Series or stand alone novel?

When is a novel a stand alone and when can it be the start of a series?

According to a mystery writing advice book I read some years ago, a novel should stand alone if it resolves the protagonist’s basic problems; if it doesn’t, it invites a sequel. The author further advised that series books should have an overall story arc.

When I started my mystery novel Deadly Fall I was certain it was a one shot deal. At the same time, I sensed publishers tended to like mystery series. So, I set up the novel ending to make it look like my protagonist was heading into further mysteries, which I had no intention of pursuing.

I continued to view the book as a stand alone until the end of draft #2, when I realized I wouldn’t be able to completely resolve my protagonist’s issues. I also wanted to know more about what would happen to her and a core group of characters. This might become a series after all.

I finished the third draft. While working on draft #4, I contemplated alternative titles. My original title In Remembrance of Me came from the novel’s funeral scene. Paula, my protagonist, sees the message on the communion altar Do this in remembrance of me. She interprets it as a message from the victim, her childhood friend: find my killer. On another level, Paula is searching for herself, the youthful “me” who got lost in the business of growing up.

For those reasons, I liked my original title, but felt it didn’t sound like the title of a mystery book. What else could I call it? The story takes place in the fall. Fall has evocative connotations. Fall from grace. Fall into danger and the emotional abyss. Deadly is a common mystery novel adjective. A Deadly Fall. I looked it up on the Chapters/Indigo and library websites to see how many other books had used the title. To my surprise, there were none. A Deadly Fall it is. Or was, until the publisher later simplified it to Deadly Fall.   

Fall naturally led me to think about seasons, which sparked an idea for a four-book series with an overall story arc for Paula. Now, I could honestly tell publishers A Deadly Fall was the start of a series. They didn’t need to know the series was limited.

I quickly decided on a title for book #2: The Secret Spring. While waiting to hear from publishers, I wrote the sequel with the title in mind. As a result, spring is more integrated into the story. In addition to the spring time frame, the victim is found dead in an isolated (secret) hot spring. All mystery novels are about secrets.

I decided Book #3 would be summer and book #4, the finale, winter.

After Deadly Fall was accepted by a publisher, I pondered the series further. Could it and should it be more than four books? I thought through the narrative arc. Four books would rush the arc, there were many more things I could do with my characters and, given Paula’s profession as an insurance adjuster, many more mysteries she could solve.

Author Sue Grafton was thinking ahead when she used the alphabet for her mystery series. It gave her 26 potential books. With only 4 seasons, I’ve painted myself into a corner.

I’m sure I’ll figure a way out of the corner. That’s what we mystery writers do.