"Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent." If you’re old enough, you may remember those words from the intro to Dragnet. Like most series from television’s infancy, the same could be said for the plots. They followed a standard script with only minor tweaks each week.
Older traditional mysteries often did the same, but today’s readers don’t want to come away from a book feeling the author has simply recycled a previous plot by making a few minor changes to how the victim died, where the body was discovered, or which friend/relative of the sleuth is being wrongly accused of the crime.
Readers want the familiarity of the voice and style of a favorite author and her sleuth, but they also demand fresh content with each book. This is fairly easy in a limited series. For a longstanding series, it becomes a more daunting challenge. However, there are ways authors can continue creating fresh content with each subsequent book. I’ve employed all of them in the nine books (to date) and three novellas in my Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery Series.
When I began writing the series, I’ll admit, I didn’t give longevity much thought. I had only previously published a chick lit novel and a romantic suspense when my agent asked me to try writing a cozy crafting mystery because she knew an editor looking for one. With my background as a crafts designer and editor, my agent thought I’d be the perfect person to write such a series. Here’s how I’ve kept readers coming back for more:
Tip 1: Create a Versatile Protagonist
I knew immediately that I didn’t want to limit myself by writing a series about a potter, a jewelry maker, a craft shop owner, or a group of knitters, quilters, or scrapbookers. I turned to my own professional history and made Anastasia a crafts editor at a women’s magazine. Such a character enables me to tap into a wider range of plot ideas. Not only does each Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery take place in a different venue, I’m also able to highlight new crafts in each book.
Tip 2: Create an Interesting Backstory that Runs Through the Series
In Assault with a Deadly Glue Gun, the first book in the series, Anastasia learns her recently deceased husband had hidden a longstanding affair with Lady Luck. He’d wiped out their savings and plunged them into debt greater than the GNP of many Third World nations. Anastasia not only inherits that debt, she finds herself saddled with her cantankerous communist mother-in-law and her husband’s loan shark.
To stave off the bill collectors, she rents out the apartment above her garage, formerly her home office, and takes on various moonlighting gigs. Between her day job and the moonlighting, along with plots that take place in her community, I’ve been able to set books in such varied locations as a TV studio, a convention center, a nursing and rehabilitation home, a Christmas bazaar, and with A Sew Deadly Cruise, my latest book and the ninth in the series, a cruise ship.
Tip 3: Introduce Additional Secondary Characters as the Series Progresses
Many traditional cozies are structured around a small town with a handful of citizens with whom the sleuth interacts. That’s fine for a limited series, but if you’re hoping for an extended run, it’s a good idea to introduce new ongoing characters occasionally. Given the popularity of romantic cozies, I gave Anastasia a love interest but not the more traditional law enforcement boyfriend. Or have I? Anastasia’s renter is photojournalist Zachary Barnes. But is Zack’s day job really cover for a more clandestine profession? Or is Anastasia’s imagination running amok? For now, I’m keeping her and readers guessing.
I’ve also introduced some other characters over the course of the series. Anastasia’s half-brother-in-law and his kids show up in Revenge of the Crafty Corpse. In Decoupage Can Be Deadly readers meet Tino Martinelli, ex-Special Forces, who’ll do anything for “Mrs. P.” In Drop Dead Ornaments I introduce Anastasia’s son’s girlfriend Sophie Lambert and her father Shane. Not to be outdone, there’s Anastasia’s mother and her serial husbands.
Tip 4: Be Inspired by Current Events and Human-Interest Stories
Using real events can date a book. However, they’re great for inspiring plot ideas. I’m a news junkie and have used stories I’ve read about or seen on the evening news to create plots by wondering “what if?” I keep a file of articles and often read through them for ideas whenever I need something to move my story to the next level.
Being a Jersey girl and writing about a Jersey girl, I had to incorporate organized crime into some of my stories. Not only did I go to school with Mafia princes and princesses, my grandfather was instrumental in putting many of their grandfathers behind bars. How could I not tap into that heritage?
I’ve also used actual murders as springboards for my own plots, as was the case in Handmade Ho-Ho Homicide, and I’ve incorporated such disparate subjects as Munchhausen by Proxy and Vajazzling into two books. The thing to remember is that everything is fodder for story ideas when your goal is to keep readers clamoring for more of your sleuth.
Bio: USA Today bestselling and award-winning author Lois Winston writes mystery, romance, romantic suspense, chick lit, women’s fiction, children’s chapter books, and nonfiction. Kirkus Reviews dubbed her critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series, “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.” Learn more about Lois and her books at www.loiswinston.com.