Recently, an author friend preparing to teach a class on writing a series asked me what advice I’d give to an author embarking on writing a series.
As you may recall, A Matter of Blood, the first book of the NYPD Detective Chiara Corelli Mystery Series, started as a challenge to myself. Could I write a novel? At the time, I was completely focused on whether I could write fiction, something I’d never done before. I didn’t think of it as a standalone or a series. And the idea of publishing never crossed my mind.
But once I had a completed manuscript that was getting positive feedback, my attitude changed. I wanted to be published. And I wanted to continue to write about Corelli and Parker. So while I was querying agents, I wrote The Blood Runs Cold, the second book in the series.
As a “pantser” I didn’t plan that first novel. And as a novice, I also didn’t plan for the series. But I wish I had.
Things to think about when starting a series:
How will the book be presented to the public?
Titles: When you come up with your first title think about how it works for a long running series, say ten, fifteen or more books.
I love my titles but I went with Blood in the first two titles because it is relevant in both stories. My publisher liked the titles so I continued the series with A Message in the Blood and Legacy in the Blood. Both of which fit the stories. But as I get ready to start writing the fifth book in the series, I worry about being able to continue the Blood title.
Covers: A self-published friend of mine recently spent precious time when she could have been writing, reissuing her ten books with consistent covers. Covers are important to marketing your book and having a consistent theme across the series helps reader recognize them and hopefully increases sales. So think hard about the image you want to represent your series.
Since all the books take place in New York City, I choose to have a city scene on the cover of A Matter of Blood. That was a terrific decision. And I stuck to that theme to have a coherent look on the covers. But time will tell if continuing something so specific was smart. Coming up with covers for new books in the series might be difficult.
Set up a Series Fact Manual. It could be a spreadsheet or entries in a physical book but it’s important to record information mentioned in any of the books for every character (height, eye color, hair, etc.), place, (restaurants, homes, streets, public buildings, etc.), event, or relationship, no matter how small a role it/they play in the series. This is necessary to ensure continuity throughout the series. Things like changing the eye color of the protagonist from blue to hazel or changing the name of a minor character throw the reader out of the story.
Define the protagonist’s character arc over the course of the series as best you can before starting to write. Knowing how your protagonist will grow and change by the end of the series will help identify the character’s arc in each book of the series and, in my opinion, result in a more compelling character. Knowing the overall character arc and the arc in an individual book will also help identify plot points related to the character’s growth.
When I started writing I wasn’t planning a series so I didn’t consider the character arcs of Corelli and Parker, my protagonists. Truthfully, I’m not sure I knew what a character arc was but I know I didn’t have the craft to plan it when I started writing. But I highly recommend you do it. I know I would if I was starting a new series. And I’m thinking I’ll do some thinking about the individual arcs of Corelli and Parker as I move forward with the next book and the series.
These are the things that came to my mind. Series authors, can you add anything to these four tips?
In addition to publishing multiple mystery and romance short stories in various anthologies, Catherine has authored four romances novels. Her latest book, The Disappearance of Lindy James, was awarded a GOLDIE for Best General Fiction.
Great suggestions! A master timeline along with the master fact manual.
Right. As you lay out the character’s series arc you can map a timeline over it.
Great advice, Catherine. I feel like you could do a whole workshop on this topic!
You are right Michele. All I have to do is discuss what I did wrong.
Great advice!! Glad to be one of your how-not-to-do-things examples — in terms of my cover remakes. I do wish I had thought sooner about having consistent book covers that signify my genre, traditional mysteries, and my brand, Chautauqua mysteries.
I also recommend (if possible) to think of an appealing supporting cast from the get-go. I love your dynamic duo, Catherine. My best series sidekick doesn’t show up until Book #4.
Your list is helpful, Catherine.
My series will be set in foreign locations so it is important to keep a record of places that the protagonist frequents and get foreign spellings correct.
Absolutely. You know when you write the first book it’s all fresh in your mind and you think you’ll remember but as you continue with your series it’s easy to slip up.
There’s nothing more frustrating then having to go through three previous books in your series trying to remember the correct name for the street someone lives on or some other minor fact. You can be sure that readers will let you know if you get it wrong.
You’re right, Deb, I had you and your Chautauqua mysteries in mind when I wrote about consistent covers helping with your brand identity.
I didn’t even know what the issues were when I started writing but I’ve learned from my mistakes (and yours) and I hope to help others get it right from the start.
Excellent advice, Catherine! Titles and covers are more important than new authors think.
Great tips, Catherine. My first mystery had a color in the title ( The Blue Virgin) and we did a color wash over the image to match. It had so much great feedback I’ve used a color in the next four titles with corresponding color wash. It holds the series together ~
These are great tips, Catherine. I drew up a map of the village where my Maggie Dove series takes place, so I can remember who lives where and who owns what store. That also gives me a way to weave previous stories into current ones.