How much should you sum up the story and characters in each successive book in a series? This is something that I’ve struggled with and am not sure I’ve decided exactly where I stand. The first question is “Do people read a series out of order?” The answer that I’ve found is “Not usually, but sometimes. Especially if book #2 or #14 was free.” So, on one hand, I would like any reader to be able to pick up any book in the Lexy Cooper series and make sense of it. But over there on the other hand, I don’t want people who read them in order to have to slog through a bunch of repetition. I also want to reward loyal readers with inside jokes, clues, and foreshadowing.
What I’ve tried to do is find a balance. I’ll write a quick refresher on recurring characters for example, and maybe reference where they fit into previous books. In a mystery/crime genre it’s even dicier because I want to be able to refer to old cases but not spoil the whodunit aspect. I failed in this with my second book, which a reviewer pointed out. “Why are you reading the second book first?!” I yelled at my computer screen. Oh, right, I told myself, you did a five-day free promotion. That’s why he read the second book first. Going forward, if I refer to a prior case, the most I will disclose is the victim and maybe the mode of death, but never the culprit.
The part that irks me about the character recaps is that I’ve already described them to my satisfaction. I can’t just cut and paste, but nor do I want to spend a ton of time thinking of some new way to get across the physical attributes and personality of each person. Certainly by the fourth book, this becomes an eye-roller. My solution has been to basically copy the character description, but alter it just a bit so it’s not completely repetitive for readers (or for me.) Here’s an example of how I describe Detective Mike Malick.
At forty-three, his good looks and thick, dark hair still made women of all ages stand up a little straighter and unconsciously pitch their voices a little higher. If she had a nickel for every time one of her girlfriends told her that her uncle looked like “that cop on TV” she’d, well, get that fancy Japanese hair straightening treatment and be done with the mess on her head.
And then in the next book:
Detective Mike Malick was now 43 years old with a full head of dark, thick hair, deep brown eyes, and the kind of up-to-no-good smile that quickened the pulse of females from 12 to 100. Running and weight lifting kept his body in close to the shape he’d been in as a 22-year-old soldier. Never married, and not disposed to long-term entanglements, he gravitated toward women who wouldn’t expect much. The kind who knew he wasn’t ever going to call.
See, very similar, but different enough that it’s not a direct cut and paste, and gets across what I need readers to understand about Mike. He’s good-looking, in shape, and chicks dig him. By the third book, I stopped describing Malick or his effect on women and let the action speak to that. The novel opens with him getting a work call in the middle of a blowjob. Instead, I chose to sum up his relationship to Lexy (spoiler if you haven’t read Schooled)
Malick winked at Lexy. “See ya, kid.” He’d known Lexy since her second grade class had written letters to Desert Storm soldiers and her letter had wound up in his hands. They’d stayed pen-pals and when the Army transferred him to Ft. Lewis in Tacoma, Washington, the Coopers had more or less adopted him into the family. He’d watched Lexy and her brother Kent grow up and they’d called him “Uncle Mike” even into adulthood. It was just recently that Lexy had finally dropped the “Uncle,” and to be honest he was a bit relieved. He still called her “kid” now and then, but what had insulted her at nineteen years old had regained some charm at twenty-nine.
The bare minimum I feel like I have to do with each book in the series is explain what Lexy’s job is (community manager/website editor/video host) and where she works and the product they make (Xenon Corporation; the Xenon 24/7 console and Xenonline gaming service). Recurring characters need at least a brief explanation of how they relate to the main characters (Lexy’s brother, Malick’s on-and-off booty call, the Chief of Police, Lexy’s boss…you get the picture). This is the benefit of having a lean cast of characters. As I add cast members, I drop (or kill off) others. I don’t ever want to get to the point where I have to include an exhaustive genealogy in the endpapers.
However. According to my recent non-scientific survey of 112 readers, the majority don’t require a recap of who’s who and what happened in previous books. Nor do they care about spoilers. As a friend of mine put it: “I think it’s incumbent upon writer and publisher to make clear in the marketing that it’s Book 2 in the series. Beyond that, it’s on the reader. If they read out of sequence, tough shit.”