Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Challenges of a Long-Running Series {+ Giveaway}

Bittersweet by Susan Wittig AlbertIt’s a delight to welcome one of my favorite authors to Thoughts in Progress today to talk about her latest release, as well as the series I have followed from its start.

Author Susan Wittig Albert joins us to talk about the challenges of writing a long-running series such as her China Bayles Mysteries and to talk a bit about her latest release, BITTERSWEET.

Thanks to Susan and the lovely Danielle at Penguin Group, I have a print copy of BITTERSWEET to giveaway. Please see the end of the post for more details. Now please join me in giving a warm welcome to Susan. Welcome, Susan.

Writing a long-running series is a long-running challenge—an interesting challenge.

I’m sure that there are those of you who already know this and won’t be surprised. But when I began writing Bittersweet, I happened to look at the list of China Bayles mysteries and was shocked to notice that the book was #23 in the series. I mean, I knew that, at some level—after all, I wrote them. But still, twenty-three? Oh my gosh!

Thinking about this has reminded me, all over again, of the biggest challenge involved in creating a long-running series: creating familiar characters but keeping their stories fresh and unfamiliar.

Series mysteries have changed since I wrote China’s first mystery, back in 1991. Then, series characters, like Nancy Drew or Travis McGee, didn’t grow or change, even though the series had been going on for decades (the first Nancy was published in 1930). But by the time I wrote the fifth and sixth China mysteries, I had already decided that the series would have an arc: China would change. She would grow older, get married, gain a family, and rebuild her relationship with her mom. Ruby, China’s best friend and business partner, would change too, meeting a Wild Child daughter she didn’t know, falling in love with a dangerous guy, and becoming more comfortable with her psychic skills.

Now, in Bittersweet, China’s and McQuaid’s son Brian is a freshman in college, their daughter is twelve, and China’s relationship with her recently-remarried mother is secure enough so that she can look forward to a family Thanksgiving. Ruby is babysitting with her granddaughter, Baby Grace, so that her Wild Child daughter can get away for a few days.

But while China’s and Ruby’s relationship arcs help to provide stability, familiarity, and continuity in the series, too much of the same thing can get boring—for the author and (I suspect) for readers, too. To meet that challenge, I like to vary the settings of the books, add new central characters and new conflicts, and explore new themes.

In Bittersweet, China goes with her family to South Texas ranch country, for Turkey Day dinner at her mom’s Uvalde County ranch. There, she runs into an old friend, Mackenzie Chambers, a Texas Parks and Wildlife game warden. Mack is dealing with a new job assignment, an on-the-job mystery (involving a dead veterinarian, deer smuggling, and murder) and an off-duty romance with a hunky fellow lawman.

And, naturally, there’s the signature herb, American bittersweet, which has an evil twin (Oriental bittersweet) and an interesting story all its own. And there are recipes, too, of course.

I know that many series readers enjoy the familiarity of their favorite characters. But at the same time, I hope they’re challenged by the things that challenge me: getting involved in new conflicts, traveling to new and different places, exploring current issues, discovering new things about the plants we live with on this planet of ours. Bittersweet does all of that for me—I hope it will for you, too.

And I hope you’ll join me in looking forward to yet another China Bayles mystery, Blood Orange, in 2016. That will be #24.

Oh, my gosh.

Susan, thanks for joining us and sharing this look at writing a series. I have enjoyed how China has developed from book to book. It makes her, as well as the other characters, more realistic to me that she grows older right along with me.

Now for those who aren’t familiar with Susan, here’s bit of background on her:

New York Times bestselling author Susan Wittig Albert has written mysteries in four series: the China Bayles series; the Darling Dahlias; the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter; and a series of Victorian-Edwardian mysteries with her husband, Bill Albert, under the pseudonym of Robin Paige. 

She is the author of A Wilder Rose, the true story of the writing of the Little House books, two memoirs, and other works for adults and young readers. 

For more on Susan and her writing, visit her website.

Here’s a brief synopsis of BITTERSWEET:

This Thanksgiving, be grateful for China Bayles—who teams up with an old friend to solve a complex case of theft and murder in a South Texas ranching community…
        It’s Thanksgiving in Pecan Springs, and China is planning to visit her mother, Leatha, and her mother’s husband, Sam, who are enthusiastically embarking on a new enterprise—turning their former game ranch into a vacation retreat for birders. She’s also looking forward to catching up with her friend, game warden Mackenzie “Mack” Chambers, who was recently transferred to the area. But Leatha calls with bad news: Sam has had a heart attack.
        How will Leatha manage if Sam can’t carry his share? She does have a helper, Sue Ellen Krause. But China discovers that Sue Ellen, who is in the process of leaving her marriage to the assistant foreman at a large trophy game ranch, is in some serious trouble. Before Sue Ellen can tell China the full story, her car veers off a deserted road and she is killed.
        Meanwhile, when a local veterinarian is shot in what appears to be a burglary at his clinic, Mack Chambers believes his murder could be related to fawns stolen from a nearby ranch. As Mack follows the trail, China begins to wonder if Sue Ellen’s death may not have been an accident, and if there’s a connection to the stolen animals. But their search for the truth may put their own lives in danger…
Now for my thoughts on this entertaining book:

Author Susan Wittig Albert takes numerous elements and blends them together for an entertaining and suspenseful mystery that will keep you guessing until the end.

Albert combines mystery, murder, humor, friendship, and family with interesting herb tidbits and delicious recipes for a well-blended story. Her eye for detail and rich descriptions brings the Texas setting to life. Her knowledge of herbs enhances the story.

The characters are well-developed and continue to evolve with each new installment making them realistic and likable. The secondary characters add depth to the story.

Flowing at a steady pace, BITTERSWEET is filled with twists and turns. The suspense makes the story intriguing and hard to put down. The story can be read on its own without leaving new readers to the series in the dark.

Bittersweet by Susan Wittig Albert, A China Bayles Mystery Book #23, Berkley (Prime Crime), @2015, ISBN: 978-0425255629, Hardcover, 304 Pages 

FTC Full Disclosure – A copy of this book was sent to me by the publisher in hopes I would review it. However, receiving the complimentary copy did not influence my review. The thoughts are completely my own and given honestly and freely.


This giveaway is for one print copy of BITTERSWEET. The giveaway is open to U.S. residents only and will end at 12 a.m. on Wednesday, April 15.

To enter, just click on the Rafflecopter widget below and following the instructions. The widget may take a few seconds to load, so please be patient. The winner from this giveaway will have 72 hours to respond after being contacted or another winner will be selected. The email will have ‘Thoughts in Progress Susan Wittig Albert’s Tour’ in the subject line, just so you know what to watch for (in case it goes into your spam folder).

Thanks so much for stopping by today during Susan’s visit. What are your thoughts on a long-running series? Do you enjoy that a protagonist changes and grows with each new book or had you rather they stay the same?

a Rafflecopter giveaway


  1. Thank you both so much.
    I have several of the China Bayles mysteries and read and reread them. I am appalled at just how many I am missing though. A mistake to be rectified.

  2. another fun read from one of my favorite authors, thanks for the chance.

  3. I think it was wise to have the character grow and change over the years. I'm not sure the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys style would work as well today. Seeing a character grow makes readers feel involved in his life. (Or her life.)
    Congratulations on so many books!

  4. Love the series and I have a lot of catching up to do!

  5. I love this writer's work—thanks for the chance to win a copy of this book!

    skkorman AT bellsouth DOT net

  6. Mason - This is a terrific series, and it was very good to hear from the author how she keeps it fresh and interesting after 23 books! Thanks for sharing.

  7. I love this series and can't wait to read this new book!

    lag110 at mchsi dot com

  8. I can imagine it is hard to keep a series going for so long, but Susan is doing a great job at it. Thank you for sharing. griperang at embarqmail dot com

  9. Great post. I really enjoyed her comments about how she decided to have China evolve as the series became longer. Thanks!

  10. Thanks for this great feature and giveaway. The character and the changes which take place are interesting and makes it real. saubleb(at)gmail(dot)com

  11. Very enjoyable series.


I'd love to hear your thoughts on today's post. Thanks for dropping by.