How to Write and Plan a Book Series

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 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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Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:


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143 thoughts on “How to Write and Plan a Book Series

  1. S.K.Nick

    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

    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. Anya Azrael

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

  4. PMDrummond

    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.

  5. Jules-M

    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.)

    1. Frances Brody

      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!

  6. PBrynn

    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!

    1. Frances Brody

      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.

  7. Stickywicket

    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.

  8. judyreed82

    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!

  9. Quilldancer

    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.

  10. jmcewan

    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!

    1. Frances Brody

      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.

  11. cdmsr2

    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?

  12. lynniegirl

    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.

  13. TerryDassow

    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!

  14. Jess189

    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.

  15. homemomma4

    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.

  16. Denise

    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.


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