People who don't write books seldom if ever think about it--and there is no reason why they should--but there are considerable differences between writing "stand-alones"--the vast majority of books, whose plots and characters are all neatly wrapped up within the covers of a single book--and books written as part of a series, which is primarily what I write.
Of the nineteen or so books I've written, only one is a stand-alone:Calico, a western/romance/mystery/adventure. I've been asked several times why I never wrote a sequel, to which my answer is always the same: there is no need. I told the story I wanted to tell, and the protagonists rode off into the sunset where I know they are living happily ever after.
Series present the writer with challenges not found in stand-alone books, primary among them the fact that the same characters tend to show up in more than one book...and often in every book...in a series. The number of returning characters varies widely, of course, depending on the writer, but with the Dick Hardesty series there are at least a dozen, with several more popping in from time to time. And because the series is set in the same (unnamed) city, so do certain geographical and physical features--bars, streets, restaurants, parks, public buildings. While places need not be reintroduced in each book, for the sake of the reader who comes into a series several books in, characters must be reintroduced to avoid confusion over who is who and what their relation is to other characters. After 14 books, this reintroduction process gets a little tricky. It has to be done in such a way that the new reader will know who they are without eliciting a "yeah, yeah, we know" response from regular readers. None of this is a problem in a stand-alone book.
When I wrote the first book in what was to become the Dick Hardesty Mystery series, I had absolutely no intention that it would be followed by thirteen subsequent books with the same basic setting and the same characters. But detectives and mysteries, by their very nature, lend themselves to moving from case to case, from story to story. And in series as in life, there are always new stories to tell. It has reached the point where I consider each book just a continuation of the evolution of the lives of the characters, of whom I...and I'm delighted to say many of my readers...have grown quite fond.
Authors routinely, if not always consciously, give their protagonists some of their own characteristics, traits, and beliefs. It took me awhile to realize that Dick Hardesty was in effect if not in fact, an alternate-universe "me" and I take an odd comfort in this. It is an advantage I have over non-writers. I have given to Dick my outlooks on life, my basic beliefs, my sense of humor. And he, in turn, has given me a de facto family in his partner Jonathan and their young charge, Joshua, which I do not in fact have in my own life. But writers are quite good at living vicariously, and I take great pleasure and comfort in it.
How long can a series run? That depends on the writer and the readers. If the writer does not burn out, and if the reader does not tire of the characters or stories, it can go on indefinitely. To protect myself from burnout with the Dick Hardesty series, I've started a second series, the Elliott Smith paranormal mysteries, to alternate books with the Dick Hardesty series and this gives me a different set of characters and circumstances to work with on each book. Works for me, and I hope it works for my readers.
Oh, and if you'll excuse a little what is called BSP ("Blatant Self Promotion"), I'd like to tell anyone who's not read my books that they can read the first chapter of any or all of them on my website http://www.doriengrey.com.
Thanks for listening.
Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please take a moment to check out his website (http://www.doriengrey.com) and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (http://bit.ly/m8CSO1 ).