Thursday, April 03, 2008

From One Book To a Series

Working Stiffs welcomes guest blogger Susan Wittig Albert, author of the China Bayles mysteries!

by Susan Wittig Albert

Thanks to Working Stiffs and to Joyce Tremel for hosting me today. I’m out and about on a blog tour celebrating the launch of the sixteenth China Bayles mystery, Nightshade. For those of you who haven’t met her, China is a former Houston criminal defense attorney who jumped ship and moved to Pecan Springs TX, a small town located halfway between Austin and San Antonio, where she opened an herb shop. When this amateur sleuth isn’t working in her shop or tending her gardens, she’s solving mysteries.

Which poses a problem, doesn’t it? For mysteries (for better or worse) are written in series. When you decide to write a mystery, you’d better have a series premise in mind—something strong enough to carry you and your protagonist from Book One to Book Ten and beyond. This isn’t such a tough prospect if your main character is a private investigator whose clients show up regularly, or at least often enough to keep the wolf from the door. Or a homicide detective, a criminologist, a medical examiner, a bounty hunter, or a forensic anthropologist—all of whom have a gazillion murder cases to choose from.

It is an infinitely tougher prospect if your protagonist is an amateur detective. Of course, this didn’t faze Agatha Christie, whose Miss Marple is the Queen of Amateur Sleuths. But when Christie was writing, Miss Marple was one-of-a-kind (well, almost). Today, the competition for readers is fierce, and there are enough amateur sleuths to fill a football stadium. So how to make your amateur sleuth distinctive and popular enough to cross the bridge from that first two- or three-book contract to ten books and beyond? I can’t pretend to have all the answers, but here are some of my thoughts, based on fifteen-plus years in the business.

Think niche. When China Bayles began her career as a garden sleuth, there was only one other similar series and very few “niche” mysteries. Now, there are dozens, designed for readers who are already passionate about something: cooking, needlework, fishing, rare books, gun collecting, golfing, dogs, cats, birds, you name it. There’s a reason for this multitude. Niches offer the writer an already-out-there fan base, plus ways to target that base (hobby magazines, conferences, online discussion groups). But beware. Choose a niche that’s too small or exclusive (feather collecting, seventeenth-century porcelain snuff boxes) and your series may be off to a slow start. On the other hand, there’s Nero Wolfe—the orchid niche isn’t very large, but Wolfe’s companion and legman, Archie, helps to broaden the appeal, as does the setting (New York).

So think beyond the niche. There’s got to be enough appeal to carry it into the broader market—and unless the niche is huge, the writer needs that broader market. The bottom line: niche just isn’t enough. So . . .

Think setting. Setting has always been important. (Remember Sherlock’s “Hound of the Baskervilles” or the Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler.) But in contemporary mysteries, setting is even more important. It has become the place-frame that gives the series depth, dimension, and plot possibilities. From the deep South to the frozen north, from D.C. to L.A., a unique setting makes the story unique--or maybe it a variety of settings, like Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon, a park ranger on the move. Choose a setting that invites reader interest (“I’ve been there” or “I’d like to go there”) and play it for all it’s worth. I chose Texas because it is distinctively multi-cultural, has a fascinating history, its own cuisine, its own music. China’s series is set in a small town, but it’s small-town Texas, and that makes it different.

Think character and character ensemble. In her former life, China Bayles was a criminal defense attorney, which gives her an ironic take on the justice system and gives me more plot possibilities to play with. China is married to an ex-cop turned private investigator. One of her best friends is a police chief, another is a county sheriff. This law-enforcement ensemble opens up more plot possibilities, so that China can get involved (more or less believably) in crime-solving. And since every friend has his/her own personal history, issues, challenges, and problems, there’s a very rich matrix for story material. Don’t just think of a single central character when you’re developing your mystery. Think ensemble, and develop characters who can grow, change, and give you plenty to work with.

Oh, yes, grow. Used to be, mystery characters stayed the same from book to book. Take Nancy Drew, for instance. From 1928 to the present, she’s never grown a day older. But the series form presents writers and readers with intriguing new possibilities for characters’ growth and change. You might want to read my post, “China Who?” to see what I’m talking about here.

Think marketing. Sorry about this, but it’s a hard truth in the book business that writers who don’t market don’t last very long. The publisher can’t or won’t do it for you—you have to do it yourself. Which means library, bookstore, book club, and mystery conference appearances; print materials for handouts or mailings; and online promotion. If you have a platform, use it. (A platform is you-as-expert on the subject of your mystery. For the China series, my platform is herbs/gardening.) If you don’t have a platform, build one. Join organizations related to your niche. Identify yourself with your setting (as Sharyn McCrumb has done with her Appalachian series). Write articles, blog, create a newsletter, make presentations, do whatever it takes to let people know how much you know about the subject.

Thanks again to Working Stiffs for hosting me today. And thanks to all the readers who are following this blog tour through cyberspace. If you have questions or thoughts to share, post a comment. I’ll be around all day, and tomorrow and the next, to reply to your comments.

If you’d like to enter the drawing for a copy of Nightshade go here to register. But you’d better hurry. The drawing for Working Stiffs closes at noon on April 6, 2008.

Want to read the other posts in Susan’s blog tour? You’ll find a calendar and links here.


JennieB said...

Thanks for visiting with us today, Susan, and thanks for sharing your insights on publishing and crafting a series. My first book comes out in November, I'm in the middle of writing book 2, and I'm trying to figure out ways to, as you say, build a platform and create a reader base, as well as lay the groundwork for what will hopefully turn out to be a long-running series. Very timely and interesting post. Thanks!

Tory said...

Hi, Susan! Thanks for coming!

Do you ever get so you actually LIKE the publicity work, or is it still that necessary evil that takes you away from your writing?

Joyce said...

Thanks, Susan. This is such great advice. Every writer should put a copy of it by their computer when they're planning what to write next.

susanalbert said...

Hi, all, thanks for your comments!

Jennieb, good luck with your series. IMO, book 2 is the hardest--you've already written the book that came most easily, and now you've really got to dig down deep and hunt for that next book. In addition to that, there's the platform "foundation" to build. Lots of work! Hope it goes well for you.

Tory, yes, I do like the publicity work. I enjoy meeting readers and getting their feedback on the books. I especially enjoy talking to herb/garden groups. I'm also enjoying exploiting Internet possibilities. I didn't have that when I was starting up 16 years ago, and I think it pays off, big time.

Frances, said...

This was a very usable tutorial about getting started. I remember being so excited to see herbs and mysteries combined when your first book came out, it was a unique combo then. You have kept it interesting with the ensemble and the changing people entering and leaving. So many mysteries, you can tell immediately either who is going to get killed or who did it right from the beginning, because they are new characters. I like some surprise! Looking forward to seeing you at the book signing for the Spring Fling this weekend at the wildflower center. Will your books be for sale there?

Frances at Faire Garden

Martha Reed said...

Susan, thanks for the great informative post. It especially rings true about setting and character ensemble - I think one of the hardest things a new writer has to realize is that the story can be narrated - for a short while - by a secondary character. It took me long enough to realize it.

Thanks again for stopping by. Loved the bluebonnet imagery, too, from your cover. I lived in Waxahachie for ten years - small town Texas if every there was. Now I hear it's one of Dallas' bedroom communities. I should have bought property when I had the chance!

Anonymous said...

Dear Susan,
Thank you so much for this blog tour.I agree with today's post. I read Thyme of Death because it was an herbal mystery. I read on because I was entranced with the small town of Peacan Springs. And I've kept on reading because of the way you depict the myriad relationships that women have with the people in their lives, both male and female.

My favorite book is Bloodroot where China's relationship with her mother takes a huge step forward. That might change though. I've just started Nightshade and I can't wait to see how China will resolve her ambivalent feelings toward her father.
Thank you.

susanalbert said...

Francis, it's sometimes hard to remember back to the time when all these "niche" mysteries (so common now) hadn't been invented yet. I'm glad I was able to get in at the beginning, before the field got too crowded. With a long-running series, it's a continuing challenge to keep the plots fresh and the characters both fresh and familiar. Yes, I'll be at the Fling wildflower garden tour and at the lunch with Tom Spencer. I was scheduled to sign at the garden that day, anyway, so it worked out beautifully.

susanalbert said...

Yep, you sure should have bought in Wax, Martha! And I should have kept that property I bought in San Marcos. Too bad we don't come hard-wired too crystal balls!

Re: narrating the story. I love China's first person voice, but if I had it to do over, I'd be tempted to do a sliding third person, using various POVs. That's how Bill and I built the Robin Paige series (we often had 8-10 POVs in one novel), and that's what I'm doing with the Cottage Tales. It's hard to manage without losing/confusing the reader, but worth it. Still, China's voice is friendly, and that's certainly one of the things I wanted to do: connect with the readers.

susanalbert said...

Marilyn, Bloodroot is my favorite, too. I loved playing with the complexities of that plot. But it isn't the best-liked of the mysteries. People have said/written to me that there was too much family history. I don't know whether they weren't reading carefully/closely enough, or whether I didn't do a good enough job setting it out (probably a little of both). But at the time, I needed a break from Pecan Springs, and Bloodroot gave me that. Plus, there was quite a lot of synchronicity in finding out about Huntington's, which is such a dreadful disease. When I literally fell across that, on the Internet, the book took shape in an exciting way. I remember the day that happened--makes it special for me!

Chris said...

Dear Susan, (I hope that's not too forward, I feel like I know you from your books)I have enjoyed the China Bayles series so much. Whenever I pick one of the books up, I know that I will be entertained and educated at the same time. In fact, all the wonderful descriptions of China's store helped give me the motivation to open up a nursery with my husband. A dream of mine is to have you come to our nursery someday and talk about your books and herbs! Thank you so much for bringing so much joy and pleasure into people's lives.

susanalbert said...

Wow, Chris--China and I are impressed! Keep in touch (you'll find my email address on my blog). I always post my travel plans pretty far ahead, so if I'm in your area, let me know and I'll see what we can work out. Best of luck with your nursery venture!

Chris said...

Thank you so much, Susan, for giving us a chance to have you come and talk about your books and herbs at our nursery someday. We're located near Lockhart, so you might be in the area at some point. I will e-mail you soon and if you can't see us in the near future, I hope you can come by at some point! Thank you for the good thoughts, too, about our new venture. A friend said that it's never a bad idea to do something you love.

©Hotbutton Press said...

Lately, I've wanted to tell cozy mystery writers to be bold and think "normal" when developing characters and settings! I'm beginning to read books that try so hard to set themselves apart from the crowd, I can't relate to the characters anymore and it's questionable whether I would read a second book in the series despite some excellent writing. I think it's important for the author to know who is buying the books, and just how comfortable they might be with the characters' peculiarities even in this modern day. For example, I adore China because there are certain things I know she wouldn't do no matter what. Like supplement the shop's slow season by working a telephone sex hotline. Would she love and accept Ruby if she did the same? I would hope not, and that as a good friend, she would steer her down another path. I think that's another important aspect of a cozy (or almost cozy) series... the characters and their actions don't disappoint us too much. They might even be a tiny bit more noble than the reader which gives us a certain standard in life. It's a tough balancing act I'm sure. Yes, it was a great tutorial - thanks!


PS No need to put my name into the drawing hat. :)

susanalbert said...

Hey, Dani--Nice to see you here on Working Stiffs. Everybody, if you're an author thinking of doing a blog tour, here's something you should check out: Dani's Y! group, BlogBookTours. Lots of good ideas here, not just about tours but about spiffing up your blog.

Re: characters and motivation. I fully understand where you're coming from. The quickest turnoff (for me) is a too-too-quirky character who regularly behaves in a way that "normal" people would never consider. (Notice: I said "regularly.") I admire a writer whose characters act "in character" (think method acting here) most of the time. That means, when they must slip out of character (for the author's dramatic/plot purposes), their out-of-the-ordinary behavior has an impact on the reader. In real life, I know a few drama queens (mostly around the ages of 15-17), and even when they are my near-and-dear, I have to admit to becoming weary of that shrill, high-torqued behavior. Don't you?

Nancy Martin said...

Susan---it's great to see you here. Can't wait to get my mitts on the new book!

zhadi said...

Susan, I really enjoyed this post and the insights you offer. I'm also in the middle of writing book 2 and the promotion et al; you and Dani have been such great help and inspiration!

Heh. And I won a copy of Nightshade on one of your other tour stops. Sweet!!!

Kristine said...

Welcome, Susan!

Your blog post is excellent. Lots of good writing information for mystery writers.

Have a wonderful tour!

susanalbert said...

Hey, Zhadi, congratulations on your win! That is sooo cool. I'm told that the books left NY on Wednesday, so you should get yours soon.
Everybody, be sure and enter each drawing--there are 15 chances to win, and you could get as lucky as Zhadi.

Oh, and Zhadi, best of luck with your book project, too!

Annette said...

I enjoyed your blog today.
For those of you out there who have never read the China Bayles series, run, don't walk to your nearest bookstore and try one. I was fortunate enough to pick up several autograph copies at Murder By the Book in Houston last spring. I can hardly wait to read Nightshade.

Kerri said...

Susan, this post gave me an inkling of an idea about the difficulties involved in beginning a successful series. It sounds to me like writing a good book takes a lot of talent, dedication, hard work, and a large dose of luck.
On the other hand, reading a good book is easy! I think I'll stick to that, and just admire the abilities of others to tell a good story :)

Neil Plakcy said...

Great post! I think that if you have a good idea of your protagonist as you're writing, you'll naturally come up with ideas for where the series can go based on the character, and that's the best way to move forward.

Becky T. Lane said...

This has been my favorite tour posting so far, and made me realize why I got hooked on your series in the first place. I was never a huge mystery fan before, because the characters never learned from their mistakes. I hated knowing right from the start that the PI's girlfriend was bound to get knocked off, because he was incapable of sustaining a relationship for longer than one book. Thank you so much for changing all that!