Laying a Series Foundation

by Mary Jo

Fifty years or so ago, in the early days of historical romance when authors wrote with quill pens on parchment, a lot of books were standalones and writers might jump all over the place in terms of settings.  A pirate tale might be followed by a Civil War story, then a swashbuckling Viking setting or a Western.  But readers and writers started appreciating the fun of connected stories and soon series proliferated.  Now I’d say most new romances are as parts of series.

I started writing before series took over the world, but I was a natural series writer because I was so interested in the secondary characters, which led to connected books.  My first traditional Regency, The Diabolical Baron, was intended as a standalone because I was new and clueless.

But when I started my next Regency, I realized the hero of The Would-Be Widow, (The Bargain is an edited and expanded version) needed a best friend, and the hero of the Diabolical Baron was a perfect fit.  Plus the alcoholic antagonist from the Baron interested me and I wondered what he’d be like if I sobered him up.  The result was The Rake and the Reformer. (Now The Rake.)

In other words, I’d created a series without conscious planning.  (Much of my writerly career involved no conscious planning.)  But when I started longer Regency historicals, I decided I needed a structure for my first series.  I was thinking a nice tidy trilogy since trilogies were all the rage then.  So I wrote Thunder and Roses as book 1 of a trilogy–and ended up with the seven book Fallen Angels series.  (I told you I wasn’t much of a planner!)

I’ve liked using the structure of kids who went to school together and became life long friends.  They know each other’s pains and joys and foibles, and they always have each other’s backs.  (Well, almost always, but that’s another story.) The Fallen Angels started with boys who had angelic names who met at Eton, the most aristocratic of British public (which means private) schools.

The Lost Lords series was rooted in the Westerfield Academy, run by an eccentric and compassionate duke’s daughter for “boys of good birth and bad behavior.” Her goal was to take boys with an odd kick in their gallop and help them fit into society without losing their souls.

My contemporary trilogy, the Circle of Friends, was women who had met in a Quaker school in Baltimore, then went in very different directions–but were always there for each other.  Heck, my young adult time travel/fantasy series was rooted in the Lackland Academy, where magically gifted young people were sent to be ‘cured’ of their despicable magical abilities.   I wrote this YA  trilogy because I wasn’t able to develop my book The Marriage Spell into a series because the publisher didn’t want more books.

Until I started writing this blog, I didn’t realize just how much I’d used the old school friends structure!  Maybe that’s why I then decided I needed a new foundation for my next series. After much gnawing on the possibilities, I came up with my Rogues Redeemed series.  It began with five men in a Portuguese cellar condemned to face a firing squad at dawn, and they found that to be a bonding experience.  It took me quite a while to develop that concept. (The first book was Once a Soldier.)

Sometimes a new series structure comes with the snap of our fingers, but generally writers spend a lot of time working out new structures.  It needs to appeal to the writer and hopefully to her readers as well.  There are all kinds of possibilities besides school friends. Most of my series have been built around men because historically they had a lot more opportunities for adventure which meant they could meet interesting women along the way.

But a core group of females can also work well. One of my favorite such series is Anne Gracie’s The Chance Sisters, where four young women in dire straits are brought together by fate and decide to make themselves sisters though only two are related by blood.  Anne’s current series, the Brides of Bellaire Gardens, is built around a shared community garden which is definitely original!

Pat Rice loves houses so her current romantic mystery series is set in a sprawling great house which draws different people related to the late earl, There they might find love, or possibly be killed. <G>  Christina Courtenay created a wonderful series with her contemporary characters time traveling to Viking times with many connected characters. Now she and her characters are off to the Roman empire.

Susan King has done a number of Scottish and Victorian series.  While Andrea Penrose has written her share of Regency romance series, she’s now concentrating on two Regency mystery series, which present different structuring challenges. Each of her series features a romantic couple solving mysteries and accumulating friends, allies, and antagonists.  Nicola Cornick has found a lovely niche with dual timeline stories features relatively unknown historical women.

As you can see, there are a lot of ways to structure connected stories.  Is there a series a structure that you particularly enjoy? If so, what is it?  I love finding new ways to connect people!

Mary Jo

 

22 thoughts on “Laying a Series Foundation”

  1. I am a fan of some series, but not all of them. At times, I really like the idea of new, unexplored territory. But, at the same time, some of my favorite reads have been books in a series…..I sound like I am wishy-washy. Or at least a little insane. Thanks for the post and for the reminder of some of my favorite books.

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    • Annette, you’re neither wishy-washy nor insane! We like what we like and that can vary from day to day, or even hour to hour.

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  2. This may be a repeat. The first one I did disappeared.

    I’m ok with series, although I prefer they don’t go on too long. If there are too many books I lose track of the characters. I think that’s called getting old. As for structure – I prefer family but others are ok also.

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  3. I’ve always enjoyed a series structured around a family or group of friends. But my favorite structure is a good mystery series when a duo solves crime. Wrexford and Sloan are a current favorite example. The duo doesn’t have to be romantically involved, but that’s always a plus.

    The only thing I really dislike about series books (besides waiting for them to be written – ha ha) is when characters from a previous book completely hijack the current book just to prove they are still living HEA. If they aren’t vitally important to the plot of the current book, I prefer they stay in the background.

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    • Great post, Mary Jo! I really enjoyed your Rogues Redeemed series, as well as Anne Gracie’s Chance Sisters series. I loved the connected characters and brief appearances of the prior protagonists in the current couples’s book. I prefer reading connected stories because by the second and third books the writer already set the stage in the first book of the general premise and as a reader, a few paragraphs (or chapters) can sum up the relationship from the prior book.

      What I really don’t like about trilogies is frequently there is an overall arc, problem, or issue that doesn’t complete until the third book. So the first and middle book usually end on a cliffhanger with lots of questions unanswered. I stopped reading Nora Roberts because of this. I hated the continual cliffhangers and waiting almost a year between books. Thankfully you, Mary Jo, and your blog sisters don’t do that. 🤗 Book hugs,

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      • Thanks, LilMissMolly! I agree that it’s best to be able to sketch prior characterse in lightly so they don’t get in the way. I understand why some writers do the overall story arcs with trilogies, but I prefer making my stories standalone. As you mentioned, my blog sisters tend to be on the same page with this!

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      • Thanks, LilMissMolly! I agree that it’s best to be able to sketch prior characterse in lightly so they don’t get in the way. I understand why some writers do the overall story arcs with trilogies, but I prefer making my stories standalone. As you mentioned, my blog sisters tend to be on the same page with this!

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    • Thanks so much, Misti. So glad you are enjoying Wrexford & Sloane . . . and their eccentric circle of friends.

      As you point out, series do require a delicate balance of how to grow a circle of friends “organically” and give each one room to shine a bit while fitting together in the stories. it’s a challenge, but a fun one.

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  4. Misti, having the sleuthing couple be partners is always a plus for me. I completely agree that having prior characters take over a story is just a bad idea. My rule of thumb is never to pull in a previous character and unless there is a special reason for his or her presence. And as soon as they’ve accomplished that, push them off to the side!

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    • I agree with other commenters who say they enjoy a series that doesn’t go on for too long. (The phrase ‘jumping the shark” comes to mind.) I also enjoy cameos of characters from previous books. For example,when an old friend comes on stage to lend a hand.I think you do that well.

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  5. I love a good series but I’m with Mary T, I don’t like it if they go on too long, usually. There is one exception but I’m even coming to the end of my interest in that! I like when characters from previous books are mentioned. I like to know how they are getting on and it makes them more real.
    Wrexford and Sloane are a great example. There are so many interesting side characters in that series.
    Great post!

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    • I really appreciate that, Teresa! It’s nice to hear you enjoy the side characters. I love creating them e because I think even very small appearances can add color and texture to a story wthout becoming too confusng to a reader.

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  6. What a neat topic, Mary Jo! You have me now trying to think of how different series are connected. Jo Bourne had spies but many (all?) of her books featured one character (Hawk) in a minor or major way. Motorcycle clubs feature in a number of series as do groups of shapeshifters. FBI and various law enforcement co-workers also feature in some series (Julie James comes to mind). Covens of witches also feature in series. And definitely siblings (Mary Balogh, Julia Quinn).

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    • Kareni–it’s an interesting topic, isn’t it? As you say, there’s many ways to structure a series. A lot of it comes down to what a writer likes to write. A writer who loves what she’s writing will carry her readers along with her.

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  7. I enjoyed the blog, Mary Jo, especially as I’ve just come to the end of a series (The Brides of Bellaire Gardens) and am trying to decide where to go next. Male connected? Female connected? A family? A group of friends? The possibilities are endless, and it’s hard to decide.

    I also tend to lose track of really long series. And then I put off trying to work out where I’m up to, and end up not diving back in at all. I often reread a series to bring me up to date, and I’m a fast reader, but the idea of rereading a long, multi-book series (and some of them are 18 books or more) is so daunting I generally just give up.

    And thank you for the kind words about my Chance Sisters series.

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  8. I am a big fan of series especially when I love the characters. I agree there are so many ways to link the books. I say whatever works. I do like a common theme. You do a really good job in your books laying these foundations whether it be family, a common villain, a mystery or murder. I really like the premise of the Silver Lady and The Guardian Trilogy. I don’t think that I have ever read anything of yours that I have not loved.
    Thank you.

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  9. Great post, Mary Jo. It really made me think about structure and the “bones” on which you flesh out a seres of (hopefully ) interesting people and stories. Like you, I’m not much of a planner. I tend to start and, ummm, let things happen. But I do see my core structure is starting with a nucleus—two protagonists forced by circumstances to come together, and I build a “found family around them. It’s interesting and challenging—and fun—for me to write that way. And I hope readers enjoy it as well.

    And many thanks for the mention.

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  10. I’ve always thought that the tricky part for authors who write series is making the individual books work as standalones for the readers who pick up book four to begin with. That and making sure the members of the group making up the series are sufficiently distinct (and have different enough names!) so the reader (me) doesn’t sit there thinking, “Now which one is he, again?”
    You avoid these problems beautifully, Mary Jo, but not everyone does so successfully.

    Reply

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