The beauty of writing a series is that when you begin a new book you return to a world you know and love. The problem with writing a series is that when you begin a new book you return to a world you know and love. Repetition and familiarity are the sworn enemies of the successful series and they are wily opponents for any author.
SWEET AFTER DEATH is the fourth book in the Alice Madison series and it’s been possibly – though I wouldn’t want the previous three books to feel bad about it – the most fun and the most complex to write.
The fun part is obvious: I love finding ways of making my characters’ lives hell while they try to solve a mystery and save innocent lives.
The complex part though sneaked up on me while I was looking elsewhere. Specifically when I decided that it was time to shake things up a little and give homicide detective Alice Madison a change of location.
The first three books are set in Seattle and in the wilderness of Washington State – a place so shockingly beautiful and ruthlessly dangerous that in some areas they recommend the use of bear proof garbage containers. Seattle itself is a cosmopolitan, vibrant city surrounded by water and with all the accoutrements of an urban environment – a perfect beat for my detective.
When I began thinking about SWEET AFTER DEATH I realised that I needed to keep things fresh for the reader and for myself, and so I ditched the familiar locations and moved the whole story to a tiny county where Madison and two colleagues are sent to investigate the first murder ever committed.
Creating the village of Ludlow was a joy but I soon realised that by taking Madison away from her home and her life in the city I had lost the rhythm that I had established in the previous books. Gone are Madison’s runs on Alki Beach where she releases the pressures of the day’s shift; gone are her evenings with her friend Rachel who keep her grounded and give her much relief from the stresses of hunting murderers.
In short, the life I had created for Madison was gone and I had to replace it with an entirely new narrative which could not rely on the punctuation of familiar events.
These changes however where only one part in a major shift because SWEET AFTER DEATH is more than anything a locked-room mystery – where the room is a small town and the walls around the room are actually miles upon miles of forests, mountains and honest-to-goodness wilderness.
The main challenge with any book – whether it is part of series or not – is to create a world that grabs you by the lapels. I’m writing the fifth in the series at the moment and all I can say is that – in spite of everything I have learnt while writing the previous ones – none of the old solutions applies. Then again, that’s the beauty of it: new journey, new map.