How I Wrote an Extended Series

Author of the Henrietta and Inspector Howard series Michelle Cox discusses how her characters' stories developed into an award-winning series.
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Where is this going? Many people ask me this when discussing my Henrietta and Inspector Howard series. It’s not a bad question. The answer is ... I don’t know.

Sadly, I’m not the type of writer who has the whole series cleverly planned out with a certain number of books in mind and one long story arc that has a beginning and a definite end. Which is odd, really, considering that I’m not a “pantser” when writing the individual books. Each has a pretty hefty outline in place before I even begin typing. So what happened?

When I sat down to write A Girl Like You, I didn’t know I was writing a series. I was attempting to write a mystery, thinking it would be attractive to an agent (but let’s not go there). So, thinking I was having a fling of sorts, I didn’t expect to get attached. After all, my heart was still yearning for my first novel’s characters, who remained unwanted and unknown to the greater world, stuffed in a drawer, despite my best efforts to get them in front of an audience. About halfway through the writing of A Girl Like You, however, I had a change of heart and started to really like my new characters—Clive and Henrietta. A lot.

Suddenly, my fling mindset flew out the window, and I found myself wanting a long-term relationship with them. But I was already dangerously close to the end of the book, so I took a leap of faith and asked my new characters for a bigger commitment, which is mirrored (cleverly, I thought) in the book itself when Clive proposes to Henrietta. Perfect.

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But, I would later discover, this was all wrong on a couple of different levels. First, I didn’t realize that the two main characters of a series are NOT supposed to become engaged in Book 1! According to conventional technique (notice I didn’t say wisdom), I was supposed to string their predictably angst-ridden relationship across at least six books before allowing them even a modest first kiss. Likewise, I wasn’t supposed to commit to writing a series without having properly set it up that way.

Well, like all young marriages, live and learn.

My biggest problem in turning a single book into a series was the fact that I wasn’t particularly fond of the setting I had created. The seedy, gritty side of 1935 Chicago was perfect for a risqué sort of fling, but I didn’t want to hang out there on a permanent basis. So I had to shift the setting somehow, which meant that someone had to have a secret past. Clive volunteered. So he became not only a city detective, but the distraught heir to a family fortune. Again, perfect. Now I could ease the story into the more high-brow setting I much preferred, but return to the grit of Chicago when I needed to by relegating some of the characters to remain there.

I also realized that in order for this to be a successful series, I’d need some other characters to periodically take the pressure off Henrietta and Clive, so the original side characters of Elsie, Stan, Antonia, and Ma had to grow. They needed a bigger backstory and plot lines. Their heightened involvement helps keep each story fresh and also helps to further develop the main characters and the main plot in each book. The tricky part here is actually keeping them as side characters instead of allowing them to become one of the leads. I did have to give in to Elsie, however, who is Henrietta’s timid younger sister but who continued to quietly request a bigger role. Her story grows so much, in fact, that by Books 3, 4, and 5, she has almost as much air time as Henrietta.

Science fiction/fantasy authors often talk about having to world-build in order to create their series. A historical fiction series doesn’t really need to do that, though you do have to create a sort of world, which is achieved not only through setting but through the characters. I now have a whole cast of characters from whom I can pick and choose to best advance whatever mystery Clive and Henrietta are trying to crack. Likewise, new guest stars show up all the time for cameos. Predictably, however, many of them then want to be written into the script in a more permanent role, and sometimes I do oblige. I think it’s fun for readers when a character from Book 1 suddenly pops back up in Book 5. It’s a way to make the reader feel like they’re a part of the world you’ve created when they can recognize an old friend.

So, I suppose I haven’t gone about writing a series in the most traditional way, but I think I can claim at least a small measure of success when a reader wrote to me recently, swearing she saw Henrietta and Elsie’s pesky “Aunt Agatha” in an AT&T store. Not bad.

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Michelle Cox holds a BA in English literature from Mundelein College, Chicago, and is the author of the award-winning Henrietta and Inspector Howard series, as well as the weekly Novel Notes of Local Lore, a blog dedicated to Chicago’s forgotten residents. Cox lives in the Chicago suburbs and is currently hard at work on the fifth book of this series. Her next book in the series, A Veil Removed: A Henrietta & Inspector Howard Novel, is publishing 4/30/19 (She Writes Press). Find out more about her at michellecoxauthor.com