Thursday, July 21, 2016

Reds on #Writing: @LucyBurdette aka #RobertaIsleib

LUCY BURDETTE: You may well have read on Facebook that Penguin Random House is not renewing the Key West foodie mystery series. Though I’m sad about this, I’m not taking the news personally. Here’s why:

1. I don’t think it has much to do with either the quality of the books or the sales. Lots of mass-market cozy folks are ending up in the refugee boat with me—it’s a mysterious corporate decision over which we have no control.

2. It’s happened before and I’ve survived and thrived.

3. I will most likely continue the series in another form in the future.

4. The support and enthusiasm of readers has been a huge comfort!

But I thought it might be interesting to look back on my reaction to the news that the golf lovers’ mystery series was not getting renewed. (Hint: devastated.) I called this essay “Character Assassination.”

Losing a special friend hurts, even if you’re mourning a figment of your own imagination.

I’ve been getting to know my protagonist, professional golfer Cassie Burdette, since scratching out the opening paragraphs of my first mystery in January 1998. As with most fictional detectives, Cassie wrestled with skeletons in her closet: her father’s desertion, a melancholy, alcoholic mother, a fog of self-doubt. Ambivalence infused her relationships with men and she tended to defer soul-searching in favor of the anesthetic effects of Budweiser.  Notwithstanding these conflicts, I imagined Cassie eventually thriving on the professional golf circuit through a combination of talent, spunk, and the right friends.

With five golf mysteries in print by March 2006, Cassie and I have spent the better part of eight years together. I finally talked her into starting psychotherapy (with the help of a couple of other characters) to address her low self-esteem and self-destructive tendencies. She began to play better golf, choose kinder men, drink less, and reconnect with her dad.

Roberta/Lucy with LPGA golfer Kate Golden
Meanwhile, researching Cassie’s world took me on some amazing adventures. I spent most of my first (modest) advance paying to compete in a real professional-amateur LPGA tournament so I could absorb the correct ambience for book two.

And I played golf at Pinehurst, Palm Springs, and in the Dominican Republic—all tax-deductible without stretching the IRS code. I met and corresponded with professional golfers, and many fans—mystery fans, golf fans, and best of all, fans of both. These people worried about Cassie: how can she drink that much before a tournament? How can she eat like that and stay in shape? Lose the boyfriend—he’s a bum! Over coffee, my friends were more likely to ask what was new with Cassie, than with me. And reviewers hailed Cassie as “a character readers can root for.”

I’d begun plotting the skeleton for the sixth installment, involving a golf reality show, a hunky cop, and murder, of course.

Then the word came from my editor: “We’d rather see a new idea—the numbers just haven’t been that good…”

Surprised or not, I was flooded with sadness and disappointment. No more Cassie Burdette mysteries? Like the end of a souring romance, I wished I’d been the one to call it quits.

H.R.F. Keating
Days later, waiting to sign books at the Malice Domestic mystery convention, I sat next to an older man with a soft voice and a full beard. He introduced himself as H.R.F. Keating—the Malice honoree for lifetime achievement, including twenty-five novels in his Inspector Ghote series. In response to his kind interest, I spilled the news that Cassie’s series was being killed. I'm quite certain that I cried. He assured me that he’d often thought his series went on too long, that perhaps years ago he’d said all he really had to say, and that seven books might be the optimum length for a series. Then the doors opened and a crush of fans queued up to have him sign books that spanned forty years.

Twenty-five novels, each one nudging back a little further the curtain obscuring Inspector Ghote’s personality: I realized there are many things I’ll never know about Cassie. Will she win a tournament? Have a relationship with golf psychologist Joe Lancaster? Get married?  Overcome her fear of kids? Hey, I’ll never know if I’m a grandmother.

But life in the publishing business lumbers on: I’ve signed a contract for my next writing adventure. The new series will feature psychologist and advice columnist, Dr. Rebecca Butterman, a woman who made cameo appearances in several of the golf mysteries. 

 Cassie wasn’t crazy about her—I can hear her voice now: “You’re writing about a psychologist? Rebecca Butterman? Bor-ing.”

And PS, back to me in the present, wasn't I so lucky to be seated next to that sweet man at the exact moment I needed his calm? And ps, Cassie did make a brief appearance in ASKING FOR MURDER and DEATH WITH ALL THE TRIMMINGS. I am a fictional grandmother.  

Meanwhile, I am working madly on several projects, but I'm feeling very superstitious. So I decided not to say much about them…I'm not being a tease, I swear, just nauseously nervously anxiously cautious.

Reds and Red readers, how long do you think a series should run?


  1. I am very sorry to hear that the Key West food critic mystery series will not continue as I’ve really enjoyed the stories.
    I find it rather problematical to say how long a series ought to run although a part of me wants to say that a series should continue as long as the author has stories to tell. Series characters become like friends to readers and it’s terribly difficult to tuck them away on the bookshelf and know there will be no further adventures.

  2. Extremely sad to find out the Key West food critic mystery series is not continuing. I finished reading "Killer Takeout" last month, and was looking forward to the next chapter for Hayley & her friends. I love culinary cozies and thought the Key West setting made it more distinct from the many other series I read.

    There is no easy answer about what is the optimal number of books in a series.
    I do notice that trilogies are popular in fiction Something they work, other times not so much. I enjoyed Peter May's trilogy, as well as John Farrow's storm trilogy, and these are mystery fiction books

    But for cozy mystery series, as long as the characters are interesting and continue to grow/develop with each book, and there's a good plot to drive the story, I think there should not be a particular limit to the number of books in the series.

    That being said, there are several cozy series that I have stopped reading because there doesn't seem to be much memorable between what happened in let's say book 16 and book 17. It's too bad when the author makes us lose interest about characters we used to love reading.

  3. I'm glad you have that perspective, Roberta. I hope we see more of Hayley elsewhere - I have so enjoyed the Key West Mysteries.

    I have no idea how long a series should run, and tend to agree with Joan and Grace about "as long as the author has stories to tell." Right now, as an author, I can't imagine ending a series voluntarily. Wait, that's not true! I ended my own Lauren Rousseau Mysteries. Not because she was done solving crimes, but because I had three better offers, and I can't write four books a year. So I guess Professor Rousseau is on a long sabbatical...

  4. Might as well be philosophical, right? I guess it's the flip side or rejection letters, which we all know not to take personally. At least if we're going to ever get out of bed again.

    Of course I can think of one series in particular that has gone on way too long, retreading many of the same tropes on what seems like an endless loop. But it's probably a victim of its own popularity. The subsequent books after Shades of Gray come to mind, although the only mystery about that series is how it got into print in the first place. (Yes, I might be a tad crabby this morning.)

    On the other hand, there are so many more options these days for an author. I was listening to Fresh Aire yesterday. The showrunner for the show Veep said something that struck me: there are more than fifty buyers of programming content right now. With Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and a host of other outlets that never before existed, suddenly there are buyers for quality entertainment.

    I think much of the same thing is going on in the world of publishing, as well, although traditional publishers are still struggling with adapting. In the meantime, authors are also being creative about marketing, sometimes much more so than the publishers themselves. The speed dating at Malice provides lots of examples of that creativity. It's a challenge, that's for sure.

    So, onward, right? I'm really looking forward to seeing what's next, Roberta. So far, I've loved all your work I've read; leaving us all wanting more is not a wholly bad thing.

  5. I hate that publishing is 'a numbers' game. So agree with Karen, Edith, Grace, and Joan--will be sorry to see Hayley gone, will be happy to see what comes next, BUT, as long as a writer brings something fresh to a series, then I don't think I agree with Inspector Ghote's author--there are series that are into double-digit numbers now that I devour--the writing is still that good. On the other hand, the last two books in a series that I have loved for years--well, new plot? Check. New setting? Check. Same band of characters? Check. But that spark is gone. The spark that made you care about the fate of these characters and the people whose lives crossed theirs. The spark that made you eagerly turn page after page with the night hours burning up and an early deadline or dinner to get ignored....

    Best wishes, Roberta, for your next adventure!

  6. Interesting question, and one with no right answer. If I were a writer, which I am not, I doubt I'd consider killing the fatted calf. As long as there is a story to tell and readers who read, I'd not worry.

    I'm thinking of one very long series that never gets boring, the Gemma and Duncan books, always fresh. My only criticism is that the books don't come along often enough. Write faster please, Deb. No, don't. Whatever you are doing is just right.

    Many of my favorite writers kept their series going for years: Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rex Stout, P.D. James, James Lee Burke, Louise Penny. This is very good company in my estimation.

    So I say keep writing a series as long as you like. And an aside, please refrain from killing off your protagonists, just in case you want to resurrect a character in the future.

    Bonne chance, Lucy, on your next ventures and adventures. As John Irving once wrote, "Keep on passing the open windows."

  7. WHen what yo don;t want to happen actually happens, that's horrible. But inevitably, absolutely and without question, something fabulous,even more fabulous, happens as a result. It has never failed to be that way..

    I know,--it's easier when it's not you, right? Easier to be empathetic and sympathetic than to be the one with the disappointment. Easier to understand it intellectually than to handle it emotionally. (HA! I just burst out laughing. Look who I'm talking to here. Stuff you've said to others ten billion times.)

    I was at an event with the terrifically talented Mark Billingham, who had a lot to say about series. One thing was: MUCH better to stop when it's still great. (I can think of several must-buy authors that no longer are on my lists.)

    I guess--It's that you're going to be writing something different now. You're a writer, the only question is: of what. And you've already got irons in the fire. It'll be so much fun to read your "good news" blog.

    And you are already doing a good thing by sharing this. Imagine how many people feel better because of it.


  8. Grace, what an interesting thought. It's as if the author has done exactly the opposite of whet they hoped--they've made us tired of a character we loved.

    And MIA MANANSALA! YOu won LInda Fairstein's KILLER LOOK! Email me via my website

  9. Excellent piece, Roberta!

    I will miss Hayley and Key West. Truthfully? I thought the series had truly hit its stride and was getting better with each entry. Like it had decided exactly what it wanted to be and was growing confident in its skin.

    How long a series should run is always a tough question, huh? Not many, however, get to make the decision on their own any longer as it's taken out of their hands by publishers who "think" they know what we readers want.

    There are some series that I loved and thought I would always love and was surprised when I realized they had lost me along the way.

    And then there's Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott who will be mourned for a very long time even though I think Margaret did exactly the right thing. The right thing for herself and the right thing for Deborah. When an author thinks it's time, I have to believe it's time.

    I did not win Linda Fairstein's book?! Dang! I never win anything (throwing myself onto the floor to pitch a tantrum. Yes. I am.)

  10. How long a series should run varies with the series. At least that's my thought. The reader can tell when the writer is tired of the characters and the writer can tell it's time to bid a fond adieu to the series when she starts making appointments to have teeth pulled without anesthetic instead of writing the books.

    What is truly sad is what is happening now with so many series being cut short in the prime of their life for whatever reason the powers that be see fit. I will miss Haley, I've been with her since the start and although I did not meet Cassie, I figure I'll catch up with her at some point.

    BIG NEWS - Congratulations on the Butterman series. Looking forward to reading it. One door closes...

  11. thank you all for the wonderful words of support--I knew I would get that here! Publishers do have a lot to say these days, and as Ann mentioned, killing the fatted calf or golden goose is tough. On the other hand, I, too, have stopped reading series when they begin to feel flat.

    I am looking forward to being able to tell you: "here's what's next, hurray!!"

    xoxox love you Jungle Reds

  12. I think it SHOULD CONTINUE UNTIL YOU DIE! At least one book a year! Gooooo Hailey

  13. I think it SHOULD CONTINUE UNTIL YOU DIE! At least one book a year! Gooooo Hailey

  14. I'm so sad to hear this,I loved the whole gang.Knowing you will be bringing it somewhere else makes me happy.I will read it wherever it shows up.As far as series goes,Janet evanovich has her books still going,close to 30.I think as long as your audience wants to read them.If you had 30 books in this series I would still read,can't get enough.😃💛

  15. Sad to see the Key West series end, but excited for whatever's next for you. As for how long a series should be; hard to say. But as Hank said, a couple of those famous "must read" authors stopped being just that, as I got so frustrated with their protagonists. So quit while you're ahead, I guess, even if the decision is forced on you. Keep us posted on whatever you have going on; can't wait!!

  16. Roberta, I think you should bring Rebecca back in a stand alone. I would love to visit with her again. xoxo

  17. thank you Debbie, Debra, and Marilyn--I am so grateful for your enthusiasm!

    Ruth, I liked that character a lot too. thank you. I will keep you all posted, count on that!

  18. As an outsider looking in, and knowing that some authors have multi-book contracts, I often wonder if some of the books aren't forced because of the grueling writing schedule. It would certainly stifle my creative spirit.

  19. I'm sorry to hear this, Roberta. Especially since you had so many Key West fans.

    When should a series end? Tough. If the author still has stories and a love for the characters, keep going. But as soon as you feel you're "phoning it in," you should stop. Problem is, for traditionally published folks, you don't always have the power to choose. If the publisher wants a book a year and you have a contract, you HAVE to keep writing. And sometimes it goes the other way (as with you).

    But yes, as others have pointed out a) you're a writer and we'll be looking forward to your "good news" post (because there will be one) and b) there are so many options out there for writers these days that the door may never be truly, completely shut.

    Hang in there!

  20. I think both Cassie and Hayley had many more books in them. It's not about you or the books, it's about contractions in the publishing business. The purge to "save money" and they do it to series authors AND to editors who've gotten too expensive when young ones can be hired at a fraction. We may love the publishing business but it doesn't love us back.

    I've read some of one of Lucy's work in progress and it's terrific. A little darker and grittier, probing psychologically and gripping. Rooting for it.

  21. I'm debating this very subject right now. I'm up to book 17 in the Molly Murphy series. I still enjoy spending time with her but the drive to solve crimes has become harder for her now she is a mother. Also I have many ideas that do not fit into one of my series. Do I make time for them? I'd hate to get to the end of my writing life and think "I wish I'd written that book."
    I can't see abandoning Lady Gerogie for a while. I've still plenty of stories for her!

  22. Roberta/Lucy:

    When I recently went to your book signing in Milford I was devastated when you announced that there would be no more Hayley books. I felt ( and still feel) as though I had just experienced a death in the family.

    Usually, I finish your books in a day or two. This time around I dragged it out as long as possible because I did not want to say good-bye!

    As for continuing a series, I always hope the authors will continue the books for the rest of their lives. Two favorite series authors died within the past few years, and were publishing new books up until the end. I read every one of those books, and I mourn the loss of the authors and their characters.

    I hope Hayley shows up again soon.

    Edith, I have missed Lauren!

    Deb Romano

  23. Oh man, jeez. Phooey. On Facebook, I saw a -- I'm not sure what it was, to be honest -- but it was an event in support of cozy writers who have been cut recently. Meanwhile, I heard the Poisoned Pen (don't quote me on this) is actively seeking cozy writers! What a crap shoot.

    I'm sorry you're a victim (but not acting like one!) of the shoot. I look forward to hearing about your future projects!

  24. Roberta, I am so sad to see the Haley books come to an end. You created a great ensemble cast and I cared about all of them. And they were funny and the setting was great and there was food... but you know all that. Hopefully we'll get an update one day on Haley--maybe a short story?

    Can't wait to see what you're working on next, though. I'm sure it will be fabulous.

    The series question is a tough one. There have been series that I never wanted to end, and there have been series I got bored with. I think you can usually tell if the author is bored.

    And thanks, Ann, for the nice compliment on Duncan and Gemma. Just finishing a book makes me sad, because I love my characters so much. But more on that tomorrow!

  25. This is a really good question.

    I'm slowly putting together my first book in a whimsical series that could go on forever. It's sort of a kid's mystery series for grownups. Even if I don't find a publisher, if the stories keep coming to me, I'll keep on writing them and self-publish until I'm sprinkled in a forest somewhere.

    But some series need to end. Sometimes the whimsy and charm of cozies seems better preserved set across fewer books. I haven't read your books, but five is a good number. I love the idea of a series that ends with five. It's not too few or too much. It seems just right.

    Five Star published my mom's first two books in her Shakespeare in the Vineyard series, and then they decided to go country western and dropped mysteries in favor of John Wayne romances. Or something like that. I don't really get it, but I guess they're following the money.

    Meanwhile, she finished her third book in the series, but publishers don't want to pick up a series that was first published by someone else. So it seems her only option is to self-publish or move on to a new series. While waiting to hear back in response to her queries, she was asked to write a short mystery story for a book that's being published this fall, and she whipped right through it, much to her surprise. She loved the experience of doing this, and now she's working on turning that story into a full-length book and possibly a new series.

    So, you loose one and gain another sometimes. :o))

  26. It is true the reader can tell when the author is phoning it in. Or not letting her character grow, as in making the same mistakes book after book. I hated to see Margaret Maron end her Deborah Knott series but she was probably smart to do it. I didn't want to read about Kezzy going to meet his maker. I think you have a lot of Key West stories left Hallie. Perhaps you could write some e-novellas to give us updates on Hayley? And the rest of the gang?

  27. Oh dear. Like everyone has said above I was a fan of the characters and the plots. If it were not for Hayley, I would not have known about the Cat Man at Mallory Square. I hope that Hayley and crew will appear again. I will miss Ms. Gloria especially.

    When should a series end? If it is plot driven, when the story is told. If character driven when they have nothing left to say. I am bothered when characters do not grow over time. To me, that is sloppy writing. Realistically, if sales have dropped off markedly, perhaps this is the readers saying the series should end.

    It does seem strange that Publishing houses do mistreat their authors. It is like a farmer stomping out his crop before it has a chance to grow. Things really did change a generation ago. I hope that the continuing change will once again bring financial benefits and quality contracts to the authors.

  28. I am a huge fan of the Key West mysteries as you know, and I'll be very sorry to see them end. I'm glad you're feeling more philosophical about it this time around, but it is still a shame for the fans.

    I love Ruth Rendell's Wexford series which spanned 50 years in real time. And though her detective didn't age in real time, her town of Kingsmarkham changed from a sleepy English village to a suburb with a large and diverse population, which I always thought was cool.

    Though I never tired of the books, Rendell herself did. She made no secret that she preferred both the books and the readers of her Barbara Vines and stand-alone psychological suspense. So I guess that's the other side of it. Leave before the readers tire of it, and before you do, too.

  29. Dear Roberta,

    I love your Key West books and I loved your golf series. I think I only read one of the Butterman books, but I enjoyed that as well.

    You will land on your feet because you are a good writer with a wonderful attitude. Keep those great characters coming!

    Brenda B.

  30. Roberta, you are awesome, your books are wonderful, and when a door closes, a window opens. I can't wait to read your "next chapter." xo S.

  31. As sad as it is, having a series cancelled like this, it's better than having a series continued by writers after the author dies. Robert B. Parker's characters are not the same. There are entirely too many words on a page! That goes to show what how good he was with his writing. Btw, I attended Northeastern University when he was a professor there. One of his classes was the most popular on campus. Th subject matter? Star Trek!

    Archy McNally wasn't the same after Lawrence Sanders went to the great publishing house in the sky. So, being Pollyanna, you're still with us, Lucy/Roberta. Please keep dipping that pen in the ink. Lots of us are rooting for you!

  32. I think that is is "easier" to end a series when a character has achieved some growth or some substantial life change or has completed an overarching story plotline (for example, protagonist has been dealing with a missing family member the whole series and now found her). In those cases it does not feel so abrupt and the readers don't feel like they have been cut adrift from characters/settings that they have grown attached to over time. I do think the much sadder case is when an author has grown tired of characters/a series and continues to write them, with the original feel being lost in that process.

  33. As far as I am concerned, a series I love can last forever -- there is always a new way for the character to interact with the world. I have read all of Lucy's series, and they are each great -- entertaining, lively, interesting, and fun. I am very sad to say goodbye to Key West -- I almost feel as if I could say I have been there with Hayley!!

    Good luck with whatever you choose to do --- you have got "it" and you we are so lucky that you share!!

  34. Gosh, I hate to see you go through this again. I guess that's All Part of The Game, as we say in horse racing. Ups and downs, I get, except none of it feels much like a game, even if it is entertainment. That includes horse racing.

    After watching friends like you survive the abrupt ends of their mystery series over the years, I kind of think it would be nice to have some closure or perhaps even a continuation of the story on another platform. Even if the continuation is only to close out the series to move on to something else. Whatever the case, we fans will follow your imagination wherever it takes you.

    TV networks have learned how a show's fans mourn when a beloved series -- even if beloved by relatively few -- gets dropped by a network. The closest mystery fans get is with the Save Our Cozies Facebook page. Perhaps we're too demure to send execs a deluge of letters like scifi fans do.

    Most of us are afraid to, in case it ruins our chances at a spot in The Game. ("Rhonda Lane? Hey, I remember her. She sent us a whole bag of letters urging us to keep the Key West Food Critic mysteries. Nut job, that one. Stamp her query 'Not for Us,' but refer her to Rebecca Butterman.")

  35. Roberta, I have to admit that I was most upset to find out the Haley Snow series was not going to be renewed. I just can't imagine no more Haley or Miss Gloria or any of the great characters living their lives in Key West. I do hope that they reappear somehow, somewhere. I am happy that I will have more to read from you.

    I would think it's rather hard for an author to know when a series should end, unless they determine that they are bored with it. I love long series, even when I'm just discovering one and have up to twenty books to read in it. There's only one series that I read that I started thinking the author needed to give it a decent burial. No one here, of course.

    Rhys, I'm going to pretend that I didn't read your thoughts about the Molly Murphy series.

  36. I'd already heard this news in the FB cozy group, but even having the knowledge already in my brain it is still hard to comprehend why the Key West series had to end. But I know your next series will be even better. How do I know this? Because I read the Deadly Advice and Golf Lovers mysteries back when you wrote "under that other name" (LOL!) and with each book you get better and better. All of us fans will be here, waiting to pre-order you next book. Promise :)

  37. thank you so much friends. I can't tell you what it means to hear all your comments; even the sadness is a comfort, as it mirrors what I felt (thank you DebR, Coralee, Denise, Barb, Brenda, KathyR!)

    So interesting about how books pale when added to a series after an author dies--Moosenotes, glad your mom has found something new. As I am not yet sprinkled in a forest, I will find the right "next" too!

    thanks again Reds, you mean the world to me!

  38. I'm sad that the series won't be continued by the publisher, but I'm glad that it won't stop. Although I'm also excited for your new projects! Good Luck with them :)

  39. Thank you for sharing, Lucy. I read your Food Critic mysteries. My library has your books. It was serependity (sp?) that you met a new friend at Malice who was philosophical about this issue.

    Look forward to reading your new books in the future.

  40. Sorry to hear about your character's death. It's always sad when a beloved friend is gone, but in this case she lives on. Maybe a book at a future date, that kind of ties up all the loose ends and can be just a ebook?

    As to series length, I am torn. Some series I want to go on forever, and some play themselves out quickly, depending on how much of the main charcater's story there is to be said. If it just continues as a mystery, and not much new with the lead, then maybe it's time to leave. But also, as a practical note, many of us readers so not have unlimited budgets, and series that have 20 or 30 books gets quite expensive, and yet we can't quit on them. I like to try new authors and new series, so find the sweet spot of feeling you've said enough, leaving them still wanting more, but also giving them new characters and settings. And if you particularly like a setting, use it to form a community of bookstore owners, and cupcake shop owners, and beauty parlor owners, etc. Like Debbie Macomber does with Port Orchard.

  41. Yay, I won! Hank Phillippi Ryan, I sent you an email yesterday. I hope it didn't get sent to your spam folder.

    This is something I've thought about. We always bemoan TV shows and book series that get dropped early, but in a weird way, sometimes I wonder if being cut down in their prime was better than them just fading away. It makes me so sad that The Simpsons, which is my favorite TV show, has been bad longer than it's been good. Or the massive hype and letdown of that lackluster 4th season of Arrested Development.

    That being said, I'm really sad to hear about your series cancellation. Death With All the Trimmings was one of the books I read and reviewed for the Save Our Cozies Readathon, and I greatly enjoyed it. Just checked out Killer Takeout from the library today, as a matter of fact. Best of luck in your future endeavors.