5 Truths About Writing a Series – How Fenella Became a Star

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 10.48.24 AMI’m delighted to have Barbara Kyle on the blog today. I had the pleasure of meeting Barbara – a writer of historical fiction and contemporary thrillers – online before meeting her in person at one of her marvellous writing workshops. Today she’s giving us tips on writing a series. Having read several of her books, including The Queen’s Exiles, I can vouch for the compelling nature of the characters she creates. Thanks for sharing your advice, Barbara.

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Readers love series. It’s a benign addiction.

Just like, as TV viewers, we eagerly welcome the same characters into our living rooms week after week, be they the elegant aristocrats of Downton Abbey or the bloodied denizens of Game of Thrones (perhaps, like me, you’re a fan of both), readers feel the same about book series by master storytellers like Diana Gabaldon and Bernard Cornwell. We get to know the continuing characters so well we can’t wait to find out what happens in the next book.

What happens in the next book can sometimes surprise the author. The surprise for me was Fenella Doorn.

The Queen's ExilesFenella is the heroine of my latest historical thriller, The Queen’s Exiles. She’s a savvy Scottish-born entrepreneur who salvages ships. This is the 6th book in my Thornleigh Saga which follows a middle-class English family’s rise through three tumultuous Tudor reigns.

In Book 4 Fenella played a small but crucial role in the plot, and then I kind of forgot about her. She didn’t appear in Book 5. But when I was planning Book 6 she sneaked up on me.

Fenella is a determined, passionate, courageous woman, and also rather cheeky—she insisted that I include her in the new story. She reminded me that she’d had past connections with two exciting men in the series, Adam Thornleigh and Carlos Valverde, which promised some dramatic sparks.

So, I did more than include her in the new book. I made her its star.

That can happen when you write a series —a secondary character can take over. I was glad Fenella did. She offered me an opportunity to create a complex, admirable woman who doesn’t fit the ingénue heroine so common in historical fiction.

She’s not a young thing; she’s thirty. She’s not a pampered lady; she rolls up her sleeves running her business of refitting ships. She’s attractive but not a smooth-faced beauty; her cheek is scarred from a brute’s attack with a bottle ten years ago. And she’s not a virgin; she was once the mistress of the commander of the Edinburgh garrison (he of the bottle attack).

In other words, Fenella is my kind of woman.

But making her the star of the new book in my series meant some serious recalibrating. How could I fit her into the Thornleigh family? Writing a series opens up a vista of opportunities but also a minefield of traps. I’ll share with you five Big Things I’ve learned in writing a series.

  1. Every Book Must Stand Alone

An author can’t assume that readers have read the previous books in the series. My agent, Al Zuckerman, always reminds me of this when I send him the outline for a new book in the Thornleigh Saga: “Many readers won’t know what these characters have already been through,” he wisely points out.

So, each book has to give some background about what’s happened to the main characters in the preceding books, enough to bring new readers up to date. However, you can’t lay on so much backstory that it bores readers who have followed all the books. Getting the balance right is tricky.

I like the way episodes in a TV series start with a helpful recap: “Previously on Downton Abbey…” It’s perfect: it refreshes the memory of viewers who’ve seen the previous episodes, and is just enough to tantalize those who haven’t and bring them up to date. I wish I could have a plummy-voiced announcer give a recap at the beginning of my Thornleigh books! The point is, each book in a series must stand on its own. It has to be a complete and satisfying story for any reader.Thornleigh Series

  1. Create a Series Bible

Barbara Kyle TV TimesBefore writing full time I enjoyed a twenty-year acting career, and one of the TV series I did was a daytime drama called High Hopes. (That’s me on the cover of TV Times.) The writers on that series kept a story Bible: a record of the myriad details that had to be consistent from show to show concerning the dozens of characters. It’s a wise practice for the writer of a series of novels, too.

My Thornleigh Saga books follow a family for three generations, so it’s easy to forget facts about a character that were covered four or five books ago. That’s why I keep a Bible that records characters’ ages, occupations, marriages, love affairs, children, ages of their children, homes, character traits, and physical details like colour of hair and eyes . . . and missing body parts! Richard Thornleigh loses an eye in Book 1 of the Thornleigh Saga, The Queen’s Lady, yet in creating later books I would often start to write things like, “His eyes were drawn to . . .” So I keep that Bible near.

  1. Consistency Can Yield Rewards

When I had a brute cut Fenella Doorn’s cheek in Book 4, The Queen’s Gamble, I never expected Fenella to reappear in a future story. Two books later, when I brought her back to star in The Queen’s Exiles, I could not ignore the fact that she would have a sizable scar on her cheek. So I decided to use that scar to enrich her character.

She had been a beauty at eighteen, relying on men to support her, but when her cut face marred her attractiveness she realized that it was now up to her to put bread on the table and clothes on her back. I made her aware—even grateful— that the scar freed her from the bonds of beauty; it made her independent. And she became a successful entrepreneur.

  1. Let Characters Age

It’s hard for readers to believe that a hero can fight off bad guys like a young stud if the decades-long timeline of the books he appears in make him, in fact, a senior citizen. J. K Rowling was smart. She let Harry Potter and his friends grow up.

I’ve enjoyed doing this with my characters. Through six books I’ve taken Honor Larke from precocious seven-year-old to astute grande dame as Lady Thornleigh. Her step-son Adam Thornleigh’s first big role was in Book 3, The Queen’s Captive, where he was an impetuous young seafaring adventurer, but by the time of Book 6, The Queen’s Exiles, Adam has become a mature man, a loyal champion of his friend Queen Elizabeth. He has been through a loveless marriage, adores his two children, and falls hard for Fenella.

  1. Embrace Cliff-hanger Endings

Each book in a series must be a stand-alone story, with an inciting incident, escalating conflict developments, and a satisfying climax. But if, after the climax, the author can end each book by opening up a new, burning question for the characters, it sets up the conflict that will be tackled in the next book. Readers then really look forward to getting the next in the series.

I’m glad that lowly Fenella Doorn insisted I feature her in The Queen’s Exiles. Many readers have told me they love her.

Fenella is a star.

Barbara Kyle is the author of the acclaimed Thornleigh Saga novels and contemporary thrillers. Over 450,000 copies of her books have been sold in seven countries. Her new novel, The Traitor’s Daughter, will be released in May 2015. Barbara has taught writers at the University of Toronto and is known for her dynamic workshops for many writers organizations and writers conferences. Before becoming an author she enjoyed a twenty-year acting career in television, film, and stage productions in Canada and the U.S. Visit www.barbarakyle.com where you can watch an excerpt from her popular video series “Writing Fiction That Sells.” Registration is now open for her Spring Writers Retreat in Guelph, Ontario in April 2015 featuring workshops with Barbara and her guest, bestselling author Robert Rotenberg.

#HNSLondon14 –  The Fever Pitch

Sally Moore is on the blog today. Sally and I met some time ago at one of Barbara Kyle’s writing workshops and kept in touch in that loose way that we do these days via social media. To my delight she was a fellow Canadian at HNS London 2014 conference and we had a chance to catch up properly, the old fashioned way! Since I chose not to participate in the conference’s pitch sessions – 7 minute sessions with agents and editors – Sally has graciously agreed to share her experience of this nail-biting, anxiety-Sally Moore Writesproducing event. 

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London, September 5, 6, 7: Westminster University on Marylebone Road was invigorated with students returning to school, footprints pasted on the floors to guide the uninitiated, and a new addition to the excitement: 140 Historical Novel Society enthusiasts.

From plenary address, to indie book and short story contest announcements, panel discussions, networking, dinners, breakout sessions and book signings, the event was a marvel in historical context, evaluation and provocative thought.  For me, one of the most dramatic components of the conference was the line up outside Room 220 – the pitch session waiting space.

Pitch sessions are an invaluable opportunity to present your work to an industry professional.  For 7 glorious minutes, you have the attention of a person looking for your passion: that pearl inside the oyster that glows in its lustrous sheen of imagination. The seed of a best-selling novel.

For those of us sitting outside the pitch room, anticipating our session with a mixture of excitement and nervous tension, this hallway is more than a corridor leading to the breakout sessions and other classrooms.  It’s a passage to a new phase in the journey of our work.  This pause before our name is called, the time between what could be years of outlining and writing, preparation work on a submission, the practising of the pitch, and the actual delivery of a project has its own unique purpose in the experience of writing.

A lot happened in that hallway.  Stories were exchanged, contacts made, support given.  One writer on her way to a session even introduced herself, wished us luck and gave us her book to read during the wait. For me that was over an hour on the Saturday.  In that time, I made friends, learned a lot about the projects to be pitched, and picked up information about the editors and publishers taking pitches.  And it gave me time to reflect on why I was here, what had brought me to this place.

Every writer will tell you that writing is the greatest joy and the hardest thing they’ve ever done.  There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the challenges of a changing world of business that has impacted the publishing world in the last decade.  But I think what is most difficult of all is the sharing of our innermost imaginings, boiled down to a 7-minute bite that must catch the imagination of an industry person who hears ten to twenty of these a day.

Those moments in the hallway, what one of the writers likened to a ‘trip to the principal’s office’, can teach us a lot:

Patience.  You need it to be a writer, you need it to accept the challenges of being a writer.  To examine what got you here, and how to manage the thousands of hours it takes, the sacrifices to leisure, family and job that writing and learning to write inevitably demand.

Humour.  Take in stride what seem like obstacles, snafus, inconsistencies and mix ups: the best laid plans can go awry, but if you see the humour in it, you might just find something invaluable in the process, and prevent problems in the future.  And a positive attitude is a key component to convincing people they’d like to work with you.

Resilience and resourcefulness.  When a door closes, open a window and pop your head in.  If the editor or agent doesn’t get what you are pitching, ask them what they are looking for, pitch something new, find out what the trends in publishing are, get a contact name, just don’t leave empty-handed.

Knowledge.  Every pitch is a chance to learn.  Learn about the industry, about books, people, and mostly yourself.  Can you improve your presentation?  What are the challenges of your project and its genre?  Can you be more concise?  Show more passion?  Can you be more comfortable with publishers, and learn what they respond to?  An unsuccessful pitch session today can lead to a successful one tomorrow.

In the hallway at my second pitch on the Sunday, someone asked me if it ever gets any easier, and without hesitation I said, “No, it never does. But you get better at it.”

Can a writer deliver an entire concept and passion for a project they’ve worked years upon, invested their whole imaginative being into, in 7 minutes?  My second pitch proved that you can. 6-and-a-half minutes to be precise.  In those few moments, fresh from another 20 minutes time-out in the hallway, I made a connection with a publisher I admire, managed to get to know her a bit better, told her about my rather complex premise and setting, my main characters and the story, answered her questions and talked market for good measure.  In the end, I shook hands with her, hearing those golden words, “I’m really quite interested.”

My time in the hallway, those pre-pitch moments, surrounded by the anticipation and hopes of writers with a mutual love and respect for historical fiction, gave me the presence of mind and the magical momentum it took to be who I am: a writer of historical fiction with  a big story to tell.

#HNSLondon14, thank-you for those moments, for the gathering of people of like mind who appreciate HF, and have a passion for story.  Our own histories we bring with us, sitting in that hallway and the many hallways and coffee shops and writing retreats to come, to pour our stories on paper and contribute to a dynamic interaction with others that has its own historical context.

Vive le Historical Novel Society conference.  See you all in Denver 2015!

Sally Moore

Many thanks for sharing your story, Sally and for the wise words of wisdom. 

Sally Moore is an award-winning poet, author of Legend of Three CrownsWings of a Fly You can find more of her writing at www.samoorewrites.com. She’s on Twitter: @SallyMoore11 and is also President, Writers’ Community of Durham Region (WCDR) www.wcdr.ca Twitter: @WCDR1

Writers Drawing From Life – guest post by Debra Brown

Rage. Fear. Greed. We’re in for a treat today! I’m pleased to have Debra Brown Co-editor of Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors on the blog as part of promoting this wonderful new book.

Debra and I have connected on numerous occasions sharing thoughts about writing, checking in on one another’s tweets or Facebook posts, and commiserating from time to time. She’s the author of The Companion of Lady Holmeshire and For the Skylark (2013 release). Debra is also the originator of English Historical Fiction Authors blog and Co-editor of Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. Who knows how she finds time for all these activities!

Castles, Customs and KingsWriters Drawing from Life

As an artist must draw from what he sees or feels around him, even in abstract works, an author or writer must draw on what his senses have lent- what he has seen or heard. Authors of historical fiction hungrily pursue knowledge of persons, places and events of the past. What are some examples of what we have gleaned, and what states of mind might they pass on to our stories? The following examples are taken from the newly released Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors from Madison Street Publishing.

Rage! What woman’s rage has had more effect on a people than that of Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni Britons?

Boadicea was Queen of the Iceni, a tribe of the ancient Britons (in what is now Norfolk) during the era when Nero ruled in Rome and Roman troops occupied Britain. Her husband, Præsutagus, was King of the Iceni, and a Roman ally….

“Unfortunately, Præsutagus underestimated the greed and brutality of the Romans. Immediately upon his death, they not only took possession of his lands, but also seized all of his personal assets.

“The widowed queen was outraged and protested vigorously. For her impertinence, she was seized by the Romans and publicly stripped and flogged. Her daughters were turned over to the Romans soldiers and subjected to indignity and rape. Other Iceni nobles could not help the widow and her daughters for their homes were also plundered and robbed, and those who were close relatives of the deceased king were reduced to either slavery or poverty when their loans were called in by the Romans.

Certainly this was adequate cause for the Queen to become enraged. Not a woman to retreat to her rooms and yield to depression with its loss of will, she took the situation by storm.

Tacitus tells that more than 70,000 Romans, and Britons friendly to Rome, were massacred, and the Ninth Legion marching from Lincoln to the rescue had been nearly annihilated.

Learn how Boadicea accomplished such a feat in Teresa Thomas Bohannon’s article, Boadicea, Warrior Queen of the Iceni Britons, and learn of the final tragic outcome. The true tale of Boadicea inspired the writing of Teresa’s historic fantasy novel Shadows in a Timeless Mist.

Fear! What could fear move a people to do? In the essay Scourge of Europe: The Religious Hysteria Created by the Black Plague, Rosanne E. Lortz describes scenes that fire the writer’s imagination.

Death has always been one of the most frightening prospects faced by mankind. The fear of death even has its own word to describe it—thanotophobia.

“In a society where a third to a half of the people around you have succumbed to death within the past year, the terror of knowing that you might be next can become overwhelming. It can drive a person to bizarre and unthinkable acts as he tries to ward off death’s icy grip from descending on his own shoulder.

Rosanne describes a variety of reactions.

For some, the proximity of the plague created the pernicious attitude of “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Immorality, excess, and crime became rife in towns and cities, especially in the metropolis of London, as despairing people grasped after every last piece of self-gratification before death should come for them.

“Others, however, still nourished the hope that the plague might be avoided. Doctors tried the normal remedies of bleeding and laxatives and prescribed more outlandish cures such as drinking one’s own urine. It soon became obvious, however, that medicine had failed to find the answer. As corpse after corpse was thrown in the common burial pits, the only course left to the living was to repent of their sins, cast themselves on divine mercy, and entreat the angel of death to forbear….

“Across Europe, a sect known as the Flagellants began to gain followers. Wearing a uniform of a white robe marked with a red cross—much like the Knights Templar surcoat seen in so many period films—the Flagellants were a society of ascetic laymen determined to atone for the sins of the world. They gathered in groups of anywhere from 50 to 500 men, traveling around the towns of Europe and performing the ritual of publicly scourging themselves.

Rosanne writes, “In my book, I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, the hero Sir John Potenhale encounters this group of Flagellants making their demonstration in London. His mother has already been carried off by the plague, his father has been driven insane by it, and Potenhale himself is in a spiritually fragile condition.”

Greed. In many cases, wealth does not bring contentment; it creates a desire for even more. History shows that many wealthy men devised more wealth in an interesting way. Barbara Kyle’s article For Sale: Rich Orphans—The Tudor Court of Wards tells us:

Abduction of heiresses was not uncommon. Certainly it occurred frequently enough to necessitate a statute passed in 1487 under Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch: “An Act Against Taking Away of Women Against Their Will.” A stolen heiress meant lost revenues for the Crown.

“The revenue stream went back for centuries. The wardship of minor heirs of any tenant-in-chief was one of the king’s ancient feudal rights, a royal prerogative dating back to the feudal principle of seigneurial guardianship. It entitled the king to all the revenues of the deceased’s estate (excluding lands allocated to his widow as dower) until the heir reached the age of majority: twenty-one for a male, fourteen for a female. The king generally sold the wardships to the highest bidder or granted them gratis to favoured courtiers as a reward for services.

“In other words, all orphans, male and female, who were heirs to significant property became wards of the king, who then sold the wardships. Gentlemen bid for these sought-after prizes because control of a ward’s income-generating lands and their marriage was a significant source of revenue. The guardian pocketed the rents and revenues of the ward’s property until the young person came of age, at which time the guardian often married the ward to one of his own children.

 

This money-grabbing scheme was employed by Barbara in a novel. She says:

Sir Thomas More had two wards, Anne Cresacre and Giles Heron. He brought them up in his household where they were educated alongside his children. Eventually, Anne married More’s son John, and Giles married More’s daughter Cecily. The marriages seem to have been happy ones.

“Anne Cresacre’s story inspired me to create another ward for Sir Thomas More: Honor Larke, the heroine of my novel The Queen’s Lady. Honor grows up revering More and becomes a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon. Forced to take sides in the religious extremism of the day, Honor fights to save the church’s victims from death at the stake, bringing her into conflict with her once-beloved guardian. She enlists Richard Thornleigh, a rogue sea captain, in her missions of mercy, and eventually risks her life to try to save Sir Thomas from the wrath of the King.

 

In Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors, similarly fascinating historical facts discovered in their research are uncovered by fifty-five authors. One reviewer on Goodreads wrote, “I opened the book expecting to find something akin to a conference proceedings without ‘trained’ experts. Instead I found a new appreciation for the meticulous research and knowledge of the genre’s authors.” Another said, “I found the approach charming and reassuring.”

You can enjoy further articles by the group at the English Historical Fiction Authors blog.

Castles, Customs, and Kings is available at Amazon US, Amazon UK, and Kobo. It will soon be available at other online stores.