Welcome to The Talkative Writer’s guest post with American fantasy author Carol Berg.
Carol majored in mathematics at Rice University and computer science at the University of Colorado, so she wouldn’t have to write papers. But somewhere in the middle of a software engineering career, she started writing for fun. The habit ate her life. Carol’s epic fantasy novels have won national and international awards, including multiple Colorado Book Awards and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. They’ve been read, so readers tell her, on five continents, on a submarine under the Mediterranean, in the war zone of Iraq, and on the slopes of Denali.
Her newest novel, Dust and Light, is the first of a new fantasy/mystery duology about a sorcerer who draws portraits of the dead. Publishers Weekly calls it “a captivating and satisfying fantasy epic” and RT Book Reviews names it “outstanding.” Carol lives in Colorado and on the internet at www. carolberg.com
And now here’s Carol, in her own words:
Thanks for having me in, Karen. Since we’re celebrating the launch of your new series, I thought I might talk about some of the series-related questions I hear a lot. Questions, such as:
How do you know whether a story is going to be a series or a standalone novel?
Do you outline your entire series all at once?
How do you keep things straight from book to book?
Are you ever going to write more novels in [enter character’s name]’s world?
The short answers are:
I don’t, always.
Mostly I remember things, but..um…I don’t always and have to look them up.
Not unless I have a new story to tell.
But of course, the real answers are a lot more complicated than that.
I-II. Series or Standalone or The Problems of Estimating When You Don’t Outline. In my published writing career, I’ve started six projects. Three of them, I intended to be standalone novels. Only one of them stayed that way. One of them I intended to be three books and it turned out to be four. Clearly I’m not great at estimating.
My problem is that I am an organic story developer. I hate the word pantser, because to me that implies the writer doesn’t know where he or she is going. I always know where I need to start, and I always know where I’m going. My problem is, I don’t always know how many events or scenes or words it’s going to take me to get there! Nope, I don’t outline individual books or a series as a whole. I generate events and scenes as I write because, for me, story ideas blossom as I get to know my characters and see what kind of challenges and personal interactions will drive them toward the climactic events that I want to happen.
One example: My novel Transformation was intended as a standalone and I brought it to a very satisfactory ending, so I thought. It was a true completion of the story, which is very important to me. Only, just about the time I sent the book off to my editor, I realized something very important about my demonic villains. The story I had told was only a piece of a much larger story arc that dealt with the identity of those demons and how that related to the identity of my hero’s people, their religion, and their single-minded pursuit of a war that took place in the physical landscape of human souls. That realization delighted me, but it also generated two additional novels that became the Books of the Rai-kirah series.
Three of my five “not-standalone” projects are this same kind of series. Each volume is a complete story in itself, but also a piece of a larger, continuing story involving the same core of characters. Sometimes the books will have the same point of view character/s, sometimes different ones. In these three series, the individual novels are separated by as little as a single day, or as many as four years. Included in this group is my Bridge of D’Arnath series, which I envisioned as three books. Through these three books, much of the story centered around a disgraced noblewoman, a sorcerer/warrior who happened to have a displaced soul in his body, and the search for a kidnapped child – a child who had been brought up to believe he was evil. The third book ended when the boy was sixteen. But once I got there, the ending wasn’t right. Having sons myself, I knew that no kid, expecially one who had undergone the traumatic childhood of this one was “finished” at age sixteen. That’s where book four came from. Oops!
Another project that I mis-estimated was the novel Flesh and Spirit. I sold it as a standalone. But I also sold it on the basis of a single paragraph (see the back of its cover for that paragraph!) I’m not ever going to sell on a paragraph again, because when I was about halfway through writing it, I realized that there was no way this story would fit inside one book. I had to go back to my publisher and say, “You know this book I’m writing? It’s really two.” That is not a happy thing to say to a publisher. Fortunately, they liked it well enough to buy the second book! This became the Lighthouse Duet, a slightly different kind of epic series because it is really one big story split into two volumes. Yes, there is a resolution at the end of the first volume, but it’s really more of a turning point. I’m in good company. Lord of the Rings is really one big story split into three volumes, right? My new series the Sanctuary Duet is this same kind. More about that one later.
There is a third kind of series – what I call an episodic series. Most mystery series fall into this classification, because you have the same detective, but each volume tells of a different case. Often there is a continuing backstory thread involving the detective. Lots of urban fantasy series, like those from Patti Briggs, C.E. Murphy and Jeanne Stein fall into this category, so the series can go on for a long time without really ending. The Dresden Files started out like this, but I’m thinking it is looking more and more like an epic fantasy right now. The background story has taken over the awesome Harry Dresden’s case-of-the-week. I haven’t done one of these. Yet.
III. Tracking Information. Yes, it is really important to keep track of information in a series. It can really make a writer feel stupid if her hero gets seasick for three volumes, and then sails blithely into the climax of the series in a Portugese caravel. Or if it turns out that her heroine wasn’t born yet when the king she supposedly flirted with died! There are some cool tools out there that can help you, but I haven’t had the time to go exploring for tools. I just keep information in files.
I always keep a timeline that covers the entire series, including pre-series history. This is especially important when there are critical deadlines before The Bad Thing happens or overlapping scenes from multiple points of view. Who is where and when? I maintain a character list with physical descriptions and relevant bits of their histories. Another essential is a glossary of invented terms, locations, and minor characters. And if there is any traveling involved – come on, this is epic! – keeping a map or table of table of distances and locations. Sometimes there are project-specific docs. When I was writing the Collegia Magica books – my double-agent murder mystery with magic – I had to keep a chart of which of my three investigators knew what, what my villains were really doing, and what my broody necromancer was working on that his partners didn’t know about.
But what about everything else? Customs, greetings, who was at that dinner party, symptoms of that dangerous disease, bits of research about making ink, or rendering a pig, or the physical appearance of a man rescued from hanging. There is a file just for those sorts of things, but I’ve got to confess I don’t always keep it up. I can usually keep greetings and swear words and clothing terminology in mind while I’m writing the series. The problem with that comes if you return to this world after writing in a different one. Which leads into…
IV. You Can Go Home Again. My first four series and one standalone were each set in its own world. Five totally different societies, cultures, conflicts, and geographies. But with the Sanctuary duet – Dust and Light (8/2014) and Ash and Silver (8/2015) – for the first time, I’m going back to a world I’ve already created.
Yeah, I know a lot of authors do that. But I have always wanted each of my epic story arcs – the overarching tale of the multi-book series – to come to a timely resolution. I wanted readers to believe that the world and characters continued beyond the boundaries of the novels (some poor heroes with PTSD, of course) but I also wanted them to see the major questions answered and the conflicts settled. When the story’s over, it’s over, no matter how much I love the characters or the world. No reader was going to be waiting five years for my Book 20, only to be disappointed that nothing new happened!
So why did I change my mind? Unexplored territory!
My novels Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone (the Lighthouse Duet)take place in a deliciously complex world. A civil war is raging in a kingdom suffering a disastrous decline in the weather. Magic is confined to a group of wealthy families who provide their services to cities, nobles, clergy, or whoever else can afford to pay for them. To nurture and preserve their magic, pureblood sorcerers keep themselves detached from ordinary society and politics, serving whichever side pays. They have created a mannered, disciplined subculture, linking themselves to their clients by strict contracts. Young people born into these families inherit either their father’s bloodline magic or their mother’s. In exchange for their comfortable life, their choices are strictly limited– from what to wear to whom to marry, from how they address each other to the particular variant of their bloodline magic they practice.
It was great fun to develop and structure this society – but as it happened, the hero of Flesh and Spirit spent his life running away from his magical heritage. He called the life laid out for a pureblood sorcerer “slavery with golden chains” and was willing to forgo magic altogether to keep out of it. (The punishment for disobedience, and especially for such rebellion, is severe!) And his family happened to be particularly despicable. But Valen’s jaundiced viewpoint left many aspects of pureblood life unexplored. We experience it for a total of about three chapters! (He has other adventures waiting!)
When I started considering what project I wanted to work on when I finished the Collegia Magica series (one that I estimated correctly!) I wondered if there might have been someone else raised in the pureblood social structure and destined for interesting adventures, perhaps someone who embraced and believed in their ways. That’s when I met Lucian de Remeni-Masson.
So OK, finishing up with a little new release blurb here: Lucian, a pureblood sorcerer with a bent for portraiture, has grown up in wealth, privilege, self-discipline, and the conviction that his beloved family’s magical talents are the gods’ gift to a troubled kingdom. But a family tragedy begins a spiraling downfall that sweeps the young sorcerer into a life he had never imagined. Banished to the crude society of a bustling necropolis, Lucian’s task of drawing identity portraits of the dead becomes the key in two murder investigations which threaten to upend the war for Navronne’s crown and unravel the very foundations of pureblood life. And then there are the mysterious beings who glow with blue light and are following him through the dark streets of the city…
It’s harder than I thought to sort out what bits belong in this world – and invent some new ones – and what bits belong in the Collegia Magica world that intervened between the Lighthouse books and these, but then, who ever said that a writer’s life was easy? I’m still working on it.
Thanks for having me, Karen!