Writing a series: Advice from Clara Benson


30 October 2020
The author of a ten-book series and a spin-off six-book series on what she wishes she'd known right at the beginning
Writing a series: Advice from Clara Benson Images

What do I wish I’d known when I started writing? The obvious reply to this is that I wish I’d known how little I knew – but really, that goes without saying, because nobody has the faintest idea what they’re doing when they start writing. I certainly didn’t. As a lifelong reader, I’d read so many books that I assumed I’d absorbed the knowledge of how to construct a novel into the very fibre of my being by some sort of process of osmosis. Reader, I was wrong. But if I had been aware of my own ignorance, I’d never have got started as I’d have been too embarrassed to write anything at all. So I am in fact very glad I piled in like a bull in a china shop and didn’t wait until I had more experience, because there’s nothing like making all your mistakes in public (*hollow laugh*).

What I actually wish I’d known was that I was going to end up producing a ten-book series and a spin-off series that's now up to six books, plus three short stories. Well, that escalated, as they say.

On the one hand, writing a series with a repeat main character is great, because after book 1 you don’t have to bother with all that difficult stuff like developing a completely new protagonist with an interesting personality flaw you’ve never used before ('Hmm – so my last MC was a secret alcoholic with an overbearing mother and an unconquerable dislike of ferrets. Let’s make this one a potholing champion with crippling claustrophobia who collects Bay City Rollers memorabilia.').

On the other, you now have the responsibility of remembering everything your MC has ever said and done across an arc of several books – and not only your MC, but also your minor characters, who will now develop an annoying habit of popping up all over the place when you thought you’d finished with them forever. That’s when your early choices will come back to bite you. For example, I made one of my secondary characters a former acrobat. Why an acrobat, for heaven’s sake? What was I thinking? Did I just google 'careers A-Z' and pick one near the top of the list? I have no idea. But I did it, so now I have to have him doing acrobatty things, because it’s not the sort of background you can give someone and then avoid mentioning it ever again, like I could if I’d made him an insurance salesman.

Another problem is that when Uncle Reginald from earlier in the series decides to make a guest reappearance, you will realise you cannot for the life of you remember what he looked like, or how old he was, or whether he was the one who had the penchant for putting ketchup on his pizza. So you spend hours scouring through earlier books looking for mentions of him. If you’re lucky you’ll remember where he first appeared and avoid committing any howlers. If not, a week after publication you’ll get irate emails from readers telling you that Uncle Reginald hates both ketchup and pizza, and by the way you also called him Uncle Hubert in the first book.

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So, my advice is that if you’ve written a book and you think it might become a series, get organised now. Keep a list of character names, ages and appearances – and, if applicable, a timeline of what everyone was doing when. There are lots of fancy tools you can use for all this stuff, but be aware that if you’re the easily distracted sort (this is not me I am a model of concentration why are you looking at me like that), you’ll probably spend far too much time messing about with them and getting nothing done at all, so it’s probably safest to stick to a spreadsheet or document program – or even pen and paper (ask an older member of your family what these are).

Do that, and there’s a good chance you won’t accidentally disrupt the space/time continuum and have someone show up at a party in book 8 when you told readers in book 2 that they died twenty years ago. Because that’s just embarrassing.

Clara Benson's most recent novel The Stolen Letter is published by Bookouture.


Interested in writing a series? Listen to author KC Finn talking about the inspiration for the Book of Shade series.