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.


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.

Historical Fiction Author – Barbara Kyle

Barbara_Kyle_Author_PhotoToday Barbara Kyle has very kindly answered my questions about her writing. Barbara and I have corresponded on several occasions and she has been gracious and very supportive in each encounter. You will read in the interview about her very disciplined approach to writing – and she also finds time to lecture, instruct and offer one-on-one consultations. If you haven’t read any of her Thornleigh books, you should!

Thanks for inviting me to do this interview, Mary. I always enjoy reading your blog.

Why do you write historical fiction?     Because of the grand sweep of it, the opportunity for big stories. I set my stories at crucial historical events – the “hinges of history” – in order to generate life-changing choices and actions in my characters. My “Thornleigh” books follow a rising, middle-class family through three tumultuous Tudor reigns during which they must make hard choices about loyalty, allegiance, duty, love, and family.

In The Queen’s Lady the setting is the nerve-jangled court of Henry VIII as he wrenches England away from the Roman church to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. In The King’s Daughter it’s the Wyatt rebellion when thousands of men march on London against Henry’s daughter, Queen Mary, and very nearly take the city. In The Queen’s Captive it’s the crisis when Mary imprisons her half-sister, the future Queen Elizabeth I. In The Queen’s Gamble it’s the emergency Elizabeth faced with John Knox’s revolution in Scotland against the Scotts’ French overlords. And in my upcoming release Blood Between Queens it’s the crisis created when Mary, Queen of Scots flees to England and throws herself on the mercy of her cousin Elizabeth. These historical “hinge” events are the crucible that test my characters’ mettle.

You are clearly good at writing historical fiction. What do you think attracts readers to your books?     People are endlessly fascinated by the high-stakes drama of the Tudor/Elizabethan period (and so am I) so I’d say that it’s Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Sir Thomas More, Elizabeth I, and Mary Queen of Scots, and who attract readers to my books. But the reason readers stay is for characters they can care deeply about, which in the main are the Thornleigh family members I’ve created: Honor and Richard, Isabel and Carlos, Adam and Frances. It’s a paradox: readers want to identify with a story’s hero (male or female) but they also want that hero to face extraordinary challenges of a kind that most of us never face. Great novels generate an empathy that asks: What would I do in that situation? That’s the experience I strive to give my readers.

Do you have a particular approach to research and writing?    I do. My contract with my publisher for the last three books and the next two is to deliver a book every year, so I follow a strict regime. I spend about three months developing an outline, a detailed document that is eventually about twenty pages and covers just what happens. Research is concurrent with building this outline. For me, the outline is crucial: it’s where all the heavy lifting of creation gets done, the development of the characters and plot. When I teach writers I call this process Storylining, because as writers we can never forget that we’re telling a story. Once I have an outline I spend about seven months writing the first draft, then about two months on the second draft, leaving the last couple of weeks for a polish draft.

Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you?    I’ve always loved and admired big, complex adventure stories and family sagas. James Clavell’s Shogun. Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles. I also adored Edith Pargeter’s historical series: The Heaven Tree trilogy and The Brothers of Gwynedd quartet.

What ingredients do you think make for a top historical fiction author? Do you deliberately plan for these ingredients in your writing?    I think we see successes all over the map in historical fiction, with a wide variety of ingredients appealing to readers, which is wonderful. In general, though, I agree with the conclusion you stated in your blog post that what readers enjoy reading about most is “greatness and great times.” Hence, my choice of various “hinges of history” for my settings.

You’ve created a very popular series set in Tudor times called the Thornleighs. What advantages have come from writing a series? Any disadvantages?    The greatest advantage is that readers love to follow the Thornleigh family characters from one book to the next, much like they enjoy following continuing characters in an enthralling TV drama series. They do identify with the Thornleighs as a rising, middle class family – the dangerously free-thinking Honor; Richard, the wool trader turned MP; the adventurous seafarer, Adam; Isabel, the reluctant revolutionary; Carlos, her Spanish mercenary husband – and their nemesis, the Grenville family. Continuing with a series is certainly satisfying for me, because I know the characters so well, which reduces the angst when I begin a new book. Disadvantages? I actually can’t think of any. My cast of characters is large enough to allow me to propel at least some of them into any dramatic situation I want.

I notice that you’ve recently released a thriller set in the present day. Why did you decide to try your hand at something so completely different?    It’s more a return than a departure. Before Kensington published my historical novels I wrote three thrillers under the male pseudonym ‘Stephen Kyle’ that were published by Warner Books (now Hachette) and did very well. Entrapped, my new thriller (under my own name this time) is a book I loved writing. It’s set in Alberta, Canada, where there’s a war going on between landowners and Big Oil. My thriller was inspired by the true story of a farmer whose land was surrounded by oil companies’ rigs and gas flares, and whose livestock were sickening and dying from the poisoned air and water, but his complaints were ignored, so he took matters into his own hands and sabotaged the rigs.

What brand are you trying to create for yourself?    I don’t think of a brand really. In a nutshell, I would say that I want readers to know they’re guaranteed an exciting story about characters whose desires and dilemmas they can care deeply about.

What do you do to connect with readers?    I send out a newsletter about three times a year to my mailing list; readers sign up for it through my website. I have a Facebook Author Page. I adore Twitter and have an ongoing dialogue with many readers there. (Is that a Twialogue?)  The best is when readers connect with me, usually by email, and then it’s a joy to reply.

What do you know about your readers?    They have good taste!

What data do you collect about your readers?    Just email address when they sign up for my newsletter through my website.

What strategies guide your writing career?    My strategy is to write compelling novels and deliver them to my publisher by the contract deadline! I don’t mean that flippantly. To accomplish both is a full-time job.

What would you do differently if you were starting again?    I would educate myself earlier about the publishing industry. When I began writing I was rather ignorant about the business imperatives that publishers have to deal with. For example, an acquisition editor may take a chance and buy a debut novel that she loves but that has limited appeal so it fails in the marketplace. If she does that a few times – buys books that fail – she gets fired. So no wonder they’re cautious. Publishing is a business, and it behooves writers to remember that.

Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction?    I’d say don’t be a slave to academic facts. Readers want characters who feel alive, and that life comes from you giving breath to the characters through your individual and vivid worldview, your distinct vision. That’s priceless.

Many thanks for such interesting responses, Barbara. Your phrase ‘the hinges of history’ really speaks to me and I imagine it will to others as well. I’m also intrigued by the concept of storylining and your example from the publishing world brings home the realities facing all authors both debut and established. Since we live in the same part of the world, I hope we can connect in person some day!

BLOOD BETWEEN QUEENSBarbara Kyle is the author of the acclaimed Tudor-era “Thornleigh” novels published by Kensington Books, New York, including The Queen’s Lady, The King’s Daughter, The Queen’s Captive, The Queen’s Gamble and Blood Between Queens. Over 400,000 copies of her books have been sold. Barbara has taught writers at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and is known for her dynamic workshops for many writers’ organizations and conferences. Before becoming an author Barbara enjoyed a twenty-year acting career in television, film, and stage productions in Canada and the U.S. Visit www.barbarakyle.com