Susanna Calkins shares tips on how to write a series that she learned through the mistakes she made while writing the Lucy Campion historical mystery series.
There are a few things about how to write a series that I learned from writing the Lucy Campion historical mysteries, set in 17th-century England. I vowed to never repeat the mistakes I made while writing Lucy Campion as I embarked on my new series, the Speakeasy Murders, set in 1920s Chicago. I’m not sure I’d list these as hard and fast “do’s and don’ts,” as what works for one person might not work for another, but these are some points I try to keep in mind.
Don’t dump everything into the first book. I think many authors, myself included, spent so many months, years, or even decades writing their first book that they end up putting everything into it. Personally, I worked on my debut novel, A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, for over 10 years, writing in dribs and drabs, a scene here, a scene there. But I put everything I could think of into this book—all the research I had learned about 17th-century London (murder ballads! Eye portraits! The plague! The Great Fire!). In retrospect, it would have been better to focus on each dramatic moment separately, across several books. Which leads me to my next point …
Think through character arcs and subplots carefully. When I was working on Rosamund’s Gate, I honestly thought it would be my only published novel. I still wasn’t thinking of myself as a “novelist” or even a writer at the time, so when I received a two-book contract I was floored—and a bit freaked out. I had to scramble a bit and think through romantic and familial subplots more purposefully for the second book. While the mysteries at the heart of each novel are resolved by the end of the story, I thought it was important that the characters continue to develop throughout the series. I didn’t want my characters to be static and fixed in time; I wanted them to continue to interact with one another and to really grapple with and respond to the complex political, environmental, social, religious, and gendered currents and events transpiring around them. This meant a more conscious and intentional exploration of my characters’ motivations, hopes, beliefs, values, and fears—and how those might change over time.
Contemplate the passage of time. How quickly are you willing to let your protagonist age? How much time do you want to pass between each book? Authors who write series often lament writing themselves into a corner. This happens most often, I believe, when authors space out their protagonist’s adventures too much between books. Perhaps they had envisioned their series to have just a handful of books, but then the series took off and they ended up with 10, 12, 15, or even 20 more books. So they end up having great gaps during their character’s peak crime-solving years, and they end up with protagonists who are older or at a different point in their lives than they anticipated in subsequent books. Moreover, too much time between stories may mean the author inadvertently skipped important milestones in their characters’ lives (engagements, marriages, pregnancies, births, deaths, etc.), whose omission may disappoint their readers. I also found out the hard way, with my new series, that plans with timing can still go astray. For example, I thought maybe I’d have two books on one side of the Great Stock Market Crash of October 1929, setting up the last glamorous days of the 1920s, and two books afterward set in 1930, in which I explored the aftermath of the crash. But I ended up setting the third book in the series three days after the second one ended after I did more research because the widespread bewilderment in November of 1930 was so fascinating to address.
Keep track of characters, events and places. Authors frequently talk about maintaining a “Bible” for each book they write, in which they record the crucial and mundane details about their books so they can maintain internal consistency and continuity. While I have no idea why this reference list is called a “Bible”—a compendium is probably the more accurate term—it has proved to be an invaluable resource to maintain when advancing a series. I’ve learned to find pictures of my characters (all actors who I’d hire for the role), as well as to keep photographs and videos of locations, so I remember what people and objects look like. I also try to keep track of my character names so I don’t use the same name twice for different characters. For my first series, I also created a 6-foot-wide map of 17th-century London, where I copiously tracked all the homes, business, and murder sites that surfaced in each of my books, so I didn’t inadvertently use the same location twice. Keeping a compendium across books is crucial so you don’t upset readers by giving your characters different birthdays or forgetting their backstories.
Keep track of copy editing decisions made in previous books in the series. I also learned the hard way to keep track of the notes from my copy editor and line editor, so there would be internal editing continuity between books. I had two different copy editors for my first and second books in the Lucy Campion mysteries, and so some stylistic decisions for the first book were not carried through to the second. I had to reconcile all these differences in the subsequent books, although fortunately I was able to get the same copy editor again for books three and four. This time, when I worked on the second novel in my second series, I kept my copy editor’s notes from Murder Knocks Twice beside me as I wrote. Everything was so much easier to keep straight.
Although some of these lessons on how to write a series were hard-learned, I’ve also learned that writing a series has allowed me to really explore different historical eras and worlds that intrigue me. I’ve also been able to develop my characters—both the leads as well as those in supporting roles—and provide more satisfying storylines over time.
One last piece of advice on how to write a series: Don’t go too long between writing books in the series, or you may find yourself forgetting the intangibles (voice, tone, characterization, and pacing) that your readers enjoy and have come to expect.
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