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How to Write and Plan a Book Series

Categories: Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, Guest Columns, What's New.

It’s said that J.K. Rowling had the whole of the Harry Potter series in her head before she started. If you’re in the JKR camp, read no more. You’re way ahead of me. On the other hand, if you’re not a long-range planner, my experience may be of use.

Like most writers, I have antennae that alert me to the Good Idea that might make a Good Story. My first image for the mystery series that starts with Dying in the Wool was of a man, a father, unable to return home. Someone needed to find out who and where he was. Step forward Kate Shackleton, sleuth extraordinaire. I then knew I wanted to go on writing about Kate, and so I had an eye towards her longevity. That’s as much planning as I did. For me, starting a series was like any other writing, a combination of characters, setting and plot.

GIVEAWAY: Frances is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners can live anywhere in the world. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: PMDrummond won.)

 

     

Guest column by Frances Brody, who lives in the north of England,
where she was born and grew up. Frances started her writing life in
radio, with many plays and short stories broadcast by the BBC.
She has also written for television and theatre. Before turning to
crime, she wrote sagas, winning the HarperCollins Elizabeth Elgin
Award for most regionally evocative debut saga of the millennium.
Four books in the Kate Shackleton Mystery series:
Dying in the Wool,
A Medal for Murder, Murder in the Afternoon and A Woman Unknown.
A Medal for Murder will be available from Minotaur in February 2013.
Visit Frances online at www.frances-brody.com. She is also happy
to be contacted through Facebook, on Twitter.

There were certain givens. Kate would need to be at home in different social circles, and to be independent so that she could take off at a moment’s notice. An investigator needs the right sort of people around her. Kate is adopted. Her adoptive father is a police superintendent; her mother an aristocrat who married for love. In book three, Kate meets her birth sister who is from a very different background. This creates a wide social spectrum for possible stories. It’s the 1920s. Although much has changed for women, there are still many restrictions and difficulties. Kate would struggle without her sidekick, Jim Sykes, who can go to places that would be closed to women.

(How many agents should you contact at one time?)

A sense of place is particularly important in a mystery novel. Readers have to believe that these events are happening in this particular spot, at this time. Early on, I visited locations and went house-hunting for Kate. Places and road layouts have changed a lot since the early part of the last century. Old maps became essential. I have a collection of maps. (The ones I don’t have, I find in the library). Whether Kate is walking, driving her 1913 Jowett motor, or riding the tramcar, I can trace her journeys. Time spent working out her route, and how long it takes to reach her destination, is additional thinking time for me, as if I’m tagging along with her. This also helped as I planned and wrote the subsequent books. Kate has her patch: Yorkshire, the largest county in England.

Recently I came across the advice that you should read around the genre you plan to write. Find out what’s on publishers’ lists; analyse the market. It didn’t occur to me to do this; although I do read widely, including crime fiction. I had a brilliant idea and wanted to get on with it right away, not spend time analyzing where my story might slot in, or to even think about genre. If I had read around my sub-genre (horrible term!) perhaps a stylistic trick or two might have lodged in my subconscious and a reader would say, Oh, she’s a bit like Author X. So I’m glad I jumped straight in and pressed on.

This approach has a disadvantage. When I showed Dying in the Wool to my agent, she liked it but was a little impatient. ‘It’s a crime novel. You have to have a body by page one hundred.’

I went to a library event to hear Robert Barnard, an author with a list of crime novels as long as your arm. When it came to questions, I asked, ‘Did anyone ever tell you that you should have a body by page one hundred?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘but I always have a body by page sixty.’

(Literary agents share helpful advice for new writers.)

In my second novel, A Medal for Murder, Kate finds the body by page thirty. And in Murder in the Afternoon … but you get the idea.

Sometimes, practical tips are best. Here are mine. When starting work on a novel, I buy two A4 spiral-bound notebooks, for research, characters and story. I take a camera when I visit locations. Reading for background research is useful, but it doesn’t beat meeting the experts, and they are usually willing to help. I am never happy with my first drafts but save them. To avoid the confusion of a bleary-eyed start on the wrong draft, I highlight abandoned versions and give them a colour. At the end of each day I email work to myself, so if the house burns down while we’re out, or a burglar strikes, my manuscript lives on in cyberspace. Not very high tech, but this works for me.

Good luck!

GIVEAWAY: Frances is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners can live anywhere in the world. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: PMDrummond won.)

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Buy it online here at a discount.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

 

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143 Responses to How to Write and Plan a Book Series

  1. S.K.Nick says:

    I’ve just started writing a book. I already have ideas laid out for the first 3 books in the series. And I’m still deciding on if I should make more – we will see I guess :). My question is how did you know you want to make the location in your book real? How did you know that you didn’t want to make up a fake city or something? I’m still deciding on if I should…and I can’t move forward until I do decide.

  2. rie says:

    Late to the party, but I just found this article. Since I have just started book two in my first series, it couldn’t come at a better time! Fabulous advice. Thanks for sharing.

    Rie Sheridan Rose

  3. Congratulations to Pat Drummond who wins a copy of ‘Dying in the Wool’. Thanks to everyone for your comments.

  4. Thanks for your comments, Anya. Amazon has the Kindle versions.
    Good luck with your mystery series.

  5. Anya Azrael says:

    I have just recently started planning for a mystery series. This was so helpful..it also sounds like a really interesting concept, I can’t wait to read it. Are they available in e-book format?

  6. So much is connected with structure and balance, PM, for your books and mine. You have a great website and I like what you have to say on there. Great book covers, too.

  7. PMDrummond says:

    I have a similar problem to the “corpse by page 100.” I write paranormal suspense that leans toward romance. I’ve had people I need to have the love interest show up earlier in the book, but the story is about the protagonist, Marlee, not the love interest. It’s a series of 6 books, and throughout them Marlee is interested in three men, but she always comes back to the one she can’t have (who is her true love). However, it’s her paranormal powers and the problems she has to solve with it that are the main thrust of the series.

    Sometimes it’s hard to change a story to meet genre expectations.

  8. Jules-M says:

    Finally a giveaway for someone like me who lives in Barbados :-). Your generosity is much appreciated!

    Regarding your comment about analyzing the market– what exactly does that mean?. Do I go into a bookstore to see what is on sale or were you referring to using the writer’s market book to see what publishers/agents are requesting. Then there are people telling you to write what you like because chances are you already missed the trend. It can be a little daunting with all the contrary advice.

    I use notebooks as well for research but when I find an interesting article online, instead of printing it out i use the chrome browser to save it as a pdf *(save the trees and all that business). I’m also experimenting with MS One Note to organize these random bits of information. (I should confess that I started organizing the material into One Note but the distractions of life got in the way.)

    • Good question on how you analyze the market. Books shops, publishers’ lists, books pages of newspapers … you could spend months ‘analyzing’ and then the circus moves on. By a certain point, you know what you want to write. If you are lucky, you’ll find the right agent or editor. We’re in a technological revolution that’s putting publishers in a spin, but it also opens up new opportunities for writers.

      Thanks for sharing your tips, Jules. On this grey-blanket sky day, I picture Barbados!

  9. PBrynn says:

    Thank you for sharing. I had not started out writing a series, but after finishing the first draft, I realized the entirety of the story could not be held in one book. So I guess you could say it is a finite series. Not the same as having to create a character with flexibilities, but still, the tools and techniques I have established follow along the same lines. I, too, use the notebook and camera, collect old maps of Wales and Ireland, as well as older books regarding both local folklore and mythology. I also have file folders for particular subjects discovered on the web, because I search and research a lot. It’s difficult to remember every place I’ve been. Emailing self what you have written, I hadn’t thought of that. I just now started using a cloud drive to store my work on the net. It has saved my bacon already!

    • Finite as in a 2-parter, trilogy or quartet, perhaps? You’re working in a fascinating area. It’s years since I read Alan Garner’s books but loved them. I haven’t heard of cloud drive so must check it out – sounds so much more eloquent than email.

  10. Stickywicket says:

    I was told that the ability to map out a book or series is equivalent to that book’s success or failure. Probably good advice, but daunting. I don’t write suspense, but am usually in (too much) suspense about my own stories.

  11. judyreed82 says:

    Thanks so much! I’m currently considering a children’s middle grade mystery series, and I can adapt some of your practical ideas to my planning! Maybe not the body by page 30 or 60 though!

  12. sddblake says:

    Great advise. I email myself copies of everything too, just in case the computer crashes!

  13. Quilldancer says:

    I like keeping notebooks for planning, too. I find I plot better with a pen in my hand and writer better with the computer. I’m not quite certain why, but it works for me.

  14. Thanks for your comment and question.

    As to relocating the body’s debut (like your turn of phrase!) no I didn’t.

  15. jmcewan says:

    Really enjoyed your article. When and how did you know to act upon writing as a career? Silly question but, we’re you scarred to get started? I will take the advice of the two spiral notebooks for research. Photography has always been a passion of mine, but lately I haven’t been shooting pics. Thanks for the inspiration, I think I’ll dust my camera off!

    • Glad you enjoyed the article.
      For the longest time I balanced writing alongside full-time or part-time work. Giving up the day jobs was a gradual process. I wouldn’t say I was scared, but it was a little daunting. Still is!
      Hope the camera wasn’t too dusty.

  16. cdmsr2 says:

    Great article! A wealth of guidance and the kind of insight that can only come from experience.

    As will be obvious from my next question, I haven’t read your book (sorry!) and I have to ask: Did you relocate the body’s debut to an earlier page in the first book?

  17. Thanks. Hope you’ll enjoy!

  18. csandros says:

    Sounds like a great story. I can’t wait to read it!

  19. lynniegirl says:

    Your book sounds wonderful, a good read on the patio or curled on the couch with a quilt and coffee. My first cozy is in the final editing process and then comes the agent/editor search. Thanks for your words of wisdom, and the best to you as you continue writing.

  20. Doropatent says:

    I like the tip about having the reader believe the story takes place when and where you’ve set it–I think that’s applicable to any kind of historical novel, or sci fi for that matter!

  21. TerryDassow says:

    I’ve never thought to email myself my own manuscripts. But as Bop mentioned, I use Dropbox to backup my writing in cyberspace.

    I’m a firm believer of reading other writing which inspires you, but not reading in order to worry over specific genre rules. Just because you’ve got the rules ‘correct’ doesn’t mean an agent or publisher will be enamored with your story. But, that’s just my take. Either way, reading is important!

  22. Jess189 says:

    This article was rather disappointing. It had good tips on writing a book, but nothing about planning a series. The author even says herself that she didn’t plan out her series, so the title of the article seems a bit misleading.

  23. homemomma4 says:

    Hahaha, I do the me thing ei emailing myself! My family makes fun of me…but evidently, we writers know what we’re talking about. Let’s just see who’s laughing when the burglar strikes…or when we return to a heap of dingy gray ashes after a movie…!

    Really enjoyed the post. Great advice, thank you for sharing with us.

  24. Leah says:

    Great insight! I love hearing how others fulfill their paths. I am really interested in reading one of your novels too. Win or not, I plan to check them out.

  25. sefmac20 says:

    Thank you for sharing your insights. I love learning another unique perspective on the writing life.

  26. Denise says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas with us. Congratulations on your series. The ideas you gave will certainly help me in my writing. Writers sharing their ideas with others is so great because we have so much to learn from each other. It teaches us that writing doesn’t have to be lonely.

  27. SaschaZamani says:

    I really liked your idea about taking pictures of the places and hunting up old maps. I typically write in my own fantasy worlds and hadn’t really thought as much about what would be entailed to set a story in the actual world. I will definately remember that, if I find myself wondering about the past :)

  28. SBlack says:

    Your article was so inspiring!!! I can hardly wait to read one of your books – mysteries have always been my favorite read. My youngest child started college this fall so I have a senior, junior and freshman away for 9 months. I have always wanted to write but until now my day job and being a mom has taken up all of my time. Now is my time to go at it and pursue my dream – reading your recommendations about how to proceed and seeing your lovely website has me off and ready to go!!! Thank you for sharing the tools of the craft so openly and encouraging me in such a great way!!!!

  29. Becky says:

    Thank you for the great advice! I am working on my debut novel now, and reading up on the craft as well as all the research. My book will be a ghost story/historical mystery set in 1871 Nevada. I love reading other authors writing in this genre. I also love the 1920 area, so I look forward to reading your books!

  30. bwilson says:

    I try not to read anything too similar to what I’m working on, and tend, instead, to focus in on how other writers manage to express character, place, and so on. That means rereading the best books because I’ve become so engrossed the first time, that I forget to watch how they’ve done their magic! I’ve got several first drafts written for my mystery, and am comforted to find out I’m not alone in working this way. Also, I very much appreciate you sharing your work methods, and how to stay organized. Thank you for your article.

  31. dkeymel says:

    Thanks for your tips, putting the info and research into note books. I am doing it but see how I can do more to my advantage. Would love to read your books.

  32. rrhodes1967 says:

    I would be very interested in your book. I’ve got a mystery in my head but the mystery is how to get it out and on paper. I’m stuck on how to hide the clues within the story. Also, I want an overall story arch, so crimes in book one connected to crimes in book two, three, etc. with an overall Master Criminal. I want it to be kind of in the style of the classic mystery, ie. puzzle solving, mixed with some film noir in the character of the sleuth and set in my own created town.

    • Good luck with your mystery idea. You might not know how or where to hide the clues until you have a complete draft. I haven’t connect the crimes in my books, which means they can be read in any order, although there are sometimes references back, and time moves on.

  33. Good article . Appreciate that you needed to process it

  34. kimmyjewel says:

    Thank you Frances for your creative mind and the ability to get down on paper!

  35. 1engelia says:

    HI Frances. Thank you for the insight. It is amazing how advice comes to us. We may not apply it right away but the importance is that it gets applied if it is right for you. I love the fact that you put yourself into your characters by going where they go, doing what they do. I do the same. Congrats on the book!

  36. L-Rob says:

    Love that you didn’t get caught up in analyzing the market! This sounds like a unique series, and I’m definitely adding it to my to-read list.

  37. SandzOfTime says:

    Thank you.

    So I have had this story in my mind for-half-past-ever of my life.
    the first time I ever mentioned it was in my storyboard class (was going to pursue animation – until I discovered I REALLY hate designing, computing, etc using Maya).

    Anyway, we had to write a segment and then storyboard it. Needless to say in my mind the writing was muuuuuch better than the drawing.
    When I read the segment to the class, they were mesmerized, and wanted more.

    Thank you for the blog/article.

  38. nellfenwick says:

    Thank you so much for a very helpful article. Concise and to the point with lots of good tips. Would love a copy of your book; I’m especially fond of the timeframe — big fan of the Charles Todd mysteries. I have completed a mystery and am getting ready to shop it, with a sequel underway.

    Cheers!

  39. Juanima says:

    Thanks so much for the article. It’s timely, as I recently started my own YA series. You gave some great tips. I don’t email my manuscript to myself but I do copy it on a flash drive every single day. I love that the setting of yours is in the 20s! I’d definitely love a copy of your book! :)

  40. Evelyn says:

    Frances, I loved reading about your research and how you seized the momentum of your idea.

    Your color coded drafts make sense to me. I once heard Hallie Ephron speak at my local library on writing mysteries and thrillers. I asked her about her drafts. She said she numbers them. How many did she have? Twenty-nine for her most recent work at the time. If you are anything like her, I imagine you have quite a spectrum of colors at your disposal!

  41. cherub814 says:

    The tips on researching and recording were helpful. As a reader, I agree with the lines:”A sense of place is particularly important in a mystery novel. Readers have to believe that these events are happening in this particular spot, at this time.”; but, as a writer, those lines are something I need to remember!

  42. Mizula says:

    Oh where’s my editor? I meant, I don’t ‘see’ so many Texas cozies on the shelves in the bookstores.

  43. Mizula says:

    Thank you, thank you for sharing your tips. I’ve thought about having my character roam around a town outside of my hometown (presently) Humble and naming it Humiliation because I’ve always thought it’s so funny people named this town Humble (we don’t pronounce the ‘H’ even though this is Texas), though I’ve noticed everyone seems crazy about English cozies, and I don’t so so many Texas cozies out there.

  44. purenight says:

    Interesting article. I am planning a series of young adult “horror” books based around the setting of my childhood neighborhood and I have found it helpful to take a sort of disconnected arial view of the plot throughlines within each book and within the series as a whole. It allows for better continuity between each story and gives the characters room to grow and, if they feel so inclined, to shove themselves into each other’s business. Conflict, conflict, and more conflict! Thanks for sharing your experiences with us!

    • I’m sure it will be a real advantage to set your books in familiar territory. Sounds like you have a great plan, and that there will be subtle differences between working out the through-lines for a horror series and a mystery series. Good luck.

  45. ciaoamalfi says:

    Thanks for your insights, Frances! I am currently co-writing the first in a planned series novel with my mother and the experience has been wonderful so far. It does take a bit more planning to set the scene for a series novel. I look forward to reading yours!

  46. Darar says:

    The best thing about writing a series is how well you get to know your characters. Mine have started to tell me random things about themselves that have shocked me. Love it when that happens!

  47. TC Ro says:

    What I’m finding out in the early stages of my first middle grade novel, is that writing is very STRATEGIC! Who knew?! I’ve been living with the characters in my head for awhile; I can see, & mostly write, all sorts of scenes – some useful, some not so much, but after a first pass at chap. 1 it dawned on me! I need a plan to get from here to there. So I drafted chapter outlines & am still working (with lots of research) to fine tune my story. It’ll be stronger for it, but isn’t at all the way I thought a creative muse would work. Silly Muse.

  48. Suzy7664 says:

    I’m not a murder mystery writer, but I find your tips for researching and recording information for your characters very helpful and good advice. Thanks.

  49. TroutAngler says:

    Thanks for the primer. I was always wondering if there was a different approach to a series as to a single novel.

    Greg

  50. Chezza says:

    Hi Frances,
    Thanks so much for taking time to give us these great tips. Especially taking photos as I don’t always have paper and pen handy so the camera on the phone will work. Best wishes with your series.

  51. Bop says:

    Hi Frances,
    Try “dropbox”. You can work directly in it and save to the cloud (and it’s free). I, too, live with some fear of losing my stuff to a fire or other disaster.

  52. garywstout says:

    Good input. I’m currently collaborating on a series and one thing I’m always watching for is any character that I might want to bring back in a later edition. This also forces me to examine each character for depth, even if they are the first body found by page 60.

  53. jedenman says:

    Thanks for sharing your process–taking photos is an excellent idea because I don’t always write down all I observe. Plus,
    I liked how you had Kate meet her birth sister and how that opened up more possibilities. Thanks for your offer of a free copy, too.

  54. ottawa.woman says:

    I absolutely planned out my book in detail before i started, but the thought of planning out a whole series is a little daunting. Thanks for sharing your story; it always encourages me to hear other authors’ journies!

  55. JudithR says:

    Thank you for the heads up on some of these issues. Valuable advice.

  56. Anna_erishkigal says:

    Thanks for this very helpful article. I write epic fantasy that takes 5-6 books to complete and come up with the overall plot for the entire series in my head, but your advice about taking pictures when visiting locations was very helpful. And also your suggestion to highlight your old work when you save into a new version so you’re not scratching your head asking which-is-which (I put the date in the doc.name but sometimes I open the wrong one and don’t notice for a while [!] I’ve got a minor character I’d like to pull out of the series and do a standalone novel, so your advice about fleshing out their circumstances so there’s room for growth was very helpful.

  57. jdmstudios says:

    Thank you Frances, for sharing your process! My current work in progress will be part of a series, so I find it really interesting hearing how other authors work.

  58. Eli Darling says:

    Thank you so much for your contribution. I personally love a good mystery series and have put your books in my to-read queue. I’ve had an idea I’ve been tossing about and your article has inspired me to give it a go :)

  59. Godim says:

    Thanks for the very useful article, Frances.
    I love 1920s mysteries, and your book cover reminds me of those times. Even if I don’t win this giveaway I’ll definitely get that book.

  60. Carolyn says:

    I love your tips. I needed a new insight into creating a series. I wrote and published my first novel on Amazon last month. I started on the second novel last week. I needed your “practical” “no brain surgeon” tips. Many other authors make it seem like magic or “walking on water” to get it right. Thank you so much!

  61. ccourt46 says:

    I email myself my manuscript as well, even though I save my work to an external hard drive as well as on a removable thumb drive. I’m positive that if a burglar broke in, he’d want whatever was in my backup storage.

  62. Mike Atencio says:

    I’m writing a series with a handicapped Sheriff. I completed the first and now working on my second. Your advice is spot on. Honestly, I hate my first novel but I see it has the potential to become a great series. Your advice is going to help, especially the color-coding and e-mailing it back for What If situations. Now if I could find an agent that wanted an action-adventure/ police procedural instead of young adult, I’d be doing great.Thanks.

    • Handicapped Sheriff – sounds intriguing. I sympathize with hating what you’ve done. When that happens to me, I put on my Friendly Critic hat and tell myself how to make it better.

      Good luck with finding the right agent.

  63. rettaS says:

    Some great tips on how to start and plan. Very useful indeed!

  64. gravelfrobisher says:

    Excellent article on writing a series! I am planning to write one as well, and this is very helpful. Thank you!

  65. eradikateor says:

    Thank you for the ideas Frances! As an aspiring novelist I am trying to find any tips I can!

  66. nash62 says:

    Frances, I like the idea of creating a series in the 1920s. Maybe it’s the Agatha Christie influence but that feels like a classic era for mysteries. Good luck with it and I look forward to reading your first book in the series.

  67. JustusJulian says:

    Very helpful. Hope I win the book! I am a 15 year old who is very interested in exploring the world of writing. Thank you!

  68. burrowswrite says:

    I really liked what you said about being in the JKR camp. sometimes feel I have writers block, then i put a drink in my hand and i write out twenty or so different situations and just brain storm what ends up being a bunch of short stories.

  69. PandamoniumPress says:

    This was helpful :) Good luck writing in the future!

  70. Hello Frances,

    Thank you for all the great tips for writing a mystery series.

    I would love to win a copy of your mystery. It sound terrific.

    All best wishes with your series.

    Sincerely,

    Carolyn

  71. Jim says:

    As a new newbie I find your article to be full of practical good advice. Thank you for sharing. And it was gratifying to read that you just jumped in without doing the publishing research to see if your story or sub-genre (I too do not care for this term. Sounds like it’s catching like a disease) slotted in well with what was on the market.

    Sometimes an good idea nurtured and loved can lead to wonderful new experiences. Good for you Frances.

    Oh, and one more thing. Your description of Kate makes me want to know more which means I’m going to have to buy the first book in your series. Darn. I really don’t have the space but who can deny a good read? Not me.

    Jim

    • Thanks, Jim. Glad you found the piece useful.

      Know what you mean about numbers of books – worrying that the pile will fall on your head in the night and it will be death by unread novels.

      If you do read Dying in the Wool, I hope you’ll like Kate as much as I do!

  72. tygerrose says:

    Ive had a few ideas on the back burner that I would love to develop into a longer series, Ive just never had the gumption to push that far and create a framework that would last that long. Its more fear on my part that I will fall in love with a series of events, change my mind and paint myself into a corner and not know how to get out of it without scraping the entire story.

  73. KarenLange says:

    Frances, thanks so much for the tips! Appreciate your insight. My current WIP will be a series; I have it somewhat sketched out but need to give it further consideration.

    Congratulations on your book!

  74. cheriedurbin says:

    I’d love a copy-and thanks for sharing your unique approach to writing.

  75. Great hint about the notebooks. Interesting that the character had to be developed to cover a wide social venue. I am wondering how soon the body will appear in your next novel. I’d love to win one of your books, and am adding your series to my book wish list. HM at HVC dot RR dot COM Have a blessed day.

  76. Congratulations on your mystery series! The 1920′s era is very interesting to me and I liked reading about how you researched your details for your location. I write picture books but am gathering ideas to write a longer novel. I think I will be buying some notebooks and also starting my own collection of character development, story development, and research. Thank you for this advice. I also am very visual and like the idea of collecting photographs to use as well. I appreciate your insight and wish you well.
    Sincerely,
    Korinn
    http://www.Korinn.com

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