Tuesday, February 26, 2013

How New Is TOO New?

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.

As fans of the “Murder, She Wrote” series know, Jessica Fletcher goes through life solving murders wherever she goes, and does it with grace, charm, humility, and aplomb. The books, while differing in terms of setting and storylines (many, of course, take place in Jessica’s beloved Cabot Cove) maintain a constant “feel.” They fall into the “cozy” genre—Jessica is now referred to by reviewers as “today’s Miss Marple”—and generally avoid subjects that might be considered too dark.

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.

Domestic Malice did not deviate dramatically from all the previous books. Jessica Fletcher and her band of loyal, loving friends in Cabot Cove continue to live and function as readers expect them to. In Experiment in Murder politics continues to be at the core of the novel, and the series favorite couple, Mac and Annabel Smith (who’ve become fan favorites as the new Nick & Nora Charles), play a role, although not as major a one as some loyal readers would prefer. I treasure every reader, and wince at the thought of losing even one. Fortunately, these defections are few and far between. And I suspect that even those who are disgruntled will not abandon either series and will be on-hand at the bookstore or online when the next novel is published.

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!


  1. Jack Reacher in a new bespoke suit? I think not! And yet . . . . It seems to me that the character, no matter how beloved in however many books, must grow in order to keep from stagnating and I’d be hard-pressed to abandon a series I loved simply because the main character was involved in something a bit different or slightly new. Frankly, this puzzles me a bit . . . if the book “did not deviate dramatically from all the previous books,” then I have to assume our intrepid heroine is behaving exactly as we would expect her to . . . and I don’t see the storyline as out of the scope of her usual concerns . . . making it all feel a bit like a tempest in a teapot on the part of those disgruntled readers. I vote for the writers to keep on writing and, as long as they’re true to the character, then it’s all good.

  2. " You don't think of me in all black leather."

    Well, actually ...

  3. Hank you got in touch with your Inner Mrs. Peel, that's all...:)

    Change is supposed to be good, but I don't always buy that one. Some characters do naturally grow and change over time and it works; Lucas Davenport comes to mind. I've been reading the series from the beginning and over the years Lucas has gone from Lone Wolf Street Badass to pretty much Settled Down Husband and Father. He can still *bring* the Wolf out when he needs to, but has gotten much more relaxed these days.

    Travis McGee was starting to mellow a bit there at the end, like all of us do. Spenser still does things a 19 year old would have difficulty with, and if the reader even remotely follows history, Spenser has got to be in his 70's by now.

    Then again, James Bond will always be 37/38 or so (old enough to be experienced, young enough to still save the world).

    Subject matter? A tougher call. It would be hard to imagine Jessica Fletcher dealing with a child abuse matter, just like Jack Reacher would be wildly out of place in a traditional genteel 'locked room' mystery.

    It's a tough call, no matter if you look at it as an author or a reader. Things change, people change, but there is a certain comfort in reading new books about old favorites and knowing things will pretty much be the same...:)

  4. P.S. Yes I can see you in a black leather dress Hank. Not a red one, but black is fine. Dee

  5. Welcome Donald and Renee! I guess I didn't know you were writing Margaret Truman too--you guys are amazing!

    This topic hits close to home right now, as I'm writing the fourth Key West mystery. It involves a visiting teen (Hayley's stepbrother) who disappears, maybe into the network of homeless kids on the island.

    Actually, I have no idea what really happens, but in the synopsis I mentioned the possibility of human trafficking. Per my editor, this may be too dark for my audience...it's a tricky question because readers of cozy mysteries may not want to be surprised by something that doesn't fit in that box.

    In the end, I have faith that readers will follow the story and the characters if it all fits together.

  6. As long as it all stays true to the character, I would be hard-pressed to find fault with it. Personally, I can't see a reason why Jessica Fletcher wouldn't get involved in a domestic abuse case. She has always been a strong advocate for victims, of all sorts.

    The Truman book on the other hand is a change in style (from mystery to thriller), so I can see some fans who don't necessarily enjoy the components of thrillers not being excited. But I doubt they would give up the series unless that style became the new norm.

    I think that the writer controls the story and they should be true to that. If you try to please all your readers, you will end up pleasing no one.

    As for Hank in black leather...I will say again, I have yet to see Hank look anything less than stunning, so I'm sure this was the case here as well.

  7. If Lisbeth Salander threw a tea party...

    Oh, Donald and Renee - SO GREAT to see you here at Jungle Red! I am in awe of you and can't wait to have that problem of having published SO MANY books that I risk repeating myself.

    You guys make it lok so easy!

  8. I reallyreallyreally enjoyed this post! Had no idea the Bains did my favorite M. Truman books now! Where have I been - in some cave??? You have also given me an excellent bone to chew on and made me realize I need to read this again, s-l-o-w-l-y! Thelma in Manhattan

  9. I think characters have to grow, especially if they are young to start with, like mine, one expects them to mature.
    Even Miss Marple tries to learn to adjust to the modern world. But they must never act out of character. There was one Miss Marple on TV who was quite wrong. She twittered and giggled and was given a back story of illicit romance, making me quite uncomfortable.
    If Lisbeth Salander joined the Junior League and got a pedicure.

  10. Oh, yes, you know it was difficlt for me to think of something Lisbeth Salander WOULDN'T do. Because she's do anything, of course. Briefly.

    But Junior League is a good one..and tea party is along the same lines, right?

    (Aww..Kristopher. xo)

  11. Lucy, that is fascinating. I'm tryig to come up wiht a new plot, and JOnathan is pushing terrorists. I keep saying--I don;t do terrorists. My people don't deal with terrorists.

    But gee--if they had to, they would? Right? Still, there's something about the "feel" of ht ook that you know is right or wrong--for the BOOK.

  12. William, I've never thought about how old James BOnd is. Huh.

    (Are you thinking: Old Cary Grant fine, how you? :-) )

  13. And one more thing..my agent and I are talking about my most recent synopsis..and she cautioned me to have it take place a year or so later then it does.

    Otherwise, she said, an awful lot of stuff is happening to Jake and Jane in a very short time.

    WHat do you think about that?

  14. And the winner of Deborah Crombie's new THE SOUND OF BROKEN GLASS IS VIKINGWHISTLER!

    Email me at h ryan at whdh dot com and send me your address! And hurray!

  15. Change is good - in small increments! Of course that might be my advanced age speaking according to my sons, grand/greatgrandkids.

  16. I'd be so happy for her if Kinsey escaped for a weekend of sex and chocolate after all these years! She deserves a few days off.

  17. I can absolutely see Jack Reacher feeling his age at some point, slowing down, wanting roots somewhere, someone to love, all of which would create even more tension.

    I also can absolutely see Hank in leather.

  18. Susan, that is a truly wonderful thought. Let's call Sue.

    Michael, the "old Reacher" idea is terrific. It works, doesn't it? SO interesting. (And xo)

    And yeah, Karen, who knows. :-)

  19. I don't want to see a favorite character do something out of character: Jessica Fletcher becoming a high class Madame would be SO out of character, Hank's Jake becoming a crooked cop would be extremely disappointing. But Jessica discovering that a coach is a pedophile could be a timely topic, Jake discovering that a local person is funding terrorist activity is also timely.

    And I didn't know that the Bains were continuing the Truman novels, either. Good to know!

  20. True to character seems to be the mantra here. We all change and grow, and yet retain our basic character through it all. Fascinating discussion, and book titles, too!

  21. I like it when characters grow and learn from what's happened to them, but I don't like it when they do something totally out of left field with no motivation.

    For instance, I bought a leopard print sweater which is out of left field for me. My motivation: Hank told me to. I'm glad she didn't tell me to buy a black leather dress. I know I couldn't rock it as well as I'm certain she does!

  22. Sister, you NEEDED that sweater. And that's what I'm here for.

  23. DebRo--you just gave me a great idea. Thank you!
    (Not the Jake as bad cop thing--but interesting to contemplate if that could ever happen.)

    And yes, Mary, as a storyteller--you rely on that, too!

  24. Hank, that timing question is a good one. No answers, but don't you sometimes read a series -- esp if the protags aren't cops -- and think, whoa, she never even got to finish a cup of coffee between one bout of chaos and the next!

  25. Some of these long-running series need a shake-up now and then so long as it is done well. James Bond is The Dread Pirate Roberts: the name goes on but the man carrying it changes.

  26. Terrific topic! I certainly don't want to read the same book over and over, and I can't imagine any author I enjoy reading would care to *write* such a series.

    There've only been a few instances in which I've quit series, or authors. One was where an author began inserting her religious beliefs in a heavy-handed, obnoxious manner.

    Times, issues and people all change. I say write what sings to you, and I'll read what sings to me.

  27. Thanks, Hank, and all of you for reading the blog and posting your comments. Just want to clear up a misconception. While Don and I collaborate on the "Murder, She Wrote" series, his only collaborator on "Margaret Truman's Capital Crime Novels" was Ms. Truman herself. Don and Margaret were good friends for many years and they worked closely together.

  28. What a treat to be part of history!

    What are you working on now?

  29. Thanks for asking! I just finished the latest in the Margaret Truman series, "Undiplomatic Murder," featuring Mac and Annabel Smith and the series' new hero, Robert Brixton. Next, Renee and I are at work on the 41 "Murder, She Wrote" novel, "Aloha Betrayed," set on the beautiful island of Maui.
    This is the first of three novels under the new contract.

  30. A little more on that topic. When we were in Maui last fall, we interviewed the local police. They said, "Sorry to say (not really), we never have murders on Maui." We replied, "When Jessica Fletcher comes to town, there's always a murder."

  31. Interesting, Roberta, that you were cautioned that the topic of trafficking might be "too dark" for your audience. Those were the exact words used by one reviewer regarding the subject of spousal abuse in "Domestic Malice." Yet, we both write about murder, which seems to me is a pretty dark subject to begin. What say the rest of you?

  32. "When Jessica Fletcher comes to town, there's always a murder."

    Oh, Bains, remember when you declared an honoree at a conference--who was it?--an honorary citizen of Cabot Cove? And everyone--EVERYONE!-- in the audience said--Uh-OH!

  33. As long as Cabot Cove isn't Marblehead, then I'm safe?

  34. It was either Clay Stafford at Killer Nashville or Luisa Buehler at Love Is Murder. Happy to say they are both alive and well.

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  36. I would say so, Reine.

  37. I don't like them to act too out of character.

    I have a whole bunch of the Murder, She Wrote books and sometimes I get the newer ones from the library. Keep 'em coming! I even remember that the first one had the title Gin in it (Gin and Daggers, maybe?) and later on it came out in paperback but it's not listed as the first one.

  38. Hank, you'll rock the black leather dress! (And Jack Getze, very witty.)

    Love this post and discussion, Donald and Renee! It's so useful. I know there is one urban fantasy series of which I was a staunch fan--until the author suddenly turned the protagonist into the exact opposite of the character she'd been building over 6-8 books and made this chaste, ultra-responsible-for-others character into something from 50-whatever Shades who did terrible things to people she supposedly loved. Ewww! No, thank you!

    On the other hand, characters and series must grow and develop. Just without destroying everything the writer's spent years building up. Reacher getting older and maybe settling down--with all the conflicts that could bring, maybe. Hank's Jack suddenly discovering terrorists but no one will believe him but Jane so they have to deal with it themselves--I could see that.

    I also didn't know that Donald wrote the Margaret Truman books, so I'll have to check those out. So many great books, so little time.

  39. Thought provoking post, Donald & Renee. Sure, we all want any beloved character to live up to our expectations. But just like in real life, people we believe in can change, disappoint, shock or surprise us on any given day. As a writer, I appreciate your dilemna. I suspect one way around it is to make sure that even if they slip, they return to some part of what made them loved in the first place. Something for me to think about with my own writing, especially as I embark on a second book in a series. Great post!

  40. Sharon..that is such a great way of thinking about it!

  41. Great post! I have a lot of admiration for those who write such long running series. Keeping it fresh and keeping it "the same" at once has got to be so challenging. My hat is off to you both! :)

  42. Yes Sharon, you should be a psychologist!

    Renee--exactly!! We're writing MURDER mysteries, what could be darker than that?

    But on the other hand, lots of times the folks at the publisher are right on target:)

  43. I keep messing up these replies and losing them to the blogosphere. Anyway...Thanks, Michelle. "Gin and Daggers" was originally published in hardcover by another publisher and when it was republished in paperback by Penguin, it fell down the list, despite the fact that it had been the first book in the series.

  44. We agree with you, Linda. For our own sanity we need to let Jessica grow and change. Hope you enjoy the backlist and future books.

  45. Sharon, we strive to ensure Jessica remains constant in her intelligence, empathy, and amazing powers of observation--wish I had those--and so if we stray with a darker subject, she still puts her own sympathetic stamp on it. Hope we have made that clear in "Domestic Malice."

    Looking forward to reading your books.

  46. Thanks, Maura. You're right about the challenge, and we're working hard to get it right.

  47. Hi Roberta,

    We always say "a good editor is golden." And we always listen to ours. In this case, the editor didn't demur, it was some of our readers who felt the topic was too dark. Well, the book coming out this April, Prescription for Murder, is firmly back in the "Murder, She Wrote" canon. We trust we wont upset anyone with that one.

    Thanks everyone for ringing in with your comments. We'll check back tomorrow for any more.


  48. I don't mind a series dealing with darker-than-usual topics, as long as the continuing characters are still recognizably themselves and the overall tone is not too drastically changed.

    As someone else said above, though, if a series permanently shifts in tone and style - particularly if it shifts from mystery to thriller - that can affect whether I keep reading the series. I prefer the emphasis on puzzle-solving in mysteries over the pacing and the danger of thrillers.

    Above all, though, I believe authors should write the story they want to write. The fact that some readers may stop reading shouldn't stop the writer from writing their best story.


  49. What a wonderful day!

    And what a treat to get to chat with the Bains--hope our paths cross in person soon! Thank you so much for taking all this time..you are incredibly generous!

    Tomorrow... we'll announce the winner.. And we'll ask about your favorite..well, you'll just have to come see!

  50. What a great post! Great to see you here, Don & Renee.

    We have to agree with Sharon. A character can surprise us but still keep that essence of who they are.

    Love the discussion...

  51. Characters have to change and grow at least a little bit or they get a little monotonous. I'd give the new
    direction a chance. Never read any of the Truman books - would like to try one. Katherine

  52. Great this subject came up today. I have recently been bemoaning some of my favorite authors. All NYT's for becoming mind numbing boring. I haven't read their last two because they are the same old.
    I think characters have to grow and embrace change. It happens to all of us. As for Kinsey Milhone having a sex weekend She definitely needs it. Wish it could happen for her.
    I embrace some amount of change as a good thing. Nothing drastic though. All my characters do so. In moderation.
    Thanks for this.

  53. AND THE WINNER of Donald Bain's book is--


    Maura, email me at h ryan at whdh dot com and we will get you your book!

  54. Well, the wonderful Bains have asked me to choose yet an additional winner--to get a Jessica Fletcher! And that is: KAren B!

    Karen, you know the deal--email me your address!