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.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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 www.mktod.com.

Successful Historical Fiction with Nicole Evelina

Thanks for your indulgence while I enjoyed a brief hiatus from blogging in the lead up to our son’s wedding. I’m delighted to tell you that all went well!

Today, I have Nicole Evelina on the blog discussing the topic of successful historical fiction. Nicole writes stories of strong women from history and today. She also appeared on A Writer of History in 2016. Many thanks for sharing your thoughts, Nicole.

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What’s your definition of successful historical fiction?

Successful historical fiction transports you to another time and place without you realizing it. It is great fiction in general, according to the rules of writing you’d apply to any genre. And the very best helps you learn something about human nature, the time period, a famous historical personage, and/or yourself.

What attributes are most important to you when designating a novel ‘successful historical fiction’.

Historical accuracy and a good story.

Which authors do you think create the most successful historical fiction?

Patricia Bracewell, Geraldine Brooks, Anne Fortier, MJ Rose, and Susanna Kearsley.

What makes these particular authors stand out?

They all paint rich pictures and tell stories that stay with you long after you are done reading.

In your opinion, what aspects prevent a novel from being designated successful historical fiction?

Anything that takes you out of the time and place, feels forced or anachronistic. Even when words are historically correct, if they feel too modern, it can be jarring. For example, I read a book that takes place in the 1920s that used the term “mixologist” for a bartender. I looked it up and it is technically correct for the period, but that word has become so synonymous with recent years that it tripped me up. Lack of research/lazy research goes along with this. Also, forcing modern viewpoints on historical characters.

Are famous people essential to successful historical fiction?

Not at all. I think the unknowns are even more fun because then you learn something about a  real person at the same time you are entertained. Fictional characters are often a good way to see a different POV of an event/time period.

Does successful historical fiction have to say something relevant to today’s conditions?

Yes. I think every book has to say something relevant to readers. If it doesn’t, we can’t relate to the book, characters, etc. and are not inclined to continue reading. Luckily, the basics of the human condition don’t really change. So even though slavery is illegal in most places now, we can still read stories of the US pre-Civil War south or the Roman Empire and emphasize with struggle of the slave because it’s part of human nature to not want to be in forced servitude. In the same way, we can read about times when women didn’t have any rights because it shows us how far we have come and how far we still have to go.

What role does research play in successful historical fiction?

Aside from the basic skills of any storyteller, research is everything. It’s what makes historical fiction what it is; it’s what enables writers to convincingly time travel to a period they can never actually visit; it’s what makes a book feel authentic, and these things are key to a good reading experience.

In your opinion, how are these elements critical to successful historical fiction? Characters. Setting. Plot. Conflict. Dialogue. World building. Themes.

Characters, world building and setting must be authentic to the period for a reader to take them seriously, hence the role of research. Plot must be well-written and realistic and conflict must make us want to keep reading – just as in any other kind of book. Dialogue must sound like it is right for the period – no modern language, yet also not so historically accurate that a modern reader can’t understand it. Themes are what make the books relevant to modern readers.

Do you judge historical fiction differently from contemporary fiction?

Yes. I hold it to a higher standard because of all the work that goes into creating it. Having written both, I can confidently say there is so much you don’t have to think about when writing contemporary fiction because it is second nature to you and to your readers. Those very same things are part of what makes successful historical fiction shine – the very fact that you don’t notice how different they are from today because the author has done their research and convinced you they are part of the everyday life of the characters you are reading.

Many thanks for adding to the discussion, Nicole.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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 www.mktod.com.