Survival Tips For A Long-Running Crime Series
‘My (insert aged relative of choice) loves your books.’
I first noticed a problem when I went back to check on a character’s name in Book 12 of my Bryant & May novels.
The character was using a Blackberry. These devices have now officially deceased; nothing dates faster than technology. I flicked back through earlier books. A Fax machine turned up along with DVDs, CDs, flash drives and things called floppy disc.
The problem quickly made itself known. The timeline of the books is continuous (each new novel begins the week after the last one ends) but the volumes are published yearly, so that ten years of books cover just ten weeks in the life of my police unit. And that means the technology sort of slips. My detectives have been rushed from the first appearance of DNA testing to the arrival of Cloud backup in next to no time. Two decades of technology and current events have been squeezed into a fiction time period of about a year.
I find it odd that some readers expect characters to age. I can’t allow each book to be set a year after the last one in real time because my elderly detectives would be long dead.
To keep the illusion alive I avoid too-topical references – who remembers Jedward now? The Golden Age authors could get away with creating closed worlds that had absolutely nothing to date them, but modern crime writers need to at least acknowledge the real world.
It’s a balance. In any crime series consistency is as important as originality. You’re not pulling the trick off once but again and again, and it’s a race to see if you or your readers tire first.
As for originality, I ask myself what you would least expect me to do, and most like me to do. I read all online replies and take many to heart.
Authors of crime series receive fewer reviews as they go on. ‘Oh, another volume with the same characters,’ space-pressed reviewers think, with some justification. It’s hard connecting with the next generation of readers. The compliment I dread is; ‘My (insert aged relative of choice) loves your books.’
It Appears That I’ve Sabotaged The Series.
How do you continue to keep things fresh? I add new characters, try different styles, tuck references into the stories that reward loyalty. The most common question at signings tables is ‘Which book of yours should I start with?’ I always suggest they start in the middle.
Now, though, it appears that I’ve sabotaged the series. ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ reaches the end of a story arc I had long planned. But interest in the characters is still high, and there are still new stories to tell. That’s why this July there will be a Bryant & May Book 21, although it will be slightly different from usual. My publisher has suggested that I’ve created ‘a literary chimera’. Just how that works, you’ll see in due course.
Eventually one of four things will happen. One, my detectives will become outdated and forgotten as time moves on around them. Two, they’ll keep a certain timelessness that allows them to stay in print. Three, some farsighted or possibly deranged person will work out how to make a TV series. And four, I’ll hang in there and keep surprising you.
I would prefer option four but the first option could come to pass, and that’s fine too. Everyone gets their allocated time, and it will have been a wonderful journey.