Jane K. Cleland: On Writing the Successful Long-Running Series

Award-winning mystery author Jane K. Cleland describes what it's like to write a long-running book series and offers expert advice for the genre writer.
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Jane K. Cleland once owned a New Hampshire-based antiques and rare books business. She is the author of the Josie Prescott Antiques mysteries, has been a finalist for the Macavity and Anthony Awards, and won the Agatha Award for her books Mastering Suspense, Structure and Plot, and Mastering Plot Twists. She has twice won the David Award for Best Novel. Jane is the former president of the New York chapter of the Mystery Writers of America and chairs the Wolfe Pack’s Black Orchid Novella Award. She is part of the English faculty at Lehman College, a contributing editor for Writer’s Digest magazine, and a frequent guest author at writing conferences and MFA programs. She lives in New York City.

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In this post, Cleland describes what it's like to write a long-running book series, offers expert advice for the genre writer, and more!

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Name: Jane K. Cleland
Literary agent: Cristina Concepcion at Don Congdon Associates, Inc.
Title: Hidden Treasure
Publisher: St. Martin’s Minotaur
Release date: December 8, 2020
Genre: Crime Fiction/Traditional Mystery
Previous titles by the author: In the Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery series (in order, from earliest to most recent): Consigned to Death, Deadly Appraisal, Antiques to Die For, Killer Keepsakes, Silent Auction, Deadly Threads, Dolled Up for Murder, Lethal Treasure, Blood Rubies, Ornaments for Death, Glow of Death, Antique Blues, and Hidden Treasure. Books about the craft of writing: Mastering Suspense, Structure & Plot and Mastering Plot Twists.
Elevator pitch for the book: I write the Josie Prescott Antiques Mysteries, which are often reviewed as an Antiques Roadshow for mystery fans. Josie is an antiques appraiser who uses her knowledge of antiques to solve crimes. Hidden Treasure, the thirteenth in the series, tells the story of dreams, desperation, and second chances—and an ancient Egyptian cat.

Hidden Treasure cover art

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What prompted you to write this book?

Before I begin a book in my Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery series, I have to determine the premise—who is killed and why. Since I use facts to write fiction, I also need to choose the antiques that lead to the murder. Additionally, I need to figure out how Josie’s expertise solves the crime. In Hidden Treasure, there are three pivotal antiques that inform the story, an ancient Egyptian cat statue in a jewel-adorned presentation box, a dome-top trunk, and a gold book—the oldest book ever discovered.

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How long did it take to go from idea to publication? 

From idea to publication typically takes eighteen months to two years. Once the idea is approved, I write the book, which takes about a year. The editing and revision process (editorial notes, copyediting, proofreading) takes another six months or so. (It can be done quicker in a pinch, of course, but this timeline reflects my experience.)

Hidden Treasure’s basic premise and featured antiques didn’t change, but the characters and some incidents did.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title? 

Oh, golly, I learn new things with every book! In Hidden Treasure, I laughed when I read one of my wonderful editor’s comments. Her name is Hannah O’Grady, and she wrote, “The word ‘smile’ appears 152 times throughout the book (a surprisingly happy quantity for a murder mystery!).” Such a good catch! To remedy the overuse, I had to delve deeper to show the characters’ emotions in fresh ways.

(Never too late: A novelist who broke into mysteries in her 80s offers advice for writers young and old)

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

In Hidden Treasures, I struggled to create a believable character, an older woman. I just couldn’t get her right. Then I recalled a terrific woman named Maudie, my ex-husband’s mother, who years and years ago offered me a second chance to receive maternal love. Maudie was one of the finest women I’ve ever known, smart and witty, warm and compassionate. I named the character Maudie, and almost as if I’d flipped a switch, she came to life. The surprise: harnessing the power of remembered love can help create authentic characters.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

Enjoyment! Readers tell me they relish spending time with Josie and the ensemble cast in the sweet and decent town of Rocky Point, New Hampshire. They love discovering who’s gotten married, who’s received a promotion, and so on. They also love learning new things about the featured antiques, the antiques appraisal process, and growing a business.

Part of the challenge in writing a long-running series is allowing characters’ lives to develop, to change, while staying true to the voice and world of the series.

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If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Study exemplars in your genre. What do the bestsellers and longest-lasting books in your niche have in common? I’m quite analytical in my approach. When I was teaching myself the craft of writing a traditional mystery (my genre), I read twenty exemplars, assessing more than two dozen factors, studying everything from settings and themes to characterizations and the balance of exposition to dialogue. The idea wasn’t to write something derivative or formulaic, of course; rather, I sought to understand, from a reader’s point of view, what these books had in common—I sought patterns. I was able to use that framework to craft my own, original manuscript. I also developed models and tools like Jane’s Plotting Roadmap to help other authors write better and more efficiently. I share these techniques and tactics in my articles for Writer’s Digest magazine, where I’m a contributing editor, in my two award-winning books on the craft of writing, and in my free monthly writing craft workshops. Details are available at www.janecleland.com

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