Onward Through the Past: Writing the long historical fiction series

Conventional wisdom says that writers looking for long-term success should write series, however those books will be published. Readers love to settle into a fictional world, whether historical or fantastic. And if you’re doing your job right, they become attached to your characters. They want to know more about them. They want to meet their children, their grandchildren, their aunts and their uncles.

There are many ways to design a series that suits the genre you want to write. Mysteries are a natural; there’s always another crime for your sleuths to solve. Romances often rotate through large families or circles of friends. Historical fiction lends itself to generational sagas, chronicles of kingdoms or long conflicts, and stand-alone stories set in the same historical milieu, like the world of espionage in WWII.

All right! You plan a great series and get it off the ground with the four-six books conventional wisdom says you need to find your audience. What then?

Then you realize that your cast of characters has grown beyond your original plan. Worse, readers love them all, sometimes the secondary ones more than the protagonists. M. Louisa Locke, author of the Victorian San Francisco mystery series, enjoys this ticklish problem. She solves it, in part, by writing short stories and novellas that bring a secondary character into the limelight. It’s a brilliant solution on several levels. Come hear all about it.

What if your stories chronicle turbulent times, like the reign of King Richard II in England? Jeri Westerson’s Crispin Guest Medieval Noir mystery series has to cope with the effects those dangerous years have on her protagonist in each book. Westerson will talk about how she has managed her maturing sleuth over the fifteen-book series. She’ll also address another problem in writing a long-running series: when to decide it’s over. You won’t hear about that decision-making process anywhere else.

Anna Castle as Francis Bacon

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, or the historical record contradicts readers’ fond beliefs. Sarah Woodbury writes five historical fiction series, from time travel to medieval mysteries, such as the fourteen-book Gareth and Gwen Medieval Mystery series. They, too, lived in turbulent times, solving crimes and managing families in an ever-changing political landscape. Woodbury has set dozens of novels in her chosen historical period. She knows medieval Wales better than most of know our own regions. She’ll talk about convincing readers of the books’ historical accuracy even when the facts run counter to the myths they’ve learned. This can be a real puzzler for all writers of historical fiction. Come get some tips from an expert!

It’s fun for both writers and readers to explore the lives of historical figures through fiction. But what happens when your faithfully-rendered protagonist steps off his pedestal and becomes less than honorable? Anna Castle writes the Francis Bacon mystery series. She’s reaching the middle of the 1590s, when Bacon descends into cynicism for a while. He helps the Earl of Essex get an innocent man hanged. Later, he’s arrested for debt and has to scramble for a rich — teenaged — wife. He’s too well known to skip past the sketchy stuff. They’re part of history. Castle will ponder ways to keep her protagonist likeable when he doesn’t even like himself. This may be a cautionary tale for those of you attracted to a character with a checkered past.

We have lots to talk about, but we’ll leave plenty of time for questions. Long series offer many advantages to an author, not least of which that you get to settle into your favorite historical period and build a home. Ask us about the pleasures, as well as the perils, of writing a long-running historical series. We’ll do our best to convince you that in this case, the conventional wisdom is right.


Sign up for the 2021 Historical Novel Society Conference to attend this exciting panel.

June 27, Sunday, 11:30AM-12:30PM (CT)

ONWARD THROUGH THE PAST: WRITING THE LONG HISTORICAL FICTION SERIES

Anna Castle, M. Louisa Locke, Jeri Westerson, Sarah Woodbury

One thought on “Onward Through the Past: Writing the long historical fiction series

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s