Monday, February 22, 2016

Why I Write Series

The Man in the Window is the third Nick Forte novel. The fourth is complete, the fifth half done. I also have two books available in another series set in a small, economically depressed town in Pennsylvania. (Forte’s birthplace, by the way.) What is it with me and series?

It’s not that I am unaware of the pitfalls. Most series have a practical shelf life. AdrianMcKinty has said three, maybe four, is as far as most series should go; after that they tend to tread the same ground. (I can’t find the quote, so I apologize if I got it wrong.) Of course, he is about to release the fifth volume of his Troubles Trilogy and Volume Four was just as good as the first three, so there’s that.

His point is still valid. What kills most series is stagnation. If the protagonist does not evolve, or the universe has too little variety, the author has little choice but to try again with what worked best. Robert B. Parker he kept the Spenser series fresh for a lot more than three books, but toward the end he was relying on his gift for plot and the banter between Spenser and Hawk and pretty much mailing them in. I read everything he put out for years and still remember how bad I felt when I set one down with the thought, “I’m not reading any more of these.” It was like losing a friend.

Spenser never changed. Hawk never changed. Susan never changed. They didn’t even age. We got periodic reminders Spenser was a Korean War veteran still kicking ass and taking names well into his seventies. After a while even Parker seemed to lose interest. The books became shorter. More white space. More space between lines. Bigger margins. Less story.

Compare Ed McBain. The 87th Precinct series spanned over fifty years and fifty books as was going strong when McBain died in 2005. Without getting into the relative levels of talents—both were giants—the 8-7 had the advantage of an ensemble cast that constantly evolved. Steve Carella was primary, but McBain moved Brown, Meyer, Hawes, Parker, Fat Ollie Weeks, and others in and out of stories with the assurance of Peter Graves looking through head shots to decide who would be on this week’s Impossible Mission team. McBain always had options for how to tell his stories.

With Nick Forte, the solution—which I freely admit I stumbled onto—was to show how the violence he encounters wears him down and erodes the core of the person he likes to think he is. There’s a darker Forte in each book. Even at that, I find story ideas I like for Forte harder to find as the number of books in the series grows. A few years ago I was almost halfway into a book that fought me all the way before I realized it wasn’t a Forte story; it belonged in Penns River.

That’s why I believe the Penns River series has stronger legs: it’s based on the town where I grew up. I follow the news via the Internet and visit my parents—who still live in the house I grew up in, 56 years and counting—half a dozen times a year. The setting evolves perpetually without any work on my part. All I have to do is cherry pick the things I think will work best in my vision for the series. More characters in the mix means more opportunities to find a story that suits one I already have. I can move them in and out, promote or demote their roles, kill some off. (And I have.) If that series ever gets stale, it will be my own fault.

I like series because I prefer coming up with ideas for existing worlds over creating a new world for every book. The trick is to keep that world from getting stale, both to me and to the audience. I make a conscious effort to pay attention to what gets old and what doesn’t. Time will tell. For now, I’m having a ball.


Jack Getze said...

I enjoy the Penns River books a tiny bit more. The well-drawn personality of the place is one reason, the buddy concept another. Also -- and you write so entertainingly, what I'm going to say next doesn't keep me from loving Nick -- to me all private eye novels feel slightly outdated. Guns, tough men and underworld contacts have to be less important these days than great computer and communication skills, maybe data-bank contacts. I imagine (and could be dead wrong) the best investigators today -- as opposed to the top security guys -- are nerdy, code-writing men and women manning multiple desktops.

That said, I love it when Nick eyeballs a pretty woman's legs.

Dana King said...


The WIP shows Nick also has a thing for redheads. I suspect you knew that intuitively. :)

I agree, there are things I can do with the Penns River books I can't do with Forte, which makes viable story ideas come more easily to mind. I like what Forte's into in the WIP, though the subject matter is so distasteful I'm be happy when this book is done and I can go back to The River.