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Writing the Series Novel: Know Your World

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard about setting out to write a series, whether it’s a trilogy or a forty-book saga, is that before you start writing the first book, you have to know the “world” of the story intimately.

Yes, I heard this in a seminar geared mainly for speculative-fiction writers (sci-fi, fantasy, allegory, etc.). However, the same holds true for ALL fiction, and it was never brought more clearly to light than when I did my final revisions on Stand-In Groom. You see, in the two years since I last worked on the novel, I’ve written two different openings for the second book in the series, Menu for Romance (a spinoff). Though I didn’t realize I was doing it, I made a few decisions on different aspects of my setting, and some of my characters, that had been different in Stand-In Groom, or that could be added to it to tie the series even more closely together. When I finished edits, I posted an image of all of the notes I made:


Most of these are what we editors call “continuity” details. Such as:
–Forbes’s eyes are gray-green
–Major’s birthday is March 3
–Meredith drives a white Volvo SUV

Since finishing Stand-In Groom two years ago, not only have I gotten deeply involved in Meredith and Major’s story in Menu for Romance, but I’ve written a somewhat detailed synopsis for the third book in the series, A Case for Love. Forbes, who is the cousin of Anne in SIG, and the older brother of Meredith in MFR, is the hero of the third book. But I was never quite sure who the heroine was. I’d come up with a story idea when I originally pitched the series to Barbour, but even then I wasn’t crazy about the heroine I’d created for him. In the process of writing MFR, a woman walked in and demanded a supporting role and all of a sudden, I had a perfect match for Forbes. Fortunately, I “met” her and came up with the story idea for book three before I went into final revisions on SIG, so I was able to actually drop her name, and the name of her parents’ business (which is important in book three) into Stand-In Groom, tying the books together.

Knowing your “world” is more than just knowing the setting where your story is taking place. It’s knowing as much about your characters as you can. If you’re writing a series in which the main characters from your first book either continue on as the main characters of your second book, or have a supporting role, you need to know them well enough by the end of the first book that you aren’t going to get into the middle of the third book and realize that there’s something fundamentally wrong with one of them that you need to change, which is going to require a complete rewrite of the series . . . especially if you’ve already sold that first book.

Whether you’re using a real or fictional, contemporary or historical setting, one POV character or six, keeping a continuity sheet is important—and that goes for people who aren’t writing series as well! If you have the sign out in front of Delacroix Nursery and Florists being green in chapter three and blue in chapter nineteen, that’s something a copy editor might not catch, but a reader probably will. If Forbes has gray-green eyes in Stand-In Groom (where he’s a secondary character) and hazel-brown eyes in A Case for Love (where he’s a POV character), while that might not necessarily be as noticeable as if it happened in the same book, if someone goes through and reads both books back to back, they are going to notice—and probably lose a little bit of confidence in me as an author. Same goes with my setting. Because Bonneterre is fictional, my readers are depending on me to know the setting intimately. If I “misplace” something from one book to the next—as in, it’s near Town Square in book one and on the north side of downtown in book three—again, the reader loses confidence in my authority as the creator of this setting.

Now, does this mean that you have to map all of this out before you start writing? Not exactly. But it does mean that you have to do some work with your characters and settings before you start writing. That’s why I like to use Real World Templates for my characters, so I don’t have to try to constantly conjure a mental image of my own making for them. That’s why I also make a character spreadsheet as well as a collection of images of the characters as I write. That way, as I write more of the series, I have these files to refer back to so that I’m not having to comb through the first book to find the information or just try to remember it on my own.

For Discussion:
How much time do you spend on developing your characters and setting before you start writing? How do you keep track of the details you’ve written into your story for continuity?

  1. Jess permalink
    Wednesday, June 18, 2008 5:49 pm

    When I first heard you talk about these posts, I thought “Well, sounds interesting, but not really useful for me.” But you’ve reminded me of a lot of things I love about writing in general, and I like how you don’t get bogged down in what most people think of as a series, you just do it the way that works for you. I really enjoyed reading this!


  2. Wednesday, June 18, 2008 8:11 pm

    It depends on the book. For my attempts at suspense I immersed myself in setting (maps, Google Earth, emails to people who knew the terrain, etc.) But for my rom com I’m not as fanatical. I can see how it’s important to keep that consistancy.


  3. Thursday, June 19, 2008 7:29 am

    I keep track of it in a notebook typically. Though I have to start a new one because in book 2 I decided to change a bunch of aspects of my main character, and since I knew I was going to rewrite book 1 it was okay, but not my character sheets need to be updated.

    I’ve based Hill Bluff (my fictional town) off my parents town so it makes it very easy to keep track of where things are, stores, schools, library, town hall…they spend a lot of time there in teh first books, the books after that they spend very little time in their home town as they’re off traveling to some new place in time, but I do keep pictures of the buildings I used, and MAPS! I draw maps. For book one, Abby goes back to 1830 and I drew a map of the town, which is very important to the story, and actually some buildings are still standing in the present, so it allows for some great contrasting…but yeah I keep notes on all this – I have a big binder for each book (I also have to keep all my historical research there too)


  4. Melissa permalink
    Monday, January 21, 2013 2:05 pm

    This is such a great post. I especially like your character spreadsheet. I’ve spent the past two years working with my various characters. I have notes on post-it notes, pieces of scrap paper, and Word documents. I was fortunate to have found Scrivener last year during NaNoWrimo, and it has helped me combine everything into one place. It is really, really helpful, but it can get really complicated fast. Your spreadsheet is simple and straightforward. I need that!


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