When one becomes three: Merryn Allingham on writing a trilogy

pic MaureenI was lucky enough to read an early draft of Merryn Allingham’s first ‘Daisy’ book, destined to become The Girl from Cobb Street, and so I was intrigued when I discovered that a sequel was in progress.  But it didn’t end there.  I’d always imagined that writing a series or trilogy was something that was meticulously planned right from the start, and in fact several of the Write Romantics have happily set off down that route themselves.  But in the words of the song, it ain’t necessarily so.  I’ll leave Merryn to explain how it worked for her:-

Authors are often encouraged to write sequels, or trilogies or a series featuring the same character. It’s claimed that in this way they’re more likely to attract and keep a bevy of loyal fans. To be honest, I’ve never been keen on the idea. I thought I’d grow bored with writing about the same character or the same place long before I ever finished the project. But when I came to the end of The Girl from Cobb Street, I realised that I couldn’t leave my heroine where she was. There was so much more of Daisy’s story to tell. Without realising it, I’d begun to write a trilogy.

It was something I’d never attempted before but it couldn’t be that difficult, could it? It was just three novels with the same female protagonist. Well, yes and no. Daisy Driscoll is my heroine in all three novels, but she’s not the same person at the end of book 3 as she was at the beginning of book 1. I had to make sure that her character developed in response to her experiences over the timespan of the novels, a period of ten years. And not just Daisy. It held true for every character who had a significant role. And those same characters would need to appear/reappear more than once, so that readers weren’t left wondering whatever happened to so and so? In other words, I had to finish their stories as well as Daisy’s.Cobb Street

Then there was the need for consistency. Not just details like the characters’ ages at certain periods (a timeline over three books is bound to be more complex) or their physical characteristics or their biographies – but making sure that there were no contradictions from book to book in their basic attitudes and values and how they expressed those attitudes and values. Or if there were contradictions, I needed to account for them.

I was well into the second book, which became The Nurse’s War, when it dawned on me that I needed to plot much more carefully. Not only did I need a beginning that would kick the whole trilogy off, rather than just the first book, but even worse, I had to know the ending of the last novel in order to offer clues along the way that would make the final dénouement plausible for the reader. Needless to say, there was some hasty rewriting at this stage!

I also had to reinforce the main themes of the trilogy – in this case, the growth of self-belief, the search for identity, the recognition of true love. I could see that I’d need to make them far more powerful than I’d first thought. Overarching themes, along with characters, hold the series together and act as a kind of umbrella, under which each individual title can shelter and connect.

NursesWar_FinalFinally, I had to deal with the problem of back story. How much or how little to retell with each book. Too much and the reader who has been following the series, becomes bored and may even feel cheated by any repetition. Too little and a reader who is new to the trilogy feels confused and annoyed with the writer for making their life difficult. It was a hard balance to achieve but I hope I got it more or less right.

Would I write another trilogy? Perhaps not, but a series that combined the same female protagonist with different mysteries or crimes in different settings – now that might be interesting!

The second book in the trilogy, The Nurse’s War, will be published on 21st May. http://tinyurl.com/m7oaxzt

Find out more about Merryn here:  www.merrynallingham.com

Facebook: www.tinyurl.com/m322ovu

If you’d like to keep in touch with Merryn, receive all her latest news and join a regular writing forum, you’d be most welcome to sign up for her newsletter.  (Just visit her website, as above).

Deirdre

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15 thoughts on “When one becomes three: Merryn Allingham on writing a trilogy

  1. Wonderul blog, and I’ve found myself in exactly the same position. Book 1 in my Oaklands Manor series was stand-alone… or so I thought! Although while I was writing it (in the first person) I knew I wanted to explore what some of the other characters were up to, so I planned a companion novella. Which turned into three, full-length novels, each slightly over-lapping the last!

    Your comments here, about plotting more carefully, and how much back-story to include, are spot on, too. The trouble was, book 1 was published before book 2 became an issue, so I was constrained by what I’d already said rather than having the option to go back and change things in book 1 to fit my purposes! A challenge, but such an enjoyable one 🙂
    Thanks for a wonderful post!

  2. I was just about to set off on the same task myself, several volumes of the story of my social worker character, I’ll bear the above points in mind now. The stories sound just my sort of thing too, I’ll go and look them out. Thanks for a great post 🙂

  3. Beautiful covers, Merryn, and a great post. You make some really interesting points about the challenge of getting that plotting right… As a lifelong pantser, about to write the third in a series of Christmas novellas in the same setting, I may well be in trouble…

  4. Neither am I. I need to know where I’m going, and as I’m writing four books in my series I daren’t risk leaving things to chance. Luckily, only the first one has been published yet, so as I write book three, I’m able to pop back to book two and change things, if necessary. I’m running out of time though, so I’d better hurry up. Thanks for a great post, Merryn.

  5. Four books, Sharon! You’re a heroine – I don’t think I could have sustained a fourth. But a series makes sense in today’s publishing world, and I wish you the very best of luck with it.

  6. Thanks for a really great post Merryn. I’m writing a series too and am half way through book two. I’m facing all of the challenges that you’ve outlined and it’s great to know other people go through the same thing. If I’d known at the beginning how hard it is to write a series I’d probably have talked myself out of it but it’s rather too late for that now!
    Best of luck with your books.
    Alys xx

    • I’m sure in the end you’ll be glad that you didn’t talk yourself out of it, Alys. It’s most definitely a challenge, but you do learn from it – a lot! And that has to be good for your writing in the future.

  7. Hello! I loved The Girl from Cobb Street and I’m looking forward to The Nurses War. Loved this post. It wasn’t until I neared the end of my novel that I realised I could go on if I wished – and another book, given the nature of the story, ties in nicely with something I was already working on, so I can combine them. So often things don’t have to be set in stone – they simply develop as we go along and that is one of the things I find so interesting & exciting as a writer. Many best wishes to you in life & writing.
    Best,
    Suzy

    • Thanks for the good wishes, Suzy. Sometimes I think I should have more of a plan as a writer – I’ve met people who seem to know exactly where they want to be at what stage – but my preference, like yours, is simply to go with the flow.

      • Hello. So sorry I missed your reply. Thanks for that & hope you’ve been enjoying a good summer, wherever you are. Best wishes to you. 🙂

  8. Lovely post, Merryn, very interesting. It’s clear you have put a great deal of work into preparing the trilogy. I agree with you about the back story issue. I enjoy reading books in a series, but there is always that clunky bit near the beginning where the author has to re-cap what happened previously for the benefit of new readers.

    I have just read the start of The Girl From Cobb Street and I am hugely impressed by the depth and quality of your viewpoint writing. Fantastic! It’s going to be an engrossing read.

  9. Hi Susanna

    I tried very hard to avoid the ‘clunky’ bits, so much so that by the time I got to the third book, I was verging on paranoid. But then I was told by my editor that I needed to include more backstory, not less, as a reminder. She was quite right, of course. As a reader, I’m not too good myself at remembering a book in detail, once a few months have passed.

    I hope you continue to enjoy The Girl from Cobb Street and thanks for your generous support.

  10. Tolkien didn’t have backstory in “Lord of the Rings”, so why would we? He had a synopsis, and that did the job perfectly well. I wish Tad Williams’ “Shadowmarch” had some – they omitted them at least in the German edition, and when Vol. 2 was published, I had absolutely forgotten everything about Vol. 1. Which tells more about his recent books than Tad may like.

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