It’s no secret – I love series. Merrily Watkins, Eve Dallas, Dalziel and Pascoe etc etc etc: bring it on. New series too – both the ones I discover when they’re halfway through and the ones which only become series when I find there’s a second, then a third and fourth, featuring a character I enjoyed.
But it occurred to me the other day that keeping a series going must present its author with a whole set of challenges which are quite different from coming up with a brand new idea/scenario/cast for each new book.
There has to be enough in each title that’s familiar. I’ve heard series fiction described as pulling on a comfy old pair of slippers, and to a great extent that’s how it needs to feel. For myself, I think of it more in terms of meeting up with some old friends and going along with them on their latest adventure, and I think a lot of people see it that way. I gather Phil Rickman got some flak over The House of Susan Lulham, because two regular characters were only mentioned in passing and another great favourite only appeared at the end of the phone. I didn’t find it a problem, but maybe that was because it was a novella, less than a quarter the length of the other books in the series; I coped fine with 25,000 words without Lol or Jane, but 150,000 might be a different matter. (OK, I know the maths don’t compute; I’m a words person, never was any good with numbers.)
The familiar is an essential element – but no one wants to read the same book over and over, so each new volume must be different too. A new adventure, maybe in a new place, new situations for the protagonist to deal with so that s/he develops a little, becomes deeper and more rounded. And maybe a new ongoing character or two as well, and some development for established ones. J D Robb does all that with great deftness. Through the early Eve Dallas novels, Eve and Roarke each unearth information about their pasts: things which help them understand who they are and why they turned out the way they did. Then new characters appear, entangled in whatever murder (it’s always a murder) Eve is investigating at the time – and reappear in subsequent books, form relationships of their own, move their lives on to a new phase.
Robert B Parker is often cited as an example of how to write a gripping series without moving the protagonist very far from where he started, but somehow that seems like a cop-out to me. People develop, move on, have lives outside immediate events; why shouldn’t fictional characters be the same? My favourite series characters have families, backstories, lives. They feel real, as if they could walk into the coffee shop where I’m having lunch with some friends, and I’d recognize them. And when I finish the latest in the series, I itch to read the next, to find out what she’s going to do about the pregnancy, or how she’s recovering from the rape, or if he’s going to be prosecuted for hitting a bad guy over the head with a rock, or if he’s going to come out of the coma.
There’s more. When I discover a new series character – Harry Bingham’s Fiona Griffiths is one, Martin Walker’s Chief of Police Bruno is another – I need to catch up with their past. And I’m sure I’m not alone in that – so why are early titles in an ongoing series allowed to go out of print? It took me years to fill the gaps in Reginald Hill’s sublime Dalziel and Pascoe series, and even then a lot of the earliest volumes came from secondhand shops. Take note, big publishers: not everyone wants to go down the e-book route. There’s something supremely satisfying about looking at a row of paperbacks with similar style covers, and knowing each one is a link in a chain which began with the first and continues as far as the series has progressed. A list of titles on an e-reader is absolutely not the same.
I’ll end there. I need to find out what Fiona Griffiths is up to in the latest in her uniquely brilliant series by Harry Bingham.