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Thriller Thursday: Allison Brennan talks writing a killer thriller series

We’re on week four of Thriller Extravaganza, and I’m excited to welcome one of my favorite authors, Allison Brennan. I could have asked Allison to write on just about any thriller related topic, but since I’m starting my own series and I’m selfish, I asked her to tell us about how she approaches creating a series. She’s giving away a copy of one of her books, so make sure to read and leave a comment.

And don’t forget to sign up for Thriller Extravaganza’s Grand Prize: a silver spot in one of Kristen Lamb’s WANA International blogging classes or a $25 gift card and a bag of healthy goodies from August McLaughlin.

Writing Series by Allison Brennan

Until 2010, I always wrote in trilogies. Three books, very loosely connected, with a common theme or family of characters. For example, my “Prison Break” trilogy was connected by an earthquake at San Quentin that precipitated the release of some death row inmates. Each book was a stand alone romantic thriller stemming from that one event. My “No Evil” trilogy centered around the Kincaid Family, a close-knit Irish-Cuban family of (mostly) law enforcement. Each book stood alone as a complete story with a separate hero and heroine, but the books were all set in San Diego and the secondary characters were woven through the three books.

I didn’t plan to write in trilogies, but when I sold my debut novel The Prey, my publisher asked me to write two more connected stories. I decided to focus on three women who were at the FBI Academy together and now, ten years later, their individual pasts are coming back to haunt them.

I always wanted to write both a stand alone and a series. A stand alone because it’s completely self-contained. A series, because I can build on one character over time, both layering and deepening characterization. Readers like all types of stories, but it’s often a solid series that finds resonance in the mass market. Readers know Jack Reacher as well as his creator, Lee Child. They know Stephanie Plum as well as Janet Evanovich. And one of my all-time favorite series, the In Death series, by J.D. Robb, has the formidable and sexy Roarke and Eve Dallas.

When my publisher agreed to buy the Lucy Kincaid series, I was initially thrilled. I loved Lucy, and wanted to see how she’d overcome her brutal ordeal from Fear No Evil, the last of the Kincaid Family trilogy. I sped up time a bit, made her 25 in the first book, and on the cusp of becoming an FBI agent. I wanted to take her from the beginning of her career—through the academy—and into her first real assignment.

Then I became scared. How could I keep the series fresh and original? I didn’t want readers to become bored with Lucy or her boyfriend Sean Rogan; I didn’t want to write the same book over and over. I also feared that, over time, I would tire of writing in the same world. A true, traditional series takes the same core group of characters and puts them in different situations over multiple books. A connected series is usually built around the same world, but with different characters taking a lead role. Laura Griffin’s Tracers series is a good example of a connected series; J.D. Robb’s In Death series is a good example of a traditional series.

I had to make some choices early on: First, I tightened the timeframe. For example, though the first seven books will be published over a three-year period, only 11 months will have passed in Lucy’s world. Each book takes place anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months apart. The primary reason is that I wanted all the major events to be part of the series. Also, I didn’t know when some of the books would be published, so I didn’t keep them true to real time. And mostly, I wanted to show Lucy’s growth during the pivotal years as she begins her career as an FBI Agent.

Michael Connelly successful wrote Harry Bosch in real time, so he aged in real time, and the stories took place a year apart (or however long his publishing schedule was for that series.) Lee Child writes out of order—some of his books take place in Reacher’s past, for example, so they’re not published in chronological order. And in J.D. Robb’s In Death series, I believe only 18 or so months have passed over 30+ books.

Other choices I had to make dealt with reader expectations. Because I write primarily romantic thrillers, and the first few Lucy books were published as romantic thrillers, I needed a love interest for Lucy who stays for the series. Reader expectations are important because if you mess with the readers, you’re toast. I decided that Sean Rogan was the perfect guy for Lucy as soon as I wrote him in an early book, Cutting Edge, where his brother, Duke, was the hero. I had to figure out how to get him out to DC, and which Kincaid’s would be part of Lucy’s series, and which would be completely off-page. I also needed to build Lucy’s world – what has she been doing for the seven years since the events in Fear No Evil? How did they change her? Strengthen her? What are her fears that will play a part in the series? Her strengths?

I don’t plot, so a lot of this I didn’t know until I was writing the first book—and some I didn’t know until I was writing the fourth book! But for my readers, Sean and Lucy are together. They will certainly have rough patches, but they will weather any storm. I hope I’ve laid that foundation well.

The difference in reader expectations plays a part in a new series I’m developing around Maxine Revere, an investigating crime reporter. This will be a thriller series, so I can play around more with relationships and don’t have to “pick” a romantic interest right off the back … though there will certainly be one (or two or three) that may be possible. The series is more about Max and the crimes she investigates, as well as her relationships with her staff and friends and, yes, the men she’s involved with.

The hardest part of writing a series, for me, is knowing how much to share in each book without being boring to continuing readers (or “telling” too much back story) but also giving enough information so new readers won’t be lost. It’s a delicate balance that I don’t know if I’ve mastered, but I’m constantly striving to find the right balance. My former editor gave me some great advice early on: give as much information as necessary for readers to enjoy THIS book. I think about that often!

For anyone considering writing a series, remember that character is the most important thing. Not just your protagonist, but the supporting cast. You want readers to want to return time and time again to see what your characters are up to!

What is one of your favorite book series, and why? Everyone who comments (even just to say hi!) will be put in a drawing for one of two giveaways, winner’s choice. You can pick either a signed, print copy of Silenced, the most recent Lucy Kincaid book (or the first book, Love Me to Death), or you can pick digital copies of Silenced AND my stand alone romantic suspense novella, Murder in the River City.

Allison Brennan is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of nineteen novels and many short stories. The next Lucy Kincaid thriller, Stalked, will be out on October 30. She lives near Sacramento, California with her husband, five children, and assorted pets.

Thanks so much to Allison for this great post! She’s got some vital point in here that I hadn’t considered the past few weeks while working on my own series. Please leave her some love and give yourself a chance to win a copy of one of her books.

40 comments on… “Thriller Thursday: Allison Brennan talks writing a killer thriller series”

  1. Excellent interview! Thank you, Stacy and Allison. 🙂 I love the Lucy Kincaid series, Harry Bosch series and Iris Johansen’s Eve Duncan series. It’s difficult to find the perfect balance of backstory when writing a series so the book doesn’t become an info dump for the reader.

    • Thanks Kim! I’m glad you’re enjoying the series. And so sorry I’m late getting to a computer …. I took my daughter to college today and left her there! (Well, I’m in a nearby hotel so I can say good-bye tomorrow before flying home.) I got in at dinner time and fell to sleep!

  2. My comment is going to be different because I normally don’t read thrillers. They spook me, especially if excessively gruesome or terrifying, so I don’t read them in the evening or at bedtime. (really! I am a very visual person so the images stay with me far too long) But I want to comment because I found it very interesting how the author, Ms. Brennan, goes about writing her novels. I think there is much good information here for anyone wanting to write a believable story, and I admire anyone who can invest so much into creating such an involved series.
    I haven’t read any of Ms. Brennan’s books yet, but I think I should look into that. 🙂
    Thank you for this interview.

    • Thanks so much for commenting, Lynn. You’re right, there is a lot of good information here about writing a series with any topic. Allison does do a lot of prep work for her novels – her first interview with me went into a lot of detail with that. You’re so welcome!

    • LOL Lynn, I get this a lot from some readers. They give my books to their husbands or sisters 🙂

      I think the single most important thing in writing any story in any genre is to get inside the head of your characters. Why do they do what they do? What are they feeling? What do their fear? What do they want? Why do they think they won’t get what they want, or shouldn’t get what they want?

  3. Great piece, Allison and Stacy. Thanks for sharing your thought processes, Allison. Timing is probably the most important thing in a series, it seems to me. If a series is successful, there will be many books. What do we do about our characters aging? Much has been written about this, but I like the Rex Stout approach. He simply kept his characters the same ages indefinitely, even though events around them changed. I chose that approach for my Willa Carson series. But sometimes, that’s not possible. In my Hunt for Reacher series, Otto and Gaspar are following up on the exploits of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. The first book is 15 years after Reacher’s debut. But I’m thinking the entire series will cover maybe about 6 months of story time, even though the books will run for years — assuming readers remain willing. I didn’t realize J.D. Robb’s series was set up that way. And I’m pleased to see you’ve made that decision with Lucy Kincaid. Makes me feel like I’m on the right track. Thanks again for some great advice here!

    • Hi Diane. So glad you enjoyed. Always something awesome to learn from Allison. Time frame is something I’m deciding with my trilogy right now. I think your idea of the Hunt for Reacher series only covering 6 months or so is a good one – that sort of time line lends a lot of urgency to the books.


    • Hi Diane — I don’t know if I’m on the right track! LOL — But I do think this is an individual choice for writers and one that needs to be made fairly early on in the series. I’m going to (loosely) have 1-2 months “story” time between each books … book eight will take place almost exactly one year book one. Beyond that, I don’t know … 🙂

  4. jodierennerediting

    Wow! What an interesting, informative, well-written post! Thanks, Stacy for inviting Allison to guest post on your blog. Allison, I love your Lucy Kincaid books and will definitely be checking out more of your other series. Your post today is rich in excellent info, with lots of great tips on writing series novels. For instance, I now know the difference between a true, traditional series and a connected series. I read a lot of thrillers and specialize in editing them, and like you, I love romantic suspense. I’ve read and loved most of the authors you mentioned, but must try J.D. Robb’s In Death series.

    By the way, for the thriller writers out there, my very popular (13 5-star reviews in less than 2 months) e-book, Writing a Killer Thriller, is still only $0.99 on Amazon-Kindle or on PDF from my blog or website.

    • Allison’s posts are always really informative. So glad you enjoyed them. That’s one major thing I learned from this post as well – the difference between a traditional series and a connected one. I had no idea. Thanks!

    • Thanks Jodie! 🙂 … I love JD Robb. But I’m behind on the series (2 a year! Argh! — I’m 6 or 7 behind. And the sad thing is I buy these in hardcover and they’re sitting on my shelf, begging me to read them, and I have no time …

      My mom doesn’t like this series because they’re futuristic … she doesn’t like any science fiction (these are very light science fiction) and doesn’t like paranormal anything, either. But if you do, you’ll love them — and they give a great example of writing a romantic thriller with two lead characters and giving them growth and balance in each book

  5. This is a very interesting post Allison, although a little terrifying.

    I’m writing a series, but I really haven’t decided how my characters will age, or how long the series is going to be. I can see I’ve got some work to do.

  6. Great article on writing a series. Thanks Stacie and Allison. I have not read your stories yet but now have to put them on my TBR list. I am beginning a series after the launch of my new novel entitled Moon Shadow. Now I think I have some fodder for how to weave important information between the novels without loosing the reader. I love reading Tess Gerritsen novels and I am invested in her characters Rizzoli and Isles. My wife is a fan of Janet Evanovich and follows Stephanie Plum’s exploits. Thank you for helping me with the technique of writing a series in real time. It will help with keeping events flowing yet allow a new reader to jump in without feeling lost.

  7. Awesome piece Allison! Very timely for me as I just finished Book 2 of a paranormal suspense trilogy today and starting Book 2 of a different middle grade series now. You nailed it and reinforced to me what a series is – its all about the character. Thanks for sharing your concerns too about writing a series. We new authors feel not so alone in our concerns too! I am so interested to know you don’t plot either. Thanks for sharing how other writers write their series as well. And it was great to meet you at ThrillerFest! Wishing you continued success. Stacy, great guest!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Donna. I’ve learned that about series as well. Without great characters, readers will not come back for the next books. I wish I didn’t plot. Somehow over the course of three books, I’ve become a pretty serious plotter. Thanks!

    • Hi Donna! How did you like Thrillerfest? I love the conference. It’s my favorite, and I can’t wait until next year 🙂 … good luck with TWO series! Yikes. I’m getting nervous about starting the second series, but it won’t be vastly different genre.

      • HI Allison, it was my first ThrillerFest and just an amazing experience being an ITW Debut Author there. Everyone, including you, were so friendly and supportive. And speaking of series you led a fantastic panel there on just this topic – “how do you create a spellbinding series character?” Good luck with your new series!

  8. Fantastic post, Allison! It’s a pleasure to blog “meet” you. 🙂 I love the honesty with which you shared your experience. I’m fascinated by the fact that you didn’t set out to write in threes. One just never knows…

    Best of luck for oodles of continual and expanding success! Thanks for bringing her here, Stacy.

    • Allison always has great things to say! I was fascinated by that too, and I have to give Allison a lot of credit – sticking with her instincts as a non-plotting and writing a series is something I can’t even imagine.


  9. Janet B

    It is interesting to see what an author takes into consideration when setting up a series.
    Allison’s sharing of the deliberations that set up her thrillesr is a primer for new authors.
    I would love to win one of her books.

  10. Thank you so much for having me here today, Stacy! I had a lot of fun writing this post, and had to think about how and why I do things, so it was a good lesson for me, too! I’m so sorry for the delay in posting responses … I wasn’t at a computer most of the day. My daughter’s college move-in this morning was 730 am and it’s been non-stop!

    • You’re welcome as always! Thanks for putting so much time and effort into it. And no worries! I hope you did all right at college move-in day. Those are tough, and it’s a day I passionately dread:)

  11. Great interview, Stacy. I love getting insight into other writer’s habits, how they come up with story ideas, fears, etc. I had the chance to meet Allison Brennan at RWA and she is super sweet. Thanks for bringing her into our lives with a closer look at her as a writer.

  12. Great post! I especially agree with your point about how important interesting characters are. I really like Karin Slaughter’s thriller series, not just for the mysteries, but because I am curious about what’s happening in her characters’ lives!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Louisa. I agree with the point about interesting characters, too. That’s why I’m spending so much time working on my lead for the trilogy I’m working on.

  13. Writing a series is a daunting task. I decided to write a connected series with different characters, partly because I was afraid I’d get bored with one, but also because I wanted the excitement of getting to know new people. But, I’m also leaving it open for old protagonists to come back and have more books, like Kelley Armstrong did in her Women of the Otherworld series (one of my favorites).

    And I personally prefer reading stand alone stories. It’s good if the character arc continues through the series, but I’m getting tired of book series these days that end on cliffhangers, or the middle books don’t have much of a definitive plot, and read more like a series of escapades to fill up space.

    • That’s a good point, Angela. I think a lot of people are writing series to have the opportunity to make more money, because supposedly that’s the real way to do it as an indie. But I do wonder if they’re putting the time and effort into all the necessary points.

      Thanks so much for sharing with us!

  14. Pingback: Ruminating in the Desert – Monday Messenger – Week of August 27

  15. I’ve just been loving your Thriller Thursday series, Stacy! Great authors and a great job. 🙂

    I met Allison when she came to see us at the Orange County chapter of RWA. Plus Kathy Bennett is a member so it’s been like old home week for me here each Thursday.

    How are you liking the once a week slow-blogging route? Anne R. Allen swears by it so I was curious what you thought.

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