Our readers are often curious about the process of writing and publishing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts. In this installment of our Publishing U series, Edgar Award–winning mystery writer William Kent Krueger discusses one of the signature challenges of penning a long-running series.
William Kent Krueger: Now 14 novels into my Cork O’Connor mystery series, I get asked one question more than any other when I do a book event: How do I keep the stories fresh? What I choose to believe about the underlying assumption in this question is that, in fact, my stories still feel fresh to readers, a compliment that pleases me to no end. Because one of my greatest concerns when I sit down to begin a new entry is how to offer readers something that feels familiar (one of the attractions of a series) and, at the same time, fresh and different.
You have only two choices in the kind
of protagonist you’ll create.
The heart of the answer is simple and harks back to a decision I made very early on. It’s one that I urge my students to think about whenever I teach mystery writing. Here it is: In my own opinion, and from my own experience, it seems to me that when you decide you’re going to write a series that deals with a central protagonist, you have only two choices in the kind of protagonist you’ll create. You can create a static protagonist or you can create a dynamic protagonist.
What do I mean by this?
Okay, let’s take the static protagonist first. This is someone who never changes, someone who’s the same book to book to book. Think Sherlock Holmes. If you’ve read one Sherlock Holmes story, you’ll find him to be exactly the same character in the next story you read, and the next. He never changes. A modern example would be Jack Reacher, the itinerant hero from the work of Lee Child. Or perhaps even more exemplary, Sue Grafton’s iconic detective Kinsey Milhone. Across 30 years and 23 novels, Kinsey has aged almost not all. It’s always 1980-something in a Kinsey Milhone story.
So, what’s a dynamic protagonist? This is someone who does change, someone who ages across the course of the series, someone for whom the events in one book are reflected in how that character responds to the world in the subsequent entries. In the case of Cork O’Connor in my own work, I envisioned him in my first novel, Iron Lake (1998), as a man in his very early 40s. In my last novel, I pegged him at 55. Over the course of the 14 novels, he’s aged about 14 years. He’s lost people significant in his life, and he’s suffered and changed because of it. His children have grown up before readers’ eyes. For example, Stephen, Cork’s youngest child, was five when the series began. A couple of novels ago, he turned 17, and my God, were his hormones raging. Being a part of that kind of growth in my characters has been great fun for me.
I’m never writing about the same people
who filled the pages of the last book.
What’s the point? Simply this, that when I sit down to write a new entry in my Cork O’Connor series, I’m never writing about the same people who filled the pages of the last book. They’ve grown, aged, changed. They relate to the world and to one another in different ways. They’re all in slightly different places in their life journeys. For me, it’s always an exciting experience discovering just exactly who they are now. And so if, in fact, my stories continue to feel fresh to readers, I think the overwhelming why of it is this: They remain fresh for me.
But that’s not the whole of it. Like most of my colleagues in this business, I consider myself a serious writer. Serious writers ought to push the limits. With each of the 14 novels in my series, I’ve tried to do something a bit different. Often I’ve monkeyed with the structure. Mercy Falls (2005), for example, begins at the end (or what I want the reader to believe is the end), then jumps back to the beginning. The actual ending is an experiment that either intrigues readers wonderfully or frustrates the hell out of them. In the most recent entry, Windigo Island (2014), I made a dramatic shift in point of view midway through the novel, one that’s drawn a lot of comment. It’s my hope that I continue to write in a way that will keep readers wondering about what, exactly, they’re going to find when they crack the cover of the next Cork O’Connor novel.
How often do you get the chance
to stand on a soapbox and spout off without giving
the other side an opportunity for rebuttal?
And finally, one of the elements that keeps the whole thing dynamic and compelling for me as an author and, I hope, for my readership, is that I often deal with important contemporary issues. I think a case can be made that subjects that once were the bread and butter of what were called “social novels” (think Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, or Frank Norris’s Octopus, or even Oliver Twist) have become the purview of today’s crime novel. I’ve discovered that I can discuss issues that are important to me personally, and so long as I couch them within the context of a good, compelling mystery, even people who don’t necessarily agree with my admittedly liberal, bleeding-heart point of view will still read and enjoy the work. And, honestly, how often do you get the chance to stand on a soapbox and spout off without giving the other side an opportunity for rebuttal?
Even now, as I’m contemplating the story that will be at the heart of my fifteenth novel in the series, I’m a little giddy with excitement. If that feeling ever leaves, that’s when I’ll stop writing.
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William Kent Krueger is the New York Times bestselling author of fourteen mysteries in the Cork O’Connor series, including Trickster’s Point and Tamarack County, as well as the novel Ordinary Grace, which won the 2014 Edgar Award for Best Novel. He lives in the Twin Cities with his family. Visit his website at WilliamKentKrueger.com.