The Language of Bees

This is the nineteenth Tuesday of the Twenty Weeks of Buzz, when I post remarks about the writing process of a different book each week. This week we’re up to the 2009 title, The Language of Bees.

One of the drawbacks of writing a series, especially for those of us writers who have a low threshold for boredom, is that die-hard Fans want essentially the same book but with new trappings. After all, they fell in love with a group of characters and a situation, and they don’t really want huge changes, any more than a person desires huge changes in the person he or she married.

However, not all of us are equipped to be a Sue Grafton or Lee Child, those blessed writers who positively enjoy working within a closely confined palette of settings, characters, and times. Some of us get to book four or five and begin to eye the characters who are now riding our backs, and contemplate acts of nasty violence—there’s a good reason why Arthur Conan Doyle pushed Sherlock Holmes off a high cliff. I have no doubt he came to regret not providing the grieving Watson with a corpse, laid in a nice Victorian coffin, its lid securely nailed shut.

Over the years, I have got around the problems inherent in writing the same characters in two ways: First off, I tend to alternate my writing, shifting from the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes historical series either into the contemporary Kate Martinelli procedurals, or into a standalone, which has me spending a year in another world entirely. Either way, I return to the continuing Russell saga with clear eyes and a genuine interest in what has been going on in their lives while I was busy elsewhere.

The other way I’ve escaped serial tedium (and remember, the reader may take pleasure in a yearly voyage in the company of familiar characters, but the writer has to take that voyage using a close-up, slow-motion, continuously-replaying camera focused on Every. Tiny. Step. Along. The. Way.) has been to throw something new into each book. The Martinelli novels tend to have a main character who doesn’t reappear in others, or if so, just briefly. The Russells tend to travel.

Russell and Holmes meet, as the first line of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice puts it, when both she and the century are fifteen: “…fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him.” Sussex, London, Wales, Dartmoor—the first books are tightly British as she grows to maturity as a person and as a detective, and they find their variety in the contrast of bustling urban streets and bleak moorland loneliness.

The Language of Bees ended with those three dread words, To Be Continued, sparking an outrage that has not been seen since Conan Doyle “killed” Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls. It is perhaps appropriate, then, to end this post with that same notice:

This post to be continued…next Tuesday.


  1. Laidee Marjorie on May 4, 2010 at 6:15 am


    All that I can do is thank you very sincerely for writing us three Russells in a row. Whatever you write for 2012 (Touchstone II?), I’ll read it and count myself blessed. We don’t want you bored or unchallenged by your craft, even if it means a longer wait. Thank you.


  2. Erin on May 4, 2010 at 7:32 am

    Personally, I think I like the variation as much as the author does 😉

    I love Kate as well as Russell. And there is this great element of surprise with the stand-alones.

  3. Lenore on May 4, 2010 at 7:41 am

    I have quit plenty of series whose authors do only one series. I cannot help but think that the “vacations” from Russell are what keep her fresh for readers.

  4. Margaret Wood on May 4, 2010 at 10:22 am

    I echo Laidee Marjory. As much as I love the Russells I don’t want to see Laurie tied to a treadmill. The other books are also great.

  5. Sara on May 4, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    GAAAAAAAAAA! Continued?!?!? 😉 Well played. Consider me on the edge of my seat….until next Tuesday.

  6. Laraine on May 4, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    Laurie, I think your strategy is terrific, because readers who love language and are really tuned in know immediately if the author has lost interest or is just writing by habit in sequels or series. That’s one reason I’ve tended to drop out of the one-note series and haven’t yet tried the alphabet series (it may not be fair to the author, but I can’t imagine she’s not bored by the sheer template of picking up another letter and figuring out where to go with it). I love that reading about Vaughn (hope I spelled that right) in ‘A Grave Talent’ is an experience of knowing that you are seriously interested in who and why she is and how her life has unfolded and is unfolding. Likewise the pleasure of exploring and understanding very real chunks of history/geography in your other books . . . . Thanks.

  7. RussellHolmes on May 4, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    I agree with Laraine, I like your strategy! I might use it myself in my writing. I will be on the edge of my seat until… next Tuesday. As well as when the next Russell book comes out.

  8. Ellen on May 5, 2010 at 7:30 am

    Two of my favorite authors, Larry McMurtry and Diana Wynne Jones, handle the repetition challenge by having the main characters of one book appear as minor characters in another.

  9. Donald Meyer on September 5, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    Hi – Though I’m old, I am new to your books, and finished The Beekeeper’s Apprentice several weeks ago. I liked it so much, that I reviewed it for our mobile home book club, and my review will appear in the October issue of our park magazine.

    To say “like” is to put it mildly. I am not a great lover of mystery or detective stories, but I found ‘Beekeeper’ absolutely charming. So I turned around and bought three more Mary Russell books. But I’m afraid I’m out of sequence. Is that important?

    I also will have to try your other stories.

    Keep up the great work!

  10. Laurie King on September 5, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    Hi Donald, glad you’re enjoying the books. I’m not sure it matters a lot if you’re out of sequence, although it’s always best to try to follow the series as it develops–and all the books are still in print, which is always a great help!
    Hope you continue to enjoy Russell.

  11. Leigh Riley on August 15, 2023 at 4:09 pm

    What is the book “Testimony” that is referred to in Language of the Bees?

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