Spoiler Alert!

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By Debbie Burke


Today I’m seeking advice from authors who write series fiction as well as people who enjoy reading series books.

Here’s the situation: I have an idea for the ninth book in the Tawny Lindholm Thriller series, but this new plot would reveal several surprise twists from prior books. These are major league spoilers.

Ideally, readers begin a series with #1 and read the books in order. They watch continuing characters grow and change with each succeeding book.

But as authors we can’t count on the series being read in order and must keep that in mind as we write.

Here’s some conventional wisdom about series writing:

  • Treat each book as a standalone.
  • If there are references to events that happen in earlier books, skirt around them to avoid giving away surprises.
  • Include only enough backstory from earlier books so the reader isn’t confused.
  • No spoilers.

Series contain one unavoidable spoiler: in each book, the lead character grapples with danger that is sure to kill them. But there are more books in the series so the lead must survive. As long as you keep readers up past their bedtime, they don’t mind that spoiler.   

With a series, relationship arcs develop over multiple books.

In book #1, let’s say two characters dislike each other but must work together to overcome obstacles.

In book #2, their relationship has changed after being in the trenches together. Changes might be:

  • They’re now allies and friends.
  • One emerges as the lead while the other becomes the subordinate.
  • Characters alternate positions. A secondary character in one book becomes the lead in another.
  • They continue to clash with each other in a running conflict.
  • They become lovers.

In book #3, the plot pushes them closer together with more shared adventures and lessons learned. The relationship grows deeper. More variations are possible:

  • One is killed off, leading to new problems for the survivor.
  • They are no longer personally connected but must still interact (e.g. on the job, as family members, sharing a child, etc.).
  • One finds a new interest, which leads to conflict with the other.

And so on, and so on.

Like real life, interpersonal relationships in fiction are complicated by death, distance, illness, injury, divorce, children, new romances, blended families, and more.

A while back, I received an email from a someone who had read the first book in my series, Instrument of the Devil. In that story, Tawny Lindholm is the lead character who’s targeted by a terrorist. Soon she’s in insurmountable legal trouble and facing prison. In the last quarter of the book, a brilliant, arrogant attorney named Tillman Rosenbaum shows up to represent her. She desperately needs his help but can’t stand him.

Initially, Tillman was supposed to be a walk-on character, a one-off. However, he was so much fun to write that I couldn’t get rid of him. He demanded the role of male lead and I had no choice but to give it to him.

At the end of IOTD, Tillman gets Tawny out of legal trouble but she’s broke and desperate. He offers her a job which, despite her dislike for him, she reluctantly accepts.

In book #2, Stalking Midas, Tawny constantly worries Tillman is going to fire her because the job is over her head. She gradually learns reasons behind her boss’s harsh facade and recognizes why he’s so cynical. Tillman, who doesn’t trust anyone, discovers Tawny can be trusted and she becomes indispensable.

Spoiler alert: by the end, they break their own two cardinal rules:

  1. Don’t dip your pen in the company inkwell.
  2. Don’t sleep with the guy who signs your paycheck.

“What??? Really???”
Photo by Amber Kipp on Unsplash

Despite ups and downs, their relationship grows. Responding to the email from the new reader, I mentioned in passing that their wedding occurs in book #5. The incredulous reader wrote back, “Tawny marries Tillman????”

Oops. Let that cat out of the bag. Fortunately, the reader continued with the series.

Here’s my dilemma today: the potential plot for book #9 would require revealing crimes and the killer’s identity from book #3, Eyes in the Sky.

At this point, I haven’t written one word of #9. The new plot vaguely swirls in my imagination but it’s far from pinned down.

That’s why I figured now was a good time to ask for help from the intelligent, thoughtful community at TKZ.

If you write series fiction, have you ever given away spoilers from earlier books?

Do you think that helps or hinders the series?

Did you receive feedback from readers about spilling secrets? What did they think?

Did it affect their reaction to subsequent books in the series?

Were they disappointed? 

If you’re a reader of series fiction, how important is it to you to be surprised?

Do you read series out of order?

Did spoilers from earlier books diminish your reading experience of a new one?

I’m interested in your thoughts, pro and con. Thanks for being my focus group!



Spoiler alert: the two main characters in the Tawny Lindholm Thriller series survive at the end of each book…so far!

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Tips to Create a Series Bible

By Sue Coletta

Lately, I’ve been consumed with creating a series bible for my Grafton County Series. So, I thought I’d share some tips to help you avoid making the same mistakes. Mistakes like thinking highlighted notes on my Kindle were enough to jog the ol’ memory bank. Mistakes like scribbling notes on scrap paper or a whiteboard. Mistakes like tabbing umpteen pages in the previous paperbacks.

Yep. I’ve done all of the above and more. Hence why I’ve had to reread every book in the series. It’s been months since I’ve written in the Grafton County Series. When I set out to plan my WIP, I’d forgotten a lot of details. In my defense, I did write a true crime book, another Mayhem Series thriller, and new true crime proposal in between.

Though it’s fun to spend time with my characters, it’s also a ton of added work, work that could’ve been avoided if I had a series bible in place. Don’t be like me. Even if you’re writing book one, start your series bible now.


We first need to decide on a format for our series bible. Some writers use Scrivener. Others prefer Evernote or a Word.doc. The most popular choice is to print the series bible and organize in a three-ring binder. Pick the format that works best for you.

Organize by Color

Choose one color for each book in the series. Every detail you list in the series bible should correspond to the book’s color.


Book 1: Blue

Book 2: Red

Book 3: Purple

Book 4: Green

By color-coding, if you need a detail from the series bible while writing, one glance will tell you when the fact occurred.

Details to Include

  • Description of main characters
  • Description of secondary characters
  • Description of villains, including monikers (if applicable)
  • Victims
  • Characters’ profession
  • Killers MO (if applicable)
  • Pets, including deceased pets (if applicable)
  • Tattoos/piercings (if applicable)
  • Scars, emotional and physical
  • Jewelry
  • Marital status/relationships
  • Important dates
  • Family ties
  • Themes
  • Setting
  • Backstory
  • Housing
  • Accent (if any)
  • Décor
  • Cherished treasures
  • Timelines
  • Future scene ideas

Most of the above list is self-explanatory, but I do want to point out a few things.

Character Description

An important part of the series bible is character description. Savvy readers will notice if your MC has a small ankle tattoo from her college days in book one, then claims s/he’d never be stupid enough to get one in book five or six.

In this section be sure to include the basics: hair & eye color, height & weight (approximate, if you’ve never detailed this attribute), style of dress, skin tone/complexion, tattoos & piercings (if applicable), favorite perfume/cologne, injuries and physical scars.

When I listed Sage’s injuries/physical scars, I couldn’t believe what I’d done to this poor woman. Here’s a small sample from my story bible.

  • thick neck scar that tugs at the skin
  • white lines zigzagging across her right forearm
  • lost unborn child from rape
  • scar from incised wound on right wrist
  • orbital floor fracture (broken eye socket)
  • fractured cheekbone
  • broken nose
  • faint scar from stitches on left wrist
  • faint scar from stitches on upper lip
  • faint scar from stitches on right cheek
  • faint scar from stitches on forehead

And that’s only the first two books!

Emotional Turmoil

Since I write psychological thrillers, it’s vitally important for me to track each character’s emotional toll. Past experiences define and shape our characters into the people they are today. An emotional sketch of each character allows us to find triggers and/or weaknesses to exploit in future books. *evil grin*

Incidentally, I do the same for pets. For example, Sage and Niko have two dogs, Colt and Ruger. These dogs have lived through harrowing experiences, and they’ve developed certain habits that stem from those experiences. Animals feel things as deeply as we do. If the pets emerge unscathed, the characterization won’t ring true.


Tiny details matter. For example: When Sage gets nervous, she plays with a Gemini pendant, sliding it back and forth across the necklace. Now, the pendant is turquoise and silver, but for some reason, I wrote “gold” chain in book one. Because this necklace holds sentimental value, Sage would never switch the pendant to a different chain. This minor detail has never been a problem for me. Rarely, if ever, do I mention the color of the chain. Too much description slows the pace.

But what if I decide to kill her some day? Or fake her death? That necklace could become a key piece of evidence. See what I’m sayin’? Even if we never intend to use the minor detail when we list it, we still should include it in the series bible in case we change our mind.


The nose knows! In my Grafton County Series, the medical examiner practically bathes in Aramis cologne. Anyone within fifteen feet knows he’s entered the crime scene before they ever spot him. It’s become a running joke. I could never forget that detail, but I still include it in the series bible under his name just in case.

What did slip my mind was Sage’s perfume. This might not sound like a big deal, but for this series, it’s an important detail. During tender moments, Sage’s husband Niko breathes her in. The soft aroma of Shalimar mushrooms across his face, with notes of lemon, iris, jasmine, rose, patchouli, sandalwood, and vanilla. He loves that about her. If I didn’t include this detail in the series bible, future books wouldn’t ring true.

Side tip: If you’re struggling for a scent, ask your husband/wife or significant other. We all have a scent that’s uniquely ours. Maybe they love your shampoo, skin cream, body wash, after-shave, or scented deodorant. Once you find the answer, transfer that scent to your lead or secondary character. Or show your character cooking, baking, or eating. Food is an easy way to include one of the most under-appreciated senses in fiction: smell. If the character is eating, be sure to include taste, too. Bonus!


Does your character have a favorite chair? List it in the series bible.

Does your character hate the hard sofa? Jot down why in the series bible.

Did you focus in on an antique timepiece or cuckoo clock in a past book? Describe it in the series bible.

What about a wall safe or gun cabinet? Be sure to include the combination in the series bible.

Example: After a hard day at work, Niko collapses in his Lay-Z-Boy. I’ve never described the recliner in detail. Never had a reason to. Instead, I simply wrote “Lay-Z-Boy” under Niko’s name in the series bible.

He also has a favorite coffee mug, with #1 Dad inscribed on a gold shield. If Sage poured his coffee into a different mug, fans of the series would wonder where it went.

Minor details can impact series characters in an emotional, conflict-driven way.

What if Sage came home to find Niko’s mug shattered on the kitchen floor? Better yet, what if she found it on the bedroom floor? I’ve made it a point to mention this mug in every book. It’s a Grafton County series staple. One glimpse of the shattered mug, and Sage would leap to the conclusion that someone’s been in the house. In reality Colt or Ruger might have knocked it off the counter or bureau. How it wound up on the floor isn’t important (yet). What is important is that I’ve created conflict just by showing the shattered mug.

Future Scenes

A funny thing happens while creating a story bible. Scene ideas flood the creative mind. While working on my series bible, not only have I finished planning my next Grafton County Series thriller, but I gained at least one new premise for a future book, as well. I even stormed through writing the first few chapters of my WIP. And that may be the best reason of all to create a series bible—to get the creative juices pumping in the right direction.

Can’t think of a plot for your next WIP? Review the story bible. It’s a lot easier than re-reading the entire series. Trust me on that. 🙂

Need tips for writing a series? Check out the group TKZ post.

Do you use a series bible? If you do, any tips to share? If not, what’s your process to ensure consistency throughout the series?

His name is Paradox and he poses his victims in RED cocktail dresses, RED roses in place of eyes. He will kill again if his riddles aren’t solved within 24 hours.

Can Niko and Sage stop him before the clock runs out?

Look Inside SCATHED: https://books2read.com/SCATHED



The Ingredients of a Great Series Character

by James Scott Bell

Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet

Many pulp writers of old made good bank with a hit series character.

Edgar Rice Burroughs created Tarzan.

Erle Stanley Gardner gave us Perry Mason.

Dashiell Hammett penned the Continental Op.

The ladies were represented as well. An obvious pen name “Lars Anderson” wrote a series featuring college-educated Ellen Patrick, who fought corruption in 1930s Los Angeles as “the Domino Lady.” The pulp magazine she appeared in was Saucy Romantic Adventures, and wouldn’t you like to have a few original copies of that?

Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most famous example of the hit series character. So popular was Holmes that his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, couldn’t get out from under him. At one point Doyle killed off his detective, but the public demanded he be brought back. His resurrection was by way of the novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. When it was first published in The Strand magazine, the circulation of that periodical went up by about thirty thousand.

In other words, Doyle, though feeling a bit trapped, took that feeling all the way to the bank.

What Makes a Great Series Character?

I see five qualities in the best series characters. If you can pack these in from the start, your task is half done. Here they are:

  1. A point of uniqueness, a quirk or style that sets them apart from everybody else

What is unique about Sherlock Holmes? He’s moody and excitable. Among the very staid English, that was different.

Jack Reacher? Come on. The guy doesn’t own a phone or clothes. He travels around with only a toothbrush. Funny how every place he goes he runs into massive trouble and very bad people.

  1. A skill at which they are really, really good

Katniss Everdeen is killer with the bow and arrow.

Harry Potter is one of the great wizards (though he has a lot to learn).

  1. A bit of the rebel

The series hero should rub up against authority, even if it’s in a quiet way, like Miss Marple muttering “Oh, dear” at the local constabulary. Hercule Poirot is a needle in the side of Inspector Japp.

  1. A vulnerable spot or character flaw

Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian has a vicious temper that sometimes gets the better of him.

Sherlock Holmes has a drug habit.

Stephanie Plum keeps bouncing between two lovers, who complicate her life.

  1. A likable quality

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe has some of the greatest quips in the history of crime fiction. We like them because Marlowe is also vulnerable—to getting beat up, drugged, or otherwise manhandled by forces larger than himself (like Moose Malloy).

Wit is one of the great likability factors.

Another is caring for others besides oneself. Stephanie Plum has a crazy family to care for, not to mention her sometime partner Lula.

Will the Character Grow?

One decision you should make early on is how much character growth there will be. While you’ll hear a lot about the necessity for character arcs, they aren’t always necessary.

For example, Jack Reacher doesn’t change. I once heard Lee Child talking about this on a panel, and he said, “Arcs? We don’t need no stinkin’ arcs.”


Michael Connelly, on the other hand, has brought tremendous change to his series character, Harry Bosch. He decided, too, that he would age Bosch right along with the books, a decision he has come to ruefully regret. Bosch is getting up there!

At the very least, your character ought to grow stronger with each adventure. Why? Because without that there is no tension or conflict in the story. Each new tale must challenge the character in some way that threatens him with death (physical, professional, or psychological).

Test Marketing

Self-publishing today provides the writer with a way to “test drive” a potential series character. You can do that in a number of ways.

You can write a story and send it to several beta readers. These are people you know and trust to give you honest feedback.

You can publish in a free venue, like Wattpad, and collect the feedback that way.

There’s always the option of going to Kindle Direct Publishing, and using Kindle Select exclusivity so you can promote the story for free. Promote the heck out of it. Read the reviews.

The pulp writers of old weren’t shy about testing a character and then moving on if that character didn’t create enough buzz. Their big problem was the lag time between sending in a story and waiting months for it to appear.

Today, you don’t have to wait.

Who are some of your favorite series characters? What do you think is the key to their popularity?

How I Developed My Series Hero

by James Scott Bell

I’m happy to announce the release of my new Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Hammer. It begins on a posh beach at Malibu, and ends just up the coast at Paradise Cove. In between a lot of stuff happens. (This is called a plot summary).

Today, I thought I’d say a little bit about how I came up with Romeo as my series hero.

I’d long wanted to write about a lone-wolf, hard-boiled seeker of justice. I’ve always loved this famous Raymond Chandler quote about the classic PI:

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.

The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.

But I did not want to do another PI character. I love ’em, but we have enough of them. So I conceived a backstory that would cause a man to be on the run and off the grid. With a changed name. And who spent a number of years as a cage fighter.

What else could I add to make him more interesting for me? I decided to include my love of philosophy. I was nearly a philosophy major in college. But freshman year I was in a big philosophy class, with the smaller classroom discussions taught by a TA. This guy wore sandals and smoked Camels (you could smoke in the classrooms back then). He would take out a fresh cig as he spoke, hold it between two fingers, then strike a match, all while talking. He’d get a faraway look in his eyes as he went off on a metaphysical tangent. We students would watch the match burn down, waiting until it hit his fingers, which it inevitably did, and he’d shake the match vigorously to put it out—still talking! He’d drop the dead match on the floor and begin the process all over again. It always took him 2 – 4 matches to light up.

And I thought, if that’s what I might become as a philosophy major, maybe I ought to try something else.

But I digress. I’ve always loved philosophy and theology and thinking about deep things, especially in times of crisis. Give me Epictetus when things aren’t going my way, or Pascal when reflecting on ultimate truth. I wanted my series hero to be like that. So I made him a genius, a kid who was accepted to Yale at age fourteen. But then bad things happened … and we begin with Mike Romeo in Romeo’s Rules, in the present, with a tattoo on his forearm: Vincit Omnia Veritas. Truth Conquers All Things.

Plus, he likes flowers.

Most of all, though, he has that code Chandler wrote about. And at some point it struck me that I had a model for him in the back of my mind all along.

I was a mere pup when the TV series Have Gun, Will Travel was popular. But the character, Paladin (played by Richard Boone) was cool. (A paladin was a knight known for heroic deeds and the code of chivalry).

Paladin lived in the luxurious Carleton Hotel in San Francisco. There he ate the finest foods, sipped the finest brandy, and escorted the finest women to the opera. He could speak on virtually any subject.

But he was also a gun for hire. He’d go out on jobs, donning his all-black duds and six guns. His holster had a chess knight on it. Ditto his card.

The great thing about this western, unlike, say, Gunsmoke, was that Paladin very rarely shot anyone! Instead, he used his wits to outfox bad guys, or get good guys to do the right thing.

Most of all he lived by his code. One part of that code, which Mike Romeo shares, is that if someone is being bullied, justice demands the paladin step in and stop it. Here’s a clip from an episode of Have Gun, Will Travel. Paladin has just arrived in a town to meet his employer for the first time.

That’s Paladin. And that’s the sort of hero I had in mind when I conceived Mike Romeo.

Which makes writing the series fun for me. Maybe that’s the biggest key of all. You can put your hero through all sorts of tests. You can have him suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But if he’s not someone you’d like to hang out with, the series can turn into a slog.

Fortunately, Mike Romeo is bringing me joy.

The Romeo’s Hammer is available here:



So….let’s talk series characters. Do you have one? How did you come up with him or her?


Who is your favorite series hero, and why?


Going Deep With a Series Character

by James Scott Bell

A post and an announcement today. First the post.lost-light

A few years ago I was at the Men of Mystery conference in SoCal, a one-day gathering of mystery writers and readers. The keynoter was Michael Connelly, and something he said hit home.

He was talking about advice he got early on from Joseph Wambaugh. Wambaugh, the L.A. cop turned bestselling author, told Connelly that the really interesting thing is not how the cop works on the case; it’s how the case works on the cop.

Connelly took that to heart as he began his Harry Bosch series, and the development of Bosch over the last nearly quarter century is nothing short of astonishing. We are seeing, right before our eyes, the production of greatest detective series ever written. I love me some Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. William Goldman once opined in the New York Times that the books by Ross Macdonald were “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American.”

But in my view Michael Connelly has taken over that distinction.

First off, his plots are always gripping. The complex mysteries come together slowly, piece by piece, as Harry does his detective work. The procedural aspects are highly detailed yet never dull.

But it’s how the cases work on Harry that takes us deeper. In each book there is something that gets to Harry Bosch and grips his soul. For example, in Lost Light, Harry (retired and working privately) sets out to solve a cold case he worked years earlier. He recalls the position of the victim’s body:

But it was her hands that I would remember the most. Somehow when her lifeless body was dropped to the tile, her hands fell together. Off to the left side of her body, they were directed upward from her head, as if she were reaching out to someone, almost beseechingly, begging for something. They look like hands from a Renaissance painting, like the hands of the damned reaching heavenward for forgiveness. In my life I have worked almost a thousand homicides and no positioning of a fallen body ever gave me such pause.

Perhaps I saw too much in the vagaries of how she had fallen. But every case is a battle in a war that never ends. Believe me, you need something to carry with you every time you go into the fight. Something to hold on to, an edge that drives you or pulls you. And it was her hands that did it for me. I could not forget her hands. I believe they were reaching to me. I still do.

So the lesson for today is this: Don’t make your novel just about how a lead character works on the plot, but how the plot works on the lead character. For where does originality come from? Not just in the twists and turns of plot. It also comes from the twists and turns inside a human being navigating a life-and-death struggle.

If you want to see how a master does it, I commend to you the novels of Michael Connelly.

And now my announcement. I have just released my second Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Way. It begins this way:

IT WAS THE first Tuesday in March, the sun taking its sweet time fighting off the cloud cover and recent rains, when I saw the kid who wanted to die.


It can be ordered here:




It’s also available in a PRINT VERSION.

To sum up: There are popular series where the character stays basically the same. Some of these are highly entertaining. I enjoy reading them. But when they’re done, I pretty much forget them.

Harry Bosch is unforgettable.

That’s a high bar indeed. But as Brother Brooks put it recently, “The higher the bar, the sweeter the leap.”

So what about you? For those of you who are working on a series, do you give equal thought to the inner journey as well as the outer plot line?