When mystery writers sit down to talk about our craft, one of the topics that almost always comes up is the challenge of keeping a series "fresh." Writers think about this (some of us think about this a lot), because the opposite of fresh is stale, repetitive, boring, tedious, and dull. No writer wants to get into the habit of turning out repetitive plots featuring characters who are flat, stale, and stuck in a rut. For one thing, readers (most of whom truly enjoy reading books in a series) get tired of reading the same book over and over, even though the covers are different. For another (and this is a huge thing for me) if a writer writes the same book over and over, she loses spark, energy, vitality, and--yes--freshness.
The mystery genre has come a long way from the day when Conan Doyle pushed Sherlock Holmes over Reichenbach Falls because he was thoroughly sick of his character. (He later resurrected him because Sherlock was, after all, a money-maker and Doyle's other work--historical fiction--didn't pay very well.) We've also come a long way from the days of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, characters who stayed very much the same, book after book, decade after decade. In my years as Carolyn Keene (you know I've written both Nancy and the HB?), that was one of the most frustrating things about both series: the characters didn't grow, didn't change, stayed the same. Okay for kids, maybe. Not okay for adult readers or for writers. Now, the best mysteries have the richness and density of the best mainstream and literary novels, with multi-layered characters, interwoven plots, realistic and evocative settings, innovative styles, and themes that explore the ambiguities and contradictions of our culture.
So. Since I aspire to writing the very best mysteries I can write, I aspire to create characters who mature in some important way in every book; multi-level plots that look something like a three-dimensional glass chessboard; settings that evoke a strong sense of place and remind us that place (to a degree we don't want to admit) defines who we are and sets limits on what we do; styles that command our full attention; and complex themes that require us to think as we read and to test what we're reading against what we know about life and love and loss in our culture.
There you have it. My aims. My manifesto. What I want to do with my books. And since each book represents a large chunk of my life's time (measured in months) and experience and energies (unmeasurable), I spend that time and experience and energy thoughtfully, hoping to achieve at least one or two of these aims with every book. I know I don't. I know I can't. But I try.
Which is why each one of the China Bayles books--each one of all my books, in every series--is an experiment. I am a craftsperson experimenting with her medium in the same way a potter experiments with her clay, or a painter her oils or watercolors. I push characters, stretch settings, play with themes, vary tone and style. I don't want to create a shelf of identical books, like a tray of identical, mass-produced plates, cups, and salad bowls, or a wall full of identical landscapes. I want to learn something new about my craft with each book, and I want to share those discoveries with readers.
That's why Wormwood is not the same book as Nightshade, which is different from Bleeding Hearts and Spanish Dagger. They share some of the same characters, but setting, time, point of view--these vary from book to book. The Cottage Tales are different, as well: there, I'm playing with animal characters and with a nosy, opinionated, intrusive narrator. Each of the Robin Paige books was unique in its use of historical characters and settings.
Readers who want to read the same characters, settings, and themes in each book have plenty of mysteries to choose from. (I know, because I regularly sample mystery series and am regularly disapponted by what I read.) I welcome readers who want to be challenged, are willing to venture out of their comfort zones, and are NOT looking for an "easy read." (In fact, if you believe that you've found an "easy read" in the China Bayles books, I'd have to say that you are probably not finding all that's there.) If this isn't you--well, I'm sorry to see you leave the series, but I know you'll be able to find plenty of books that fit your expectations.
How to keep a series fresh? When novice writers ask me that, I say: keep yourself fresh, as a writer. Keep playing, experimenting, changing, growing. Your books will reflect your growth, and your readers will be challenged by it. And come to think of it, that's life, isn't it? Isn't that what makes us human?
Reading note. One writes in order to know why one writes. It's the same with life--you live not for some end, but in order to know why you live.--Alberto Moravia
Update: 6/15/09. Nina Garrett just sent me a reminder of that wonderful passage at the beginning of Josephine Tey's splendid Adam Grant mystery, The Daughter of Time. Detective Grant is in the hospital, and his friends have brought a stack of current best-sellers to occupy him. But as he looks through them, he sees that they're all predictable, repetitious, boring. In disgust, he thinks to himself:
Did no one, any more, no one in all this wide world, change their record now and then? Was everyone nowadays thirled [look it up!] to a formula? Authors today wrote so much to a pattern that their public expected it.The public talked about "a new Silas Weekley" or "a new Lavinia Fitch" exactly as they talked about "a new brick" or "a new hairbrush." They never said "a new book by" whoever it might be. Their interest was not in the book but in its newness.They knew quite well what the book would be like.
It might be a good thing, Grant thought as he turned his nauseated gaze away from the motley pile, if all the presses of the world were stopped for a generation. There ought to be a literary moratorium. Some Superman ought to invent a ray that would stop them all simultaneously. Then people wouldn't send you a lot of fool nonsense when you were flat on your back...
Thanks very much, Nina. I'm so glad to be reminded of this book, surely one of the very best mysteries of all time. Brat Farrar is another of Tey's successes (in my view), and none of her work could ever be called "formulaic."