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Marilyn Levinson

Marilyn Levinson on Writing a Series

Marilyn Levinson writes three mystery series, the Golden Age of Mysteries Book Club, and Twin Lakes series as herself, and The Haunted Library series as Allison Brook. You can find out more about her here, see her books here, and see her last post here.

Murder a la Christie by Marilyn Levinson

I love writing mystery series. Judging by the comments I receive, readers love to read them, too.  A series has a sleuth and a supporting cast of characters that live on from book to book. My characters form the backbone of my stories. While they have distinct personalities, they often surprise me as they mature and interact with one another.

Because each book in a series is unique and requires a certain amount of research , I opt for familiarity when choosing my sleuth’s profession and the setting for each series. Lydia Krause, my  Twin Lakes series’ sleuth is an older, retired businesswoman living in a gated community on Long Island much like the community I live in. Lexie Driscoll in my Golden Age of Mystery Book Club series which also takes place on Long Island, is an English college professor. Years ago I was a high school Spanish teacher. Carrie Singleton, my sleuth in the Haunted Library series that I write as Allison Brook, is head of programs and events in the Clover Ridge Library. I’ve never been a librarian, but I sure spend a lot of time in my library where a friend held Carrie’s position for many years.

Writing a series requires consistency. I find that I often plant problems and clues in a book that  come to the surface many books later. Which is why it’s wise to keep track of one’s characters’ age and other attributes. And it’s a good idea to give every character a secret.

Twelve Things to Keep in Mind When Writing a Mystery Series:

  1. Your sleuth should be likable, interesting, and resourceful, with a definite personality that includes quirks and personal issues that have yet to be resolved. Your sleuth needs to have a personal stake in solving the mystery.
  2.  Consider your setting a major character. Use your setting well–its geography and flavor, its contrasting neighborhoods, businesses, parks and restaurants. Set your scenes in various locales to avoid monotony. Create annual traditions that are celebrated in your locale. Examples: a parade, a dance, a barbeque. 
  3. Occasionally change your setting. If most of the books in your series take place in a small town, you might have your sleuth solve a murder in Manhattan.
  4. Your sleuth needs a best friend or confidant with whom to brainstorm. Consider creating a nemesis, as well, to up the tension and add red herrings to the mix.
  5. A love interest (or interests) spices up your plot and adds another dimension.
  6. Choose your victim carefully. Why was he/she murdered? What connects the victim to the suspects? Why was the second victim murdered?
  7. Regarding suspects, have many, with various motives, and with varying connections to the victim(s). Don’t telescope the identity of the murderer, but let your murderer appear often enough so that your reader doesn’t feel cheated when all is revealed.
  8. Secrets relating to the past are like chunks of dark Belgian chocolate in a chocolate brownie. Every character should have a secret or two. Reveal each secret only when necessary. Use them to your advantage.
  9. Every mystery should have a theme. Be it a dispute regarding an inheritance, your sleuth’s relationship to an absentee father who shows up later in her life, each mystery should include a theme that reflects the concerns of your sleuth, the village, or the outside world.
  10.  Decide what role official crime solvers play in your mystery. Even if you’re writing a cozy series, the police must appear in your books. Is your sleuth friendly with the homicide detective? Do they have an adversarial relationship? Don’t have the police come off as idiots because they’re not.
  11.  Subplots are essential to any novel, including your mystery. They may arise from the theme such as a dispute over land development, from characters in conflict, or from an issue in your sleuth’s personal life.
  12.  Make sure your personal viewpoint comes through in your writing. You are unique. Your voice and your view of the human condition will help make your series stand out.

This Post Has 20 Comments

  1. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    Marilyn — I enjoyed reading your excellent tips for writing a mystery series.

    1. Sherrill Joseph
      Sherrill Joseph

      Thanks, Marilyn, for sharing your writing tips. And your comment about secrets being “chunks of dark Belgian chocolate in a chocolate brownie” grabbed me.

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        You’re welcome. I delve into secrets, but he chocolate analogy belongs to Tracey.:)

  2. Joy Ann Ribar
    Joy Ann Ribar

    Good advice, Marilyn. I read your first Haunted Library mystery and love the quirk of using a ghost to assist in solving the murder, especially since Carrie and her niece are the only ones who see the ghost. Great twist!

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    Saralyn Richard

    Wonderful writing tips. I’m sharing this post with all my writing students. Thanks for the solid advice, and best of luck with all of your series!

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    Laurie, Joy Ann, and Saralyn,
    So glad you find my tips on writing a mystery series useful.

  5. Margaret Mizushima
    Margaret Mizushima

    Marilyn, thank you so much for this great post with wonderful tips for writing a series! This is an excellent resource!

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    Thanks, Margaret. I try to follow it, especially re the one about keeping track of your dates.

  7. Tim Chapman
    Tim Chapman

    This is such a great post. I love your 12 writing tips. Especially number 6, which I believe is as true in life as it is in fiction. ;^)

  8. Anne Louise Bannon
    Anne Louise Bannon

    I have to keep track of my dates for my 1980s series. Thank God for Aeon Timeline.

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      Anne Louise,
      It’s a good thing we have all those handy references at our fingertips.

  9. Tracey Phillips
    Tracey Phillips

    Great Post Marilyn! I especially love your point number eight. “Secrets relating to the past are like chunks of dark Belgian chocolate in a [delicious] brownie.”
    As you know, I love to write about my characters’ hidden secrets!! Thanks for this post!

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    Yay Marilyn! I have three series (so far) and in the mystery ones I agree that keeping continuity through characters and character development is paramount. The ten-book paranormal romance rely more on outside forces, though. Thanks for the blog!

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      You’re welcome, Michele. BTW, I read your recent guest blog.

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    vicki batman

    Bery good tips!

  12. Sharon Lynn
    Sharon Lynn

    Great tips, Marilyn! I see all of these things in your Haunted Library series. Charming and engaging!

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      Thanks so much, Sharon Lynn! I try to follow my own advice.:) Or did I get these twelve writing precepts from writing a few series? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

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