The Second Time Around

Blue Angels perform directly over our heads in Key West

Hi. Barb here. Reporting in from a glorious month in Key West. It’s the second year I’ve blogged from Key West. (Funny how blogging regularly can make you aware of your life’s rhythms.) Bill and I are here with my mom again, and our daughter who’s in graduate school has joined us for a week of spring break.

It’s been a lovely time.

Last year, when I wrote from Key West, I was on tenterhooks waiting for the contract for my Maine Clambake Mystery series to arrive. I wanted to shout about it from the rooftops, though I also appreciated the quiet time before I had an official deadline. I was noodling about the characters and setting for the first book.

Clammed Up: A Maine Clambake Mystery. Available for pre-order. Just sayin'.

This year, the first book, Clammed Up, is turned in. It has a cover and page proofs have been approved. The deadline for Book 2 is September 1.

And I’m in the weeds.

In The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, John Barth writes that the second voyage is the most dangerous, because it’s the one where you think you know what you’re doing. I used to quote that all the time in business, and it’s true of writing as well.

This is my first second book. I’ve written three books, each the first in a series. I’ve tried my hand at a couple of second books, but I never could contemplate the investment of time for a series nobody wanted. (My first book was published by Cengage/Gale/Five Star and they only buy completed manuscripts. Or maybe that’s just what they told me!)

This second book thing turns out to be tricky. How much should I reference of what’s already happened to these characters? Will it provide a lovely continuity for readers who’ve read the first book or an annoying level of detail for those who haven’t? And I can’t really have the characters who were red herrings in the first book wandering around my little town since that will certainly constitute spoilers for those reading out of order. But how to explain their absence? Isn’t it kind of weird?

What if a character walks by a place that was the setting for an emotionally-charged scene in the first book? Should she reflect on it? You would, but if you were walking with someone who didn’t know you back then, you might not mention it. What if my character is walking with a reader who doesn’t know the back story?


To help me sort this out, I’ve been reading second-in-a-series books to see how other authors handle this. I’ve got Lucy Burdette’s second book, Death in Four Courses (set in Key West!) and Cleo Coyle’s Through the Grinder. Of course, both authors handle these issues so seamlessly, it’s hard to appreciate what they’re doing.

But enough with the kvetching. The truth is, I’m enjoying every torturous minute. That’s what I love most (the most?) about writing–the opportunity for constant learning and renewal.



About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at
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11 Responses to The Second Time Around

  1. I know what you mean, Barb! I just finished the first draft of my first finished second book, if you can parse that. I hope I left enough allusions to the first Local Foods mystery to satisfy first-time readers without overloading return customers. This book is due July 1, so I have some time to revise, reorganize, reconsider, and revise some more. I can’t wait to read Clammed Up.

  2. Oh thank you for the mention Barb, it’s been so fun to have you down here for a long visit! As I told you last night, I remember my first “second” book as quite challenging. This was the golf mystery with Cassie Burdette called A BURIED LIE. For many of us, we’ve spent years polishing that first book, and suddenly we’re on a deadline for # 2–not easy at all. And the challenges are exactly what you and Edith mentioned–how to introduce new readers without boring old friends, and how to tell enough of the first story, without including spoilers. And making sure the character changes enough…and that you don’t make light of what happened in the last book. But it’s a fun challenge and you’ll only get better as you go!

    I too, can’t wait to read Clammed Up!

  3. Sherry Harris says:

    Great article Barb! Reading well done seconds like Lucy Burdette’s is a great idea!

  4. Barb, I’m right on track with you and Edith — deep in the weeds in Book Two, with Death al Dente, first in the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, coming out in August. And yes, you’ve nailed the challenges! Another is character description. I keep thinking “but they know what she looks like — no, not necessarily — tell them again anyway”!

    Happy weeds-ing!

  5. Somehow I never got stuck there. When I first started writing, in another millennium, I found that after finishing one book I wasn’t ready to let my characters go–I really wanted to know what happened to them next. That’s how I ended up with an unpublished romantic suspense series that was five books long before I gave up on it, and three in another series. Had I asked anybody (like an agent or editor, except I didn’t know any), they would have told me I was crazy. Two is good, but five?

    Maybe I just answered my own question: just write characters you care about and follow them through their lives. Sure, you can toss in a sentence like “I found myself avoiding the place because of the unhappy memories,” but it doesn’t need to go further.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Thanks for the excellent advice, Sheila. (You are a miracle of productivity. All characters should be lucky enough to flow from your imagination.)

  6. Every first book I wrote was a standalone when I wrote it. Later – often a year or more – the characters got together and persuaded me to let them come out and play again. Weaving in first-book information is tough, and weaving is the key – it should come in strands and tufts, not huge patches. And yet, there has to be enough. That’s when I rely on friend who swore they’d read the first book but “just hadn’t gotten around to it yet.”

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