Writing a Mystery Series by Rabbi Ilene Schneider
I write a cozy mystery series. They feature an amateur sleuth, Rabbi Aviva Cohen. All the sex and gore are off the page. There is humor. There is a lot of back story. There is a happy ending. They differ from other cozies in that there are a few expletive-deleted words that haven’t been deleted; as I explained to my mother when she complained, “That’s how aging baby boomers talk.” And none of the language is gratuitous. If you woke up in a hospital, with no idea how you got there, and can’t find your glasses, would you say, “Gosh darn it”? Neither does Aviva.
I decided to write a series because I am basically lazy. The books have the same protagonist and major characters. I don’t have to think up new ones for each book.
I’m making it sound as though I’ve published dozens of books. So far, there are two in print, with another in the works: CHANUKAH GUILT and UNLEAVENED DEAD are published by Oak Tree Press; the third, currently being written is YOM KILLER. I have, in my head, broad outlines and titles for an additional three: HIGH HOLY DAZE, SABBATH WHINE, and MATZAH BAWL.
But even with two (plus a bit) books written, I’ve realized there are difficulties with a series. In writing a series, you need to be able to provide enough background information for those who haven’t read the previous book(s), while not making it boring for those who have. Earlier events can be referred to, but only vaguely, so as not to give away the plot. Never write, “Mehitabel used to be my best friend, but she killed herself after realizing her lies and schemes were about to be revealed.” Instead, write, “I still miss my best friend Mehitabel, whom I didn’t know as well as I thought I had.” It will send them to the earlier book to find out what happened.
There has to be character development, especially if there was a life-altering situation in the earlier books. If the long estranged mother, after a near-death experience, realizes how much she has missed in her life by not seeing her now adult children in book one, don’t have her still be uninterested in reestablishing a relationship in book two.
You have to be consistent. If the new book is taking place two years after the first, don’t have the protagonist be younger. Or taller. If her eye color changes, mention contact lenses. If her hair color does, mention she got tired of the old one. To keep the characters straight, I have a file on the computer that lists them by book, with their ages at the time of the book, relationship to the protagonist and to other characters. I use control-f to search the older manuscripts for physical descriptions.
Finally, know when the series has come to its natural conclusion. You’ll know when (or should know) it’s time to end the series when you keep writing the same book.
As for me, I’ll know the series has run its course when I run out of titles.
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Award-winning author Rabbi Ilene Schneider, Ed.D., one of the first six women rabbis ordained in the U.S., has finally decided what she wants to be when she grows up. She has retired from her day job as a hospice spiritual support counselor to devote full time to writing.
Rabbi Schneider is the author of the Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mysteries, published by Oak Tree Press: Chanukah Guilt, which was nominated for the Deadly Ink David Award for Best Mystery of 2007, was one of My Shelf’s 2007 Top Ten Reads, and was a Midwest Book Review Reviewers Choice Book; and Unleavened Dead, which won First Place from the Public Safety Writers Association, and was nominated for the Deadly Ink David Award for Best Mystery of 2012. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine called Unleavened Dead “… a solid, funny mystery that provides an insider’s look at Jewish life.”