Series v. standalone, part 2

I am currently thinking about the differences between the standalone and the series novel because although I’ve been touring, and hence talking about, TOUCHSTONE, at the same time I’m beginning a new Russell novel, the first time I’ve written her since LOCKED ROOMS, four years ago.

THE LANGUAGE OF BEES (the new book’s name, for the moment anyway) drops straight into the world of Russell and Holmes, without explanation of who this narrator is and why she’s on a train with Sherlock Holmes. Of course, we pick that up as we go along, so those new to the conceit aren’t completely befuddled.

Looking at my series novels, it occurs to me that each one has certain elements that stand alone. Each of the Martinelli novels, for example, features one (sometimes two) main characters in addition to the cast: in A GRAVE TALENT, it’s the artist Vaun Adams; followed by Brother Erasmus, the Holy Fool, in TO PLAY THE FOOL; Jules and her friend Dio in WITH CHILD; Roz Hall in NIGHT WORK; and of course THE ART OF DETECTION turns around Mr. Sherlock Holmes and his modern-day devotees.

The Russell tend to books find their distinction in place rather than person: Sussex and Oxford in THE BEEKEEPER’S APPRENTICE; MONSTROUS REGIMENT’s London; LETTER OF MARY Sussex again and London; THE MOOR in Dartmoor; O JERUSALEM in what was then Palestine; JUSTICE HALL centers around a ducal manor house in the English countryside; THE GAME takes place in India; and LOCKED ROOMS San Francisco. In some cases, the locations act almost as a character in the plot, but in all of the books, the disparate settings give their stories different flavors, even personalities.

But in every one of those books (well, with one exception) I write in the full awareness that this is but a slice in the life of these characters. That individual book may have to stand on its own, but it does so while fully aware that it doesn’t have to shoulder the entire story of these characters all on its lonesome.

Which has made it slightly odd both times I’ve written what I intended as a standalone, only to have it later become the first of a series. A GRAVE TALENT was written as a novel, period. Only after it was sold did it become a) a mystery novel and b) the first in the Kate Martinelli series. And now TOUCHSTONE, envisioned and written as a one-off, is now growing on me as the start of another series—a brief one, I think, perhaps a trilogy spanning the late Twenties and early Thirties.

Would there have been any difference, if I’d known from the start that both those books would go further?

I think so—subtle differences, perhaps discernable only by the author herself, but there. Because the focus of a standalone is necessarily tighter, more intense, than a series novel. The entire existence of these characters, past and future, lies in these few hundred pages, and the awareness of their mortality, their evanescence, permeates every scene.

This intense focus is why I write standalones.

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  1. LaideeMarjorie on January 28, 2008 at 12:27 pm

    “In some cases, the locations act almost as a character in the plot, but in all of the books, the disparate settings give their stories different flavors, even personalities.”

    In the Russell books, I would say that the locations serve absolutely as integral characters to each installment. It is a great part of the fun for me and I will even admit that you have educated me a great deal (in spite of myself!), especially about Palenstine and India and Oxford. How many times have I searched on the internet for images and maps while reading the books? The places are so important to the way that Russell and Holmes work and live. And I thank you for that. (But it’s fine, also, if the couple comes home in LOB to Sussex for a while next time. Mrs. Hudson misses them.) In fact, I am on my second trip through the series right now and have just begun “Justice Hall”. I was wishing last night that I knew what real building Justice Hall might be based on so that I could look up some photos of it to fully appreciate the design and scale a bit better.

  2. beadbabe49 on January 28, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    Having just finished reading Touchstone, I am delighted to find you’re thinking of going on with it…I definitely found myself wondering what the next few years would bring to the main characters…
    And as much as I love your two series, I am also wondering if your stand alone novel, Folly, will ever become a part of a series (or maybe trilogy?) to continue the story of Rae Newborn? I am from the Pacific Northwest, but have not yet made it to the San Juan Islands, so they fascinate me (along with the Random House staff apparently..;)

  3. Strawberry Curls on January 28, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    Ms. King, you spoke a bit about your books having either a male or female voice at your Santa Cruz book sighing ((waves)), and it has me thinking that Touchstone was so much more complex, with its four men and two women to be heard. Was giving the reader all their voices a choice you made to challenge yourself as a writer, or was it the only way this story could be told?

    I certainly enjoyed the book event and the chance to see you in the real world.

    AKA Strawberry Curls

  4. bani on January 29, 2008 at 7:14 am

    “Would there have been any difference, if I’d known from the start that both those books would go further?”

    I agree with you, I think it’s inevitable that there would be differences. It is for example almost painful to read most fantasy novels, since they’re all KNOWINGLY written as part of a series. I’m not sure how the writers do it, but they manage to try to milk the concept even in the first book. *puzzled*

    Hang on, this sounds a bit rude. Oops – I do think you’re far to good to make such a mistake! But serial novels tend to lack that urgency, that drive to complete the story – and if the story is purposefully not happy-ended, then the reader doesn’t feel it, since they expect it’ll be resolved in the next instalment.

  5. Kerry on January 29, 2008 at 10:39 am

    Alice/Strawberry Curls asked a question similar to one I was wondering about — when you talk about the “voices” of your characters, do you actually hear what they sound like (timbre, pitch, etc.)? Do you hear their inflections, rhythms, pacing, etc? How cool, if so!

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