When I wrote my first novel, Stolen, I thought it would be a standalone. The book was mainly from the point of view of Abby Henshaw, a woman whose daughter was abducted. There was a detective in there, but he was secondary. Until he wasn’t. By the time I got to the second draft, I realised I liked DI Gardner a lot and kept finding more things for him to do. He kept showing up at the door. So I decided to change the book and make it both Abby and Gardner’s story, and when I was done, I realised there was more to say about Gardner and so the series was born. Each of the books work as a standalone but there’s also development of the characters and threads throughout that link one book to the others.
There’s something comforting about a series. A lot of my favourite crime novels are a series. I love to go back to a favourite character. They can become friends, someone you want to catch up with, someone you fear for when things go bad.
The same is true with writing a series. When it came to the second book, Gone, it felt easier to write Gardner. I didn’t have to start from scratch, I could already hear his voice, knew his mannerisms. I knew how he’d act and react to the situations he found himself in. In some ways, his character dictated what would happen.
I also enjoy planting seeds, things that seem unimportant at the time that come back further down the line. In the fourth book, Murder in Slow Motion, we discover Dawn Lawton, one of Gardner’s colleagues, is in an abusive relationship. Gardner thinks back about things he’s seen or heard, wondering if there were signs. Those signs were there in the previous books –subtle hints of what was to come. Of course, this only works if you know in advance what you’ll write about later. I knew from the start I wanted to write about domestic abuse and, even though it took a while to work out that story, I knew enough to leave those trails.
There are other details dotted about that may or may not come to anything in the future. But sometimes this can be limiting. Write something about a character in one book and you’re stuck with it forever (some eagle eyed reader will always notice). There are also other limitations. Setting, for example. I could send Gardner off on holiday to the Bahamas, but any crime that occurs while he’s there, he’d be unable to investigate. Unless he did it unofficially, in which case it becomes a different kind of book altogether. Once you have a certain style to the series, it’s difficult to move away from that. Readers come to expect certain things and can be disappointed if you stray too far.
Writing a standalone, on the other hand, gives you the freedom to do whatever you like. Set the book completely in the past or the future. Set it in New Zealand or Mars. Tell it from the point of view of the bad guy or some unknown narrator. Anything goes. There are no constraints, but at the same time, this can be more overwhelming. The canvas is completely blank.
When I started No Place Like Home, I didn’t have a grand plan, I basically just started writing. It was both liberating and terrifying. There was nothing familiar to cling to, even my usual method of writing went out the window. But it was exciting. I’d spent such a long time living in the world of the series (Gardner’s world, if you will) that it was thrilling to step outside of it and meet new characters.
Not only was the method different, the style was too. Even the tone is very different. Though the books in my series often have ambiguous endings, not entirely happy or unhappy, there is usually some moral centre. Gardner, for his faults, is usually doing the right thing. With No Place Like Home, things are a bit more fuzzy.
So which do I prefer? It’s hard to say. Just before I published Murder in Slow Motion, I read through it one last time. It had been a while since I’d looked at it, busy with other projects. Reading it again, I’d forgotten how much I like those characters and didn’t realise how much I’d missed them until we were reunited. But creating new stories, new characters, new worlds, is always exciting; a promise of going somewhere unfamiliar.
And just like real life, there’s room for both – the familiar and the unknown.