Ask A Wench: Writing a Series

Accweddingsmll Anne here with this month's Ask A Wench question, which is from Cynthia Owens (who wins a copy of my Accidental Wedding for her question.)

Cynthia said: 
I'm wondering about authors who write a series of books. Do they have all the stories and characters mapped out in advance? What about the characters' back stories? I would think it would be very difficult sometimes to keep all the potential heroes straight.

Patricia Rice said: See me laughing hysterically! Map out? Moi? RiceAdo

I started the Magic series with two strong characters I knew intimately. I knew they had families with similar idiosyncrasies–the women had psychic gifts and the men were logical. Does that constitute mapping out?

Personalities developed as I wrote. Back story wove itself from their personalities. And at some point I had to start keep tracking of what I'd said about whom and when. Each hero developed full-fledged characters and stories when I wrote their books, using the pieces I'd hinted at earlier. That's about all the planning my pea brain allows!

Magpie Cara Elliott said: Map out characters and stories in advance? The very thought sends shivers of horror quaking down my fingertips. The pencil slips . . . the keyboard slides . . . the page and screen ripple with an ominous blankness . . .

In all seriousness, I am one of those authors who writes in what I call the “magpie” style-that is, I see these lovely, shiny little bits of ideas and madly gather them up. Then once I have them lined up in my nest, I have to decide how to turn them into more than gaudy little baubles! 

I usually have a very specific opening scene in mind (the bauble) And then work out a vague concept of the whole story and what motivates the hero and heroine. From there  . . . well, things just happen. And for me that's part of the magic of creating stories. The plot and the characters take shape as I go along.  When I do a series, (and I've only done trilogies) I will decide on the three main characters and the hero/heroine's  “match” for the first story. The second and third story is usually not even an idea yet, as I need to wait and see how the secondary characters grow, and what personalities they develop.
CaraRogue
Seriously, I really don't know who they are until they start doing things on the page. They often surprise me. I've had a very minor character step up and turn out to be the hero of a future book when I never imagined he would play more than a bit part. But as I said, that's the fun for me. My brain simply doesn't work in a way where I can carefully draft out a whole book or-heaven forbid-a whole series. My editor knows by now that my rough outlines are done more for mirth than for any useful information.

PutneyLady Mary Jo Putney said this:
There may be writers who have everything mapped out in advance, but I'm not one of them.  <G>  Generally I start with a defined group, but interesting characters wonder on the stage and I don't want to let them go.  

For example, in my last book (Never Less Than a Lady) I wanted my heroine to meet a man she'd met before, Will Masterson, but Will was an army officer in Spain and she wasn't likely to run into him in Edinburgh.  So I invented a much less respectable and far less legitimate half-brother to startle Julia.  I liked him so much that he's the hero of my next book, Nowhere Near Respectable.  

This happens to me regularly. So far, I haven't had much trouble keeping my characters straight since to me, they're very real and very distinct.  But someday I might hit the tipping point and have to start some more organized way of keeping track! 

Nicola Cornick said:I'm getting better at planning a series in advance but I'm still not exactly organised! When I first started writing it wasn't unknown that I would write a stand alone book and only when it was finished would I decide I'd like to write a story for the secondary characters. My editor got pretty fed up with that.

Cornicktrilogy
 These days I do at least start off with a group of characters and a theme that binds them all together. For my Scandalous Women of the Ton series I knew who the first three heroines would be and I knew that the series was all about women who did not fit the mores of the time, whether it was because they travelled or worked for a living or had five husbands! But I'm never going to be the sort of writer who has it all planned in advance, and to be honest I enjoy it when characters develop and demand their own story, and when new ideas come along and I go off at a tangent!

Jo Beverley said:  Like Mary Jo, I don't plot out a series. Heck, I barely plot out a book! I've done series from the beginning, however. I adored Georgette Heyer and re-read her books all the time, and it frustrated me that there are so few links between the books. These people were moving in a small world and should know one another. JoBevArranged

So, in my first books, the traditional Regencies, I wove from story to story with fairly loose connections. 
This instinct (or is it an addiction?) goes back, because when writing my first Company of Rogues book in 1977  I created a group of friends for Nicholas because he needed them. But almost immediately realized I could write stories about the rest. That took another decade because of kids and life stuff like that, and completing the main series took another 15 years or more. Those original guys are some of my oldest friends.
C5276w Lord Wraybourne's Betrothed hardcover front cover
A few years after publishing the first Rogues book, my Georgian family series came to live in my head, based on a more traditional form — a family. Having a perverse streak, I kicked the norm by starting with the youngest and saving the oldest, Rothgar, for last.
As for keeping track, Heyer had more sense than me. It's hard work, especially with so many books in each World. I'm going to write more about this whole subject in my Friday blog.

Joanna Bourne said: What's written in the pages of any book is only part of the whole story.  There's worlds of delving and spinning, working and loving going on outside the scenes that land in Chapters One to Thirty-two.  I think we all feel these stories buzzing and nudging at the edges of books, begging to be told. JoBourneForbidden

It happens like this . . .  I'll be writing along and I get interested in a minor character.  What shapes him?  What's his family?  What happens to him after the Happily Ever After?

Before you can say 'sequel bait', I start seeing the secondary character doing absolutely fascinating stuff.  And it's pop goes the weasel and there's the next manuscript.

I didn't actually plan to write a series.  I sort of fell into it.

 
Anne here again. Fascinating how similar we are, isn't it? However, there is no one way to approach a series; some writers I know of do plot out a series with spreadsheets and all manner of tracking devices. We just aren't them.

My first editor at Mills and Boon wasn't interested in me writing series, even though some minor characters called to me, but when I sold The Perfect Rake to Berkley, my editor there simply assumed it was the first book in a series. That hadn't even occurred to me, so like Joanna, I fell into it.

Perfect Rake However even though I now try to plan out a series, I'm not good at keeping to the plan— so far I've written a four book trilogy, and a five book quartet, which (fingers crossed) might even run to six books.

The Accidental Wedding wasn't supposed to be part of the series I'm currently writing. The story just came to me, and it wasn't about the hero I'd planned to write about next, but a brother of one of the four, who was supposed to be a minor character. Luckily my editor liked the sound of it and gave me the go-ahead to write it.

It's not hard to keep the heroes straight because they all have different characters and different stories when they first come to me. For me, a harder thing is finding them the right heroine. And to have the heroes-in-waiting not upstaging the hero of the current book. 

As for backstory, etc, a character springs to life in my mind (often quite insistently) and a story starts spinning, and I find myself asking questions about who s/he is and why does s/he think like that. Asking myself the right questions reveals more and more about them. It's a bit like archeology — it's all there, somewhere in my brain, but I discover it in the writing.

So there you are, probably more than you wanted to know about how we wenches approach the writing of a series. Thanks to all who contributed their thoughts.

My question to you is, what do you like best (or least) about series, and do you have any special favorites? What's a series book that hasn't been written that you would love to see written? (I want Eric's story from Elizabeth Lowell – and yes I know she wrote about his descendant but it's not the same!)