For not-yet-published writers, getting that first book completed can seem as challenging as climbing a mile-high staircase or swimming across the Atlantic. There is a whole different set of challenges for authors who write successful series novels, especially those that are still popular after years. Katherine Hall Page describes her own journey, writing a very successful, long-running mystery series. To read about her giveaway, scroll to the end of the post.
First off, I had no idea I was writing a series. When my husband took a sabbatical and I had an unexpected gift of time after years as a secondary school teacher and administrator, the book I wrote—The Body in the Belfry— was just that. One book. Upon our return I saw a note in the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators newsletter —I had originally planned a YA—that an agent was accepting submissions of fiction for adults as well. Why not? I sent the manuscript off; she loved it, and had three offers. Serendipitously my main character and my agent share a first name. “Faith”. We went with St. Martin’s Press and soon Ruth Cavin, my extraordinary editor, asked my agent, “When can we expect the next in Katherine’s series?”
So, here we are twenty-three books later in the series and thirty overall. How have I navigated these shoals, or more to the point, has the journey navigated me? A little of both. Some things were planned and more not.
I set the second book in the series, The Body in the Kelp, in Maine because I thought readers might find it hard to believe that Faith Fairchild had found another body or two in Aleford, the small Massachusetts town where many of the books are set. In the beginning I was writing in real time, so it would have been only a few months later. Belfry won the Agatha for Best First and suddenly there I was again. Writing a series. SMP, specifically Ruth, wanted more books. I decided to go back to Aleford for the third and then off to France for the fourth. I have stuck to alternating locales, writing an Aleford book followed by what I call “a someplace else” book. My hope has been to keep the series fresh for readers, as well as for me. I have liked the challenge of changing place, even doing two set in Manhattan, Faith Fairchild’s home, before she was married. Others have ranged from the fjords of Norway to the streets of Savannah, Georgia—the latest, The Body in the Wardrobe.
I needn’t have worried about the plausibility of my protagonist’s penchant for stumbling across bodies. I think it was after book three that I asked Ruth Cavin, “How will people believe someone comes across so many corpses?” She replied succinctly, “It’s fiction, Katherine. You can do whatever you want.” That might seem a given to most novelists, especially in the mystery and romance genres; but it was an aha moment for me and very freeing.
The way in which the series has determined its own course has been with my characters. No, I am not one of those fortunate writers whose characters speak to them and they merely act as a conduit. I have to do the heavy lifting, although I do like Madeleine L’Engle’s description of the writing process as “taking dictation from my imagination.”
What I mean is that I have a set cast in Faith Fairchild, her family and friends. One of the joys of a long-running series is the opportunity to have this troupe grow and change. But not too much. I can’t suddenly have Faith behave in a way totally out of character. In The Body in the Attic when she runs into an old flame she is tempted—very tempted. After all, she’s only human. Yet she doesn’t succumb. I learned an important lesson in this regard right after the first book came out and have been indebted to the reader who took the trouble to write to me about the only thing that bothered her in those pages. How could I have let new mother Faith put her baby in danger? My immediate thought was that it was apparent from my tone Faith and baby Ben would survive, but then I realized yes, it was out of character for Faith to do this. I resolved to never again put any child in danger in the books. They weren’t that kind of mystery and Faith wasn’t that kind of character.
The fun has been introducing new characters of all sorts—obviously a goodly number of them heinous murderers—but also some others who only appear in one book and never again as well. And occasionally some will make a few curtain calls. In the current book, Sophie Maxwell comes back as a main character after having played a similar role in The Body in the Birches, the last book. I wanted to keep writing about her and about the relation she and Faith had. They steer the course together well.
Anther challenge in writing a series is that each book has to function as a stand-alone. Readers should be able to start any place and not feel lost, or confused, since they haven’t read previous books. I need to give the same capsule of information about Faith —caterer, mother of two, daughter and granddaughter of clergy married to the Reverend Thomas Fairchild whom she met on the job at a wedding, not realizing since he’d changed clothes that he was on the job too, having just performed the ceremony. Her heart takes her from the Big Apple to the bucolic orchards of New England and so on. I must provide all this and more, but I have to phrase it differently in each book! No boilerplate, tempting as that is.
My final thought on series writing applies to all writing, of any nature, and that is simply you have to write the best book you can. Even though the deadline looms, I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. I have notes on characters, research for each book, timelines and more in notebooks, those Clairefontaine ones French schoolchildren use. One of the most important pages in each one is the page where I keep track of the first and last lines from each chapter. This is so every one doesn’t start with “And then Faith woke up…” or something similar or end with the same cliffhanger, “She heard footsteps…”
This is also the point at which I should mention the importance of knowing when it’s time to leave the party when writing a series and I’d be interested in thoughts on this. Without naming names—please—have you come across a series that you felt had outlived its welcome? Remember Agatha Christie killed Hercule Poirot off when she was done with him. What are the signs that a series has run its course? Plots too similar? Again, Dame Agatha. In Cards on the Table she has Poirot take crime writer Ariadne Oliver to task for using the same plot in two books, only slightly disguised. She ruefully admits it and compliments him for being “very clever”. And main characters? We want Poirot and Jane Marple to remain immutable, but in some series can characters become caricatures?
Thank you, Becke for inviting me today!
Best to all,
DAMON SUEDE joins us on Monday, June 13.
The Body in the Wardrobe is the 23rd in Katherine Hall Page’s Faith Fairchild series. She has also published for middle grade and YA readers as well as a collection of short stories, Small Plates (2014), and a series cookbook, Have Faith in your Kitchen (Orchises Press). She has been awarded Agathas for Best First, Best Novel, and Best SS and also was nominated for additional Agathas, an Edgar, Macavity, Mary Higgins Clark and the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She is the recipient of Malice Domestic 28th’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She lives in Maine and Massachusetts.
GIVEAWAY! One lucky commenter will win a copy of THE BODY IN THE WARDROBE!
Minster’s wife, caterer, and part-time sleuth Faith Fairchild pairs up with Sophie Maxwell, last seen in Body in the Birches and now a newlywed living in historic Savannah, Georgia, where Sophie crosses paths with murder. Another delightful entry in the beloved mystery series, complete with delectable recipes.
Attorney Sophie Maxwell has come to Savannah to be with her new husband, Will. But nothing throws cold water on a hot relationship faster than a dead body. Worse for Sophie, no one believes the body she knows she saw is real. Will is spending an awful lot of time in Atlanta on a case he claims is urgent, and she’s been tasked with house hunting for them with his former sweetheart, who Sophie can’t help but suspect wishes Sophie would return to her Yankee roots!
Fortunately, Sophie has a good friend in Faith Fairchild. With teenage Amy being bullied by mean girls and husband Tom contemplating a major life change that will affect all the Fairchilds, Faith is eager for distraction in the form of some sleuthing. In between discussions of newlywed agita, surprising Savannah customs and, of course, fabulous low country food, Faith and Sophie will pair up to unmask a killer!
- Editing: A Matter of Butt in the Chair by Jeffrey Marks
- How to Write a Mystery Yarn By Betty Hechtman
- Come for the Murder, Stay for the Romance by Kathi Daley
- Taming the Testy Heroine by Lynne Marshall
- April Online Class Giveaway with Yellow Rose RWA