Finding the Arc for a Historical Series

Judith Starkston was one of the authors who share a one-week writing retreat with me. During breaks, we spoke about many topics including the challenges of writing a series. “Finding the arc” for a series was one of those topics. Judith’s latest novel Flights of Treason is book four in the Tesha Series.

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When I first started writing my series inspired by the life of a little-known but remarkable Hittite queen, I imagined it as a sequence of historical mysteries in which a static main character solves a variety of crimes. Given what I knew about this Hittite queen from her extant judicial decisions and letters arguing with Ramses II (the Pharaoh of Moses fame), she would have made a perfect sleuth. (All those records of her life are preserved as clay tablets written in cuneiform, a writing system that looks like birds have walked all over the clay.) This Queen Puduhepa, to whom I gave the fictional name Tesha, had a precise, legalistic mind suited to identifying murderers, and I love a good historical mystery. 

But that was not to be. I ended up writing a very different series of books than those hypothetical mysteries. 

Instead of an unchanging sleuth and ancient crime forming each book’s plot, I found an evolving, growing woman facing a series of life-changing historic events involving both the internal crises of an ancient empire and clashes between rival kingdoms. She fought hard to protect her family and learn how to rule well. The driving arc for each book was not the question “Who dunnit?” but “How can Tesha become the person she must be to surmount this new set of challenges?” 

The structure of the overall series became closely tied to the pattern of her life story, which in retrospect seems obvious, but I didn’t see it for a while. When Tesha enters the historical record, she is a young woman of about fifteen, a priestess with no concept of ever being a queen. The road to that exalted position came in steps, at times morally murky ones, some forward and then backward. Nothing was assured, even when rule was in her grasp. 

So, although she lived into her eighties ruling over one of history’s most powerful empires, a significant portion of her life involves this dangerous journey to become a ruler. I mean dangerous in two senses. It was a life and death struggle. But also, I think she saw the lure of power and rule as dangerous to her inner self, as something to be wary of even while she felt its draw.

In my understanding, Tesha’s life isn’t a tale of burning ambition or selfish striving for power, as these stories often are. My series is sometimes compared to Game of Thrones, and of course I’m thrilled to hear that compliment—George R.R. Martin is a brilliant writer whose books I love—but my portrayal of this woman as ruler is quite different from his. Tesha’s actions and words reveal to me a nuanced, subtle balance of self-interest and the needs of others—her family and the empire overall. I found it deeply satisfying, intellectually and emotionally, to write about her. Her style of female leadership is worth understanding, both for its failures and strengths. She’s neither a greedy villain nor a saint. She builds herself out of the raw materials of intelligence, skill in strategizing, precision in thinking and observation, stubbornness, a strong sense of justice, and a mystical, visionary streak as a priestess of the goddess of love and war. 

By the way, as a priestess, Tesha believed in a lot of what we’d call magic. This aspect of her life led me to introduce fantasy elements into the series. I started with the premise that if the historic person thought something magical could happen, I’d let it happen. It was much more fun and engaging for the story. The rules of fantasy in the series are grounded in Hittite culture, but the sorcery and magic—and fantastical beasts—gradually extend further into the imaginary as the series progresses. As Tesha grows into herself, part of that development turned out to be magical. In addition, I incorporated mythic griffins—part lion, part eagle—which are shown in the artwork of this period, on frescoes, vases, and seals, often standing next to priests, kings, or gods. It wasn’t such a leap to let them jump into the plot, and I loved creating the mythology of their realm and interaction with humans. 

So, when I considered what would be a satisfying arc to the series, I focused on these early years of Tesha’s life, years of struggle and transformation, of deep loves and virulent hatreds. And then, how could I bring the series to a close? Fortunately for me, these early formation years concluded with high drama that I could use as the raw material for a genuinely satisfying ending. 

Mind you, I might return some day to this wonderfully exotic world. There are some secondary characters that readers tell me often steal the show. They would like to hear more about them. That’s a pleasant invitation I may take up with a new series in the same world.

Many thanks, Judith. Writing a series has fascinated many authors – some have stumbled on their series, others have written their series out of order, still others began with one novel in mind but couldn’t fit everything into one novel! I’d be interested in the techniques you use to keep everything straight in terms of characters, plot, historical elements and so on.

Flights of Treason by Judith Starkston

Treason threatens the thrones of the Hitolian Empire and the griffin realm. Can an unlikely ensemble of heroes save them?

As rulers of a vassal kingdom within the Hitolian Empire, Tesha and her husband Hattu have propped up a treacherous Great King. But balancing on the blade of a royal dagger is only half the problem. Unknown to them, Tesha’s blind sister is communicating with the king of the human-hating griffins.

Then hidden foes tip their lives toward disaster, and crises in both worlds collide.

The heroes fight battles with swords, claws, and sorcery. Will Tesha be forced to use the magic that might kill her daughter? Who truly unleashed these lethal strands of chaos? Will the empire—or Tesha’s family—survive?

Escape into the final book of this historical fantasy series, inspired by the true-life of a remarkable Hittite queen who ruled for decades over one of history’s most powerful empires.

“Starkston wraps history and magic together in an unforgettable package.”—the Book Review Crew

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION – AND MARY’S LATEST NOVELS and NEWS –  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY. There’s a SUBSCRIBE function on the right hand side of the page. 

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel THAT WAS THEN is a contemporary thriller. Mary’s other novels, THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, 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 www.mktod.com.

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2 Responses

  1. Thank you for hosting my thoughts on finding the arc of my historical fantasy series. I’d love to hear from readers about what kinds of series they enjoy and from writers what their challenges were in building a series arc.

  2. It’s a fascinating thought and one I think a lot of folk would share that a series has a jumping off point and then develops in another direction altogether. Good sometimes to let the subconscious take over in plot development!

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