Welcome to March of the Sequels, Marian!
First of all tell me a little about your series and introduce us to the sequel.
My books are historical fiction of an imagined world, one that is close to Britain, Northern Europe, and Rome, but isn’t any of them. A world where a society evolved differently after the Eastern Empire left, where one young fisherwoman – Lena, the protagonist of the first three books – answers, in Empire’s Daughter, the first book, her leader’s call to defend her country, beginning a journey into uncharted territory, both physical and psychological.
At this point, there are six titles and one in progress. The sequel – or at least the second book in the series, is Empire’s Hostage, which finds the protagonist Lena becoming a hostage to a peace treaty, sent north into a land who was until the treaty an enemy – and what ensues.
Do you find that most of your readers continue to read the whole series? Why do you think that is?
About 50% continue the first trilogy, and then of those who’ve read that, another 30% or so read the following books. I think there are several reasons for this; firstly, my books aren’t for everyone. They are not action-packed, and have been described as ‘quiet’, and they ask hard questions about individual choice vs the greater good, so while people may enjoy the first book, they don’t necessarily feel compelled to keep going. I wrote the first book as a standalone, so it’s perfectly possible to stop there and feel satisfied. Or stop at the end of the first trilogy and not feel the need to continue. Secondly, it’s a huge time commitment to read an entire series – the 7th title will be published late this year (or possibly early 2023) and there is one more to come. So it can take years for people to read the entire series, picking up one when they have time, rather than binge-reading it.
Is it easier to further develop characters you’ve already written in book one?
It’s the point of the sequel(s). My books concern how individuals react to difficult situations, so while there are battles and challenges and political intrigue, they’re the framework on which character development occurs, not the reason for the story. It isn’t always easy to understand how Lena or any of the other recurring characters will face up to a new situation, but I keep ‘listening’ until I know I have it right.
How difficult is it to add new characters in a sequel into already established relationships?
I haven’t found this difficult: each new character changes relationships, at least at the edges, but that’s part of the character and story arcs. How Lena interacts and learns from her new companions in Hostage is part of the planned overall arc of the series: her personal growth and understanding of the world expands as she travels into new lands and learns new ways and beliefs and political structures. New characters challenge her, but they’re meant to.
Is it difficult to continue with worldbuilding for a world you have already built in book 1? Do you find it easier to switch locations for the sequel and start again with worldbuilding?
I did switch locations (mostly) for Hostage, but not because it was easier, but because of the arc of Lena’s growth from a girl from an isolated village to a world traveller. I return to the original locations of Empire’s Daughter at the end of the third book, back to one of Hostage’s locations for most of the 4th book and half the 5th…I move around my created world a lot, but because the politics have changed, there is always additional worldbuilding needed.
Have you ever been stymied by a worldbuilding or plot detail from book 1 that is very inconvenient to deal with or write your way around in subsequent books?
Not stymied, but this happens a LOT. I’m not a planner – or wasn’t (I do much more now) there are all sorts of details that I have to incorporate somehow that are often inconvenient. But so far, I’ve managed it. It helps that I both write in 1st person, and I switch narrators over the series, so what one narrator saw and told us about may have a different interpretation through another’s eyes. First person narrators are always to some degree unreliable. Plus several of my characters are diplomats (and/or spies), and so sometimes economical with the truth, shall we say.
Did you notice your craft improving from book 1 to subsequent books in a series, and if so, how?
Yes, I did. The most noticeable way for me is the complexity of the structures of the books. The first trilogy is a straight-forward linear narrative, one point of view. So is the fourth, but the fifth has one narrator but two timelines 15 years apart; the sixth has two narrators within the same brief timeline and the same locations, and the work-in-progress has two narrators, geographically separated for most of the story, and encompasses a decade. So I had to work out how to do that, and what structure best fit the story. In my latest book, Empire’s Heir, the chapters are very short and switch POVs with ever new chapter, echoing the moves in a chess-like game that is a motif in the book (and throughout the series). My writing has also become sparer, more concise – one of the characters in my WIP is a man of few words, in speech or thought, and writing him from a first-person-present POV is a masterclass in brevity.
Do you plan out the entire series at once or one book at a time?
One book at a time, although I know how the last book ends, and the major events that happen in it.
Do you try to make sequels readable as standalones or do you design a series so that readers have to read the whole thing?
A mix. Empire’s Hostage could work as a standalone sequel, although the story is wrapped up, I leave the protagonist at a place I hope will entice readers will keep going. The last book of the trilogy, Empire’s Exile, probably would leave the reader a little lost if picked up as a standalone. But each of the next three titles could be read that way, and the WIP definitely can.
Do you have any marketing tips for sequels?
Something I’m trying now is creating omnibus editions, or box sets, of the books that go together, and keeping the price lower than buying the individual books. I’m hoping it entices the buyer to get the set all at once, and that having the set means they’ll read them all. The first three books are collected as Empire’s Legacy, and the next two as Empire’s Bard, and then Empire’s Heir is a standalone, at this point. Does it work? Too soon to tell.
Thank you so much for taking part in March of the Sequels, Marion! I wish you good luck with all of your books.
About the Author
Taught to read at the age of three, words have been central to Marian’s life for as long as she can remember. A novelist, poet, and essayist, Marian has several degrees, none of which are related to writing. After two careers as a research scientist and an educator, she retired from salaried work and returned to writing things that weren’t research papers or reports.
Her first published work was poetry, in small journals; her first novel was released in 2015. Empire’s Daughter is the first in the Empire’s Legacy series: second-world historical fiction, devoid of magic or other-worldly creatures and based to some extent on northern Europe after the decline of Rome. In addition to her novels, Marian has read poetry, short stories, and non-fiction work at writers’ festivals and other juried venues.
Marian’s other two passions in life are birding and landscape history, both of which are reflected in her books. Birding has taken her and her husband to all seven continents. Prior to the pandemic, she and her husband spent several months each year in the UK, for both research and birding, and she is desperately hoping to return.