A group blog featuring an international array of killer mystery, suspense, and romantic suspense writers. With premises and story lines different from your run-of-the-mill whodunits, we tend to write outside the box. We blog several times a week on all topics relating to romantic suspense and mystery, our writing, and our readers. We welcome all comments and often have guest bloggers. All our authors can be contacted separately, too, using their own social media links.

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Thursday, November 15, 2012

I-Spy: Writing the Gay Mystery – Creating a Series

Join the authors and friends of Not Your Usual Suspects for an occasional series of posts about their world of reading, writing and publishing.

Short and sweet, hopefully both informative and entertaining - join us at I-Spy to find out the how's and why's of what we do.

 TODAY'S POST: I-Spy: Writing the Gay Mystery – Creating a Series


Well, we’ve nearly come to the end of our series on writing the gay mystery novel. Next month will be a Q&A session, so feel free to post your questions for December’s blog in the comment section below.

My final column is on a topic I’m asked about a lot: writing a mystery series. Or, more exactly, writing a successful mystery series. Because, let’s face it, we all want our series stories to be a big hit with readers. We want a series with legs, a series that will take off and run for years.

The first thing to know about writing a mystery series is you don’t begin a series because you love your characters. Loving them is a plus, but not being able to let go of your characters is not really enough. Nor is it enough that readers – or even your publisher – beg for more. Again, that’s all great, and those are all factors in the decision to continue writing about a particular set of characters, but the main reason to write a series is you have a story to tell that can’t be done justice in one book.

This is a little different from writing a romance series where often the subsequent books will feature supporting cast members from previous stories (all those Hot Men of Seal Team 8 or Sexy Donahue Brothers or Sassy MacCafferty Sisters spinoffs spring to mind). It’s also different from writing fantasy where there’s such a huge overarching plot that the hero’s personal quest is almost secondary.

In a mystery series, each story – case -- is complete in itself, although there may be a greater and overarching mystery to be solved. The real story has to do with the central protagonist(s) major and ongoing conflict with…well, whatever that conflict might be. The conflict might be internal and personal or it might be with a powerful antagonist. But in all instances, we begin with the protagonist(s). The characters are what keep readers coming back for more, even in series books that seem to have run their course (and we can all name several of those).

An ideal series protagonist is a someone readers will be willing to spend a long time with, years with, someone they will watch grow and change – and yet still recognize as an old and familiar friend. What makes readers fall in love with some characters and not others is as great a mystery as any concocted by Agatha Christie’s, and I don’t have any real insight there beyond making your character as real as you can – giving him both strengths and weaknesses, but don’t let the strengths be superpowers and don’t let the weaknesses be more interesting and dominant than the strengths.

I do have some useful tips, though. Don’t give your protagonist a lot of quirks and mannerisms. However amusing that stuff is in the first book, by the fifth book, trust me, you won’t be laughing. Don’t saddle him with a disability or any kind of health issue unless you’re prepared to deal with it realistically and long term. Don’t make the supporting cast of friends and family too large, too zany or too psychotic. Don’t make your main character a cop or any other member of law enforcement unless you’re willing to do a LOT of homework.

Do keep extensive notes on supporting cast as well as the main characters. It doesn’t seem like it when you’re writing the first book, but you will forget the make of your protag’s car (let alone the color), what year he graduated from college, and the middle name of his youngest sister. Yet without fail these are the very kinds of trivial details you’ll have put down in print in one book or another.

Do consider carefully where your protagonist will live (and how easy it will be for you to research that place) and what he does for a living (same as above). Consider whether his profession is something conducive to a life of crime. Any category of crime fiction is suitable for a series, but consider carefully what you want to write in the long term. Don’t write a comical amateur sleuth first book if you don’t actually enjoy writing comedy or amateur sleuths. You can’t change tone and genre mid-series without some heavy reader attrition.

Do give your protagonist family and friends and a community to live in. Your supporting cast is not only the source of sub-plots, they will be useful for future main plots. A personal investment on the part of the protagonist always makes for a more intense and interesting story.

It helps to know you’re writing a series BEFORE you start writing the series. That allows you to do two very important things: plan the course of your character (and perhaps story) arcs and – most important – avoid tying up all the loose ends at the end of the first book.

That last point is especially important because, while readers will inevitably complain at the end of the first book that you didn’t tie up all the loose ends, if you do tie up all the loose ends, there is no point to writing the rest of the series. While you don’t want to leave readers entirely unsatisfied, you do not want closure at the end of any but the final book in a series. “Closure” is succinctly defined by Sara Paretsky in Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America, “…the decisive resolution of conflicts plaguing the protagonist in such a way that a sequel can destroy or intrude on the reader’s relief.” 

In a gay mystery series there is always the immediate puzzle to be solved, but over the course of the series there is also the greater puzzle of the who the protagonist really is and what he ultimately wants out of life.  Which I suppose brings us to the end – and also back to our starting point. I began this column in January with the same quote I believe I’ll use to end it.

The gay sleuth symbolically confronts the ultimate mystery every gay man must face at some point in his life: his difference from his family and the general society into which he has been born.

The Gay Male Sleuth in Print and Film, Drewey Wayne Gun  

 Questions? Thoughts? Opinions?


A distinct voice in gay fiction, multi-award-winning author JOSH LANYON has been writing gay mystery, adventure and romance for over a decade. In addition to numerous short stories, novellas, and novels, Josh is the author of the critically acclaimed Adrien English series, including The Hell You Say, winner of the 2006 USABookNews awards for GLBT Fiction. Josh is an Eppie Award winner and a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist



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M said...

Wow! This year has gone by so fast, but I suppose no one knows that more than you. Interesting post, as always. It's always fascinating to see how much goes into our favorite books. Thank you.

Kathy Otten said...

Great posts with lots of info. Love your characters and your dedication to research. You always leave me wanting more.

Susan said...

Wonderful post as usual, Josh. If ever there was an author who should write about creating a gay mystery series, it's you. Cannot imagine how many Adrien/Jake books you could write before I would say, 'Enough already!'. But of course, we know that day will never come. You have far too much writerly restraint. :)

Josh Lanyon said...

Thanks, M.! Yes, I can't get over how fast this year flew past. Jeez! And I only got done about half of everything I wanted to!

Josh Lanyon said...

Thanks so much, Kathy.

Josh Lanyon said...

Aw. Thanks, Susan. :-D

Sally_Odgers said...

Thanks for some interesting points on series writing. My husband and I wrote a 12 book mystery series and enjoyed it muchly and you put into words a lot of what we learned.

Josh Lanyon said...

You learned it the way I did, Sally. The hard way. :-)

Anonymous said...

Very informative post. :)

I was wondering, same with the conflict, should the writer also have a general idea of what the series' mysteries will be?

Should there be a single theme for those mysteries since it's a series, or should ideas for them come from current interests and events in what's a popular read/theme currently? (making a BDSM related murder because people show unhealthy obsessions with 50shades for example)

Thank you!

Suzanne Gabbay said...

RE: Good (gay) mystery series – how about Lev Raphael’s Nick Hoffman series?? He has done a magnificent job in putting together a realistic and successful mystery series whose protagonist happens to be gay. This brings up another issue that I’m curious about - I wonder sometimes how authors feel about their books being labeled and/or catalogued into such specific genres. And, I’m interested to know if this labeling is a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ thing to an author. I know that in many cases authors are trying to write to fit into a particular genre, and are therefore writing for a very specific audience…BUT, and I suppose this is my question – do you look at your success as an author in terms of this specific audience – in that you are writing ONLY for the audience who wants to read ‘gay fiction;’ OR, do you want to be known as an author who wrote that great mystery series featuring Adrien English (who happens to be gay)?

Have you read any of Raphael’s short stories or non-fiction? I really admire his work, and identify very closely with many of his themes. He has (for me, at least), the ability to cross genre lines in his writing and I (as a married, heterosexual female and mother of 2 children) find that I can relate and identify very closely with his writing (Raphael is male, homosexual; with no children of his own). There is one scene in his first Nick Hoffman mystery, 'Let’s Get Criminal,' a dinner scene in which Hoffman and his live-in partner have invited the former flame of his partner over for dinner, and Hoffman is a bit edgy and jealous – even though this character is an individual completely different from me in so many ways, I totally ‘clicked’ with the Nick Hoffman character and what was going through his mind in that scene – that could have been me – I’ve been there; done that; made those silly and jealous comments, etc.! Here is an author whose writes about an individual who is so different from me in so many ways, yet manages to imbue him with enough reality that I could see myself in that character.

I enjoy reading your comments and feedback about these subjects – thanks in advance for your consideration and time.

Suzanne Gabbay said...

As a follow-up to my earlier comments above – I never know nowadays how comments may be interpreted, and I don’t want to step on any toes – SO, may I clarify that I am curious about how an author defines themselves in a very general sense. For example, many years ago I had the opportunity to attend a reading & questions/answer session with Terry McMillan right after the release of her novel ‘Stella Gets Her Groove Back.’ I was too shy to ask at the time, but again, was very interested in knowing how she felt defined as an author – did she feel that her success was defined by her African-American female protagonist; did she believe her success as an author is in being known as a writer of African-American female themes; OR, would she want to be recognized as an author who wrote great literary fiction about culturally diverse women in today’s society? How much of who you are defines the characters that you write about; and is it even possible to separate those core traits that make each one of us an individual? I hope I’m making some kind of sense here – sorry for running on so long!

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