Thursday, 16 February 2023

WEEK FIFTY-ONE: Writing A Book Series

HOORAY!!! Today, my fourth book in the popular Cornish Girls wartime saga series, A MOTHER'S HOPE FOR THE CORNISH GIRLS, is published. 

A Mother's Hope for the Cornish Girls: Amazon UK

I write these books under the pen-name Betty Walker, largely to keep them separate from my romances, thrillers and other historicals, so readers are never disappointed. And writing a series that has become so popular has taught me some useful skills in writing a series, which I was only vaguely aware of when writing previous series, even for well-known publishers, where getting the 'history' right wasn't quite so vital! Now, I have readers waiting for each new book, who would quickly spot an error - and let me know about it on Twitter or Facebook!

So how does writing a series of books like this work?

Firstly, when working on or having completed book one in your series, it's important to keep a list of characters, their physical attributes, their particular views and circumstances, and how they connect to the plot and to other characters. You may also wish to keep a tally of places mentioned, again with a brief description and which characters interact with that location. You may also wish to keep a note of choices you've made re spellings and punctuation for certain words and phrases in the context of your story. This is because you will need to replicate these choices in future books or risk future books losing continuity.

Some publishers will do this for you! My own publishers for the Cornish Girls, Avon Books UK,  are absolutely excellent and do indeed provide authors like myself with a 'style sheet' or series 'story bible' to allow them to keep track of such choices and character/location descriptions. But I have written book series (plural) in the past for other publishers who have completely ignored such considerations, including huge publishers who ought to know better, one might innocently think, and left me to keep track unaided.

In those cases, continuity may have suffered, and I feel characters were harder to return to as an author. It was basically up to me to read back through previous books and make notes about characters and places and plot points, regardless of how many there were in the series... 

Once, famously, sitting in a swanky London publisher's office with my husband, I was asked by my perky young editor what would be in my next book. I began to chat about my plans for a particularly evil villain, only to be interrupted by an embarrassed cough from my husband. 'I think you'll find, Jane,' he pointed out gently, 'that you killed that character off in the last book.' My editor's face was a picture.

So keep a 'story bible' to accompany the series. Just think, if your series takes off and you become madly rich and famous, and one day wish to drag an author friend or relative into writing more books alongside you for whatever reason, that 'bible' will come in handy as a manual for anyone who hasn't been steeped in the series for years. It will also be useful for the screenplay writers and producers if you sell the television or film rights (and your beloved series actually makes it to the screen, which we all dream of, of course).

Further points to consider when writing or planning a series...

Choose your location wisely. You will need to match location to genre or theme, i.e. a village for a 'cozy crime' series or quirky romantic series based around a shop or similar. Think how many characters you will need to sustain a series. They need to live - and work, in most cases - somewhere in the immediate vicinity, to maintain integrity of the world. So you might want to include a pub, some shops, a hairdresser, a small or mobile library, a parish hall etc. If you fail to mention these in book one and later need to expand your world, this could strike the reader as unlikely if the 'tiny village' suddenly tuns out to have all these other locations and characters, rather like Buffy The Vampire Slayer's home town of Sunnydale, which started small and obscure, but ended up not only with a university but a vast docklands area, even though in the final episode of the show we saw clearly that Sunnydale was surrounded by land, not water! 

Choose your characters' relationships wisely too. Building a world around a set of single people who all live alone and have little extended family could be tricky. But a few married or dating couples, maybe with kids too - bringing in school teachers, Sunday School set-ups and emotional university departures for older children, plus the possibility of child abductions, runaways and serious emergencies! - or people living with grandparents, aunts and uncles, or cousins brings in many more dynamics that could prove fruitful for future storyline development. 

Friends are great in series, of course, and my Cornish Girls series is based around women's friendships in time of war. But blood is thicker than water, and for most storylines you'll need plenty of characters who are bound to each other by more than being neighbours or nodding acquaintances, as these make stronger story threads later in the series. And never throw anyone away by making them too unlikeable or killing them off willy-nilly. You may not realise it now, but John's crabby old gran may be a perfect narrative character in Book Seven, when there's a murder in the local knitting circle!

And always keep genre in mind when planning your series. Much as we may dislike it, books are categorised by publishers and booksellers alike into genres, and if your book series is 'undefinable' that will likely work against your series in the long run, in most cases. So do your research and see how other book series have worked, and try to stay within the usual parameters of your chosen series genre.

Finally, consider whether you want to write a continuous series, where readers need to start with book one and work through, or if your series can also be read as 'standalone' fiction, i.e. they may be linked by location or one or more characters, but essentially each book is a hermetically sealed story that can be read without reference to previous books. My Cornish Girls series can all be read as standalones - I carefully provide backstory in little drips throughout, so readers don't feel overwhelmed by 'what happened previously' but still get the context of what's going on - but a better experience would be to read them in a linear fashion from Book One onwards. It's up to the reader.

Meanwhile, A MOTHER'S HOPE FOR THE CORNISH GIRLS, is out today, which is Book 4 in a probable 6-book series. I am writing Book 5 right now, and that's out August 2023, with the final Book 6 to follow - fingers crossed - in 2024. I would be hugely grateful if you could share it or previous books in the series or this blog post on social media, or even read it and leave a rating/review on Amazon and/or Goodreads, in return for my expertise above on writing series. 

Good luck with your own series writing!

A Mother's Hope on Amazon UK

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Many thanks, Jane Holland