I've spent a lot of time lately thinking about why and how I became a romance novelist. I do read romances, and there are a few select authors I enjoy every time. More often, though, I'm in there for the first third of the book, and then, not so much. How, then, did I start writing them?
Well, first, by default, everything I know about police procedurals I learned off CSI -- and if I'm going to do extensive research, I'm just gonna write non-fiction. And second, Donald Trump went and got himself elected and the world's been increasingly unrecognizable to me ever since. Some days watching American politics feels a lot like watching the decline of democracy, the fall of the American empire. And since at first that brought out a lot of anger and fight in me, but most recently has spawned large amounts of disbelief and mild fits of depression, I kind of came to the conclusion that what the world needs now is love sweet love (as opposed to corruption, anger, and bi-partisan hatred) -- and I'm the girl to give it to them.
I first started writing romance in 2018, and I began with a few stand alone stories. The one I most wanted to write was the story of a musician with an addiction issue, inspired very broadly by my own experiences as the leader of a band. I also wrote a novella about the Canadian Pipeline debate, and also a novel about equine therapy. Then I wrote book one in a series -- The Lakeland Series.
My sister asked me how it was different writing a series, and what I realized is that at least in the series she and I were speaking of, the main difference was I took one set of characters and got to develop their relationship further. Instead of boy and girl meeting, falling in love and living happily ever after in the span of a few hundred pages, my boy and girl start dating in book one, have their first fight in book two, have to figure out the boundaries of co-parenting in a blended family in book three, and it is not until book four that they get married and live happily ever after. (Oops, spoiler alert).
In a series, I get to extend the arc of my characters' developing relationship over books rather than merely over pages, and by doing that I get a more realistic ride. Yes, they are still getting the foreseeable happy ending at the end of each novel in the series, but they get to show more of their issues along the way. And they have four novels to do it in.
Which means, of course, you have to have an endpoint in mind before the series even begins. In a romance, that ending is happily-ever-after, aka, marriage. And so, while I am happily murdering people left, right and centre so my sexy cop will have cases to solve and thereby impress the girl, I also get to spend a lot of time thinking about the obstacles to true love -- and to throw them at my couple. My heroine has a guilt complex about letting go of her deceased husband's memory enough to move on, for example, and also, she has a teenage daughter. Being the step-parent to a teenager is never a situation for the squeamish. But also, Drew is a cop, and there is a reality that he works long, weird hours, and she waits and worries, and he can't talk to her about all the details of his day, and... Behind the uniform is a real man with real life scenarios. She has to decide if she can really put up with them or not, and if she wants to not only love him, but to love him in real time -- when it's hard. To me, this prolonged development of their love story is one reason series are often superior to stand alone novels.
That said, you have to know if your story fits better as a series or on its own. Do these two characters have enough going on to extend the development of their story line? Are there enough angles and loose ends to tie up to maintain the interest of the reader further than the end of book one? Is the topic(s) being covered deep enough to sustain interest and palatable enough to keep you, as a writer, committed? And then, you need to work on developing a system which will allow you to remember the details which accumulate in greater bulk over multiple novels than in a stand alone book.
When I realized in book three that I could not remember the name of Jim's (town vet) wife, I wasn't surprised. She had a one-line mention in book one. Although I didn't realize it when I first wrote about Debra, that one line was really foreshadowing for book three. She wants to live nearer her grandchildren. By the end of book three, not only have they retired and sold their house, the means of finalizing the sale of the house become crucial to pointing Drew in the direction of his killer.
Debra's was not the only name I forgot. I couldn't remember Chief Ollie's last name. This wasn't relevant in any way during any of the books, but if I'd given him a last name in one book then called himself a different name in a later book, that would have been a problem. So, I had to check. And that meant, paging through the first manuscript looking for the word "Ollie," a time-consuming process. In book one, I also had both a Jocelyn and a Jolene as secondary characters. I couldn't remember which was which. This search process was even worse, because not only did I have to page through and identify who was who, I had to then retrace the steps of both characters to ensure I hadn't mixed up their identities while I was writing the draft.
I couldn't remember who, in book one, had previously owned the murder house -- although I knew from the beginning that this character was coming back later in the series. I knew he would be pivotal, but I didn't yet know if he was going to turn out to be a villain or a red herring. I had just enough reference in book one ("that was unfortunate what happened with him") to make him recognizable when he turned up in book four without committing to any details before I had them decided.
It became very apparent that I needed some sort of system for tracking my characters, and since these were mostly minor characters, I decided to go the simplest route possible. I got a notebook, and made a list. First, I listed every character chronologically as they appeared in the novel. Then, I tore out those pages, and rewrote them paired into a very basic classification system which included one or two key details about each character. For example, I grouped together all the people who worked at the police station; I grouped together villans, victims, family friends (by surname), and certain business groupings (such as employees at Zara Vineyard). I listed their names, sometimes a small detail, and then, in brackets beside their names, I listed what book number they appeared in first.
I created a similar system for the geography of the town. Lakeland is a composite of my hometown, very liberally adapted. I take from and add to it as needed. When I needed a liquor store, I wrote one in. But I only needed one liquor store, and so I kept the name consistent throughout the series. If anything went down in a pub, it went down in Brandi's Pub for all four books. This even though in my real life hometown, we have more than one pub.
At first, I tried to draw myself a map of the town, much like you might find in the beginning pages of a fantasy novel. The problem was, as the series expanded, the map constantly changed with new businesses and residences being added. So, I gave this up, and instead simply made a list of places -- again with reference notes added. I kept these notes brief because there wasn't much point in making myself a cheat sheet if that sheet got so large that I had to page through copious notes of information every time I attempted to find what I was looking for.
Other authors recommend writing out paragraphs relating to each character, but I only did that in reference to my three main characters. I wanted to make sure Colleen's eyes didn't change colour, or her middle name, but beyond that, I wanted to simply let her grow. I didn't want to micromanage her with a list of qualities I preconceived and needed her to embody. If a paragraph system works best for you, go for it. Just give each paragraph a clear heading and enough space before and after that locating the correct character in your notes is as easy (and quick) as possible.