SERIES OR STANDALONE? – Sarah Ward
I’ve been reading crime fiction since I was a child. When I give talks at libraries I like to mention the authors that have influenced me as a writer. I always start off with Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew books. There was something about the idea of an amateur female detective moving between stories and solving improbably complex cases that I loved. It influenced much of my future reading. In my teens it was Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books that I devoured, in my twenties Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski series and, more recently, Icelandic writer, Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s novels featuring lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. There have been plenty more in between.
But I also like standalone murder stories too. Agatha Christie’s Crooked House remains my favourite book of hers and Minette Walters’ thrillers have all been eagerly anticipated. The sense of a story reaching a conclusion is a compelling one and also allows the writer to, if necessary, kill off characters as dictated by the plot of that particular book than the needs of the series.
When I started my own novel, In Bitter Chill, I don’t think I was particularly sure whether or not I wanted to write a series. My focus was on the book’s main protagonist, Rachel, and the story of her kidnapping in the 1970s. I wanted, by the end of the narrative, to have told Rachel’s story. So, I suppose my intention was to write a standalone book. But, as the plot unfolded, it was clear that the police would have been involved in the events of both the 1970s and the present day. And the investigations into the crimes committed would be different from a law enforcement perspective than those of an amateur detective. So I interwove Rachel’s story with the investigations of two detectives on the case.
So far so good. The problem was that I enjoyed writing the police characters. Rachel’s story does conclude in the book but the detectives’ continue with their lives. And there’s plenty of mileage left in those characters. So for my second book they appear again and I’ve unwittingly started a series. But as the location of my novels is a rural one, with a distinct lack of serious crime, I don’t anticipate the series being a long one. I like the idea of a quartet. Four books feels manageable and it’s possible to explore the lives of my police characters without having to inject unnecessary dramas into their lives.
I like to think that my books can still be read as standalones. There’s something special about a story concluding in a single novel. But I’ve hugely enjoyed developing characters in my second book that were only touched on briefly in In Bitter Chill. I hope I’ve got the best of both worlds.
SARAH WARD is an online book reviewer whose blog, Crimepieces, reviews the best of current crime fiction. She is a judge for the Petrona Award for Scandinavian translated crime novels. Sarah lives in rural Derbyshire where her debut novel, In Bitter Chill, is set.