Tips on Writing a Series

Do you love reading series? Have you ever wanted to write one? Vicki Masters has written a series called The Seton Chronicles. Today she shares that journey along with some excellent advice.

Mary: Your third book in The Seton Chronicles, The Apostates, has just been released. Did you plan to write a series when you wrote the first  book?

When I was 12 our history teacher, Miss Grubb, took us on a visit to our local castle in St Andrews, Scotland. Despite living on a farm just outside St Andrews and going to school in the town from aged 4, I’d never been inside the castle nor indeed the ruins of the cathedral which rise so dramatically above the town. I was absolutely entranced. 

We crept down the siege tunnel dug out of rock in 1546, when the castle was taken and held under siege by a group of Fife lairds espousing the Protestant cause, after an adherent was burnt at the stake. The lairds murdered the instigator, Cardinal Beaton, and we peered into the bottle dungeon where his body is said to have been kept, pickled in salt. 

When I learned that the group who took the castle and held it for over fourteen months, resisting the many attempts to re-take it, called themselves the Castilians, I knew even then it was the perfect title for a book. What I didn’t know was just how long it would be before I actually wrote it!

So I wrote the first book because of an almost visceral connection with my home town and its history. I’d no intention of writing a series when I started out but quickly readers were asking what happened next for my characters Bethia and Will. And I too grew curious

I’m working on book 4 now and there will be one further before the series ends. A five year project! I’ve got a number of other ideas and did consider taking a break and writing something completely different before finishing this magnum opus but I’m so invested in my characters’ stories I can’t seem to stop.

What are the challenges of writing a series?

Two main challenges for me. Firstly the world building…

My story is painted across large canvases – excuse the mixed metaphor – and we move from Scotland to Antwerp to France to England to Geneva to Venice and in book four, which I’m now working on, onwards to the Ottoman Empire. The final book will see a return to Scotland.

Each place I’m writing about is very different and conveying the richness of setting and the world inhabited then certainly has me stretched. Three of my characters are Scots and I could sense how stunned they’d be to come from the relatively small confines of St Andrews, albeit one of the richest cities in Scotland of the time, to what was, briefly, the most powerful city in the Western World of the mid 1500s, Antwerp. 

Antwerp was part of the Holy Roman Empire so it was Catholic although it was also all about trade so tolerated English merchants provided they worshipped in private. And then there are the Conversos, which became the title of the second in series, who were Jews who’d been forcibly converted to Christianity – either that or face the Inquisition. They are many of them fleeing through Antwerp at the time and that forms a large part of the story. 

And although it was a challenge to move across Europe it was also one of the joys of writing a series that I could explore the huge difference in cultures as well as the difficulties of travel. The maps which I use for my covers are real maps from the time period as this was a great era of map making. They’ve been very helpful in understanding the cities of the time. St Andrews has gates to the city but it’s mostly about the guilds controlling trade in the town whereas in the map of Antwerp from 1566 and you can see the immense fortifications around the city, the river diverted to create a vast moat (and also easily move goods around). They were very helpful in understanding the world of the time.

Antwerp 1566

My second big challenge has been keeping track of my characters and the timeline.

Inevitably, as the series unfolds, the number of characters I’m juggling has increased. Actually, maybe it’s not inevitable but it’s certainly what’s happened for this beginner. At one point, in writing the third in series, I realized I’d entirely lost track of two characters who’d featured quite heavily at the beginning of the story and then hadn’t been mentioned for the last hundred pages. Rectifying that without making it clunky was a big challenge.

I also try not to entirely drop characters from a previous book in series. Just because Bethia’s father doesn’t appear at all in book three and only briefly at the end of book two doesn’t mean that Bethia never thinks of him… much like me with a son, daughter in law and grandchild in faraway Japan. But I also don’t want to bore the reader so only the occasional passing mention is made unless they’re party to driving forward the story.

And then there’s the simple basics of time passing. One character managed to give birth three separate times in fourteen months – quite an achievement. Sometimes it felt as though I was unraveling a huge tangle of knitting wool as I tried to get the timelines straight.

How have your characters changed as the series unfolds?

I hadn’t really considered this before but I feel my characters are growing with me as my skills as a writer (hopefully) improve. They are, of course, aging with each book and Bethia who was sixteen at the beginning of The Castilians is now a matron edging into her mid twenties by the end of The Apostates. So they are changing as they grow older but I am also learning more about them, their psyche, motivation, morals and loyalties, the more I write

For many years I worked in executive coaching and leadership development. There are some great models from there which I draw on in thinking of my characters. For instance, the Johari Window is a tool for helping to understand ourselves and others. I’ve used it to think about my characters and what they reveal about themselves to other characters, to the reader and to me. 

Johari Window

I definitely know their blind spots but they also have a hidden self, even from me their creator, which I’ve yet to delve into – perhaps I’ll leave them with some privacy.

Any final thoughts?

As the series has unfolded a central theme has become the religious challenges of the era. Your safety is determined by where you are, as much as by which religion you follow. Here’s Geneva which was a Protestant city headed up by Calvin. 

View of Geneva from an original drawing by Claude Chastillon, etching by Mattias Merian, reproduced by kind permission of the Bibliotheque de Geneve.

You couldn’t come to Geneva in 1550 and practise Catholicism even in private. If you did, you’d be banished from the city – and if you were a citizen secretly adhering to the old ways, you’d face imprisonment or worse.

In Antwerp Anabaptists were being burned at the stake (they were mostly poor). Rich Conversos were tolerated but the threat of the Inquisition was ever present. In Venice, where book three is mostly set, Jews could live openly yet they must wear yellow hats, pay higher taxes and were restricted in what work they could do.

And there were always refugees escaping from one grim regime to what they prayed would be a place of tolerance. It’s sad to think, in that respect, the world hasn’t changed much in 500 years.

Excellent advice and experience on writing a series! Many thanks, Vicki. I must try out the Johari Window. Congratulations on The Apostates. I hope it and the series are a great success.

‘One of those books where you forget you’re reading and feel you’re there.’ Lexie Connygham

The Apostates by V.E.H. (Vicki) Masters ~~ It’s 1550 and Bethia has fled Antwerp, with her infant son, before the jaws of the inquisition clamp down, for the family are accused of secret judaising. She believes they’ve evaded capture but her husband, Mainard, unbeknownst to her, is caught, imprisoned and alone.

Reaching Geneva, Bethia hopes for respite from a dangerous journey, but it’s a Protestant city state which tolerates no dissent – and she’s a Catholic. And why has Mainard not come?

Perhaps he’s already reached Venice where Jews can live openly, the Virgin gazes benignly from every corner and difference is tolerated, for the wealthy at least. Yet much is hidden beneath the smooth waters of this perilous city. Must they again flee to survive…

A series which never fails to get better and always leaves me wanting more.’ Esther Mendelssohn

The Apostates is available on Amazon US and UK. You can find out more about V E H Masters and her books on Vicki’s website, and connect with her on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

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