KATE RHODES on The Beauty and Pain of Writing a Long Crime Series

Written by Kate Rhodes

All writing carries its share of joy and desperation. George Orwell claimed that ‘writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness.’ I know what he means. When ideas aren’t flowing, I feel wretched, particularly when a deadline looms. But most days it’s a privilege to make my living from storytelling, and series writing can be a very satisfying business.

I’ve discovered that it’s best to create characters I find compelling, because it’s like going on a marathon train journey with companions you can’t escape. You soon get to know all their strengths, foibles, and flaws, as well as minute details, like their favourite tipple. My current series, the Isles of Scilly Mysteries, arrived after I’d written a psychological crime series novels, set in London. I loved the characters but the setting felt claustrophobic, as though I’d lived in the city, without taking a holiday for six years. Starting the new books felt like packing my bags and moving down to Cornwall. Writing is such a psychological business it even felt easier to breathe, like inhaling clean seaside air. The new setting yielded other benefits too. I got to spend weeks in Scilly, combing the islands for plot ideas, which proved to be the nicest form of research imaginable. I could do most of it on the islands’ windswept, sandy beaches. It was a pleasure to chat with the locals, and visit pubs and shops, hunting for details.

The beauty of series writing is observing how your characters evolve over long periods of time. I like seeing how they perform in stressful situations, or when they have to make a moral decision. People-watching has always been a passion of mine, so watching a fresh set of characters interact was wonderful. They soon took on a life of their own. I always plan my books, before embarking on a new story, but logic can change any plotline, and so can characters’ needs. There’s no point in forcing someone to perform an act that’s against their character in real life, and the same rules applies in series writing. I’ll think I have the perfect whodunnit nailed, only to discover that the plot needs tweaking, to allow my characters room to grow.

In end, it all comes down to mindset. If you like things to happen fast, with high stakes and dramatic crescendos, write a standalone. But if you enjoy meandering walks and watching places and communities evolve with the seasons, over many years, aim for a series. The only drawback is that you need a good memory, so you can recall your characters back stories. I’ve never had a reliable memory, so I get round the problem by making copious notes on each character, because readers are quick on the draw, if you make a mistake. One author told me he once forgot an important detail of his protagonist’s physical appearance. The result was hundreds of emails from keen fans, asking why the hero’s eyes had changed from blue to green, between books. That’s an error I hope not to make, any time soon.

I’m very fortunate indeed that my publisher has decided to let me continue writing my Isles of Scilly books for years to come, which is a lovely thought. It does raise one big question though. What on earth do I do when I’ve killed off every single member of the island community? Maybe I should start hunting for new territory today!


The Brutal Tide by Kate Rhodes (Simon & Schuster UK) is published on 25th May 2023

Kate Rhodes

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