I have read a lot of series in the past and marvelled at how they were put together, how events from the first or second books played a pivotal role in the later books. How on earth did the authors weave these books together so flawlessly?
Having written several stand-alone books and two historical series, I feel I may have some perspectives to offer on the art of writing a novel series. First of all, let me confess that neither of my series were intended to be more than one book, so I fell into series writing by accident, not design.
My first series, For Their Country’s Good, inspired by family history, follows the story of three young cousins exiled to Van Diemen’s Land in 1842 for killing one of Lord Northampton’s gamekeepers in Yardley Chase, Northamptonshire – true story, so research gave me the factual elements I wanted to incorporate into the story – all I had to do was build the fictional story and characters around the facts.
It was only when I reached 90,000 words in On Different Shores, that I realised I was only part way through my tale, and if the weight of the book wasn’t going to be too heavy to hold, I would need a book two. Not being confident enough in my storytelling to be certain that I wouldn’t need to make changes to book one, I delayed publishing it until book two was finished. Except… Yep, 90,000 words into Beneath Strange Stars, I realised there would need to be a book three.
I’d reached a point where the heroine’s life had taken a dramatic and pre-planned change of direction, (pre-planned for me – it was a bit of a shock to poor Ella) so that seemed like a good place to break the story. By the time I’d reach 50,000 words in On Common Ground, I was becoming nervous. Surely I wouldn’t need a fourth book? As it happens, I didn’t, and very little was changed to accommodate books two and three, although the third book is probably a little longer than the others.
It occurred to me at this point that there was a publishing advantage in holding off publication of books one and two until book three was complete. By releasing them at two week intervals with chapter one of the next book in books one and two, and advertising them in advance, I hoped to persuade readers to buy into the series from the off rather than trying to re-introduce old readers to a second or third title at a later date. Also, this was a story where the three books didn’t stand alone, so all three needed to be read together. More a serial than a series, if truth be told., and one or two readers have expressed disappointment at book one not having an ‘ending’. The thing is, the story didn’t have an ending at that point, and as one book, the 1500-page printed copy would have been too unwieldy to handle and probably impossible to print.
So this was a series plotted (roughly) from beginning to end and written as one story in about fourteen months. Had the writing taken much longer, it might have too long a gap between titles to keep reader interest in me as an author, but I suppose that’s the chance you take writing a series in this way.
My second series, The Chainmakers, was also intended to be a single book, The Chainmakers’ Daughter – the white slaves of England, the story of a young woman’s fight against the all-powerful chain master of Hawley Heath for a living wage. Again, the book was based in fact, but this time, it was a complete story in itself, although there were some threads left open, just in case I wanted to continue, which at the time I didn’t.
A reader demanded book two. No, I wasn’t going to write it, although… women’s suffrage, one of the threads, and the thought of Emma discovering the truth about her father, Willis, were tempting. I did a bit of research and was hooked. These suffragettes weren’t all they were cracked up to be! The Chainmaker’s Wife – the fight for women’s suffrage was born. Again, a story in it’s own right, although the background from book one makes the reading of book two all the richer.
That was it. Done. I definitely didn’t want to write any more about the chainmakers of The Black Country, especially as I was sure Emma would turn her back on the factory when she came into her inheritance – and she still didn’t know the truth about Willis, the chain master’s late son. Threads left open are dangerous…
‘What about book three’ asked my reader, ducking in case I threw missiles at him across the Irish Sea. ‘The inter-war period is fascinating.’ No,’ I said emphatically – enough is enough.
Except these loose threads niggled at me. Was there anything more to be said? I began reading. Strikes, recession after WW1 made worse by the Wall Street crash, hunger marches, the inequality of wages between men and women, the first time women could vote, and the rise to power of one Adolph Hitler. It was then that I realised the wisdom of the saying ‘If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.’
Emma, through most of books one and two, had been the piggy in the middle between her parents, Rosie and Jack (step-father), and Willis’s mother, Marion, who was the widow of Matthew Joshua, chain master. Joshua, a name chosen quite randomly and the lemon in my story, was, I realised suddenly, a Jewish name…
Having already written a novel about Auschwitz, I rubbed my hands in glee. Here was a story to be told and events I already knew a little about – and what questions I needed to ask myself. The question of equality between the sexes, the Treaty of Versailles, the rise of Hitler and the little-told events of 1938, Kristallnacht and the Kindertransport that followed. So here I am, seven chapters into The Chain Mistress – breaking the chains. (In more ways than one, which will be seen, hopefully, when the book is published – which, looking at the mountain of research to be done, may not be this year.)
So my second ‘trilogy’ (I reserve the right for it not turn out to be a trilogy -who knows if my characters will bow to a demand for a fourth tome depicting WW2 should such a demand arrive?) means that each book has to be accountable to the facts and characters portrayed in the previous title. They are published and can’t be altered to suit a convenient or desired plot twist in the next as I could with the first series. My readers wouldn’t be impressed. I have to ‘make lemonade’.
Both ways of writing a series have their merits. I have two books in The Chainmakers series gaining readers who may be persuaded to pre-order book three when it’s finished. The downside is that if book three is too long in coming, readers may have forgotten the first two, but at least the first two are out there.
I intend to do a boxset when I’m sure the series in complete, as I have with For Their Country’s Good. This means I can offer the e-book at a reduced price, three for the price of two, (or four for the price of three) and has the added advantage for a reader of being able to access a much longer ‘look inside’ than with a single title, (about nine chapters, I think) to ensure they are going to like the story before purchasing.
I’m enjoying the research for The Chain Mistress and learning a lot about inter-war Europe as well as the British and US recessions of the 20s and 30s and the effect these events had on the lives of ordinary people. What times our grandparents lived through!
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