HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I bought a black leather dress. I WORE it.
Are you surprised? I mean, it's..unpredictable. You don't think of me in all black leather. And yet, there I was. We all try new things, right?
But there are some people for whom we will not accept "newness." And those are our beloved characters. You say: "Miss Marple" and I know who she is and what she'll do. And what she won't do. Poirot. Inspector Morse. Kinsey. Reacher. And Jessica Fletcher.
Ouch. That's exactly the problem the erudite and charming and talented Donald Bain and his fabulous wife (and wriitng partner ) Renee are facing. How do you keep it new--but not--TOO new?
Win Some, Lose Some
By Donald Bain
When writing a long-running series, having a large and devoted fan base is obviously a good thing. Readers eagerly await the publication of the next book, which assures a built-in market. It also encourages the writer to make each succeeding book better than the last one.
But it also carries with it a potential downside. Members of that loyal fan base expect each book to faithfully adhere to the basic elements that mark the series. Running characters mustn’t deviate very far from the characteristics that have endeared them to fans, and each book’s tone must not go far afield from what the readers expect. If the series avoids blood and gore, and romantic interests don’t slip into explicit sexual scenes, to shift gears and include graphic violence and sex is sure to turn off your fan base.
The series with which my wife and collaborator, Renée Paley-Bain, and I’ve been involved, 40 novels in the “Murder, She Wrote” series—and my connection with the 26 Washington-based novels in the Margaret Truman Capital Crimes series—are good cases in-point.
So when Domestic Malice was published last year, a small but vocal number of faithful followers of the series complained that the topic underlying the story, namely the serious problem of domestic violence, was a little too heavy for their taste.
The book itself didn’t deviate from all the books that preceded it, but wrapped into the Cabot Cove-based story was the reality that spousal abuse takes place in the United States at an alarming rate, and this point is made through the actions of the characters. While a few readers might fall by the wayside, newer ones who’d not read the series before but were attracted to Domestic Malice because of this subject filled the gap.
In the case of the Truman series, the latest, Experiment in Murder, published last November, broke the mold of the previous 25 books. It was written as a thriller, pure and simple. In addition, it cast light on the years of government-sponsored experimentation into mind control and its attempt to program the perfect assassin, a subject I did considerable research on years ago when writing the non-fiction The CIA’s Control of Candy Jones. Like a few fans of “Murder, She Wrote,” loyal Margaret Truman readers, used to quieter books that were more Washington-based murder mysteries than thrillers, have expressed their unhappiness with this change in tone and approach. But also like the Jessica Fletcher novels, while losing a few readers is dismaying, the new fans who prefer the new approach more than make up for it.
But these two examples point to a problem that every writer of long-standing series faces—how to keep a series fresh and inject new storylines—while not disappointing those diehard fans who resist any change with their favorite books and characters. What we’ve done most often is change locations so we have new settings to explore, different cultures to discover. Or we’ll take a peek into the hobbies, passions and interests of others. We try to weave in issues we confront either in the news or in our lives.
Books in the “Murder, She Wrote” series have touched on the dangers of diet drugs, art forgery in Italy, a runaway teenager, hunting truffles in France, plus looks behind the scenes in a theater, on a movie set, and in competitive figure skating. The Truman books address public concerns, too, as well as weave American history into each story. If a topic intrigues us, we hope it will engage our readers. But every now and then we’ll hit on something that raises hackles.
My answer? Follow your instincts, have faith in readers’ willingness to experience something slightly new, and forge ahead with the next book. It’s a challenge, but one that keeps writers on their toes.
HANK: So, Reds? Are you flexible with your faves? If Kinsey Millhone suddenly went off on a sex-crazed weekend...if Jack Reacher got a new bespoke suit ...if Sookie Stackhouse realized she wanted to go get her MBA. If Lisbeth Salander--well, what would be unpredictable? Would you embrace the new? Or would you think--whoa. I'm done? How new is too new?
And to a lucky commenter--we'll award Donald's newest--EXPERIMENT IN MURDER!