Writing a series? Here’s a series of things to think about

As solicitor sleuth Ben O’Keeffe returns in Treacherous Strand, the second of Andrea Carter’s Inishowen mysteries, the author reflects on why serials can be a killer

“Writers who create a serial character inevitably endow him or her with their own interests and preoccupations.” – PD James, Talking about Detective Fiction

The concept of serialised fiction is not a recent one. A significant number of nineteenth-century novelists (Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas among them) were published for the first time in serial form, some even reacting to readers’ responses while they continued to write.

Today, serial characters are particularly popular in genre fiction, although not exclusively: John Updike’s Rabbit books and Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe novels are series of the more “literary” persuasion. But the popularity of the series has certainly contributed to the success of genres such as crime fiction and fantasy, with readers returning again and again to read about their favourite characters. Arthur Conan Doyle famously killed off Sherlock Holmes by plunging him to his death over the Reichenbach Falls before being forced, by public outcry, to resurrect his famous detective in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

But writing a series presents challenges for a writer that a standalone book does not.


The first is of these is consistency. Even if you dislike so doing – if like me you are a fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants type of writer or a “pantser” as someone recently called me! – a series demands some element of planning. Put some work into your characters’ back stories in book one and it will pay off. Write scenes from your characters’ childhoods. They may never be used, but they will help to root your characters. Don’t make life difficult for yourself by imposing an inability to swim on a character in your first book, when you may need that same character to cross a deep river in book two. Or If you do, don’t forget what you have done. Keep a folder which will work as series bible for your characters and settings. My bible contains pictures of my characters and my “sets” – photographs I have cut from magazines and newspapers. Pictures I would never show to anyone but which help me with consistency.

Decide how you intend to cope with the passage of time – whether you wish your characters to age over the course of the series. Many crime writers keep their detectives at the age they first assigned to them; an exception to this is Ian Rankin who had the courage to have Rebus, his detective, retire. Agatha Christie allowed her characters Poirot and Miss Marple to age slowly but I have read that she thought she had made a mistake in starting both series with them both so advanced in age. Whatever you decide, you must at least permit your characters to develop and change. Allowing them to remain static creates the danger of writing the same book over and over again.

Whether or not you intend your books to be read in sequence, a successful series must have a hook, something which keeps the reader coming back for more. Although each book in the series must be complete in itself, there must be a series arc, something bigger at stake, something over and above the plot of each individual book. It could be the protagonist’s troubled past or a developing relationship, or an ongoing battle with someone or something. Make sure not to answer all questions in the first book: end each book with something unresolved.

But if you do, you must follow through. If a character has a dying father or a child given up for adoption or an ex-husband in prison, you cannot just discard this thread. Your readers will expect you to deal with it at some stage. It’s the pay-off they were promised when they committed to reading a series. Do not let them down!

A series does not have to revolve around one central character of course; Tana French will often take a single character from one of her books and follow that character into the next. And the success of a series may depend on setting and atmosphere as well as on character; I’m thinking particularly of CJ Samson’s vivid evocation of sixteenth-century England in his Shardlake novels. Although the Inishowen Mystery series I write does revolve around a central character (Ben O’Keeffe), the location is just as important. As the series continues, the pub, the bookshop and the surrounding landscape will hopefully become as familiar to the reader as they are to Ben herself, and a world to which readers will want to return. As a writer you should enjoy immersing yourself in that world also. Beginning a new Ben O’Keeffe novel for me is like encountering an old friend.

Conan Doyle has said that “a man cannot spin a character out of his own inner consciousness and make it really life-like unless he has some possibilities of that character within him”. If you are going to spend a number of books writing about the same character, you must choose someone that you can live with. PD James in her book, Talking About Detective Fiction, remarks that she learned a lesson from both Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, “both of whom started out with eccentric detectives with whom in time they became increasingly disenchanted”.

My serial character, Ben O’Keeffe, is an amateur sleuth who happens to be a solicitor, who runs the most northerly solicitor’s practice in the country. It is no coincidence that I was also a solicitor who ran the most northerly solicitor’s practice in the country. A reviewer of my first book, Death at Whitewater Church, remarked that I hadn’t looked too far afield for inspiration, and it’s true, I didn’t. But I needed a serial character who would encounter crime, who would come into contact with a wide selection of characters and who would learn people’s secrets, secrets that she would have to keep. A small-town solicitor was perfect for that. Although I didn’t encounter quite so many corpses!

Treacherous Strand, the second book in the Inishowen Mysteries series, is published by Constable and launched by Henrietta McKervey in the Gutter Bookshop, Temple Bar, Dublin, on Thursday, June 2nd, at 6.30pm