A Balancing Act

A Balancing Act
Terry Odell

Image by JL G from Pixabay

I’m about 14K into my next novel, the tenth offering in my Mapleton Mystery series. Unlike my other series, which fall under the romantic suspense umbrella, my Mapletons are a true series, not a set of connected books. Although my romantic suspense series feature recurring characters, the protagonists are different in each. In Mapleton, my police chief, Gordon Hepler (who got his name when a postal clerk where I did a lot of mailing begged to be included. Neither of us had any idea he’d be a series protagonist) is the POV character in almost every story.

While I face the same issues with all series, the Mapleton books are more challenging. Why? The dreaded backstory conundrum. The setting, with a few detours, is the small town of Mapleton. The books progress in time from one to the next, so I’m continually balancing content that will offer enough explanation for new readers while not boring returning ones. By book ten, a LOT of things have transpired, and while my characters have a good idea of what’s gone before, readers might not.

Stopping to info dump bores new readers and can insult those ‘in the know.’ However, the occasional Easter egg makes a welcome reward. Overexplaining things or detailed character descriptions will have returning readers skimming. The further into the series I get, the sketchier descriptions become. John Sanford once said he includes a short paragraph with the highlights of Lucas Davenport in each novel—tall, lean, dark hair, facial scar, clothes horse—and that’s about it.

What kind of information has accumulated over the series? To name a few:

Gordon had Central Serous Retinopathy in an early book, takes blood pressure meds, and has to limit his caffeine intake. While this was a major plot thread in Deadly Puzzles, there’s no need to give readers the entire history in each book. But he’s a cop and he’s drinking decaf? Will readers wonder?

Angie has grown from character of interest to girlfriend to lover to wife throughout the series. They were newlyweds in Deadly Fun but now, they’re settling into the marriage. Angie runs the local diner, had a side business of catering with another character prominent in several books. There’s her cook who appears regularly and the rest of the staff of the diner who appear from time to time.

There are the other officers on the police force, and their number has increased. There are the dispatchers and Gordon’s admin, all of whom play their own parts in the stories. And we can’t forget Buster, the department’s part-time K-9 who shows up in this new book. Is that enough, or do I need to show that when he’s not doing police work, he lives with Officer Solomon? Should I mention his wife and kids?

Mapleton has had several mayors, each a thorn in Gordon’s side, and they’ve been dispatched in one way or another. Now, there’s an interim mayor and friction on the town council. There’s a newspaper reporter who often crosses a line Gordon thinks she shouldn’t when she writes her articles for the local paper.

The list goes on. And on.

You can see that trying to fit all this in would make a book far longer—and more tedious—than it needs to be. When a recurring character shows up, it’s tempting to lay in more background and description than is necessary. (Side note: since I write in Deep POV, I’m not going to intrude with my own descriptions. Those of you writing from a more distant POV might not have as much trouble.) I have to remind myself to save bits and pieces of description as well as other background information until there seems to be a logical place to do so. If Gordon’s admin has been with him since his first day on the job, he’s not going to be thinking of what she looks like every time he sees her. Now, if it seems important that readers “see” her, then maybe she’s wearing something unlike her normal office attire, or she’s changed her hairstyle. That way, Gordon’s doing the describing, not me. Or he might ask her about her family to follow up on a thread from another book.

My approach tends to be to include first, cut later. I think about having a series bible, and then think I’d probably want to include even more since I’d have everything laid out for me.

When someone asked Michael Connelly how he handles keeping readers up to speed, he said he thought about it early on and decided to take the “The other books are out there. Let them find out for themselves” approach.

JD Robb (based on her books, not asking her) throws in plenty of references to things gone before and after over 50 books in the In Death series, a lot has happened, and the cast of characters has grown tremendously. Given the state of my memory, I often wish there were footnotes for whichever book the various cases or situations she mentions. Not explanations, not backstory, not info dumping, but I’d know which book to take another look at.

What about you? How do you handle information in an ongoing series? Your preferences as a reader?

In case anyone wants to see my interview for the Speed City Sisters in Crime, you can watch the replay.

Now Available: Cruising Undercover

It’s supposed to be a simple assignment aboard a luxury yacht, but soon, he’s in over his head.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

26 thoughts on “A Balancing Act

  1. I have a series bible for my Romeo books. It’s saved me a lot of time. One of the things I record from each book are key moments in character relationships. That way, in Book 7, I can drop in a line (First Person POV) about how and where and why two characters met in Book 3, etc. I have a few minor but recurring characters, and the readers need a one-line bit about who they are, so the dialogue isn’t, “Say, remember how I helped you on that murder case two years ago, the one involving the movie executive you used to work for, because I have some underworld connections?”

    I have lists of key descriptions and phrases used in the books so I’m not repeating the same things over and over.

    OTOH, Stephanie Plum describes herself at the start of each book, and tells us what she does (bounty hunter). Admittedly, this is easy in First Person…but I prefer that info to come out more naturally as a story progresses. As I’ve often said: act first, explain later. Readers will wait a long time for exposition if the action has grabbed them.

    • Thanks – had I known then …. I’d have done a series bible, but by the time I was aware of them, I was at least 5 books into my series and my lazy streak said it would be too much work. I do use scene/chapter summaries. Now that I have 4 series, the task is too daunting for my old brain.
      The used phrases list is a good idea; I found a new author, went back and read all her books back-to-back, and some phrases jumped out at me. Had I read the books as they’d been released, a year apart, I probably wouldn’t have noticed. On the flip side, if your characters have pet expressions, you can remember to drop them in.
      I did read a mystery out of order in a series, and they recapped who the bad guy was, what he’d done, and how they caught him. I saw no reason to go back and read the previous book.
      Enjoy the rest of your day.

  2. Great post, Terry. I’m glad you brought up the discussion again, because I struggle with this. I’m working on #6 in my “clean teen” fantasy adventure series – The Mad River Magic series. Readers who’ve not read previous books in the series always complain that I don’t reintroduce and describe the 7 (now 9) cousins early enough. I try to introduce them in action. I don’t want to bore previous readers of the series.

    We’ve had the discussion of series bibles before. I’m still tempted to put a foreword message to new readers, directing them to the back of the book where there’s a little more info in a section titled – “all about the characters in previous books.” Our previous discussion here on that subject came down opposed to such an idea. I think the section could be written in such a way as to tease readers into wanting to go back and read previous books – marketing.

    My preference as a reader would be to have a section at the back of the book where I could catch up (without giving away too much info) without having to go read the previous books.

    A tough balancing act. I look forward to today’s discussion.

    Good luck with #10.

    • Thanks, Steve. I had a discussion in mind (as opposed to me saying “This is how you do it.) when I wrote this post. Thanks for your contribution.
      I think readers might like seeing a ‘catching up’ section at the end of the book which they could choose to read or not.

      Personal preference: I don’t like a cast of characters at the beginning. That tells me (not necessarily rightly so) that the author doesn’t want to bother making things clear in context.

      OK, so maybe I liked the one my English teacher printed out for us for War and Peace.
      And I’d probably appreciate a “These are all the same person” list for keeping tract of who’s who in those Regency and other British books where the titles and the names are beyond my comprehension.

  3. I feel your pain. As a reader, I want to be able to pick up book 3, read and enjoy it, without having to read 1 and 2 first. But, I also recall a book series that made constant references to previous books to the point of having footnotes, “How Margaret started the Southside Market and Soup Shop, see book 5” It wasn’t a good read.

    Perhaps a wiki created by a few fans could help. Then If I want to know why Gordon drinks decaf, I can look it up.

    • Thanks, Alan. I want all my books to be able to be read as stand alones, so I’m careful to avoid mystery thread spoilers, but there’s SO much other stuff that’s not part of the mystery.
      I recall one author on a mystery panel saying his fans created book bibles for him. Ah, should I be that popular!

  4. Great post, Terry. I’ve only completed one series so far, my five book Empowered series. That one had a 1st person POV, and an ongoing, fast-moving storyline. Mat worried about her family, as well as her enemy turned best friend Keisha, and struggled with her anger and frustration, so that played out over several novels. I felt that made it easier to track things. Still, I’d do a recap in scene of a character like her Support (think NSA meets FBI meets Men in Black) handler Winterfield, who had close cropped hair, a severely no nonsense manner, who almost always wore sunglasses (which weren’t ordinary sunglasses), and then let the interaction fill in the reader.

    I did need to recap some of the backstory about the world–where Superpowers came from, what happened to the founding heroes etc but again as she was pursuing the mystery of these, it built organically on what had come before. My mystery series will be a different kettle of fish (3rd person–still working out the precise narrative distance) and I think I have to go with a series bible on that one, since it may run ten or fifteen books.

    By the way, I really enjoyed your Speed City SiC interview on Saturday. Great interview! Your comments on self-publishing were doubly interesting since I’m giving a presentation for that for a writer’s group next month (Oregon Coast Chapter of Willamette Writers).

    Have a great day!

    • Thanks for sharing your approach, Dale. There’s a line between recapping and info dumping. My leanings tend to be dumping in too much at first, and going back to cut. I like Michael Connelly’s “the books are out there; let the readers find the back story” philosophy.
      Glad you enjoyed my presentation – My setup didn’t let me see who was there.
      (And I’ll bet you know how to pronounce Willamette.)

  5. I agree it’s a balancing act, Terry. Too much info, and you bore everybody. Too little, and you leave readers scratching their heads (and maybe putting the book down for lack of understanding.)

    I’m also writing a series, and I’m especially concerned about the reader getting an idea of the physical descriptions of my two main characters. Since they’re half-sisters who don’t look anything alike, I usually find a way for another character to remark on the fact. For most other backstory, I tend to go along with Michael Connelly. Unless it’s really essential to the story, a little curiosity in the reader is a good thing.

    • Bringing in a “naive” character works at so many levels, Kay, be it avoiding self-description or “As you know Bob” passages. Thanks for chiming in.

  6. I’ve actually seen an author use footnotes to refer back to other novels when a character mentioned something. Very fourth wall breaking with a “Buy my books!” vibe. Another not-so-subtle technique have been an intro page that’s a “The Story So Far” highlights reel or a “In a Galaxy far, far away” world-building scroll. My own taste is toward subtle hints without too many spoilers.

  7. I read a book where the author added extra annotations, comments, you name it. You either saved them for later or stopped the read. I found them too distracting. Part of me wanted to see what the author said, and the other part wanted to keep on with the story.
    “My own taste is toward subtle hints without too many spoilers.” Mine, too.

  8. Less is more, as they say. “Venice Alexander had access to wildly secret technology because it was leaked to her by Derek Halstrom, the love of her life, who happened to work for the NSA. She still blamed Jonathan for his murder.”

    Those plot points were presented and revealed in great detail four books ago. I give people the amount of information they need to understand the current plot, with enough of a tease to encourage them to go back and understand the backstory.

    • Nailed it, Mr. Gilstrap. As long as nothing in what you present is a spoiler for what’s to come (or what went before), dribs and drabs keep new readers up to speed and might remind returning readers of what they’ve read but (gasp!) forgotten.
      Thanks for your example.

  9. Great subject, Terry, and one I’ve been struggling with as I work on #8 in my series.

    My tendency is to under-explain rather than over-explain. Each book has to stand alone but also build on relationships from prior ones. How to avoid spoilers is esp. tricky. It’s a tightrope to walk.

    For each new book, I deliberately find a beta reader who hasn’t read earlier ones. I ask them to note the places where they wanted more explanation or detail or where they were confused/lost.

    Footnotes would be distracting, like a college textbook. A cast of characters at the beginning helps b/c my memory is faulty.

    Enjoyed your talk. Thanks for sharing the link.

    • When I request beta readers, I want some who know the series so they can tell me when my characters are acting out of character, etc., but like you, I also want feedback from those who are reading the book as a stand alone.
      Glad you enjoyed the program.

  10. Great post, Terry! I hadn’t thought of all the pieces of writing a series.

    One author I read has written several “series”.

    At the beginning of each story, there’s a cast of characters and a brief explanation of each. That’s helpful to me.

    Also, he starts each story in the series with a previously on *** section like on a continuing TV show. It grounds the reader in what happened at the end of the previous book, usually an action scene.

    It might not work for all series stories, but it works for his.

    • Thanks for sharing this author’s process. That “previously on” sounds interesting.

  11. Great post! I’m in my fourth series, but in each series, the location is the thread that connects. I rarely refer to what happened in the other books even when I bring in a character from another book.
    I really enjoyed your interview with the Speed City Sisters in Crime.

    • I did a crossover between Mapleton and Pine Hills Police (Deadly Options), and since it was a Mapleton book, everything was from Gordon’s POV, so I could sneak in bits and pieces of information from the other series, since he was seeing everything/meeting everyone for the first time.
      Glad you enjoyed the presentation. I haven’t watched the replay – hate seeing myself and hearing what I ‘really’ sound like!

  12. I’m with Connelly. If a reader has waded in mid-stream, I leave it to them to follow questions back to previous books. Reader curiosity is a good thing when it comes to a series.

    I write epic fantasy, and, although it’s FP deep pov, I still have a cast of thousands around my long-suffering leader. I don’t have the time or wherewithal to constantly explain things any more than she does! Especially five books in!

    The footnotes and annotations are horrible. Like the examples Alan & Marilynn gave, I highly dislike Fourth Wall breakages (aside from Deadpool) and steer well clear of anything that’s going to speedbump my readers out of the story!
    As might be surmised, I loathed the “choose your own adventure” books as a kid. Yick.

    I DO have a “Names” list per book that I plan to include at the end, but it’s a very brief descrip of each character, sometimes just a name. Not quite the “bible” others mention here. I have that separately, but it’s for me alone.

    Thank you for the link to your interview! I need to check that out!

    • Thanks for dropping by, Cyn. The pitfall of casts of thousands is trying to bring too many into the story too soon. I try to have mine show up one at a time with something relevant that readers need to know. I read (started) a book with a cast of characters at the front, divided into families, and there were so many similar names that I called it quits. I don’t want to be flipping back and forth all the time.
      I can see where it might be useful at the end, especially in a fantasy where characters have “non-standard” names.

  13. My first novel was not a murder mystery, but I did introduce the private investigator (PI) and a couple of recurring characters that carried over to my murder mystery series. In the first novel, the PI’s height (6’5″) and his education (PhD from MIT) were important. In the 3 murder mysteries, the education is less important, so I don’t usually mention it. But I do find ways to mention his height, such as having him duck through doorways, estimate another character’s height or the height of a ceiling based on his own height. Recurring characters usually only require one sentence for reference.

    I keep meaning to develop a bona-fide series bible, but have not done so. Meanwhile, I keep “book sheets” posted on my bulletin board next to my desk. These contain all the character names with a brief description of their roles, and since my novels are sequential: opening and ending dates for each novel. I like having a readily available list of characters so I don’t introduce new characters with the same or similar names.

    • One of my major players in Pine Hills is 6-6, so I do much the similar thing to show readers his height.
      I keep spreadsheets with character names, arranged alphabetically by first and last initials to avoid the mistake I made in an early book (and which I still quietly curse the “editor” for missing) with three characters named Hank. Fixed the names when I got my rights back.

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