No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money, said Samuel Johnson. While most writers would not wholly subscribe to that dictum, we are always seeking ways of – to borrow a useful new word from the tech industry – monetizing the work that we do for love. The truth is that most of us would write creatively whether paid or not. It is akin to an addiction, and it is this passion for the written word that can occasionally make us feel like hostages to the industry that surrounds us. Added to this, there are fashions in publishing, just as there are fashions in every other commercial endeavour, and these fashions inevitably impinge on the writers who are trying to make a living from their talents.
One of the ways of making money out of what we do may involve writing a series of novels in which our main characters, or a whole family, continue throughout a string of books. The single novel divided into serial parts has a long and distinguished history, but is only published nowadays in a scant handful of women’s magazines. Charles Dickens certainly knew a thing or two about monetizing his output, becoming so successful at splitting his novels into enticing segments that readers would be anticipating the next episode, much as people today hanker after the next episode of TV serials such as Broadchurch or Happy Valley.
Now, many readers seem to crave instead a linked series of novels, as in most contemporary crime fiction, one of the few forms of genre fiction, alongside some historical fiction, that is taken seriously by the literary establishment. (In my more cynical moments, I think the preponderance of male authors devoting themselves to this genre may have something to do with its critical respectability.) When a writer has created an appealing sleuth or an engaging police officer, it must seem foolish not to let him or her solve more crimes, as the wildly successful crime writers of the twentieth century realised.
If, however, we take note of Ariadne Oliver, Hercule Poirot’s writer friend, and her scathing remarks about her own detective, the endless demand for more of the same may be a doubtful blessing: ‘You try something – and people seem to like it – and then you go on – and before you know where you are, you’ve got someone like that maddening Sven Hjerson tied to you for life.’ (Mrs McGinty’s Dead.) If Ariadne’s ambiguous feelings about her Finn bear any relation to the truth of Christie’s own perception of Monsieur Poirot, then even the creator must at last grow weary: ‘Fond of him? If I met that bony, gangling, vegetable-eating Finn in real life, I’d do a better murder than any I’ve ever invented.’
All the same, as a writer of fiction, I can vouch for the fact that some characters steal your heart to the extent that you want to live with them throughout more novels. Whether you would want to live with them for quite as many books as some of our crime writers do is another matter, but I would hesitate to second guess any fellow writer.
The desire of many readers for a series of novels exploring familiar characters in a particular setting extends far beyond crime and has done for many years. Catherine Cookson was adept at creating stories that continued throughout many novels: a truly prodigious output of which readers never seemed to tire. There are countless popular science fiction, historical and family sagas with, more recently, the Outlander, Shades of Grey and Twilight series, not forgetting, of course, Harry Potter. Well-researched and executed historical series such as Winston Graham’s Poldark novels follow characters throughout their lives and into the next generations.
In a series of historical novels, whether following the life and times of real characters, or dealing with fictional characters in a turbulent historical setting, the writer has more leeway than in a long-running crime-fiction series where detectives like Morse and Rebus can grow old, but seldom move far beyond their familiar and much-loved locations, often vibrant cities such as Oxford or Edinburgh. In Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels, for example, some of the characters can, justifiably, depart for a new country, and one suspects that the novelist breathed a sigh of relief at the additional creative ‘elbow room’ such a transition allowed.
All of this is on my mind, since I too have embarked on a series of novels. Some years ago, I published a novel called The Curiosity Cabinet. It was set on a fictional Hebridean island called Garve, and involved two parallel stories, past and present. There are virtually no supernatural elements to this. Nobody leaps back in time, but the stories are subtly linked. Afterwards, I found myself setting a later novel on another part of my Hebridean island, without referencing that first novel at all. Indeed, my fictional farmhouse of Dunshee, in Bird of Passage, could have been on a real island (some people assumed it was Skye) or in a wholly fictional place, which was what I had intended, but I still had ‘my’ island of Garve in my mind.
I was often asked if I was going to write a sequel to The Curiosity Cabinet, but although I was fond of the characters and the setting, both stories, historical and contemporary, seemed complete, and I had no inclination to pursue either of them. The part of the novel that continued to intrigue me was the island and its history. Cue forward some years and, with a couple more historical novels published, I started to consider a new Garve novel with the same structure. The inspiration for all of this was my perception that small islands in particular are self-contained places, where a dense and eventful history still informs the present. I sometimes think of them as agates, with all those layers built up under pressure, forming a complex and intriguing whole.
The Posy Ring is a spin-off novel, rather than a sequel. The present-day story even involves a few of the characters from that earlier novel, although they are no longer central. The past story takes us back to the island in the sixteenth century, well before the historical events in The Curiosity Cabinet. The stimulus for all this was the island and more especially a house that appears in the historical sections of the earlier novel. This house, Auchenblae, seems to have become a character in its own right. Once the house became clear to me, everything else fell into place. Perhaps because I’m also a playwright, I always feel the need to set a detailed scene in which my characters can move and interact.
I described my fictional island to my artist husband and he painted a map for me. This, in turn, was sent to a cartographer who produced the map that is contained in the novel and will be in all future books. Whatever I was inventing, writing, above all seeing in my mind’s eye, had to be as precise as I could make it. There was going to be a lot more to this tale, so I had to give myself room to move the story outwards across the whole island if need be. In short, I needed to be able to inhabit it alongside my characters.
Do I like my characters enough to live with them for a few more years? Is there enough potential for future stories? Will I find that I have set something in stone that makes life difficult for me in future novels? All of that remains to be seen. At the moment, I can’t wait to get back to my fictional island. It seems as real to me as any other place, the characters living their lives at Auchenblae and elsewhere on the island, even in my absence. I know exactly what happens in the next novel, but only roughly what happens in the one after that. Much like real life. We’ll see how it goes from here.