Four Authors on Writing, Plotting, and Finishing Series

There’s nothing quite like starting a new series, when you can delight in the knowledge that the characters and stories within aren’t contained in a single volume, and look forward to more adventures with them. 2020 is packed with incredible series starters, middles, and closers, and here I’ve asked four authors with upcoming series releases to share the inspiration behind their books, the way they craft and plot across multiple books, and what they’re looking forward to reading this year.

Sherry Thomas, author of the Lady Sherlock series

PC: Jennifer Sparks Harriman of Sparks Studio

Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock introduces readers to Charlotte Holmes, an upper-class Victorian woman living in London who (under the assumed name Sherlock Holmes) helps the police solve crimes. The fifth and latest installment in this mystery series is Murder on Cold Street.

What was the inspiration for this series?

I have been a Sherlock Holmes reader since I was a child, reading translated versions of the original canon in Chinese. Early on, I realized that I loved stories other people wrote about Sherlock Holmes just as much. I read a translated version of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution when I was in fifth grade, and it amazed me how Sherlock Holmes’ drug use, such a casual aside in the canon, became a crucial part of the novel.

The first time I ever thought of writing my own Sherlock Holmes stories was around 2006 when I read Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. What a book. What a retelling. But at the time I didn’t know whether I had it in me to write intricately plotted mysteries.

Fast forward to when the BBC Sherlock came on the scene, with a jolt of energy and style. I thought, that’s it. I have to do something Sherlock Holmes. But what could I bring to the table that was new? BBC Sherlock already made him modern and Elementary on CBS made Watson a woman. It seemed fairly elementary, at that point, to say, well, the only thing left to do is to gender-bend Sherlock Holmes himself.

I intended for it to be a present-day YA mystery, but my YA editor pointed out that mysteries do not sell well in YA. So I turned to my adult fiction house and more or less said, how about you guys? At that point I’d written a number of historical romances set in the 1880s and 1890s, roughly the same era as the original canon stories, so it made sense to set my gender-bending Sherlock Holmes that same time period. That opened up some very interesting questions as to how a woman with the mind and the temperament of Sherlock Holmes would have fared in the very restrictive Victorian era, leading to a number of themes that have been explored in the series.


You’ve written multiple series, as well as series across genres (YA, fantasy, romance, mystery). What have you learned about writing series over the course of those books?

Something I already knew, going into the Lady Sherlock books, was that I wanted to create a close-knit community. I really enjoy Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache mysteries, which often take place in a tiny little village with a group of friends who care deeply for one another.

In writing the Lady Sherlock books, I’ve come to see that not only is the character aspect important for readers—the sense of community is what they come back for—but it’s a lifeline for me too. I’m not an instinctive plotter, so before I figure out how each new book should go, I can always catch readers up on what has happened in the private lives of the recurring characters. And sometimes that really helps set the shape and direction of the book!

What I’ve found is that interesting things happen when I, as an author, noodle around in the world I’ve created. For example, two characters I’d never thought to put together met in book two and hit it off. Their relationship then formed an important thread in subsequent books.


Did you always know how many books it would take to tell this story, or did that change as you wrote?

I thought, at the beginning, that it would take 10 books to get through the initial story arc. Now I’m doing the final polishing on book five and mulling book six, I’m frankly amazed that my original estimate isn’t all that far off. 

Everybody should be amazed because I didn’t have any real ideas what would happen in any of those first five books and my initial story arc mostly consisted of let’s throw this woman out there and see what happens! 


When it comes to series beginnings, middles, and ends, which is the most enjoyable for you to work on? Which is the most challenging?

Beginnings have been troublesome for me in every genre of books I’ve tackled. Occasionally I get a book that begins straight away in the right place. Most of the time I have to redo the beginnings—sometimes up to a dozen times. I’ve had a relatively easy time opening Lady Sherlock books four and five, because the preceding books ended in semi-cliffhangers, which dictated where the next one must start. But book five does not have a cliff hanger and I’m already scratching my head about where book six begins.

The endings are the most enjoyable, definitely. Stories should end, says she firmly, as she ponders what to do, if readers should still want more stories after the conclusion of the original arc.


If readers want to pre-order your book, is there a particular indie bookstore you hope they’ll consider?

Yes, The Ripped Bodice and the Poisoned Pen. Both stores have been tremendously supportive of the Lady Sherlock books and I know the ladies at The Ripped Bodice have hand-sold lots of copies.


What are some of your favorite series? And what 2020 release are you looking forward to reading?

I’m definitely looking forward to catching up with Louise Penny’s Inspector Armand Gamache series, Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell books, and Bella Ellis’ Brontë Sisters mysteries. Outside of mysteries, I’m looking forward to N.K. Jemisin’s Great Cities series.

Kacen Callender, author of the Islands of Blood and Storm duology

PC: Ashlee Cain

Kacen Callender’s Caribbean-inspired fantasy duology explores privilege, power, and corruption. The first installment, Queen of the Conquered, follows a morally gray heroine seeking revenge. The second, King of the Rising, shifts the POV to a new character to track the aftermath of a revolution.

What was the inspiration for this series?

I wanted to tell a story from the perspective of the colonized—rather than colonizers—set in a world inspired by my home of the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. At the same time, while this is a story about colonization, I wanted to inspect a conflict many marginalized people face today: the tension between having privilege while still fighting oppression. Another inspiration was wanting to write a morally gray character, Sigourney Rose, whose ambition and goals are understandable because of the pain she’s faced, but her actions are irredeemable.


Did you always know how many books it would take to tell this story, or did that change as you wrote?

To be honest, the book initially started as a standalone. When my publisher suggested there be a sequel, I realized that the story didn’t have to end with Sigourney Rose. There was an even more vital story to tell—Løren Jannik, the man she attempts to control throughout the first book, is the voice of the sequel and shows the events that take place after the uprising as he attempts to lead a revolution against the colonizers that have taken control of the islands.


This is the first series you’ve written. What’s the process been like? And what do you think you’ve learned as an author in this process?

I do think I had it a little easier than most, since this is a duology rather than a three (or more) book series, and I changed perspectives from one book to the next, giving me freedom to create two character arcs instead of struggling to maintain one character’s arc and journey over the course of multiple books. Still, I definitely grew as an author as well (with the help of my editor!), especially when it came to worldbuilding. It was an interesting challenge to write one world that’s seen from two different perspectives in two different books, and my editor asked me questions about details that I know I’ll take with me into the future books I write.


This is the final book in the series. When you started writing, did you already know how you wanted the series to end?

When I began writing the first book, without yet knowing that it would be a duology, I did know that I ultimately didn’t want the characters to learn or grow, and to have to face the consequences of not changing. Most stories have character arcs where the protagonist has to learn and change, but I’m also interested in the stories where the book’s lesson, message, or theme is shown to the reader through the character’s mistakes and the aftermath of their errors. Now that this is a duology, I’ve stretched that ending of consequence into Løren’s story and his ending. In that sense, I did know how I wanted the series to end.


Do you have any upcoming virtual events for this release? If readers want to pre-order your book, is there a particular indie bookstore you hope they’ll consider?

No virtual events just yet (the book will be released in December!), but pre-orders to support indies can go to Making Worlds Bookstore and Social Center, Bindlestiff Books, and Shakespeare & Co. Rittenhouse Square, all in Philadelphia.


What are some of your favorite series? And what 2020 release are you looking forward to reading?

Some of my favorite series are the Books of Ambha series by Tasha Suri (starts with Empire of Sand), the Daevabad trilogy by S.A. Chakraborty (The City of Brass), and the Green Bone Saga by Fonda Lee (Jade City). I’m really looking forward to reading Melissa Caruso’s The Obsidian Tower, the first book in the Rooks and Ruin series.

Nina Varela, author of the Crier’s War duology

Nina Varela’s YA fantasy duology, Crier’s War and Iron Heart, take place 50 years after humans lost the war against the Automae. Crier, an Automae, is preparing for marriage to a war hero when she meets Ayla, a human who begins to change Crier’s view of their world.

What was the inspiration for this series?

I love angry girls and robots. I wanted to explore a world in which the “robot uprising” had already happened; a world in which the line between humans and AI had already blurred. I’ve always gravitated toward characters who were brought up to be cold and unfeeling, yet are the exact opposite. That was Crier, the character who was meant to be ice and learned to be fire. Ayla is the character who was already burning, and needed to learn how to control and wield her fire. 


Did you always know how many books it would take to tell this story, or did that change as you wrote?

Crier’s War was always a duology, for very boring, practical reasons: Duologies are popular right now, so my book deal was for two Crier’s War books and one standalone book, which I’m currently drafting. But two books is the perfect length for Crier and Ayla’s story. One book for “Here’s everything wrong with this world” and one for “And here’s how we will work to improve it.” One for anger, one for… more anger, righteous anger, but also hope and healing. 


This is the first series you’ve written. What’s the process been like? And what do you think you’ve learned as an author along the way?

It was a big challenge, even though Crier’s War is just a duology. I have no idea how authors write 5, 10, or 15-book series, I’d be absolutely lost. It was hard enough writing Crier’s War, because I’d left a story open-ended before. Obviously Crier’s War has an ending, but it’s a cliffhanger, and the first book is only half of the big, overarching narrative. It was difficult trying to make it feel like a whole story, making it feel satisfying and exciting to read, but also leaving plenty of questions unanswered. I learned a lot about story and character arcs along the way, like how to essentially “double” the kind of plot I was used to writing without making the events feel dull or contrived. (Well, hopefully.)  


Iron Heart is the final book in the series. When you started writing, did you already know how you wanted the series to end?

I knew in a very general sense where I wanted the characters to end up, and how I wanted the world to change. The journey to get there changed a lot in the writing process, but the destination never did. For me, endings are always about evoking intense emotion in the reader, and I always knew what I wanted that emotion to be; it was just a matter of figuring out the events that needed to happen in order to get there.


Do you have any upcoming virtual events for this release? If readers want to pre-order your book, is there a particular indie bookstore you hope they’ll consider?

No upcoming virtual events, but I’ll post on Twitter if/when that changes! Thank you so much for asking about indies. I would love readers to order through Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis. Iron Heart is available for preorder there (and be sure to keep your receipt!).


What are some of your favorite series? And what 2020 release are you looking forward to reading?

Right now I’m reading and loving the Daevabad trilogy by S.A. Chakraborty, and I also loved the Bone Witch trilogy by Rin Chupeco. As for 2020 releases, I’m so excited for The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart—it’s an adult SFF trilogy set in a China-inspired fantasy world with a lesbian romance! The first book is out 9/10/20. Also, A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown, the first book in a YA fantasy duology inspired by West African folklore with an enemies-to-lovers romance between a princess and a refugee. It’s out now and I’m already impatient for my copy to arrive!

Cat Sebastian, author of the Seducing the Sedgwicks series

Cat Sebastian’s Seducing the Sedgwicks is a historical romance series that follows the queer sons of a radical English poet. All find their lives completely (and delightfully) turned upside down when they fall in love. The latest installment is Two Rogues Make a Right.

What was the inspiration for this series?

The Sedgwick series started with an idea for the first book. I wanted to write a gender bent Sound of Music, although by the time it was done it was a very loose interpretation of that concept—except for my enthusiasm for Christopher Plummer. Once I had that idea in my head, and I had a sense of the characters who had to be involved, I tried to come up with a series that could branch out from it. At the time, I had been reading about the Romantic poets, in particular Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and kept thinking of what it must have been like to have been raised by people who were iconoclasts and visionaries, but also rather negligent as parents. So we have the Sedgwicks: the sons of a Coleridge-esque poet who had dealt with their unconventional upbringing in very different ways.


Romance series can often be read as standalones. How do you strike the balance of a story that can be read on its own but is also a puzzle piece of a greater whole?

Like a lot of romance series, mine tend to involve an affiliation or similarity among the main characters of the various books in order to create some kind of unity in the series. The Sedgwick and Turner series are loosely shaped around families; the Imposters series involves people who are keeping secrets about their identities. But most of my stories start as standalones and then I work in details and characters from the other books in the series in order to tie the books together.


You’ve written multiple series (some completed and some still in progress). What have you learned about writing series over the course of those books?

The main thing that I’ve learned about writing romance series is that what seems like a good idea when I’m pitching a series might not make any sense a year later when I actually sit down to write the final book. Of the series I’ve written, none of my final books have been anything like the book I initially pitched. This is partly because as I’m writing the earlier books in a series, I flesh out characters who will appear in later books, and my initial idea of who they are and what they want changes drastically. There are many authors who go into a series with fully developed vision of all the major characters, but I do not have that talent, so I have to be flexible.


How much do you know about your entire series when you start writing? Do you know the pairings for future books and how many books you’d like to write, or does that evolve as you go?

With my traditionally published books, I usually know how many books will be in a series, because that’s specified in the contract. At the beginning, I know the number of books, the general concept of the series, and some sense of who the major characters will be. And that’s about it. With my self-published series, I know even less. I can sort of feel it out as I go, which can be fun in terms of having the freedom to write whatever I want, but also it’s anarchy.


What are some of your favorite series? And what 2020 release (can be the start of, a continuation of, or the conclusion of a series) are you looking forward to reading?

I’m desperately looking forward to the next installment of Sherry Thomas‘ Lady Sherlock series, which is being released this fall. I also loved both books in Zen Cho‘s Sorcerer to the Crown series (like Georgette Heyer, but with dragons and politics), and all of Rachel Reid‘s Game Changers books (which so far is three entire books of idiots in love, and I could not love it more). 

Kelly Gallucci

Kelly Gallucci is the Executive Editor of We Are Bookish, where she oversees the editorial content, offers book recommendations, and interviews authors and NetGalley members. When she's not working, Kelly can be found color coordinating her bookshelves, eating Chipotle, and watching way too many baking shows.

1 Comment
  1. Love, love love the Lady Sherlock series, so thanks very much for including Sherry Thomas in your list of authors. Also chuffed that authors she’s looking forward to reading are ones that I follow.

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