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The Care and Feeding of
a Genre Book Series

(c) 2005 Lori L. Lake

Creating compelling characters with interesting personalities, problems, and conflicts is one of an author’s major goals. Once created, sometimes those characters take on lives of their own and become so enchanting to the author that it’s hard to let go of them. Writing a book series is one way to continue to explore those characters and the themes that become apparent in the first book.

Key to writing a book series is creating and maintaining multiple character arcs and event plotlines from book to book. Mystery or action-adventure series, in my opinion, offer the greatest opportunity for this because each novel of that type can contain one plot resolved in its entirety (the whodunit, the rescue, the capture) while subsequent novels can carry forward the multiple subplots that have been introduced regarding relationships, the work world, and secondary characters. I can easily think of more than a dozen mysteries and action-oriented books where a romance arc is a subplot that ebbs and flows from book to book, while some other plot carries the main narrative story. Family issues, conspiracies, health problems, and hobbies can also provide subplots that pop up from book to book in this type of series.

Creating a series in the romance genre is much more difficult. Once the protagonists conquer the obstacles keeping them from "true love" and become soulmates, the novel no longer has the characteristics that distinguish the story as a "romance." By definition, stories in the romance genre have as the main focus of the story the development of the relationship between the two main characters. Central are the conflicts – the issues that drive the story – that the characters encounter in their quests to find love, happiness, and emotional justice. Along the way, those obstacles (fear, misunderstandings, Daddy says no, etc.) keep the characters apart, and a great deal of the storyline is devoted to this dance as the two take risks and struggle to resolve their problems.

Future books in the series must find new conflict in order to tell a compelling story, and I would argue that those subsequent books about their relationship would be better titled dramas or some other genre designation. If you have characters going through the same romance dance from book to book, the reader will quickly become tired. Where is the emotional justice if two characters continue to play at the game of courtship? It quickly becomes tedious for the discerning reader.

While exterior obstacles may, indeed, cause great conflict main plots and subplots, sequels in a romance series generally need the two leads to be largely devoted to one another. This means that other issues must be developed to drive the plot. Examples of lesbian romance authors who have accomplished this in their series include Melissa Good with her Dar & Kerry novels and Carrie Carr with her Lex & Amanda series. In truth, I can think of few serial romances that focus much on "romance" after the first or second book. Romantic elements and issues of commitment or misunderstanding may still arise, but that special tension that occurs when the characters are falling in love and lust is not the same after they’ve consummated their relationship.

If, however, the author intentionally thwarts the romance between the two characters from novel to novel, then that romantic angle becomes a subplot, and the writer better have some other compelling storyline as main plot. Rarely does anyone want to read a story where the main plot is not resolved, which is why the romantic elements cannot hold as the main plot. Though the subplot may actually be the most compelling angle of the piece (does anyone remember the TV show Moonlighting? Or how about Xena: Warrior Princess?), something else has to be going on in the story.

If an author wants to create and maintain a romance series, she must be prepared to highlight the romantic elements of the story as subplot against a backdrop of something else: mystery, intrigue, adventure—some sort of engaging main plotline. Most often, it seems to me that something going on in one or both characters’ work worlds serves to provide the main plotline. Examples: the medical world (Radclyffe), private investigations (J.M. Redmann or Elizabeth Sims), amateur detection (Ellen Hart), police work (Laurie R. King or Katherine V. Forrest), corporations (Melissa Good), government (Trish Kocialski), protective services (Radclyffe again), etc.

PLACE: The Fantasy Island Option
One way to maintain a romance series, though not so often done, is to have the central commonality from novel to novel be the place where the story occurs. Jennifer Fulton's Moon Island series is a good example. The two main characters (Cody and Annabel) in Passion Bay resolve their difficulties by the end of book one, continuing to live on Moon Island. So the romance is over, right? Not exactly. Jennifer brings on a new couple in the second book, Saving Grace, and their story becomes central. Annabel and Cody are still vital characters in the novel, and though their character journeys continue to influence the main plot, their relationship issues are subplot. In the next two books in the series, The Sacred Shore and A Guarded Heart, entirely new groups of characters come to Moon Island. Again, Cody and Annabel's storyline is a subplot, and they influence the main plot in major ways, but other characters’ journeys carry the main plot. With each book, the reader is thrilled to touch base with the original romantics while being expertly immersed in new conflicts and characters.

So, as in the Moon Island series, Place can serve as the uniting feature in a series, and the specific characters who roam across that location may shift somewhat. Still, the reader wants at least one character to identify with from book to book. In Jean Stewart’s Isis sci-fi/fantasy/adventure series, the Isis region and Whit and Kali serve as focal points, but a number of other characters shift to the forefront in each book. Some of them recur, while some die or move to the background in subsequent books. The main plot involving the preservation of Isis serves as a rich environment in which to act out a number of plotlines, some of which are resolved in each book but many of which carry over to the next volume in the series.

A more subtle approach would include what Jessica Casavant is doing in her Boston Friends Series. The three books currently out (Twist of Fate, Walking Wounded, and Imperfect Past) follow the issues of different women who are all loosely connected. The books could probably be read in any order, but with each book read, the clever reader will increasingly associate the various characters with one another.

There is yet another sort of series to consider. It is possible to write an epic in which none of the issues are resolved from book to book. The Lord of the Rings, Elizabeth Moon’s Serrano/Suiza saga, and Karin Kallmaker’s Tunnel of Light Trilogy come to mind. In each of these, the main plotline is not resolved at the end of the novel, and the reader is basically left hanging at the end of each installment until the final denouement in the last book. It’s also possible to write a series of series. The first three books of Jean Stewart’s Isis adventures are one self-contained adventure/journey; the next books start a whole new story arc (though still related to the same arc completed in the first series) with the same main characters.

It is interesting to note that all of the books I mention in the above paragraph fall into the realm of speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal). Some genres—specifically mystery, thriller, and romance—don’t lend themselves well to cliffhangers. The only mystery I can think of with a hanging main plot thread occurred in Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series (when the villain Temple Gault carries over from book five to six). Still, the main thrust of Scarpetta’s investigation has some resolution after book five; it’s just not entirely resolved until book six.

Often a writer creates a world, envisions characters, and explores themes, intending to write a single novel. It is only later that she realizes the world, people, and themes are so compelling that she cannot let them go. If this happens to you with your work, it would be helpful to try to decide if you want to write a sequel to finish off those original explorations—or work with those characters on a long-term basis and create a whole series. If you are inclined toward the latter, it is helpful to think about your intentions in advance and ask yourself some critical questions before you paint yourself into a corner.

  • What genre do you see as the main plot?
  • What kind of subplot arcs might you envision for future books?
  • Will you need to lay groundwork to bring in additional characters?

In my own Dez Reilly/Jaylynn Savage series, Gun Shy is a romance with a police procedural backdrop and a painful but necessary character journey for Dez. I wrote it with no idea that once I finished, I’d have to promptly begin with a sequel in order to resolve some of the hanging plot threads. Under The Gun, the second book, is a continuation of the same themes from Gun Shy. There is a resurgence of the main plotline, and subplots regarding a police case are added, but it is, at heart, both a quest and a romance. By the end of book two, Dez and Jaylynn are committed to one another, and while later books could feature elements of romance and include conflict between the two characters, some other main plot line is needed if Dez and Jaylynn are to continue as main characters. So the third book, Have Gun We'll Travel, is an adventure/thriller that serves as a bridge book into a new type of main plot for them. Accordingly, the main plot line is not romance, but the threat of grave physical danger to Dez, Jaylynn, and their friends and whether they can escape that. The fourth book in the series shifts even further, continuing to include Dez and Jay's relationship issues as subplots, but making central the police procedural and the character journeys involved.

If I were to give one major tip to someone considering writing a series, I would talk about how important characterization is and that decisions about characters need to be made in advance as well as kept in mind as the writer moves from book to book. The author needs to think about getting to know her characters well and really mining their emotional depths—but not all at once. Revealing character through the events and action is important, but it can't be done too quickly; character flaws and quirks can't be resolved too fast (or sometimes at all) without the story seeming farfetched. Keep in mind that it is the gradual revelation of character detail—feelings, outlook, reactions, past events, etc.—that provides the reader with a rich experience. This is one of the delights of writing a series about specific characters: as she mines the depths of her story people, the writer goes through a process of discovery as well.

Making a well-defined and versatile supporting cast available to assist with subplots and the main plotline is also important. You can never tell when a secondary, or even a tertiary, character will step up in some way and become a protagonist. Jean Stewart has spoken of this happening in her Isis series. And some authors have spun off secondary characters into new series.

Putting characters in a world where "stuff happens" is truly critical. The writer cannot rely upon a one-time bit of excitement because that won't carry through a series of books. It has to be a world regularly rife with conflict, difficulties, and even pain and disappointment. This is why so many stories have law, police work, government, politics, and medicine as backdrops. It’s no coincidence that TV programs like "E.R." and both the "Law & Order" and "CSI" franchises are so popular. The worlds in which they take place offer up myriad ways to showcase conflict and external and internal action.

My final advice to anyone contemplating a series is to make sure you keep careful track of your timeline and of the characters and their basic characteristics, family arrangements, and important life events. This goes for the main, secondary, and background characters. I didn't do that with Gun Shy and Under The Gun, so when I got into Have Gun We'll Travel, I had to do a lot of review of the first two books. NOW I have character data and charts with details, but I wish I had done that while it was all fresh in my mind. It would have saved a lot of time and effort.

I wish I could direct you to specific books – or even sections of How-To manuals – to learn more about this topic, but I don’t recall seeing anything written about it anywhere. Perhaps, then, one of the best things to do is to read series written by authors in various genres. This list is by no means exhaustive but does contain a few series with three or more volumes. A careful study of the string of novels in each series reveals, by example, a considerable amount of information about how to craft a series.

Mystery/Police Procedural
Laurie R. King’s Kate Martinelli series
Katherine V. Forrest’s Kate Delafield series
Baxter Clare’s Lt. Franco series

Mystery/Amateur Sleuths
Ellen Hart’s Jane Lawless series

Mystery/Private Eyes
J.M. Redmann’s Micky Knight series
Randye Lordon’s Sydney Sloane series
Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone series

Mystery/Gov’t/Secret Service
Radclyffe’s Justice series

Jennifer Fulton’s Moon Island series
Radclyffe’s Honor series (which could also go in the category above)

Jane Fletcher’s Celaeno series
Jean Stewart’s Isis series

Paranormal/ Fantasy
Karin Kallmaker’s Tunnel of Light series
© 2005 Lori L. Lake
From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author. If you have questions, comments, or divergent points of view, please drop Lori an email at Lori welcomes questions and comments.

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