Today we embark on studying some guidelines for planning a character arc for a book series.
Guideline #1: Watch dates and years.
This won’t apply to all series. Not all books make it clear what day(s) the events are occurring. My Hidden Faces books, which take place in present day, actually state the day of the week and date (which determines the year), so I really had to be careful about this issue. But there are hidden ways your books might contain dates that define the year. Does your story include a holiday that changes weekdays year to year? Or one like Easter, that changes dates? If your story is present day, and Christmas falls on a Sunday, your story is taking place in 2005.
Believe me, even if you don’t specify 2005, you’ll have readers out there who will check this sort of thing. As for me, if my readers don’t, my copyeditor sure will.
Real news events included in your story can also tend to date it, although not necessarily to the day or year. But if you mention the presidential election took place a month ago—obviously your story’s in December. And presidential elections only take place every four years.
If I’m writing a present-day story that occurs in December, I’ll consider that it takes place in the year previous to its publication—unless the book happens to be published in December.
Why? Because I find it awkward for “present day” books to be ahead of the real calendar. I can write a story that will be published in May 2006 and have it take place the year before, or up to the current month of May. But to have it take place in November 2006 doesn’t feel right to me. (This is far different than stories that are purposely set in the future.) I want my readers to have a sense of real time, and if they’re reading about a month that hasn’t occurred yet, I feel that sense is broken.
(No doubt this attention to detail comes from my writing suspense, which requires that a million and one details be worked out regarding the crime and twists. The genre's simply made me obsess about everything.)
So here’s the rub. Let’s say you’re writing a four-book series under contract. Kids are involved in your stories. They’ll be growing. Your protagonist will be aging too. How long a time do you expect between the events of the first and the last book? Four years? Maybe you don’t want the kids to age any more than that. Okay, let’s say you write two books a year. And you probably know it takes approximately one year from handing in the manuscript until it hits shelves. So do the math.
You write the first book from Feb. to July of 2006. It will be published in July 2007. The story ends around the Fourth of July holiday. Well, ya just made it under the wire. Your story can take place in 2007. So the holiday better fall on a Wednesday.
But wait a minute. You want a four-year spread between the first and last book. And if you write two books a year, that means you’re turning in book 4 in Feb. 2008. It will be published in Feb. 2009. That’s only 1 ½ years in real time between the books. But in your storyworld, you’d be setting the last novel four years from the first—somewhere around summer 2011. I just won’t allow myself to do that. It bugs me too much.
Now if you’re the ultimate planner, you can work out this conundrum from the beginning. Redefine when book one takes place (it’ll have to be a few years before publication), then build from there so by book four the story’s taking place just about the time the book is published. Yup, that’s one way you could do it. Wish I could. Unfortunately I’m way too much of a pea brain to figure out four plots at once. I simply can’t plan that far ahead.
So what’s a gal like me to do?
Read Part 3