By Vicki Delany
There are, basically, two types of mystery novels: standalones, in which characters appear once, never to be seen again, and series, in which characters feature in book after book.
Some authors like to write standalones, some like to write series books. Me, I can’t decide.
So I do both.
You can’t beat a series for getting to know the characters: the details of their personalities, their quirks, their families and relationships, lovers gained and lost, parents dying, children born. As well as the lives of their families and friends and enemies and the community in which they live.
But when it comes to real personal once-in-a-lifetime drama, you need a standalone.
After all, how many times can one person have a life-changing experience?
A standalone novel gives the protagonist that one opportunity to achieve great things; to have that grand adventure; to meet the everlasting love of their life; to conquer evil, once and for all. In a standalone, the characters face their demons and defeat them.
My first books were standalone novels of suspense. In Scare the Light Away the main character confronts, for one last time, the debris of her traumatic childhood. In Burden of Memory, the protagonist faces down the ghost of a past that is not hers, but is still threatening what she holds dear.
In a series book, the central character, or characters, confront their demons, but they do not defeat them. Their weaknesses, all their problems, will be back in the next book. In each story the series character stands against, and usually defeats, someone else’s problem or society’s enemy, but she or he moves only one small step towards the resolution of their own issues, if at all.
After the two standalones, I began work on the Constable Molly Smith series. I like that the series format allows me to slowly and gradually explore all of those people’s complicated relationships while at the same time the police are working to find a killer. But series novels present difficulties to the author. The books in a crime series mustn’t flow into each other so much that new readers will be lost as to what’s going on. It can be a balancing act, to create a plot that’s self-contained within each individual book, but still allows the characters to grow and to change over time. To give readers who’ve come into these people’s lives in book five enough information that they know who’s who and a bit of their history, but not so much the long-time reader gets bored at the repetition.
It can be a challenge to keep the main character interesting and growing and changing but to do it so slowly that the reader’s interest in the character can be maintained over several books and several years. I can think of several series that I abandoned because the character kept on doing the same old, same old, and I think of Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks, who’s now in his twentieth book and as fascinating a character as ever. Perhaps realizing that Banks might grow stale, Robinson cleverly introduced a secondary protagonist, Annie Cabot, but Banks still is the heart of the books.
I deliberately made Molly Smith young when the series begins with IN THE SHADOW OF THE GLACIER – she’s twenty-six – hoping to be able to watch her grow as a police officer and as a woman.
After five Molly Smith books, for my newest book, MORE THAN SORROW, I went back to a standalone. All new characters, a new setting, a different style of writing. MORE THAN SORROW is a contemporary thriller with a historical background, using the dual narrative format – two storylines running throughout that merge at the end.
The protagonist in MORE THAN SORROW is Hannah Manning, once an internationally recognized journalist but now a woman suffering from traumatic brain injury that occurred during an IED explosion in Afghanistan. Hannah is an ‘unreliable narrator’ as her brain injury has left her in pain, confused, lethargic. When she begins experiencing visions of a woman in a long dress emerging from the icy mist of the root cellar, Hannah doesn’t know if the woman is real. Or the product of a damaged brain. And, she wonders, which would be worse? She finds comfort in the quiet company of Hila Popalzai, an Afghan refugee living on an adjacent farm, a woman also marked by war. When Hila disappears, and Hannah can’t account for her time, not even to herself, old enemies begin to circle.
Hannah would not work as a series protagonist. In MORE THAN SORROW she has to confront her enemies: human as well as her own medical condition.
If she fails to defeat them, she will not get a second chance.
Series or standalone? Ultimately it is up to you and me, as readers, to decide.
I suspect we’ll vote for both.
Vicki Delany is one of Canada’s most varied and prolific crime writers. Her popular Constable Molly Smith series (including In the Shadow of the Glacier and Among the Departed) have been optioned for TV by Brightlight Pictures. She also writes standalone novels of psychological suspense, as well as a light-hearted historical series, (Gold Digger, Gold Mountain), set in the raucous heyday of the Klondike Gold Rush. Vicki’s newest book is More than Sorrow, a standalone novel published by Poisoned Pen Press. In a starred review, Library Journal called the book, “a splendid Gothic thriller.”
Having taken early retirement from her job as a systems analyst in the high-pressure financial world, Vicki is settling down to the rural life in bucolic Prince Edward County, Ontario where she rarely wears a watch.
Visit Vicki at www.vickidelany.com, www.facebook.com/vicki.delany, and twitter: @vickidelany. She blogs about the writing life at One Woman Crime Wave.