The strangeness, and freedom, of writing a trilogy

My writing desk

My writing desk at Lumb Bank

When I started my first novel, INCEPTIO, I had no idea what I was doing. Writing was an impulse, a reaction to a dire film and thinking I could produce something better. But not even halfway through the first draft, I realised I had a far bigger story than I’d anticipated. So I did the classic thing – I was going to make a trilogy.

While I was scribbling book 1, my focus shifted to planning book 2, which was going to be the pivot for books 1 and 3. Some trilogies develop from book 1 and the original story can widen out into an impossible sprawl in order to make each book more exciting than the previous one. Not for me!

Although I saw it differently at the time, the eighteen months of submitting my work to agents and publishers of book 1 gave me an invaluable period in which to plan, draft and hone the whole trilogy. I blush at what INCEPTIO would have been like without that maturation.

So what did I learn and what are my tips to pass on to other writers?

1. Work out the entire plot in advance

All three of my books are set in an imaginary country, Roma Nova, and follow the adventures of the same heroine, from when she (and the reader!) discovers Roma Nova to sixteen years later. And, of course, she will save the world and hopefully herself. But that’s too vague. Each book needs its own story, but one which contributes to the plot arc of the trilogy.

Crudely speaking, apart from the individual thriller story, book 1 sets the scene, introduces the world, the ‘rules’ of that world and the main characters. Book 2 consolidates, widens and sets the ground for the final reckoning in book 3. However, each book must stand on its own as a complete story. A reader may pick up book 2 first and while they may be eager to find out what went before and what happened afterwards, they must have a satisfying read from the book they bought. Writers need to drip in enough backstory to bring the new reader up to speed without boring the established fan.

2. Know your characters in advance

Naples MuseumAdding a raft of new characters in each book is tempting. I confess to a fair number of characters, but Roma Nova operates on collectivities like families, military, even criminal organisations.

Recycling characters in each book not only helps eliminate ‘character creep’, but is a pleasure for both writer and reader as we see each individual develop his or her own story.  However, you do need new people now and again and however reluctantly, you should kill off one or two or you risk making your world too much like Shangri-La or Pleasantville.

3. Work out big secrets in advance and scatter little ones throughout all the books

As a reader, I like a good, heavy surprise at the end of books, or at least a ‘twist in the tale’ and hints about this should pop up throughout the book. As a writer, I love laying ‘Easter eggs’ in one book that hatch in another. I was lucky that I was able to do this with INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO as I had all first drafts written before INCEPTIO finally went to print.

4. Intrigue by revelation over a longer stretch

With a trilogy, you have the advantage of being able to reveal backstory and other facets of your characters over a longer span. This needs to be done carefully and not be an excuse for padding. In an epic, saga or high concept story, we all love ‘deep lore from the past’, hidden family secrets or a forbidden passion. Timely revelations also strengthen the bonds between the books.

5. Practicalities

sketch mapYour head may be stuffed with information about your setting, you may have notebooks or files full of research or you may just live in your books’ world. But you need to have consistent information to hand on the internal values and culture, governmental, societal and economic structures, geography, history, sources of income, education, food, religion and, of course language.

I don’t have a map, but I do know where Roma Nova is and that Castra Lucilla in to the south of the city and Aquae Caesaris and Brancadorum are to the west and east respectively.

I maintain a list of characters for each book, remembering to update it in the next as characters change job, get promoted, married, or move on. Something I’ve found indispensable is a spreadsheet of ages, tracking who is what age when something happens and preventing character X being older that his mother.

The very worst thing? I’m speaking as a reader here. When something or somebody pops up like a deus ex machina in a sequel or directly contradicts something in a previous book and there has not been the least hint about it. Even if you as a writer think up the cleverest idea in the world, don’t do it! Star Trek fans will cringe at the memory of the controversy over the changed Klingon physical appearance. One character told the humans not to ask – it was a Klingon-only secret – and another said it was due to a terrible disease in the past. Hm.

The trilogy in evolution?

Well, SUCCESSIO, the third Roma Nova thriller, set off into the world last June. But the books don’t end there – readers clamoured for further Roma Nova stories and I have plenty more in my story box. So  I turned the ‘trilogy’ into the start of a series. I have at least three more planned around a significant secondary character and then, who knows?


Updated: Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIOAURELIA and INSURRECTIO. The sixth, RETALIO, will be published in Spring 2017. Audiobooks now available for the first four of the series

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines… Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, for FREE when you sign up to Alison’s free monthly email newsletter

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