Writing in Sequence: A Guest Post by Penelope Wallace

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This is a guest post by Penelope Wallace, author of the “Ragaris” novels. Penelope and I have been taking about writing and our favourite books for a couple of years, and I asked her to write a post for the blog, focusing on what it’s like writing novels in a sequence. Her answers on the subject intrigued me, not least because of the allusions to P.G. Wodehouse, Anthony Trollope and Terry Pratchett. Particuarly in fantasy novels, the reader’s sense of the world seems so often to be shaped by the kind of sequence the novels set up. It raises questions about plot, time, the mode of fiction which the books offer, and the kinds of satisfactions they can provide. So without further ado, here is Penelope’s post.

Long long ago I wrote a still unpublished story set on the continent of Ragaris, which had a medieval culture, but modern gender equality. (This is what I call Swords Without Misogyny.)

Many years later I returned to write “We Do Not Kill Children,” the first of the Tales from Ragaris. Three of these have now been published, and I’m working on the fourth.

So I thought it was quite fair of Jem to ask me to say something about writing a sequence.

I think it’s interesting that long sequences of books featuring the same characters are most frequently found in crime fiction. Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell and Ellis Peters can afford to give us numerous stories featuring Hercule Poirot, Inspector Wexford or Brother Cadfael, because such stories are primarily plot-based. The essence of the book is not usually the hero themselves. (Dorothy L Sayers is the exception, with “Gaudy Night” being at least as much about Peter and Harriet as it is about the crimes in Shrewsbury College.)

On my own blog I’ve discussed (here: https://www.penelopewallace.com/more-on-genre-the-novel-sequence/) the different type of novel sequences. I say:

Most novel sequences could be described as a series of sequels featuring the same beloved characters. What I find more interesting are the rarer cases of authors who create a county, a planet, or an alternative history, and write completely standalone stories, where the heroine of book 1 may be a minor character, a dead ancestor, or simply not mentioned at all in books 2 and 3.

This is what I’ve tried to do, imitating Anthony Trollope, Marion Zimmer Bradley, PG Wodehouse, and of course Sir Terry Pratchett. Time on Ragaris moves on, and no one character gets to be the hero(ine) of more than one book. I think I’m correct in saying that the protagonist of “We Do Not Kill Children” is mentioned later on, but not named.

The Tales from Ragaris are crime-and-intrigue stories, with so far not fewer than two murders per book, but they are also (I hope) character-based, to the extent of putting the protagonists through the wringer, and forcing them painfully to address issues in their lives and their society. Poirot, by contrast, does not have to re-evaluate his entire life every time he solves a crime. Bertie Wooster never re-evaluates his life at all.

Sequence writing has the advantage for the writer that people know to some extent what they’re getting. I only have to, as it were, redesign the wagon, not reinvent the wheel each time. Ragaris by now has some basic rules to follow.

My stories are separated from each other by time. Forty-nine years pass between “We Do Not Kill Children” and “The Tenth Province of Jaryar”; twenty-two years between “Tenth Province” and “The Servant’s Voice”; I’m expecting eleven between “Servant’s Voice” and Book Four. You can see from this that the gaps are shortening; also that if a character wants to appear in more than one book, he/she had better be fairly young in the first.

Hence a troubled teenager in WDNKC is a respected Abbot in TPOJ – and a dead author in SV. An orphan squire in TPOJ is a (fairly) mature warrior in SV. In neither case were they major characters first time round. This is the kind of connection that readers don’t have to notice, but I find fun.

Mostly I have annoyed people by refusing to tell them “what happens next” to their favourite characters. This is partly because I don’t want to get it wrong, and undermine the hopefully satisfying if sometimes bittersweet resolutions.

The Tales are also separated geographically. Ragaris has (or had, spoiler) seven countries; and I’m moving round. After finishing a story set in Marod, I knew just enough about Haymon  to know that I wanted to say things about it – a society that, unlike almost everywhere else in fiction, did not fight too hard to be independent of a powerful neighbour. And having moved on once, I did it again.

This is stimulating for me (as Wodehouse said, “Writing Jeeves stories gives me a great deal of pleasure, and keeps me out of the public houses”) and it allows me to invent a surprisingly large number of non-chauvinist societies.

It allows me to point out that such a society might not be gentle or egalitarian. Hridnaya is the protagonist of “The Servant’s Voice.” She lives in Ricossa, where confidential servants have their tongues cut out, and are “compensated” with high wages and job security.

I enjoy following through the consequences of events in later history: intended and unintended; local and abroad. I also enjoy showing each society in turn through the eyes of the others, which means that prejudice and culture clash are continuing themes.

But of course the disadvantage is that it means more work for the reader. After getting to know the King’s Thirty of Marod, he/she may be disgruntled to be whisked off in the next book to the flower-strewn corrupt proto-democracy of Haymon, or the brutal but polite oligarchy of Ricossa. And after all I do want them to like the King’s Thirty. With each book I have to create, and my longsuffering reader has to learn, a different royal family, capital city, set of customs, and even constitution. And, for some reason, different hair styles.

I sometimes wonder if the reason JK Rowling is more famous than the (in some ways very similar) Diana Wynne Jones is that Rowling stuck to one set of people for seven books. Readers became extremely, even fanatically, attached to these people. Jones, although sometimes writing series or featuring the same character, also liked to ring changes. The magic of “Charmed Life” works very differently from that of “Power of Three;” both great books.

Other drawbacks of writing a series are obvious: continuity, and spoilers. I do have a few notes, and the more I go on, the more I need them. The family trees of the various royal houses are particularly necessary. And now I’ve committed myself to certain obscure towns and laws – and very complicated rules of nomenclature. It can be hard to remember what I need to look up and check later.

Having a history that moves forward also creates its own problems, as Ragaris in theory exists in our world, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. I do not want its characters to meet Christopher Columbus.

And spoilers. In theory the books are designed to be read in any order. Because each has a different set of people, and a different setting, this should be possible, but it’s not completely watertight. There’s an election in “Tenth Province”, and if you read “Servant’s Voice” first, you’ll find out who won – though not exactly how.

Because I’ve published three books, I’m sometimes asked if it’s a trilogy: with perhaps the hint that it might now be finished! No, it’s a series. You the reader can start anywhere; I the author can stop anywhere. I don’t want to stop yet.