My background as a reader, and thus my direction as a writer, is heavily weighted toward fantasy, science fiction, and horror.Though I’m best known for writing an open-ended template series — where there are continuing characters but each book stands (mostly) alone — I didn’t have a lot of experience reading books like that.
When I read series, they were usually trilogies (or quartets or the occasional longer arc), which have a completely different shape; indeed, when writing my Marla Mason novels, I was probably guided more by the lessons of television shows than by anything I read in novels — the TV series being, in many cases, a perfect example of telling new stories about the same people again and again.
In books, the template series is most common in mysteries. There are countless heroes and heroines and duos and ensembles in the mystery, crime, and thriller shelves, each book expanding on their continuing adventures, something the current hot trends in urban fantasy borrowed from that side of the bookstore. I’d read some such mysteries — a little Peter Wimsey, at least — but decided to dive into a few other mystery series lately. Partly because I wanted a break from the all-SF-all-the-time nature of my reading, and partly because I want to see how these books tick.
I don’t know how well I’m analyzing them, but I’m certainly enjoying the experience. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels are marvelous, as a whole; some individual books are better than others, but the thug-with-a-heart-of-gold thing really works for me. I’m also a fan of Donald Westlake/Richard Stark’s Parker novels — the thief with a heart of stone, if he has any heart at all, which is an open question. (Though his occasional ambiguous hints of humanity are as impressive as they are rare.) And Westlake’s rather less brutal series, about the unlucky thief Dortmunder, are pleasurable in a different way, to see how the capers are set up, and how they fail to work out. Westlake is dead, so there will be no more books, something any reader should mourn. Robert Parker is getting on in years, but is still turning out prose with impressive regularity.
I’ve discovered what readers love about these books: opening a new one is like sitting down with an old friend. (Or, in the case of the Richard Stark books, like sitting down with a guy who’s incredibly creepy, but too fascinating to ignore.) If I come to no other fundamental discovery in these, uh, let’s call them “researches,” then I’ve still learned something of value. Create characters compelling enough that readers want to spend time with them, and the reader will grant you a lot of leeway in everything else.