Like it or not, we live in the age of the boxset. For writers and film-makers alike, the aim is to find a target audience, discover what they like, and then give them as much of it as they can take!
Okay! I accept that’s a cynical way of looking at it. But it does encapsulate a truth which hides an opportunity. That writers of book series now have more commercial opportunities than ever before.
Yet if you think writing a single book is a challenge, developing a series is something else. You’re not scaling a hill; you’re climbing a mountain.
Five years ago, after a lifetime of journalism and authoring non-fiction books, I decided to write a crime mystery series. Five years down the track, the eleventh book in that series – The Comedy Club Mystery – is about to appear. And I feel I’ve learnt a few things about what it takes to develop a successful series.
The first of these is that it’s vitally important to create a “world” that is capable of growing as the series develops. With the Crampton of the Chronicle series, I’ve found there are three key elements to that world. I think the principles probably hold true for other series.
The three elements are characters, settings and era. A few brief points on each of those starting with characters. Creating the central protagonist is obviously the most significant of character-based questions to answer. I found that it’s important to create a character who has enough space to develop as the series evolves. I made my central character Colin Crampton, a crime reporter on a newspaper. I made sure he was young enough – 28 in the first book in the series – so that he would stay young as the years passed by in later books.
I also made sure that there were enough contradictions in his character so that readers could never be sure how he would react to situations. So, although Colin aims for the moral high ground when he tries to right wrongs, he’s never afraid to go low and pull a scam if it’s necessary to get his story.
For a series, it’s also important to surround the protagonists with supporting characters who also have plenty of room for development in later books. So, there’s the girlfriend with whom Colin has an on-off relationship. She often gets caught in the wrong end of Colin’s scams. There’s the landlady who thinks Colin lowers the tone of her lodgings, but who needs his guile to get her out of the scrapes she lands in. And there is the plodding but honest policeman, the publican of the worst pub in Brighton, and the crafty news editor who’s the bane of Colin’s life.
Location is important for a one-off book, but especially for a series. Will readers want to return there time and time again? I chose the seaside town of Brighton in England as my location. The place has a picaresque history – “home of the dirty weekend” – that offers plenty of colourful background.
It was interesting that after the first book came out, a reader e-mailed me with a list of more than 50 places in Brighton and the surrounding area which he’d like to see as backdrops for scenes in future books. That e-mail made me feel I’d made the right choice. I used several of his suggestions in subsequent books.
And that third element is the era. I chose the 1960s. It’s interesting that when you consider the twentieth century, only two decades have their own “branding” which requires capital letters when you write about them – the Roaring Twenties and the Swinging Sixties. I chose the latter as my era for the Crampton books.
The era is one which embraced a lot of social change in the UK – abolition of hanging, abortion and gay law reforms, emancipation of young people – as has been defined by its music and fashion. Moreover, there are still plenty of “sixties survivors” around who remember the years and enjoy recalling them in the books. (Although, of course, the joke is that if you can remember the Swinging Sixties, you weren’t there.)
So, if you’re thinking of starting a series focus on those three big issues – characters, location and era – and you’ll lay foundations which will carry you successfully through many books.
(c) Peter Bartram
About The Comedy Club Mystery:
Murder has never been such fun…
When theatrical agent Daniel Bernstein sues the Evening Chronicle for libel, crime reporter Colin Crampton is called in to sort out the problem.
But trouble escalates when Bernstein turns up murdered. Colin discovers that any of five comedians competing for the chance to appear on a top TV show could be behind the killing.
As Colin and his feisty girlfriend Shirley Goldsmith investigate, they encounter a cast of colourful characters – identical twin gangsters, an Irishman who lives underground, and a failed magician’s assistant.
And it’s not long before their own lives are in peril as they battle to crack a code that will lead to a fortune. Join Colin and Shirley for a rollercoaster of an adventure in Swinging Sixties England – where the laughs are never far from the action.
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