Why Write a Novel Series?

When first imagining the story that is still propelling me, I was more moved by inspiration than fiction-writing savvy. So it was full of tangled ideas. Originally titled Founding Fabric, it opened with Annabelle Manning waking to birdsong, in a tent on the plains of what was called “the great American desert,” in what is now Kansas. As her morning camp chores proceeded (she was collecting buffalo dung to burn in the cooking fire), she mused about her past. Wandering the hills, contemplating regrets and hopes, the narrative left with her thoughts to fill in backstory. What led a woman, born into extreme wealth—on a Southern plantation nonetheless—to be searching dry earth for animal excrement? The answer was provocative, involving a character who haunted Annabelle’s thoughts: the enslaved woman, named Cecie, who raised her. The backstory told such a complex tale that eventually early readers would insist I start Annabelle’s tale at the beginning.

When I tried to follow their advice, I still didn’t realize how much there was to the story in my head. The writing raced along, skirting the surface of events and Annabelle’s experience of them. I wrote quickly, feverishly, just trying to keep up with all the ideas. I didn’t realize I was piling climax upon climax; I thought I was just writing an action-packed novel. Surely early readers felt exhausted (except my mother, of course, who absorbed the journey just fine as she cheered me on).

The story sped along from the Kansas Territory into the earliest days of the frontier town Denver City, then the hills outside Santa Fe. During the Civil War, I was preparing to send Annabelle back to Denver when I lost steam. Maybe this was due to the temperament of the world at the time, as I had started writing when we were in the COVID-19 lockdown of May/June 2020. It wasn’t like the world picked up and returned to full throttle all that fast, but the toll on my mental health was great and I lost the creative impulse. 

This break was important, as when I began thinking of the story in the Spring of 2021, I wanted objective opinions about whether I should continue it. So I consecutively asked Colin Mustful and Page Lambert to share their thoughts. While they were encouraging, both told me to slooooow way down, to develop basically every element essential to good storytelling: Annabelle and her development, each and every setting she passed through, and most of all to tell the tale chronologically and fill out the complex backstory. 

For reasons I’ll write about in another post, that backstory was rough to write. It touches on some major cultural issues we are still grappling with: race, privilege, and the history of slavery in America. It was, therefore, completely overwhelming. I made some early attempts and began sharing them with The History Quill critique group. The feedback only made me realize how very far I had to go as a storyteller before I would feel up to taking this on. I got stuck. 

The story went dormant and I occupied myself researching how newspapers contributed to the settling of the Old West. While I saw this as a future theme of the novel, the research also led me into other story ideas. The History Quill held their first online convention in February 2023, and I distinctly recall how—on day three—I realized that Founding Fabric had ten climaxes in it. I further broke this down to realize about half of them could be “inciting incidents”—moments in the opening of stories that call a character to action or put them in a tough enough spot that they have to respond. This realization opened everything up: I didn’t have to cram everything in my head into 300 pages. I could actually do what Colin and Page advised and slooooow way down to do full justice to Annabelle’s story. I could write it as a series.

After the convention, I started writing for three hours early every morning and full days on weekends, and didn’t stop for six weeks. The result was the first full draft of Our Sealed Letters. While it took many rounds of revision and copious amounts of feedback from a collective of book professionals to hone the manuscript, the realization that the story in my head was a series of novels had opened everything up. 

Since then, I have contemplated a lot of structures. Can it be a trilogy? A five-book series? Could I write this story for as long as there are readers? I cannot know. Because I discover so much about Annabelle’s story as I write, I think I will have to be as surprised as I was when Annabelle first saw her childhood friend, Charlie Hart, in Rochester. She shows me more than I can consciously decide ahead of time. Even though I know where she’s headed, only Annabelle can reveal what happens along the way. While I think in terms of story structure and how many narrative arcs there are to fill X many books, she is busy playing her tune. I just have to listen.

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