Writing A Series by Leigh Russell
Many authors of series work out in advance how their protagonist is going to develop through each book. I’d like to say my own series was carefully planned in this way, but the truth is I never set out to write a series. In fact, when the idea for my debut, Cut Short, took shape, I had no expectation of being published at all. I wrote because, in the words of the late, great William McIlvanney, ‘writing is an inexplicable compulsion.’ There was a story in my head and I wrote it down. It was that simple.
So you can imagine my surprise when, on the strength of the first draft of my debut featuring my detective Geraldine Steel, I was offered a three book deal with No Exit Press. Since then, No Exit Press have since published eleven more titles in the Geraldine Steel series, with at least five more commissioned.
Had I known right at the start that Cut Short was going to become the first in a long-running series, would I have done anything differently? Apart from the fact that the prospect of writing a twenty book series would have terrified me so much that I wouldn’t have been able to write another word, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. So here are a few thoughts that might be of help to anyone embarking on writing a series.
To begin with, it’s a good idea to consider the age of your protagonist. Had I realised my first book would turn into a series, Geraldine would have been younger than she is in Cut Short. As it is, like Poirot, she has to investigate quite a few murders within the space of a single year, allowing her to age very slowly. Otherwise she would be way past retirement age by the time the series concludes.
With the benefit of hindsight, my life would have been easier had I kept very detailed notes about my recurring characters. As it is, I have had to create some of my notes after the early books were published. As this has involved rereading some of my books, it is something I would advise other writers to avoid – unless you particularly enjoy reading and rereading your own books.
One unavoidable challenge is keeping a series feeling fresh and surprising for readers, while remaining true to the parameters of the characters and the genre. It’s difficult to judge one’s own success in this so I was very pleased when my editor wrote of my eleventh manuscript: ‘All these years of editing Geraldine Steel and you still never fail to surprise me! This is another well-crafted, tightly plotted novel and I very much enjoyed it – even if you did manage to shock hardened old me.’
Another challenge is to inform new readers about what has happened previously in my protagonist’s life, without boring existing fans by repeating information they already know. As the series continues, and Geraldine’s back story grows, this becomes more challenging to manage.
That said, there are a number of huge advantages to writing a series. I’m familiar with my core characters, and know how and where they function. Although my readers want to learn something more about my protagonist with each book, I already have the basis of her character and her relationships in place. As Ian Rankin said, it’s like returning to old friends when I start a new Geraldine Steel novel, and thankfully many readers seem to feel the same way.
So there are benefits and drawbacks to writing a series, but as Magnus Magnusson famously used to say on Mastermind, with a catchphrase that his successor continued, ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish.’ I still intend to write twenty books in the Geraldine Steel series, and that’s something I never imagined saying when I wrote the first draft of my debut.
Leigh Russell writes the Geraldine Steel series which has sold well over a million books, and has been translated throughout Europe and in China. She is the author of eighteen crime novels. She has been shortlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger Award and the CWA Dagger in the Library, and has twice been a finalist for the People’s Book Prize. Leigh chairs the CWA Debut Dagger judging panel (the CWA Debut Dagger 2018 opens for entries 1 November 2018) and is a Royal Literary Fellow.
Links to her books and her social media sites can be found on her website http://www.leighrussell.co.uk/ where you can also subscribe to her newsletter.