books, and nonfiction under her own name and her Emma Carlyle pen name. Kirkus Reviews dubbed her critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series, “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.” In addition, Lois is a former literary agent and an award-winning craft and needlework designer who often draws much of her source material for both her characters and plots from her experiences in the crafts industry. Learn more about Lois and her books at her website www.loiswinston.com where you can also sign up for her newsletter and follow her on various social media sites.
Post a comment for a chance to win a promo code for a free audiobook download of Death by Killer Mop Doll, Book 3 in the Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries.