Tips on Writing a Series #HNS2019

At #HNS2019 I attended In For the Long Haul: The Craft of Writing a Series. This panel was moderated by Donna Russo Morin (great job, Donna!) with Nancy Bilyeau, Patricia Bracewell, and Anne Easter Smith as contributors. The session was designed to “weigh the pros and cons of writing a series and look at the decisions necessary in the earliest planning stages and beyond.” So let’s see what these wonderful writers had to say.

At the beginning the moderator made two clarifications: (1) a trilogy involves three novels with a tight connect of time, theme, character and sometimes location; (2) a series often involves one main character and is often based on a series of mysteries. As the session began, Donna asked each author to give some general comments on their series.

Patricia Bracewell: has written a trilogy based on the life of Emma of Normandy, England’s twice-crowned queen, which sprang from her life-long fascination with all things medieval. In her novels Pat attempts to re-create Emma’s early medieval world for readers as well as introduce them to this little known queen who has slipped into the footnotes of history. She feels that the same theme(s) will often run through a series/trilogy. For example, family, loyalty, duty. Such themes connect readers to their current lives and circumstances. However, conflicts vary from book to book to make the entire series more interesting.

Anne Easter Smith: her series based on the York family during the War of the Roses deals with different characters and could be considered a family saga. Each book is complete on its own and yet together they give an in-depth look at one of the two families whose viable claim to the throne threw England into civil war. Themes of morality, love vs. lust, duty, family, and loyalty are explored. Anne gave each protagonist a different skill – such as a musical instrument or a love of reading – that allowed exploration of something unique to that time period to enhance the story.

Donna Russo Morin has written a series telling the story of a secret society of women artists, under the tutelage of Leonardo da Vinci, who must navigate the treacherous life of 15th century Florence while trying to bring their artistry to the world.

Nancy Bilyeau’s series begins with The Crown where an aristocratic young nun – Joanna Stafford – must find a legendary crown in order to save her father—and preserve the Catholic faith from Cromwell’s ruthless terror. Subsequent novels continue Joanna’s story.

The group moved on to the pros and cons of writing series:

  • you can leverage your research because each novel is immersed in the same time and place
  • you have to like your characters because you will be spending a lot of time with them!
  • maintaining consistency of fact is essential (the authors have different ways to do this)
  • you need to avoid getting into a rut in terms of scenes; for example, you can’t have every scene happen in the Great Hall of some grand family castle
  • readers who have enjoyed your first book will usually stick with you for subsequent books in the series
  • you need to find ways to cover the years that intervene between stories in the trilogy, while avoiding a major information dump at the beginning of each subsequent novel
  • in addition to consistency of fact, you must maintain consistency of character
  • at times you can write the same scene but from a different character’s POV

Then there was a discussion about having an overarching storyline or book-specific storylines:

  • leave open questions at the end of your 1st and 2nd books (if writing a trilogy). This will entice readers to return for subsequent novels.
  • each book has to have a major conflict and a major resolution, even if there is an over-arching storyline for the series
  • you have to know what the final resolution will be; Donna Russo Morin (DRM) said that she wrote the last three chapters before writing the rest of the book. Donna has written the Da Vinci Disciples series.
  • Nancy Bilyeau (NB) mentioned that if she had to do it all over again, she would make the books more self-contained so that each story stands on its own. Nancy novels are about a novice in the time of Henry VIII.

General advice:

  • create a genealogy chart and a dramatis personae list for your novels
  • get clear about the historical events that will appear in your series/trilogy
  • start young in the life of your character, which leaves lots of room for excitement
  • think carefully about whether your fictional character has children because those children will have to appear in the story (of course, you can’t change the facts about the children of real characters)
  • PB has a “rap sheet” for each of her 80 characters; she updates these rap sheets for subsequent books and plants the seeds of change in book 1 for subsequent books
  • a huge amount of planning is required to get it right
  • historical series are popular with publishers, although most publishers buy one book at a time

Words of wisdom if you are considering writing a series or trilogy.

The first post I wrote about #HNS2019 is The State of Historical Fiction through the eyes of agents and editors.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

What Makes Historical Fiction Tick – with Donna Russo Morin

Today is release day for The Competition, Donna Russo Morin‘s second novel in the Da Vinci’s Disciples trilogy. And today I’m delighted to have Donna on the blog discussing what makes historical fiction tick. Over to you, Donna.

What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable or irresistible to readers?

Stir together characters that are recognizable and relatable no matter that they lived hundreds of years ago, a fascinating/traumatic/life-changing moment in history, and a perfectly recreated setting.

As a top historical fiction writer, what techniques do you employ to create that magic?

First, thank you for such a complimentary status. When a story unfolds in my mind, it’s as if I’m watching a movie, and I put everything I see down on paper. There’s a fine line between enough description and too much. The key, for me, is to weave all the historical events, lifestyle particulars, and period appropriate character behavior seamlessly into the narrative via dialogue, internal monologues, and action, anything but simple plops of description. The most powerful insertion of historical information comes when it is disguised as something else; it’s what I strive for in each and every book.

How are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels?

Mark Twain said, “The difference between history and fiction is that fiction has to be believed.’ A truer statement has never been spoken. It’s a greater challenge for the historical novelist to suspend the disbelief of their readers as the people and their lives are so far removed from modern day life. Consequently, the historical novelist needs to make the past so alive that today’s reader can relate, can immerse themselves so deeply in the work, it becomes inconsequential that it took place hundreds of years ago.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novels?

It has been a recurring theme in all of my books (six so far) to highlight strong women who dare to break the constraints imposed by the social mores of their time period. My Da Vinci’s Disciples trilogy (PORTRAIT OF A CONSPIRACY, May 2016; THE COMPETITION, April 25, 2017; BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, Spring 2018) is the story of a secret society of women artists, under the tutelage of the great Leonardo da Vinci, who must navigate the treacherous life of 15th century Florence while trying to bring their artistry to the world. Every one of the women in this society is based on real women in my life, including myself. I try to shine a light on the fact that the struggles of gender are as true today as they were in centuries past…and that we still have a long road to travel.

In writing historical fiction, what techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

I need to know the period as if I’ve lived it. In addition to months of academic research, I read novels written in the period, contemporary novels of the era. For example, if a writer a hundred years from now wants to write about this time period, they may want to read Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. One book of distinction for me has been Il Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier) written by Baldassare Castiglione in 1507. It’s an extraordinary glimpse into Renaissance life. It is a series of fictional conversation between factual personages, such as the Duke of Urbino and other nobles. Over the course of four evenings, members of the court try to describe the perfect courtly gentleman. They debate the nature of nobility, humor, women, and love. The truth of the time is all there. Though the archaic language can be difficult to plow through, the benefits are more than worth the time.

Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how?

I cut my teeth on Margaret Mitchell, James Michener, John Jakes, Rosalind Laker, and most recently, Diana Gabaldon. In all instances, these authors wrote epic sagas. Their world building is impeccable and with every book I write, I strive to match that authority. I still write ‘big’ books, as they did, which are no longer as popular as they once were. My agent and editor are constantly asking for cuts; a terrible wound for a writer. It is my challenge to world-build as successfully as the writers mentioned above, but with far less words.

If I’ve learned one thing from these writers more than any other, it’s that it is the function of the non-fiction history book writer to tell us what happened and where; it is the goal of every historical novelist to tell us how it felt.

Many thanks, Donna. You write in a time period and setting that many would find very difficult! Congratulations and best wishes for your latest novel.

The Competition by Donna Russo Morin – In a studiolo behind a church, six women gather to perform an act that is, at once, restorative, powerful, and illegal: they paint.
Under the tutelage of Leonardo da Vinci, these six show talent and drive equal to that of any man, but in Renaissance Florence, they must hide their skills, or risk the scorn of the church, the city, and the law.
A commission to paint a fresco in the church of Santo Spirito is about to be announced and Florence’s countless artists each seek the fame and glory this lucrative job will provide. Viviana, a noblewoman freed from a terrible marriage, and now able to pursue her artistic passions, sees a potential life-altering opportunity for herself and her fellow artists. The women first speak to Lorenzo de Medici himself, and finally, they submit a bid for the right to paint it. And they win. The very public commission belongs to them.
But with the victory comes a powerful cost. The church will not stand for women painting, especially not in a house of worship