This week I blogged on History Hoydens about Charting the world of a series. I thought it would be fun to repeat the post here. It has a lot of interesting comments from some very talented writers of historical series. And it ties in with the first of a new series of video clips. My friend jim recently interviewed me on topics concerning Beneath a Silent Moon and the Charles & Mélanie series in general. Greg videoed the interviews and edited the clips. The first one concerns something I’m often asked about, my decision to write the second book in the series as a prequel. I love to hear thoughts and answer questions, both on the video and on the Charting the world of a series post.

Charting the world of a series

As I’ve mentioned before, I love series, both as a reader and a writer. I love going back to a familiar world, catching up with old friends, seeing how their lives have developed, meeting new people in that world. I love returning to worlds created by my favorite authors or returning to the world of my own characters and exploring their further adventures. In many ways, I find it easier to write about my continuing characters than new ones. It always takes me several chapters to get the voice of new characters, while I can pick up with Charles and Mélanie and Raoul and David and Simon and others and know precisely how they talk. But writing a series also presents challenges, particularly for the historical writer. You have to keep track of complex chronologies, details in the lives of your characters intermixed with historical events. Then there are physical descriptions, layouts of houses that appear in more than one book, whether they went to Eton or Harrow, Oxford or Cambridge, if the family’s secondary estate is in Leicestershire or Hertfordshire, the name’s someone’s married sisters who never actually appeared in the book (and which one of them was pregnant during said book), and a host of other details. Last month when Joanna Bourne visited us at History Hoydens, I asked her about keeping track of details in a series. Joanna’s recently released My Lord and Spymaster is connected to The Spymaster’s Lady, set a few years later, while her third book is set earlier than both.

Joanna replied, Ummm … I have a table. Doesn’t everyone?

Well, no, I confess I don’t. It actually never occurred to me to use spreadsheets that way (which perhaps has something to do with the fact that I have yet to become truly proficient with Excel🙂. As Joanna explained it, The left hand column, year by year, is how old my characters are and what they’re doing and whether they ever meet.

Right hand column, year by year. is what’s happening in the world.

Kalen Hughes also uses spreadsheets for the wonderfully interconnected world of her historicals. I keep track of how old my characters are, how old “real” people were, and all kinds of events, everything from what books were being published to what horses won races to what scandals were in the news. Makes it much easier to just grab a bit of history when I need it and keep writing.

A lot of other writers I’ve talked to use Excel or that if they were starting a new series they’d keep a workbook with a tab for each book and include the relevant details that are so easy to confuse like physical descriptions, eye color, etc…

Candice Hern, who creates vivid, interwoven worlds, keeps a notebook for each book, in which I have all sorts of info. In a series, I will often need to go back to a previous book’s notes to see where the previous hero lived, or something liked that. The first two pages are ALWAYS physical descriptions of the hero and heroine. If I need to trot out a previous heroine and can’t remember her eye color, for example, I just go to the first page of her notebook and there it is. I find it quicker and easier than hunting down a description in a manuscript or printed book. Eminently sensible, as I’ve at times found myself doing a search/find to track down physical descriptions in a prior book, and I know other writer who’ve done the same.

Part of the problem, is that one doesn’t always know in the beginning precisely where a series is going. Lauren Willig says of her wonderful Pink Carnation books, In retrospect, if I had known that the series was going to become as long and convoluted as it has, I would have kept better notes from the beginning. I hadn’t really thought I would need to keep track, because everything just was as it was– when I began the series, I had a very clear idea of who everyone was, who their relations were, what their homes looked like, and so on. It was like chatting about friends. You know exactly who they are and what they look like and what they did last week. Fast-forward seven years… and suddenly I couldn’t remember things like characters’ exact ages or the floorplans of their homes, even though I knew, just knew, I had written it down somewhere. Also not unlike chatting about friends, only this time it was less like recapping last week, and more like telling stories of my college days: having to go back and consult my diaries to make sure I hadn’t muddled it in my memory with the passage of time. My organizational method (such as it is!) for each book is to label a manilla folder with Pink I, or Pink II, or whichever, and then, as I work, to store any notes and scribblings I produce while writing that book into that folder. So when I went back to my original Pink I folder, I found a number of family trees, floorplans, clothing descriptions, and so on, which were fairly useful– except for the bits I had changed during Book II. Or III. Fortunately, I found very few outright contradictions, but I did find a number of cases where the later versions differed from my original plans, having developed as the demands of the storyline required. In some ways, I’m glad I didn’t codify the family trees earlier on, because leaving it fluid helped the series to grow by leaving me the room to add extra siblings or characters (or delete ones who I originally intended to produce, but never got a mention in any of the books). If I had been more organized earlier on, my books would have been very different stories and probably much worse for it. But somewhere around Book III or IV, I hit the point where the need for fluid development cedes way to the necessity of consistency.

As for me, I keep character profile sheets for my major characters. The year they were born, parents, siblings, physical description. Here’s one for Charles’s aunt, Lady Frances:

Lady Frances Traquair Dacre-Hammond

Born–1767
Parents—Malcolm Traquair, 7th Duke of Rannoch and Louise de Lisle.

Siblings—Elizabeth, b. 1765, Marjorie, b. 1774.

Married George Dacre-Hammond, 1787.

Children—Cedric, b. 1788, Aline, b.1795, Christopher, b. 1797, Judith, b. 1799, Chloe, b. 1808. [Cedric married Maria. Two children as of 1819, Algernon, b. 1815, Ronald, b. 1817). Aline married Geoffrey Blackwell in 1814, see separate entry; Judith married in 1817].

Appearance—striking, sharp boned face, not classically beautiful but unforgettable, bright gold (brighter through the years) hair, pale skin, deep blue eyes that turn purple with the right clothes. Wears shades of purple. Penciled brows. Wears spectacles.

After those details, I write a history/character analysis, with key events and other pertinent details. Characters who don’t have their own profile (such as Lady Frances’s children who haven’t appeared in a book yet) at least have details noted on her sheet.

I also keep a timeline, with key events in my characters’ lives interwoven with historical events (there’s a simplified one on my Avon microsite). And I have a lot of scraps of paper (hopefully in a folder or binder but not always) with floorplans, family trees, and assorted jottings. I don’t consider a detail set in stone until it actually appears in a book, though. Like Lauren, I try to keep things fluid enough to allow me to explore as I write the series. I don’t consider details set in stone until they’ve appeared in a published book. And even with the family trees that are in Beneath a Silent Moon, I’d feel okay adding a sibling who doesn’t appear there (for instance, Lady Frances’s sister Marjorie isn’t there for space reasons, though she’s been part of Charles and Mélanie’s world in my head for some time). One of the things that was great about the recent re-release of Beneath a Silent Moon was being able to add William, 7th Earl Carfax to the family tree, which explains why John (who was on the original family tree) is the 8th Earl, though his father was the 6th. Not a major issue in Beneath, but key to The Mask of Night (the next book in the series).

I have xeroxed maps of Regency London, with fictional locations written in. And I keep a leaded glass box on my desk with photos of locations I’ve used in my books. Using real locations as the basis for settings in my books helps, but of course I constantly have to remember what details of the real setting I changed for my fictional one. And perhaps my most invaluable aid is copies of my books beside my computer. I’m constantly looking things up from previous books🙂.

I’d love to hear from other authors about how they keep chart their fictional worlds. Readers, do you go back to prior books in a series to check details? Do inconsistencies bother you? What series worlds do you find particularly memorable?