My guest today is M. Louisa Locke, who's going to share a secret with us! Morgan Mandel
M. Louisa Locke is a retired professor of U.S. and Women’s History, who has embarked on a second career as an historical fiction writer. The published books in her series of historical mysteries set in Victorian San Francisco, Maids of Misfortune, Uneasy Spirits, and Bloody Lessons, feature Annie Fuller, a boardinghouse owner and clairvoyant, and Nate Dawson, a San Francisco lawyer, who together investigate murders and other crimes. Her short stories, Dandy Detects and The Miss Moffets Mend a Marriage, give secondary characters from this series a chance to get involved in their own minor mysteries. Dr. Locke is an active member in the Alliance of Independent Authors, and a Director of the Historical Fiction Authors Cooperative. For more about M. Louisa Locke and her work, see her website/blog at http://mlouisalocke.com/ or follow her on twitter, facebook, and pinterest.
Four years ago, when I published Maids of Misfortune, my first Victorian San Francisco mystery, I knew that I wanted it to be part of a series. In fact, when I had come up with the idea for this book over thirty years ago, my dream had been to write a number of historical mysteries that would feature different occupations held by women in the late 19th century (the subject of my doctoral dissertation). But when I published Maids of Misfortune in 2009, nearly twenty years after writing the first draft, I didn’t know if anyone was going to read this book or whether I would have the fortitude or ability to write a sequel, much less a whole series of books. But, as an indie author (not held back by a skeptical publisher or the question of a contract), I could pretend I was going to fulfill my dream. So I tacked on the subtitle (A Victorian San Francisco Mystery) and began to refer to Maids of Misfortune as the first book in a series.
Four years later, I can honestly say I have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. Not only did people want to read Maids of Misfortune, but they went on to buy the next two books in the series, Uneasy Spirits and Bloody Lessons, which was just published September 15. In fact I have sold 85,000 copies of these three books, making enough income to retire completely and write full time.
Needless to say, I have also pondered how I got so lucky, and today I would like to share what I think is one of the secrets to my success: writing a series.
As a reader of light fiction, particularly mysteries and science fiction/fantasy, I have always gravitated to series. Some of this may be just laziness––if I find an author I like, it is so much easier to get another book by that author than to go through the risky proposition of giving an unknown author a try. (Although the opportunity to get free books on my Kindle has helped me branch out considerably here!) However, the truth is that once I find a set of characters I enjoy, I want to spend more time with them. The individual plot of any one of the books is less important to me than the good time I have in their company as they solve a mystery or survive an adventure. I also have discovered that I like to watch characters and their relationships (whether romantic or not) as they unfold over months and years, not just in the few days or weeks covered in a single book. With each book, more of the characters’ backstories get revealed and their personalities become more complex and nuanced. Minor characters also get time to strut their stuff, and sometimes they even begin to take center stage.
If I come into a series mid-stream and like it, I will immediately go and buy all the prior books, curious to find out what went on before. As I develop a fierce loyalty to these characters, I become anxious for the next installment in their stories (often going back and re-reading the earlier books in preparation for a new book’s publication.)
Stand-alone books, even by authors I like, just don’t claim that sort of loyalty from me.
Much to my delight, I have begun to see the fans of my Victorian San Francisco mystery series behave in the same fashion. Over the last two years as I worked on Bloody Lessons, when a fan wrote a review or commented on my facebook page or emailed me, they didn’t say, “I can’t wait for your next book to come out,” they wrote, “I can’t wait for your next book about Annie Fuller and Nate Dawson (my two main protagonists) to come out.”
Readers also gobbled up my two short stories, Dandy Detects and The Misses Moffet Mend a Marriage, that feature minor characters from the series, and they wrote asking me to bring back a favorite characters from the first book, Mr. Wong, which I will do in my next short story. In addition, I have begun to hear from people who read Bloody Lessons and then decided to go out and buy the two books that came before it, reading them straight through, and they are now asking when the next book is going to come out.
That growing loyalty to the series has also meant that this third book is selling more quickly than the first two did. On September 15, when Bloody Lessons came out, 700 people had already preordered it and in the past 5 weeks, another 1600 have bought or borrowed it, and I already have 40 positive reviews—something that took me 2 years to get for the first book and a year for the second. This is series loyalty at work.
Having a series also has helped me develop a brand. From my book covers to the background on my website and twitter page to my pinterest boards, there is a consistent theme—Victorian San Francisco. I don’t have to worry that readers who like the coziness of my first books are turned off because I have started to write about a gritty hard-boiled detective. I don’t have to find a new pen-name for some space adventure I might write nor do I have to figure out a new strategy for reaching a different market. And, when I offer the first book in my series for free through KDP Select (which is another secret to my success—but you have already read about this in Jinx’s post), I know that the other books in my series will get a bump in sales.
Does this mean that you can’t be a successful author without a series? Of course not. And over time authors of stand alone books can and do gain loyal readers who will gladly buy every book they write. However, as I watch some of my fellow authors struggle to market their beautifully written stand-alones, I can see that the task is often harder and the success comes more slowly for them.
Obviously authors should tell the stories they want to tell, and series work better in some genres than others. I also know that some authors find the idea of writing a series boring. But if you do write in genres like mystery or science fiction/fantasy or you are just starting out as a writer, you might think seriously about whether you have a group of characters and a world (whether a small southern town, medieval Scotland, or outer space) that you would like to explore over a number of books––and give a series a try.
About Maids of Misfortune -
It’s the summer of 1879, and Annie Fuller, a young San Francisco widow, is in trouble. Annie’s husband squandered her fortune before committing suicide five years earlier, and one of his creditors is now threatening to take the boardinghouse she owns to pay off a debt. Annie Fuller also has a secret. She supplements her income by giving domestic and business advice as Madam Sibyl, one of San Francisco’s most exclusive clairvoyants, and one of Madam Sibyl’s clients, Matthew Voss, has died. The police believe it is suicide brought upon by bankruptcy, but Annie believes Voss has been murdered and that his assets have been stolen.
Nate Dawson has a problem. As the Voss family lawyer, he would love to believe that Matthew Voss didn't leave his grieving family destitute. But that would mean working with Annie Fuller, a woman who alternatively attracts and infuriates him as she shatters every notion he ever had of proper ladylike behavior. Sparks fly as Anne and Nate pursue the truth about the murder of Matthew Voss in this light-hearted, cozy historical mystery set in the foggy gas-lit world of Victorian San Francisco.
M. Louisa Locke
Historical Fiction Authors Cooperative, Board of Directors
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