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The Challenge of Keeping a Novel Series Fresh

When the goal to write one book turned into 15 (and counting), bestselling author Ian Hamilton found himself being asked about the difficulty of keeping a series compelling. Here, he discusses the challenges of keeping a novel series fresh.

Although my Ava Lee series now consists of 15 novels, when I initially sat down to write, the thought of writing a series never occurred to me. My only objective was to prove to myself that I was capable of writing/finishing a single book. But then things got strange. I was half-way through that first effort—which became The Water Rat of Wanchai—when from out of nowhere a plot idea for a second book came to me, and I built that into the Water Rat.

And the strangeness didn’t stop there.

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I was well into writing the second book when suddenly I had plot ideas for a third and a fourth. And those ideas weren’t isolated; they were part of a story arc that kept extending. For example, when I was writing the third book—The Wild Beasts of Wuhan—I realized I knew how the sixth book was going to end. And since then, I haven’t started writing a novel without knowing how it is going to lead into the next, and often into the next two or three.

I mention the story arcs because they just didn’t involve story/plot lines, but were strongly connected to character development. I decided (or the story arcs did) that my main character, Ava Lee, was not going to be static, and neither were the people in her life. So throughout the books, Ava and her life keep changing. She transitions, for example, from a career as a debt collector to that of a businesswoman. Lovers come and go. There is a revolving door of characters surrounding her. Some start off strongly, and then their roles are either diminished or disappear entirely. New characters are constantly being introduced, and some of them take on major roles. And there is a large cast of recurring characters who Ava interfaces with.

Additionally, my plots covered a wide range of topics—corrupt seafood practices, art fraud, online gambling, money laundering, corrupt Chinese government officials, illegal logging in rainforests, and so on. I chose subjects that interested me, and then worked hard to write them in a way that my readers would enjoy, and maybe learn a little something at the same time.

The Challenge of Keeping a Novel Series Fresh

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Lastly, my books all have different geographic settings. I only write about places I have been to, but fortunately my career took me to a great many. I am careful not to write travelogues. What I want is to give readers the sense of a place, and I usually focus on the one or two things that struck me as being unusual about them—such as the fixation on potholes in Georgetown, Guyana, or the tri-denominational temple (Muslim, Buddhist, Taoist) in Surabaya, Indonesia, or the air quality in Shanghai or the love of all things chicken-related in the Philippines.

I did all of this without really thinking about it, but as the question of “What keeps a series fresh?” kept being asked of me at events and in interviews, I realized that I was subconsciously drawing upon—in both a negative and positive sense—my years of reading series of all types.

In a negative sense, there were two particular things that turned me away from various series. The first was characters who never changed, and who revealed everything about themselves in the first 50 pages of the first book in the series. The second was repetitive story lines, and nothing discouraged me more than to realize in four or five books in yet another series, the writer was now simply going through the motions in terms of their protagonist and plot lines.

But positively, there were more than a handful of writers who avoided these pitfalls, and it was their models that I—however subconsciously—followed. Two come immediately to mind, and neither of them wrote in the crime/mystery genre, although Alan Furst‘s historical spy series comes close.

The Challenge of Keeping a Novel Series Fresh

Furst wrote 15 books in his Night Soldiers series, and they are unique in that every book has a different protagonist of diverse character, and a different setting. The books are incredibly tense and have unpredictable endings, and the reader is never sure whether the protagonist will survive—and many don’t. What binds them together is the backdrop of the Second World War and his characters’ underground attempts to thwart the Nazis.

But the finest series I have ever read, and the one that I think was in the back of my mind when I started to write about Ava, is Patrick O’Brian’s 20-volume series about Jack Aubrey. O’Brian’s books trace the career of “Lucky” Jack from his days as a teenage midshipman in the British Navy to his appointment as an Admiral. The books are set in the time period that encompasses the Napoleonic Wars, which allows for a great deal of action. What captured me and kept me buying O’Brian’s books as soon as they were released, was Aubrey’s character, and the character of the people around him. Aubrey is brave and true when it comes to his navy colleagues, but he is no angel, and when it comes to relationships and issues that are not naval, he can be naïve in ways that hurt him and those close to him. I loved that multi-dimensional side to his character, and it is something I’ve striven to achieve with Ava.

I’m not sure how many more Ava Lee novels I have bouncing around in my head, but I would like to emulate O’Brian and make it to 20. Several things are for certain: There are lots of settings I haven’t used, and enough different kinds of injustices to get to 20 and far beyond.

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