I have enjoyed reading a number of series novels over the years, but had never thought of writing one myself. Until I wrote Murder in Winnebago County, that is. The first book of my Winnebago County Mystery Thriller series was inspired by a tragic death, and the less than satisfactory explanation of exactly how it happened.
After a year of almost obsessive thinking about the death, it hit me. What if it wasn’t an accident? What if someone had deliberately hurt him? Who would that person be? What would be his/her motivation for murder? I soon thought of a number of characters who lived in the fictional Winnebago County in central Minnesota. As a former Wright County Sheriff’s Department officer, the semi-rural county was a natural setting for the story.
About halfway through writing Murder in Winnebago County, I knew I wouldn’t be able to retire the characters after only one case. They had become people I thought about almost as much as the live ones I was closest to. Dramatic incidents from my days with the sheriff’s department came to mind, and I formulated basic plots for the next two books.
What I learned from research and experience is three key elements for success in a story or book series are: creating realistic characters who continue to evolve with each book; writing an ending that leaves the reader wanting more; and letting the reader know what happened in a previous book without getting bogged down in lengthy descriptions.
Create characters readers want to follow and/or have a relationship with:
Write a background for each of your main characters as a base for their motivations, their beliefs, their morals. Much of who they are is based on their life experiences. Not all aspects of their past lives need to be included in the story, but may come to light in a subsequent novel.
How do they feel? What do they look like? Do they have a pet? What are their strengths, their talents, their fears, their strengths, their vulnerabilities? How are they connected to the other characters? What role do they play in the story?
Create characters who become living, breathing, thinking, talking people who are interacting with other characters, going to jobs, falling in love, committing crimes, et cetera, for your readers. People want to see how your characters react under pressure, what they do when they get knocked down, how they handle compliments.
The protagonist and main character in the Winnebago County Mystery Thriller series is Sergeant Corinne “Corky” Aleckson, a young sergeant with the sheriff’s department. Corky is dedicated to her work and loyal to her family and friends. Her longtime challenge has been pursuing her dream career without causing undo worry for her over-protective mother.
Corky has great instincts, but recognizes every day on the job is a learning experience. She gets called to task by the sheriff from time to time. She works closely with her friend and mentor, Detective Elton “Smoke” Dawes. They have a mostly comfortable, sometimes uncomfortable, relationship. A mutual attraction, which they push beneath the surface, occasionally rises.
While Corky is closely involved with family and friends, Smoke is more of a loner, a self-protective device he put into place following a failed long-term relationship. Although he sees his brothers and their children fairly regularly, he spends the majority of his free time fishing on his private lake, strumming his guitar, and playing with his dog.
Write an ending that leaves the reader wanting more.
The plot of novels, in general, and mysteries, in particular, start with a problem or situation that needs to be resolved. Each plot points builds on the next until the story reaches its highest point–the climax–which is near the end of the book.
Readers need to be satisfied the book has ended, so tie up, or at least address, loose ends. I usually do a one or two page summary, answering questions that were raised during the course of the story.
Letting the reader know what happened in a previous book without getting bogged down in lengthy descriptions.
This is the most challenging of the three elements. Each book in a series needs to written as a stand-alone book, yet fit into the series. Background information on the characters, laid out in the first book, needs to be shortened to a sentence or two in subsequent books.
In the second and third books of my Winnebago County series, Alvie Eisner, the antagonist from the first book reappears. In the fourth book, to be published later this year, Alvie Eisner is mentioned, and the antagonist from the second book reappears.
Two ways I address past issues and introduce characters from a previous story are through conversations between the characters and tapping into Corky’s thoughts about the situations or the people.
Although I hadn’t planned to write a novel series, the Winnebago County Mystery Thrillers has been fun. Each book presents its own set of challenges, but also reunites me with both familiar characters and introduces me to fresh characters and plots. And they constantly surprise me. My bad guys and gals may be spiteful and frightful, but they give my Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department officers job security when they commit their crimes–another case to solve.
Christine Husom is the author of Murder in Winnebago County, Buried in Wolf Lake, and An Altar by the River.