Something Old, Something New: Writing a Crime Series by Antony Johnston

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antony johnston

Antony Johnston

In some ways, writing a standalone crime novel is easy.

You don’t have to worry about continuity. You don’t have to remember anything about what you wrote in a previous book. The characters are all new and won’t be seen again, so you can do whatever you want with them. Whether they wind up dead or alive, or whatever happens to them, it won’t affect any future books. And you don’t have to ensure characters you’ve previously written get sufficient ‘page time’ to keep returning readers happy.

OK, now I’ve got your attention and you’re probably mad at me, hear me out, because of course I’m playing devil’s advocate. There are actually many ways in which it’s very difficult.

You can’t rely on audience familiarity; you have to establish all the characters anew in the readers’ mind; the premise itself must be sufficiently compelling without being able to fall back on affection for existing characters; and most important of all you have to actually write a book, which is never easy no matter whether it’s a standalone or part of a series.

But creating a series brings with it a number of entirely different challenges, and decisions that must be made, starting as soon as you come to write or even plan the second book.

Now you must ask questions such as: which characters will return? Which settings and locations will return? What about subplots that ran through the previous book? How many elements will repeat, and how many will be completely new? What sort of balance should you strike?

dog sitter detectiveThere’s no strictly right or wrong answer to these questions, but you must answer them to your own satisfaction – and that of your readers. After all, in a series each novel must contain its own form of standalone story… while also attracting both new readers, and those who read the previous entries. Those returning readers will naturally expect some elements to recur each time (otherwise why bother making it a series?) so a certain amount of familiarity is desirable and necessary.

Finding the right balance of new vs recurring elements is tricky. Characters, locations, situations, tone – those are the key to any good series. If you get them right it will quickly feel natural and obvious, even though it may have taken a lot of work to get there.

To take an obvious example: what is Sherlock Holmes without Dr Watson and 221B Baker Street? You could tell a Holmes story without these elements, but it would be unusual and noted as such. Do it too often and readers would complain. By contrast, brother Mycroft is beloved by fans but nobody expects him to be in every Holmes story.

For a more modern example, look at Mick Herron’s Slough House books (now adapted as Slow Horses on AppleTV+). The series features a revolving cast of spies who come, go, leave, and die. But central character Jackson Lamb is an ever-present lynchpin throughout, and creaky old Slough House itself is more of a recurring character than a mere location.

If you’re wondering why I’ve given this subject so much thought, it’s because I’ve recently had to ask myself these questions when writing The Dog Sitter Detective Takes the Lead, the second book in the Dog Sitter Detective series. As of my current contract there will be at least four, so it’s on my mind.

In the first book I created many characters and situations who could potentially return. There’s the main character, retired actress Guinevere ‘Gwinny’ Tuffel; her new friend, detecting sidekick, and burgeoning love interest Birch; his black Labrador dog Ronnie; Gwinny’s best friend Tina; Tina’s country house, where the mystery is set, plus her children and family; Spera and Fede, the Saluki dogs gifted to Tina which Gwinny must look after; Gwinny’s old, tumbledown house in Chelsea; her nosey neighbour, the Dowager Lady Ragley; the police detectives, DCI Wallace and DS Khan; Gwinny’s attempt to come out of retirement and revive her acting career; not to mention all the suspects in the murder of Tina’s groom-to-be, which kicks off the mystery in the first place.

Phew!

Revisiting everything from that list would be folly. I have no desire to simply rewrite the first book again, or to repeat myself too closely. But I do want to bring back certain characters, situations, and locations and make them an ongoing part of the series. As an avid reader of mystery series myself, I know readers will want and expect that continuity. It’s also part of what I look forward to writing with each book.

I’ll tell you some of what I decided. First and foremost, in each book Gwinny will look after a dog… but it will be a new dog, and breed, each time. This is a challenge I decided to set myself, so the personality of each dog can help set the tone for each new mystery. None of these dogs actually belong to Gwinny, after all, so why tie her down to a single animal or breed?

Second, Birch and Ronnie will feature in every book to one extent or another. Birch isn’t quite Gwinny’s Dr Watson, but he’s close enough – and their relationship interesting enough – that I know readers will want him to see him return.

As for the rest, I’ll leave that a mystery of its own for now. If you want to find out, you can of course pick up the book! What matters is that I answered those questions, and made conscious decisions of what to keep. If you’re considering starting a series, or turning a standalone into one, you must do the same.

(c) Antony Johnston

Author photograph (c) Sarah Walton Photography

About The Dog Sitter Detective Takes the Lead:

Dog sitter detective seriesGwinny Tuffel is preparing for her first acting role in a decade in the West End, but she is dog-sitting on the side to keep the wolf from the door. So, when ageing rock star Crash Double needs help with his Border Collie, she jumps at the chance. After all, looking after the charming Ace on Crash’s Little Venice houseboat shouldn’t be an onerous task. But that’s before the singer’s dead body surfaces during the annual Canal Carnival festivities.

While the police dismiss the death as an accident, Gwinny suspects murder most foul. With a medley of suspects and some far-fetched motives to make heads or tails of, it is up to Gwinny, with Ace’s on-the-ground knowledge, to make sure the killer faces the music.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Antony Johnston’s career has spanned books, award-winning video games and graphic novels including collaborations with Anthony Horowitz and Alan Moore. He wrote the New York Times bestseller Daredevil Season One for Marvel Comics and is the creator of Atomic Blonde which grossed over $100 million at the box office. The first book featuring Gwinny Tuffel, The Dog Sitter Detective, was the winner of the Barker Fiction Award. Johnston can often be found writing at home in Lancashire with a snoozing hound for company.

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