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Creating a Series

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on May 20, 2011

Creating a Series: Laying the Groundwork

Do you want to begin a new series, but you’re overwhelmed by the task? Where do you start? It’s critically important in book one to lay the groundwork for the entire series. For this reason, writing the first story will probably take you longer than subsequent ones in the series. Let’s look at the components of what you have to determine. Think of this model like a play, where you have to set the stage and then hire the actors, supply the props, and draw in the audience.

stage

The Setting

What’s the time period of your story? The location? Once you decide upon these factors, you can begin building your world. Start with the overall setting and decide what ambiance you want to present. Quaint small town? Decadent urban center? A cold, drafty castle in Scotland? A tourist ski resort in Colorado? A bustling capital city? Now narrow it down. Who’s in charge? What are the means of communication, transportation, credit exchange? Customs and religions? Holidays? Here is where you set the stage for your series.

I choose to set my mysteries in Florida because it’s easier for me to research, and the state has so much diversity that there is plenty of material to feed my stories. My futuristics are another matter, however. Those worlds are entirely produced from my imagination. Yet I must still determine the politics, transportation methods, means of communication, etc. same as for a contemporary story. As for my paranormal romances, they take place in urban centers around the globe but include elements of magic. You can use Internet sites, maps, tourist brochures, restaurant menus, etc. to gain the info you need. People are also a great resource. Find someone who works at the job and talk to them. Most important are the sensory details to bring your story alive. Watch movies or TV shows, read people’s travel blogs, or go to the places yourself to note the minor details that you can’t read about and to smell the air.

travel

What are the rules of your universe? If your story is a fantasy, what are the magical elements and how do they work? If science fiction, what type of society are you creating, and how did it come about? If a historical, what factual content will be part of your story? These items must be consistent throughout your series. For example, if you have vampires who sizzle into nothingness when exposed to light, you must build your world to reflect this rule and it must not change, without reason, from book to book.

lady sword

The People

This is an important component, because in book one, you must populate your setting with recurrent characters who will show up in each installment. These people will become your readers’ friends and will be the reason why they keep coming back for more. Who will be accompanying your heroine throughout the series? Consider her immediate family, extended relatives, colleagues, and love interests. Who else is important in her life?

Try to make these secondary characters somewhat quirky. You can have fun with them, whereas for the most part, your protagonist will be a straight arrow. I call these people the Continuing Cast. Then you’re ready to create the characters particular to book number one. You’re writing a mystery? These are your suspects. You’re writing sci fi? These are the folks who help your hero save the galaxy. We may or may not see these people again, but they populate the current story.

When developing your characters, you can fill out character charts, look for photos to match your people, interview them, even make a collage about their life if you’re so inclined. This goes in the “Bible” for your series along with the other elements mentioned here. Don’t forget to include timelines, i.e. how old your characters are and what time of year the story takes place. You may also want to note their birthdays so you can age them appropriately as your series takes off. I only allow a few months between books for my settings, so my characters age much slower than real life.

The Props

When starting a series, you have several things to research: Your hero’s occupation. The setting.

Anything specific to this first story. When I began my Bad Hair Day series, I didn’t know anything about the hairdressing profession. I performed diligent research to learn all I could about being a hairstylist. Ditto for the backgrounds in my two other mystery proposals. I had to research the town and the sleuth’s career. For a story centered around boats, I collected material on boat shows, types of boats, diagrams of specific models, yacht clubs, nautical terms, accessories and equipment, and so on. This background research is essential for insuring the authentic sound of your story.

yacht

You need to get this basic data ingrained in your mind so you can pop into your main character’s head for your next story. By then, you’ll already know what she does in her day job and how she goes about her business. You’ll know where she hangs out and where she goes to lunch. The first book is where you figure all this out. Put this research into your Series Bible. Your notebook may be getting filled by now, but that’s what you want.

Start a section for Sequels and start jotting down ideas and collecting information for the next book in the series. Consider an overall series title and linked book titles for each sequel. What about an overall character arc? Will you have a predetermined number of books in the series, so you can plan out a beginning, a middle, and an end, or will you go on as long as a publisher lets you? When you complete book one, you should have all the material ready to go for the next story.

Reeling in the Audience

Here is where your marketing savvy comes into play. Besides your normal completed manuscript, prepare a sheet listing your series title and giving a brief story blurb on the next few books. Come up with a one or two sentence tag line for your overall series. Then for book one, do your back cover copy type story summary in one or two short paragraphs. Now your package is ready for submission. Send it out, and good luck!

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15 Responses to “Creating a Series”

  1. Good info, Nancy. Thanks for posting.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Wynter.

  3. Mona Risk said

    Very good information, Nancy. I am saving them. I’ve never written a series per say, but I’ve written several books with the same theme, medical theme. The reason is that I hate to read a book that leaves you with questions. Contrary to others, I like to have all the questionsn set in a book answered by the end of the book. I stopped reading reveral authors whom I used to love, Debbie MacComber among others, because they leave you hanging. I just find it so annoying to wait three more books, maybe three years to find a murderer or the motivation behind a disappearance. By then I’ve lost interest. I love Stephanie Laurens’ historical series because each book is a whole but the main characters come back as sercondary and the secondary as primary.

  4. Ooh, Nancy! I was asking some of these exact same questions at my rwa meeting last week! Having a series in the works, I wasn’t sure how to do a complete setup for all the books, or how to market them to publishers/editors. Thank you for this. (a happy new subscriber)

  5. Mona, I don’t like a big mystery being left from book to book either, although it works for me in a tv series. My series arcs for the mysteries involves Marla’s love life. Each mystery is complete in itself but her relationship to Detective Vail grows and changes.

    For my paranormal series, the heroes get deeper involved as the villains take over Earth, but right up front I explain how and why. So it’s more a matter of how to stop them than of what’s going on.

    Calisa, I am glad you found this post to be helpful!

  6. This is a great post, Nancy, with a lot of good information. I wish I’d thought ahead when I wrote The Elf Queen– the book launched a series (http://clanelvesofthebitterroot.com, though I hadn’t planned one. So I found myself scrambling in book two. Guess thinking ahead is a good idea!!

  7. Just follow all the great suggestions to start a series! And you are on your way!
    Another great blog Nancy…

  8. Excellent suggestions Nancy! Thanks.

  9. Pre-planning seems to be key to writing a series, along with staying organized so that you can access information when you need it during the second book, then the third, and so on. This is excellent information. Thanks, Nancy!

  10. Nancy, I love series, especially cozy mysteries. Nothing better than reading a new author and learning she/he has a nice backlist of the series to keep me reading for a while.

  11. It’s easier if you can plan a finite series, too, so you know how and when your series will end. If you’re not sure how many books your publisher will want, you can always do a prequel or introduce more spin-off characters. As for cozies, adding in a new personal thread or an ongoing unsolved mystery may do the trick. Think of Castle on TV. There are two hooks: the mystery of who killed Kate’s mother, and the romantic subplot between Beckett and Castle.

  12. This is a great post, Nancy! I’ve never written a series, but after having the outline for a science fiction romance novel fall flat, I decided to put it aside for a while. And now, I’m thinking I want to use those characters in a series of novellas. This post gives me a great starting ground when I finish up the two historical novellas I’m currently working on.

  13. Susan, what do you mean by saying your outline fell flat? It seems you must like the characters if you want to use them in more stories. Perhaps a fresh look at your plot will inspire you.

  14. Karen Duvall said

    It’s a good idea to keep a series bible, too, because you’ll need to remember details from book to book. And aside from characters and locations, especially in paranormal or urban fantasies, you’ll have a unique mythology for your world in regards to magic and supernatural cultures. You need to develop your own politics, sociology, history, etc. It makes fantasy stories more believable if you root them in their own truth. Just something else to keep in mind. 🙂

    Karen Duvall
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    KNIGHT’S CURSE
    An urban fantasy coming in September 2011 from Luna-Books @ Harlequin

  15. Thanks, Karen, you’re absolutely right. A series bible is essential and helps to keep your work organized and consistent.

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