For the next few weeks, I’m going to talk about different book series I’ve been reading and what they’ve taught me about planning and writing two upcoming series of my own. As I told you in last week’s prologue to my series on series, first up is Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache cozy mystery series. The books are set in Quebec and star – you guessed it! – Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, head of this fictional world’s Quebec police force homicide division.
There are lots of things to love about Penny’s books, but if you’re a regular reader of the blog, you know she had me at cozy mystery. Oh, how I love a good cozy mystery! While I did binge-read several of the books after finding How the Light Gets In (book 9, and boy howdy! Stuff Happens in this one), I didn’t do it aimlessly or purely for the joy of it. I took some time to parse through what drew me into the series, what has kept me there, and in the spirit of great art, what I can steal or at least borrow for my own series writing pursuits. Looking at this series affords us the opportunity to explore one that is long-running, has the same recurring main character, and includes an overarching story that spans the course of the series thus far.
Give the protagonist a raison d’être…
Penny instills Armand Gamache with one of the things all our protagonists should have: a strong goal. Because it’s a murder mystery and the main character is a homicide detective, there is the built-in goal of solving the crime. Protagonists like Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes are going to spend each book looking for the murderer or a missing treasure or some other MacGuffin, and that’s a very good thing. Actively pursuing a goal makes the plot more active and engaging.
In Penny’s series, she makes it more interesting by giving Armand Gamache other goals. In the early books, they can be as small as wanting to spend more time in the small town of Three Pines and learning more about it the interesting characters who live there. As the series progresses, we see him focus more energy on the goal of dealing with the big problem (I won’t spoil it for you) in the Quebec police force.
Penny’s Gamache doesn’t have very easily recognizable flaws. And even his flaws can masquerade as principles. He can be arrogant (for example, refusing direct orders to make an arrest because he personally believes in the person’s innocence), but that arrogance comes from his intelligence, experience, and track record of solving difficult crimes.
As early as book 1, we see hints – just a sentence here, a brief paragraph there – that something has gone wrong in a past case, and it went so wrong that Gamache’s own mistakes on that past case have held him back in his career. In later books, it becomes obvious that this all ties into the overarching story that arcs over multiple books.
…and some room to grow.
Are goals and flaws enough to keep us coming back, book after book? The answer to this question is probably as varied as are readers, but many of us are going to need more. We’re going to want a protagonist who learns, grows, and changes in each book. If you’ve ever struggled to find an arc for your character over the course of one book, now consider how you’d do it over the course of 10 or more.
In the Gamache series, protagonist Armand Gamache doesn’t make sweeping changes. He doesn’t become unrecognizable, go from light to dark or from positive or negative. But he does change. Perhaps the most obvious example is his shift from being the always in control, always protecting, always taking the heat for his subordinates type of detective to accepting help and allowing others to put themselves in the line of fire to help him. He moves from always protecting/assisting others to allowing them to protect/assist him.
Populate the world with a strong supporting cast. In many series, especially cozies, one of the main draws is the community surrounding the protagonist. There’s a Danish word, hyggeligt, pronounced nothing like it looks to English readers, that roughly translates to that warm, welcoming, wonderful feeling you get from social interactions like a fabulous meal with good wine and great company. Reading a series with a recurring cast of characters whom you grow to love is the book version of hyggeligt.
In the Gamcache series, Penny creates that community in the small, intimate, and disproportionately artistic Quebecois village of Three Pines. From the first book, she introduces the gay couple who own the bistro, the local famous artist couple, the nationally renowned poet, and many others who will show up again, book after book. But they are not cardboard cutouts or props for the protagonist. They have their own goals, flaws, and character arcs. And when used well, they become entwined with the books’ main plots.
Not surprisingly, with the high murder rate in this small town (because why else would the homicide detective have a reason to return?), it’s inevitable that the characters we come to know and love are going to get embroiled in cases as suspects, perpetrators, or even victims of the crimes Gamache will have to solve. (Three Pines is Canada’s version of Cabot Cove, where the price of friendship with Jessica Fletcher is the exponentially increased risk of being a murder suspect, murder victim, or murderer.)
Build the Big Story slowly, brick by brick. For me, one of the most enlightening aspects of the Gamache series is the way Penny handles the overarching story/mystery she’s created. The big climax of that story doesn’t come until book 9, and it’s denouement continues into book 10, and might go beyond that (book 11 is due out in August 2015). This has to be especially difficult in an age when publishing, book contracts, and the future even of successful series are in constant flux – how can an author ever be sure of exactly how many books she has to draw out, expand on, and finally resolve a multi-book plot?
That last bit might be impossible to plan, and might require contingency plans, like planning how the arc would fit into 3, 6, and 9 books. Regardless of how she planned what I will circumspectly call the police force plot, Penny seeded the first hints of conflict in book 1. She sows the tiniest seeds, just the occasional afterthought, about a case gone wrong and Gamache’s possible role in it, as well as how it might have affected his chance at promotions.
One of my planned series (mystery genre) will have a recurring protagonist and the other will have different leads for each book (romance genre). Both, if I get them right, will have strong supporting casts and an overarching story threaded through 3 or 6 books. If you ever plan to write a series, you’ll find Louise Penny’s books helpful, and if you just like to read good series, you’ll find them entertaining. Have you read any of them? Anything like them?