Writing a series: tips from Ruth Downie

I recently received some advice from a publisher friend. He said:

‘The days of the one-off novel are over. If you want to get published, you should consider a series.’

Now while I hope it is not entirely true that the one-off novel will no longer find a place on the shelf (one would think literary novels would still flourish in the singular) I see the marketing wisdom in conceptualising a series of novels. Seeing the two series I’ve been involved in are children’s picture books, I thought it best, when talking about novels, to ask someone who knows what she’s talking about. Come in, Ruth Downie! If you don’t already know, Ruth, who is an old friend of the Crafty Writer, has written a bestselling series of Roman mysteries known as the Ruso novels.

Writing a series

Writing a novel is like having a baby: when you do it for the first time, there’s no shortage of people willing to offer advice. The second time a few kindly voices still offer reassurance to those daunted by the thought of facing it all over again. But by the time you’re on the third, or fourth, or fifth, you’re not only expected to know what you’re doing – you’re being asked how to do it.

My editor is currently reading the fifth book of my crime series about a Roman Army medic and his British partner. Meanwhile I’m researching the sixth. I still start each one under the delusion that this time I will get it right. I will be organised, disciplined, and confident. And so I am … until the actual writing starts. Because although I know the main characters and what sort of story it’s supposed to be, it’s still a whole new challenge. I may have climbed this particular mountain before, but each ascent needs to pick out a new route.

Some of what follows is helpful advice gleaned from other people. The rest has been learned by doing, or more often by not doing and then wishing I had. Incidentally, my own experience is of writing novels that can all be read as standalone stories. If you’re planning a series that needs to be read sequentially, you may have other thoughts. In fact you may have other thoughts about all of this. Please pass them on in the comments section!

Why a series?

It’s easy to see why publishers like series – they can build an audience. For readers, I guess part of the appeal is the minimisation of risk. A familiar name is – hopefully – a guarantee of quality. But that could also be true of standalone novels. Personally, when I settle down to read a new installment of a familiar series, I’m looking forward to spending time with characters I have grown to know and love. Which, for me, says something about the relative importance of character and plot.

The reader’s love may not be shared by the writer, though. Sherlock Holmes is not the only creation whose author has tried and failed to kill him off. I once heard someone bemoaning the fact that he was having to produce the thirteenth novel featuring a man he was thoroughly fed up with. Now there’s a problem a lot of us would like to have.

Where will you go from here?

It may be too late to mention this, but in the first book of a possible series it’s worth giving yourself some room for manoeuvre. One of the reasons Doctor Who is still with us is that he has always been able to go anywhere, at any time, and even regenerate into somebody else. That may be a little extreme, but characters need to react with other people and if your protagonist is a hermit with no family, you may find it a real challenge to get him out of the cell on a regular basis.

Crime novelists have a particular point to consider here. Unless your modern sleuth is officially involved with the police, you are going to have to keep finding reasons to allow them anywhere near a murder investigation. And if you’re cunningly setting the books before the police were formed, and your lead character isn’t a gentleman of some independence, you may have to find reasons why he or she is allowed enough freedom to investigate at all.

Not only who and where, but when

Does your fictional world draw on real events, or does it exist in a realm untroubled by the six o’clock news? Are your characters going to age in real time? Ian Rankin famously retired Rebus at sixty, the same age as his non-fictional colleagues in the Edinburgh police force. I have a slightly different issue with my leading man. He is undoubtedly maturing as the years go by, but when I failed to mention his age in the first book, readers made their own estimates. Those estimates are wildly divergent. I’m not going to annoy either end of the spectrum now by making him the ‘wrong’ age.

It’s useful to get this sort of thing straight from the very start. But if, like me, you blunder in without much of a clue – well, that seems to work too. It’s especially pleasing to stumble across something you wrote a long time ago that you can use when building a new story – perhaps something that didn’t seem significant at the time. It might even look as though you have cleverly planned the whole series and planted clues right at the beginning. Which brings me to…

Being organised

It goes without saying, of course, that you should keep records of characters with full names, birth dates, relationships and descriptions – plus a note of which books they appear in and what state you left them in. You should, and so should I. I’m sure it would be very useful, because it’s surprising how easy it is to lose track. Unfortunately it’s also surprisingly easy to find something else – almost anything else – more interesting to do. Luckily, since people from the first century had names that sound unusual to us, I was advised to set out a list of characters at the beginning of each book. There are readers who say they find these lists useful, but probably not half as useful as I do.

Help, I need a new story!

A successful series will probably have your publisher hoping for a book a year – or more. From listening to people who have achieved this level of productivity, I suspect it involves a great deal of self-discipline and hard work. And coming up with new ideas on a regular basis.

Some time ago I met the author of several successful series, including one that’s now run to seventeen volumes. Since she was clearly a woman who knew what she was doing, I asked if she had any tips. Her advice was to keep your lead character under pressure.

Pressure doesn’t mean just giving a detective a new mystery to solve. That’s not pressure; that’s a plot device. Real pressure, as I see it, is something that makes the protagonist – and the reader – emotionally involved. What is at stake here? What does your character stand to lose if things don’t work out?

For example, Aline Templeton’s Cold in the Earth tells the story of a police investigation. That’s the plot. But the powerful emotional drive behind the book comes from the fact that the investigating officer is married to a sheep farmer, and this particular story about her is set in 2001 – the year of the foot and mouth epidemic.

In one of his Dan Starkey novels Colin Bateman chose to up the tempo with the murder of a well-loved minor character. That certainly put pressure on his very fallible hero – and on his readers.

Not interested in crime and disaster? Try a little nuisance. Think of the upheaval caused in Winnie the Pooh’s world by the arrival of Kanga and Roo.

And for a great example of how to play seemingly-infinite variations on the same setting and characters, take a look at Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again…

The longer a series extends, the more backstory the characters accumulate, but the less chance there is that anyone will read the books in the order they were written. Thus the beginning of each book has do several jobs at once.

  1. It has to engage the reader’s interest in this new story. If this doesn’t happen then the next two points are immaterial.
  2. It has to introduce the characters to new readers without overloading those readers with information – or sounding repetitious to people who’ve met them already. The best writers do this so subtly that it hardly shows at all. I’m currently enjoying the Smiley novels, and admiring the way John le Carré manages to hold – or distract – our attention whilst slipping in the information that we need to know.
  3. Ideally, it has to perform these introductions without giving away too much of the previous plots for readers who might want to go back to catch up.

Into the future…

It’s a great honour to be told that somebody has enjoyed your story enough to want to read another one. It’s also a great responsibility, because the last thing you want to do is disappoint them. So every book is a fresh challenge. It’s a chance to do something new. And every time, something better.

Ruth Downie took up writing fiction as a cheap and harmless hobby to keep herself entertained when the children had gone to bed. She only intended to write one novel to see if she could do it. The first in her series featuring Roman Army Medic Gaius Petreius Ruso was a New York Times bestseller. The fifth, SEMPER FIDELIS, will be published in January 2013.

Related posts:

  1. The benefits of writing a series
  2. Writing historical crime novels – interview with R.S. Downie
  3. When writing is a crime – tips from a real CSI
  4. Writing historical fiction 2 – doing the research
  5. Writing historical fiction 1 – creating your historical world

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3 comments on “Writing a series: tips from Ruth Downie

  1. Anne Sampson on said:

    Thanks for the tips, Ms. Downie. I love Ruso! Ancient Rome and ancient Britain are loves of mine, so Ruso was a great find. The plots are intriguing and the characters are fun to spend time with.

  2. Ruth Downie on said:

    Thank you for the kind words, Anne! Great to know you’ve enjoyed the Ruso books. I’ve certainly learned as I’ve gone along and am now tackling Book 6 – a new challenge…

  3. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Hello Anne, you may want to follow Ruth on the Ruso and Tilla Facebook page for all the latest news and discussions with other Ruso fans. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Ruso-and-Tilla/108745675816262?v=app_2344061033#!/pages/Ruso-and-Tilla/108745675816262

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