It is with great pleasure that I welcome guest, Barbara Kyle, author of the Thornleigh Saga series. (Above is a detail from the cover of her latest release, The Traitor’s Daughter). I’ve had the privilege of knowing Barbara for the last few years. Not only is she a bestselling historical fiction author who crafts thrilling page-turners, but she is also an excellent creative writing instructor who is a generous mentor to new writers. The advice I received through working with her has elevated my story to a new level.
Writing a series has become a growing trend, expanding beyond science fiction and fantasy. It makes perfect sense. Readers fall in love with characters and want to read more about them. As a writer, it is hard to close the book on characters you have lived with and breathed into existence, so any reason to watch them grow through more stories is a wonderful proposition.
Today, Barbara shares with us her five tips for writing a series. Even though her Thornleigh Saga series is set during the Tudor age, her tips can be applied to any period and any genre, not just historical fiction.
5 Tips for Writing a Series
by Barbara Kyle
Readers love book 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.
Fenella is the heroine of my 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, reminding 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.
- Every Book Must Stand Alone
An author can’t assume that readers have read the previous books in the series. My agent, Al Zuckerman of Writers House, 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.
- Create a Series Bible
Before writing full time I enjoyed a twenty-year acting career, and a TV series I starred in was a daytime drama called High Hopes. 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.
- 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.
- 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 seven books I’ve taken the series’ first heroine, Honor Larke, from precocious seven-year-old child 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.
- Embrace Cliff-hanger Endings
Each book in a series must be a stand-alone story, with an inciting incident, escalating conflict, turning points, 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 the lowly Fenella Doorn insisted I feature her in The Queen’s Exiles. Many readers have told me they love her.
Once a bit player, Fenella is now a star.
Barbara Kyle is the author of seven acclaimed historical novels – the Thornleigh Saga series – all published internationally, and of contemporary thrillers, three under pen-name Stephen Kyle, including Beyond Recall, a Literary Guild Selection. Over 450,000 copies of her books have been sold in seven countries. Her latest book is The Traitor’s Daughter. Before becoming an author, Barbara enjoyed a 20-year acting career in film, TV, and stage productions in Canada and the US.
Barbara has taught writers at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and is a regular guest presenter for many writers’ organizations and conferences. Barbara’s workshops, master classes, and manuscript evaluations have launched many writers to published success.
Barbara’s “Crafting the Page-Turner” Writers’ Symposium on 17-18 October 2015 in Toronto will bring in top industry professionals to give workshops, seminars, and pitch sessions.
For information and to register see www.BarbaraKyle.com.
Barbara, as always your writing wisdom is spot-on. I’ve been keeping a character diary as I write book 3 of my trilogy but your series bible is a great solution. Thanks for another great post!
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Barbara always has excellent advice to share.
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Glad you found it helpful, Elaine. All the best with your Loyalist family’s adventures in Book 3!
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Thank you Barbara – like you I find a writer’s ‘Bible’ invaluable.My only drawback – I’ve had to rewrite all the information in a second larger notebook (the old-fashioned way of writing things in a book is more useful than on the computer, especially when editing on a sunny day in the garden!) You see I never expected my original boom (Sea WItch) to morph into an expanding series! Like you I’m also finding unexpected bit-part characters pushing their way forwared to take starring roles … it all adds to the enormous fun of writing a series doesn’t it – even as the author, we never know what is going to happen next!
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It’s lovely to hear from you, Helen. How alike our experiences are! Like you, I did not set out to write a series; my publisher wanted more books, so I rolled up my sleeves and produced. Cheers — all hail to Sea Witch and long may she reign!
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Thanks for dropping by Helen. 🙂
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I love the part about a character sneaking up on you and pushing her way to the front. Thanks also for the advice about a character Bible. Even with a stand alone novel I’ve found myself needing this. And using a character’s wounds, either physical or emotional, as a driving force in her life makes for unforgettable characters. Great advice, all of it.
You’re right, Rita, that keeping track of details is important for a stand alone novel, too, but fortunately one’s copy-editor will catch any errors in the author’s completed manuscript. A series “Bible” on the other hand is there to save the author grief before even beginning Book 2 or Book 3 etc. Glad you enjoyed the post!
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