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

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 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.