Twelve years ago, when I began writing my Endurance Mysteries, I was just starting to write novels, and I continued the series as I thought of new directions. Not knowing that there was such a thing as a character arc or series arc, I continued that series as new developments happened to my protagonist, Grace Kimball. I’m currently planning to write book five this winter.
However, when my agent sent my first Art Center Mystery out to publishers, I had to describe the plots of three books in a trilogy. What would happen? How would the arc of Jill Madison’s life bend? How might each book carry the arc of the series farther? At the time I thought this was painful, trying to produce three different ideas for plots, but eventually it made a lot of difference in my ability to write three interconnected stories more easily. Who knew?
How does that series arc look? Without including spoilers, here is my thinking.
The first novel, Death in a Pale Hue, introduces the main characters and the small town of Apple Grove, Illinois. However, the reader quickly learns of a terrible event in the lives of Jill Madison, Tom Madison, and Andy Madison. Their parents were killed six years earlier in a senseless car accident with a drunken driver. While her brothers appear to get on with their lives, Jill Madison is still reeling from that tragedy. An oil painter, she can no longer paint. She stayed away from Apple Grove, living in Chicago and working in the art scene there. Now, after six years, she knows her strategy hasn’t worked, and when an opportunity to run an art center, named for her sculptor-mother arises, she returns home. This is what we call the “set up” for the story.
But once home, she and her brothers work out a new family configuration minus their parents. It isn’t easy, but as time goes by, it works. A murder, a burglary, and a killer on the loose remind Jill how important her family is, and by the end of the first book her loyalty to her brothers is fixed in both the characters’ hearts and the minds of the readers. Family—in various configurations—is the subject of the story.
If life could simply go on that way, we wouldn’t need a second or third book. But, of course, that can’t happen. Life is all about change. Any self-respecting mystery writer has to throw some challenges at her protagonist. So, Death in a Bygone Hue follows the first book. The status quo is interrupted quickly when the treasurer of Jill’s art board—and her mentor and friend—is murdered. This is devastating for Jill because Judge Spivey was a father figure to her now that her own beloved father is gone. She enlists the aid of her best friend, Angie, and her brothers to find out who could have done such a terrible thing. Now, other characters in town aid the family in this quest for justice. By the time the story ends, the theme of second chances has become important. And just like the mysterious life of her mentor who was given a second chance in his past, Jill, too has a second chance to stay in charge of her art center and be part of a family who loves her.
Finally, the theme of forgiveness moves into the spotlight and Death in a Ghostly Hue comes out next summer, when not only is Jill’s art center haunted by someone in search of forgiveness, but also the man who killed the Madison parents—Quinn Parsons—returns to Apple Grove. He intends to live in his old hometown where he irresponsibly drove drunk and killed the Madison parents, one of his own friends, and put another in a wheelchair for life. Parsons is looking for forgiveness. How can Jill or her brothers forgive the man who did this? And someone else in town isn’t interested in forgiveness for Quinn Parsons either. Some difficult moral choices face the Madison family in this third installment of their lives together.
The arc of this series always centers around the loss of the Madison parents. Can Jill and her brothers return to the calm status quo and come to terms with that loss, or will it continue to haunt them?