Sunday, March 7, 2010

Guest Susan Page Davis on Writing a Series

This month Blissful Writing Thoughts welcomes Susan Page Davis who will share with us about her tips to writing a series. Stay tuned at the end where you can comment for a chance to win one of her books!

Writing a Series

Writing a series presents special challenges. It helps if you know you’re doing a series going into it. If a publisher contracts a series, they usually ask for at least a short synopsis of three books. This can be hard to do so far in advance, but it will pay dividends later. Planning the broad overview of the series will help the author see where she’s headed and how the character arc needs to develop as it spans the entire set of books. Sometimes a series is only loosely connected, and the main characters of the first book don’t appear in later books, or are minor characters. Other times, the main characters stay in the spotlight through several books. Either way, the author needs to develop a way to keep track of details. You don’t want to realize too late that you gave one character two different names (yes, it’s happened before), or have your protagonist’s patch covering the wrong eye in one scene (James Fennimore Cooper had that happen).

I found myself in a series “glitch” and was thankful I caught it in time to change it. I was writing the third book in my Alaska series for Heartsong when the galley of Book 2 came to me. I zoomed through it, eager to get back to Book 3. To my chagrin, I realized I had given the heroines in both books the exact same engagement ring—Alaskan jade and gold. And the two women were a mother and daughter. One of those rings had to go.

That was an easy fix. But if your hero in Book 1 has a sister offstage, and her name is mentioned in passing, and then the sister shows up in Book 3 with a totally different name, and if you don’t catch it and you get a different copy editor who didn’t do the first book and doesn’t check it, you’re sunk. Be sure some sharp-eyed reader will catch it later.

So, how do I keep track of details? Some people use Excel spreadsheets. I’m low-tech. I use index cards. I’ve tried other methods—notebooks, a computer file—but I keep coming back to the index cards. I keep the box on my desk and have the cards for the current series in it. What goes on these cards?

Character’s name, age, relatives, car (or horse in a historical), pets, address, type of home, occupation, and sometimes much more. Here’s a card from my Ladies’ Shooting Club series:

Adams, Elizabeth “Libby”

35 in Book 1; 36—almost 37—in book 3

Owns Paragon Emporium

Husband Isaac died 1-1/2 years ago (p. 6)

Colt Peacemaker pistol was Isaac’s; .44 cartridges

Blue eyes, blond hair, white teeth

Isaac was 15 yrs older and would be 50 if alive

She came and married Isaac in 1873

Married for 10 yrs before he died 1883

This stash of information about Libby has saved me from many mistakes. She’s a major player in Book 1 of the series, the heroine of Book 2, and again prominent in Book 3. I didn’t write all the details down at once, but as they came up in the story and I worked them out. The guns and ammunition of the various members of the Ladies’ Shooting Club are important to the stories, and I have to make sure each woman is carrying the right weapon. Her backstory and her husband’s age and the years of their marriage also come up more than once, so it’s right here on the card. I don’t have to search the text to find those things. I just open my little wooden treasure box of file cards and reach into the “A” slot for Adams.

I also find it helpful to keep one card with a list of all the stagecoach drivers’ names on it and another with the “shotgun messengers.” Then if I need a driver for a stagecoach in a new scene, I can glance down the list and see if one of the drivers I’ve already created can fit that scene.

As I said above, it helps to know you’re writing a series when you start. When I was first published, I had no idea that my very first book, Protecting Amy, would become the first book of a series. My hero, Tom, had friends and family that obliged me by making return appearances in Books 2 and 3.

The same thing happened a couple of years later with Frasier Island, which I wrote as a standalone. The publisher wanted to contract Book 2 as well, and I had to come up with another idea fast that connected to the first book. Actually, I had another idea, but the editor didn’t like it. In this scenario, the hero of Book 1, George Hudson, would retire from the Navy and take his wife to eastern Oregon and go into ranching. Something mysterious would happen on the ranch.

The editor just loathed that. She wanted George to stay in the Navy. She wanted me to build a military suspense series. So I did. Maybe I can use the “mysterious ranch” idea somewhere else, but George had to stay in uniform for two more books. And I hadn’t made cards for Frasier Island. I had to scour my manuscript for all those details we were talking about. George’s friend Pierre became the hero of Book 2, Finding Marie, and his fiancĂ©e from Book 1 became his wife and the heroine in Book 2. Marie’s sister, who was nowhere in Book 1, came alive in Book 2 and took center stage in Book 3, falling for a Navy guy who’d appeared very briefly in the first book. It was harder to have to go back and reconstruct all the details—hair, eye color, ranks, promotions, home towns. . .so many details! But it came together, and was well worth the effort.

Now I’m in a new situation. I’m writing Book 6 of a series for Guideposts, and Books 1 through 5 have all been written by different authors. That’s right. They contracted six authors to alternate writing books in the same series. Now, that’s a challenge! How do we keep the details straight when we’re writing about recurring characters? Our wonderful editor, Beth Adams, that’s how. She continually updates a series guide online for our group. We also share information directly with each other. I can ask a question like, “Does Jason have any pets?” and I’m only an email away from getting the answer.

I am giving away a copy of my book Always Ready, first in my Alaska series. Leave a comment here to be entered in the drawing!

Caddie Lyle struggles to live up to the motto of the Coast Guard—and her father’s legacy—as she carries out rescue missions in Alaskan waters. But when she discovers other career opportunities and meets Guardsman Aven Holland, her heart begins to pull her in different directions.

Aven is drawn to Caddie, too, but their duties allow them little time together, and he wonders if a relationship is possible for them. Meanwhile, a commercial fisherman with a grudge against Aven heads for trouble, drawing Aven and Caddie into his web as they try to expose his crime.

Susan Page Davis is the author of more than thirty novels, mostly in the historical romance and romantic suspense genres. A Maine native, she is the mother of six and the grandmother of six. Visit her on her Website. She gives away a book or two at the end of each month. Always Ready has gone out in the Heartsong Presents book club, but has not been released to the general market yet. You can purchase it on Susan’s site or from Heartsong Presents.


K said...

This post was so helpful!! I like index cards too, though I haven't tried the Excel method yet... :)

I'm not sure I can enter the drawing, since I just won a book from Lauralee, but I wanted to post and let you know I appreciated the post! :)

Rhonda Gibson said...

Thanks Susan for this wonderful information! I use a computer but I like the idea of index cards and plan on utilizing them today, hopefully they will work for me too.

Susan Page Davis said...

Thanks, Kim and Rhonda. One great thing about the index card file--if your computer crashes, or if the power goes out, I still have it! Kim, I'm not sure if Lauralee disqualifies the last winner, but you can also go over to my site and enter for free books there: Great that you are winning free reading material, lady! Don't you love it? Happy reading!

Diana said...

Susan you're brilliant! I probably would have tried to do an excel sheet and FAILED! I like index cards for things like this because they are quick to reach as your writing, making it easy to fill in details as they happen. Congratulations on the guideposts book!

Susan Page Davis said...

Thanks, Diana! The series with multiple authors is a very big challenge. I have to know what all previous authors have said about characters I'm referencing. The minister is more prominent in my story than most, so I have to get a lot of details about the church, his house, his study. If no one else has created them, I can make it however I want. But if they've said something previously. . .well, you get the picture. One of the biggest efforts is to make each character keep the personality previous authors have given them. If they were upbeat and bubbly in previous stories, I can't let them be gloomy and negative in mine.

Darlene Franklin said...

Great info, Susan. Even I didn't know about the index cards. Some of your ideas for working with multiple authors reminds me of the challenges of writing novellas where the stories are connected.

Darlene Franklin said...

Oh, and I don't need to be entered in the drawing. I've read it, critiqued it, etc.

Kit Wilkinson said...

Great post! Thanks for all the info!

Carrie Turansky said...

These were very helpful suggestions! Thanks, Susan. You always amaze me with all the new stories you come up with. Thanks for encouraging me and giving us these tips!

Susan Page Davis said...

Thanks, Darlene, Kit, and Carrie. Great to see you all here!

A J Hawke said...

Hi, Susan,
What a helpful post! I'm writing the fourth in my series and I'm struggling to keep all the facts straight.

For now I have a computer file that I add info to as I develop the story, but it is not organized enough. So I have to hunt a lot through my descriptions of people and places.

When I first started writing, I thought it was strange that someone would not remember what color of eyes a hero has. Now I find it normal to forget there was a hero way back in Book One. Just kidding, maybe.

Thanks for the opportunity to win a copy of your book,

A J Hawke

Lauralee Bliss said...

Rhonda is the winner of Susan's book. Thank you so much for visiting! My next guest blogger is Laurie Alice Eakes in April!

Judylynn said...

Yes, I'd like to win this book! Thanks!