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When I wrote my first novel, The Quilter’s Apprentice, I never imagined it would be the first book in what would become a New York Times bestselling series. Now 16 books strong with more to come, the Elm Creek Quilts series enjoys a devoted following and continues to attract new readers year after year. I’d love to say that all has unfolded according to my well-laid plans, but the truth is that as an aspiring author, I simply decided to write about one of my passions—the art, history and folklore of quilting—and one novel led naturally to the next as readers discovered my stories and asked for more. Along the way, I made several important artistic choices that enabled me to develop a series that continues to captivate readers more than a decade after my first novel appeared in bookstores. If you’re inspired to write a series, I’d encourage you to:
1. Allow your characters to grow and change naturally. The “Apprentice” of my first novel’s title is Sarah, a young newlywed dissatisfied with her first post-college job and longing for meaningful work. The “Quilter” is Sylvia, a septuagenarian who had recently returned to their rural college town to put her family estate in order after her estranged sister’s death. An unexpected friendship emerges as Sylvia teaches Sarah to quilt, and ultimately they decide to create their own business, Elm Creek Quilts. As their quilter’s retreat gets off to a shaky start and then thrives, the women mature and change due to adversity, success, the passage of time and, of course, their interactions with each other. If characters don’t change over the years as real people do, that’s not consistency—that’s stagnation.
2. Stretch the definition of series by breaking out of strict chronological order. To indulge my fascination with women’s roles in American history, I’ve occasionally diverted from my contemporary setting and characters to explore the lives of Sylvia’s ancestors in books such as The Runaway Quilt, which is set in Pennsylvania in the antebellum era, and The Lost Quilter, which takes place in Charleston during the Civil War. Although these books are set in the past, they reveal important details about Sylvia’s heritage that strongly influence the ongoing contemporary narrative.
3. Send your characters on the road. Just as travel broadens a writer’s perspective, so too does it offer your characters opportunities to explore, learn, grow and evolve. In new surroundings, they’ll face opportunities and conflicts they wouldn’t have encountered if they’d stayed safe at home. In my most recent novel, The Aloha Quilt, one of my most beloved characters is transformed by a trip to Maui—and I benefitted from the creative challenge of describing a landscape and culture very different from those featured in my previous books.
4. Let earlier books inspire new stories. In The Quilter’s Apprentice, Sylvia mentions to Sarah that her ancestors ran a station on the Underground Railroad. Not long after the novel was published, I found myself imagining Sylvia’s ancestors’ lives and courageous actions—and wondering how she would react if she discovered that all had not unfolded according to the stories passed down through the generations. These questions so intrigued me that in my fourth novel, The Runaway Quilt, I had Sylvia discover an ancestor’s memoir—as well as unexpected, unsettling truths about her family history. If you’re haunted by an unresolved issue from an earlier book, chances are your readers want to know more too.
5. Let a secondary character take center stage. Occasionally a character who plays a supporting role in a novel lingers in my thoughts long after the story ends. Sometimes, readers’ e-mails or questions at book tour events reveal that a particular secondary character has captured their imaginations. If a character proves to be too compelling to remain in the background, I’ll create a story that allows me to explore that character more thoroughly. I never fail to be surprised and delighted by what I discover about my familiar characters when I see them from this new perspective.
6. Write what you want to learn about. Every aspiring writer has heard the sage advice, “Write what you know.” That’s a great place to start, but you don’t have to stay there. Are you fascinated by history, intrigued by current events or excited by new technology? Satisfy your curiosity by taking a class, visiting a preserved historical site, interviewing an expert or reading all you can at your local library. I promise you’ll find lots of inspiration for new narrative arcs—or perhaps an entire book.
7. Resolve plotlines (before your characters perish of old age). Many a reader has abandoned a series in frustration because the author unnecessarily draws out the narrative, meandering through a prolonged buildup book after book and perpetually deferring any sense of resolution. Resist the temptation—which I believe is inspired by fear and self-doubt—to save the best part of the story for the next book, or the one after that, or the one after that. When a plotline has run its natural course, bring it to a conclusion and allow new story lines to grow organically from it. Trust yourself, let go, and have faith in your characters. They will take you to new, unanticipated places if you let them.
8. Strike the right balance between continuing ongoing narrative threads and creating a stand-alone book. A reader intrigued by the theme, setting or even the cover of a book midway through your series shouldn’t be discouraged from jumping right in. Each new installment in a series should be a complete, and completely satisfying, fictional experience in and of itself. Provide enough background so that new readers won’t be confused, but not so much that you overburden them with unnecessary details or bore your longtime fans. To help you reach that balance, you should …
9. Cultivate a trusted group of early readers, whether they’re friends, family or members of your writing workshop. All authors need feedback on their work, but authors of a series especially benefit from a mix of new and longtime readers. Readers familiar with your series will spot continuity errors and warn you if a familiar character’s behavior is inconsistent with the person they’ve met in previous books. New readers can offer you invaluable feedback about how your novel works as a stand-alone book, identifying places where you need to provide more description of a character, or fewer details about a setting, or a brief history to clarify why two particular characters despise each other so much. If you write particularly well, your new early readers will become longtime early readers, obliging you to cultivate new new readers—but that’s a good problem to have.
10. Stay true to the intrinsic themes that drew readers to your writing in the first place. Although I may vary the protagonist, the setting and even the historical era from book to book, my readers know that when they open an Elm Creek Quilts novel, they’ll discover compelling characters who face adversity with moral courage, and they’ll see the art and rich heritage of quilting depicted in an engaging, accurate and respectful manner. Thus assured that I won’t disappoint, my loyal readers are eager to see where the Elm Creek Quilts series will take them next, whether that’s into the past, across the ocean or back home to Elm Creek Manor and the beloved characters they’ve come to think of as friends.
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