Up to this moment in time, I have thought that I am writing a series. I have written two novels linked by common characters – my Zack Tolliver and Eagle Feather adventure mysteries. I am 220 pages along on the third novel with the same protagonists. But when is a series not a series?
This question is greatly influenced by marketing strategies. Mark Coker of Smashword has assured us that bundled books, and particularly a series, sell better than single novels. It seems as if every successful author who has written more than one crime novel or police procedural or adventure or paranormal or fantasy novel has written a series. It seems to work.
It’s not difficult to see how this comes about. If an author writes a novel that develops a fan base, there will be a natural affinity among these fans toward the protagonists, for his or her characters, wiles, mannerisms, personalities. It is much like having a friend, someone who shares experiences with you; you are comfortable with this person, the adjustment period has passed. It is much more difficult to make a new friend, no matter how charming, and it is much more difficult to adapt to a new protagonist. Naturally, then, there is a certain amount of pressure to continue with the same character.
But if I simply carry over the principal character to my next novel, does that make a series? Or is there more to it? Should there be, for instance, consistency in time and place? Should subordinate characters be continued as well? Should the story line, the plot development, the twists and turns and climax all be similar?
I suspect the answer is yes, yes, yes, yes, and, ad nausea, yes.
Then what is to prevent me from writing myself into a corner? As the construction parameters grow narrow, what happens to creativity and freshness?
When asked, I describe my books as stand-alone novels in a series. It seems a contradiction, but my intent is to write a group of novels each of which may be read in any order and enjoyed as a unit within itself. But I continue my principal characters, sooner or later. Zack and Eagle Feather are always the protagonists. But I add new characters, new situations, new environments. In short, I try to introduce new, fresh material in each book. This does not satisfy everyone, I know. Those who enjoyed the Navajo culture and desert sands of The Other may not enjoy ending up in San Francisco with reporters and homicide detectives when reading Mestaclocan. But for those readers, I carry forward a hint of the former elements and the possibility of returning to the burning sands in another book.
A reader who reviewed Mestaclocan in Amazon (thank you!) made the observation that to make the most of Mestaclocan, one should first read The Other. While I would certainly be pleased if everyone purchased and read BOTH books, this remark suggests that I have not succeeded in extricating myself from the greatest weakness of a series; namely, that the reader must begin with the first book. Some series start in the middle, perhaps to avoid this very problem (Star Wars?). That way, the author can move the protagonists ahead or back chronologically from book to book. But so long as the same protagonists are involved, they must do what you and I must eventually do: age.
Yes, I am writing a series; there is no escaping that fact. Indeed, I plan to write other novels, with stories that are unrelated to others I have written. The principal characters will live and die between its covers. Novels such as those written by Thomas McQuane, Elmore Leonard, and Philip Meyer with great new characters experiencing great new lives. But that will be later. I have not yet finished with Zack Tolliver or Eagle Feather. And I hope my readers have not, either.