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Series Author Roundtable: Setting As Character

What are real secrets to writing successful series novels? We brought together four bestsellers across a spectrum of genres to find out.

The idea of writing a series is tempting. After all, it seems as though half the bestsellers on today’s bookshelves are new installments in popular series—books that are all but guaranteed a readership before they’re even released. But how do you know whether or not your idea has series potential? Or if the work of sustaining a series is something you would even want to devote your career to?

We brought together Joel Goldman, Heather Graham, Brenda Novak and Ian Rankin—four of today’s most successful series novelists across a variety of genres—to discuss the secrets of writing multi-book characters, the perks and drawbacks of unwinding a story thread over the course of many years, and what they might have done differently if they could go back to Book One.

The full discussion with Goldman, Graham, Novak and Rankin appears in the January 2015 Writer’s Digest feature “Installment Plans.” In these online exclusive outtakes, the group talks about using setting as a starting point for a series and why they chose or created their respective series’ locations.


Why did you select the locations you use for your books?

Rankin: As Rebus gets older he has a different take on life and morality. He can see the end. And at the same time he's still fascinated by the city as I am, and the politics keep changing, in Scotland and in Edinburgh. You get a financial crash, that's juice for another story, and Scottish independence is another story, and it's all filtered through him. He's very useful to hide behind because he gets to say things I wouldn't say in public. He gets to be completely politically incorrect. And people love him for it. But when they come to Edinburgh looking for Rebus they're always disappointed to find me.

Graham: The way you're talking about Scotland and Edinburgh, how it's such a part of that. And the way [Joel] and I were talking before about Kansas City, I put an awful lot of stories in New Orleans, which is a favorite place of mine, or in Key West or Salem, where there is a great deal of history that's dark and fascinating and changing constantly.

Goldman: I'm the same way. All of my books have been set in Kansas City, for many of the same reasons Ian talked about. My roots there run so deep, through four generations, that I really feel like that's part of my DNA. So I set the books in different parts of the city where there are distinct communities, and then I can put my characters in there.

So each of you in addition to your main characters, you could probably consider your location as a character as well in your series. Is that intentional or an accident of strong world-building?

Novak: For me, it is intentional. Using the location as the peg for a series like I do in [my] Whisky Creek [books] lets me explore many characters from varied and interesting backgrounds without having to devise a new setting or premise each time, by which I mean that this is a place readers have come to know, and these characters exist in that place and readers know the nature of the town, what the people are like, and I can place a whole and interesting character into that setting. But the town itself really does take on a life of its own, you know. It's a comfortable place and I feel that readers and characters alike can be at home there, and that it's a place you'd want to live, filled with people you'd want to know. ... I don't do that with every series, but I do think that in a particular kind of series, using setting as that peg that ties the books together is a way to bring readers in and keep it interesting, keep the stories moving, and to leave something open-ended so that I, as the author, can come back and add to it when I have an idea.

Graham: I don’t know if I decided to do it intentionally, but I do know that when I was growing up I read a great number of Gothics. You know the sort—Mary Stuart, Dorothy Eden, Phyllis Whitney. My mom had these books and I read them all, and I loved that I could see it. I could see people riding across the moors and people storming the castles, and to me that was half the pleasure of it. I really felt that I had been transported somewhere. And so I have a tendency to use places I really love a lot and want people to see why they are unique, why they are wonderful. Back to riding across the moors—that sensation of doing something you want to do because it’s so wonderfully alive for you.

Goldman: I started out with Kansas City because I was just a brand-new author. The only fiction I’d written at that point were the bills I sent my clients. And so I was comfortable writing about KC because I knew it, but frankly by the time I’d gotten to this latest Alex Stone book I was growing kind of tired of that. And you know how readers will say, “I’ve got a great idea! Here’s your next book!”? Well, one time I did get a great idea that way. This civil rights attorney reached out to me about Alex Stone and how much he liked the series, and we started emailing back and forth, and he says to me, “You know what you need to do, you need to send Alex to Guantanamo.” And I thought, That is a great idea! And so that’s what I’m doing. I’m doing it that third book, and it’s really sort of liberating to get her out of town. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with that.

Rankin: Scotland is always changing. In the very early books I tried to fictionalize Edinburgh as much as I could. So I had fictional bars, fictional streets, fictional police stations. And then people in Edinburgh would say, “Well, that’s obviously that police station,” and I thought, Why am I making it hard on myself? So then I started to bring in real areas, real places in the city. I burnt down the fictitious police station; I had Rebus reassigned to the real police station. I mentioned the street he lives on, which is real, I mentioned the place he drinks, which is a real bar, and what that means is that when fans come to Edinbugh now they can say, “We’re walking in Rebus’s footsteps.” The problem with that is—well, there are two problems: (1) If you make any mistakes, everyone will notice, and (2) If you use a part of town where bad things are happening, you don’t want to use those real places because you don’t want to diss people who are living there and doing their damndest to make it out or make it better.

Goldman: I haven’t done that. There are very identifiable areas of both Kansas Cities that have a much higher crime rate, and the demographic features you’d associate with that. And I couldn’t put that someplace else—that’s the east side of Kansas City, Missouri, and it wouldn’t work if I put it in another part of town. So I just do that, and there are some of those areas where that sort of tension is going on that enables me to work it into the books.

Graham: I use Miami every once in a while, and I can tell you that there’s a reason Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry are so well loved: They report the truth. It is not a normal place. For example—I always think of this—we have the death penalty in Florida and there was this guy, he was a really bad guy, the kind Dexter would have taken care of if the law had not, you know? He went to the electric chair, and I always assumed you were shaven for the electric chair, but he wasn’t. His hair caught fire. And it turned into a debate about humane punishment, and in their coverage, the Miami Herald had a headline that read “Electric Chair Deemed Dangerous.” The city is just not quite all there. It’s hard not to use some of the real events that happen there.

If you enjoyed these outtakes, be sure to check out the feature-length article “Installment Plans”—full of valuable insights about character creation, engaging readers, building a story arc over many books, and much more—in the January 2015 Writer’s Digest.

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