A Stack of Bibles: How to Write Your Series Without Swearing
[Originally published in the magazine Romance Writers Report, February 2016.]
Authors are often encouraged to write their books in series, rather than as stand-alone works. Series allow readers to bond with characters over time, and they allow authors to tell complex stories over multiple books. Series create natural marketing opportunities, often leading to increased sales.
But series present a true challenge for authors. Every book in a series contains a vast amount of data—details about characters, settings, and plots. Sometimes minor characters in one book become major ones in other books. Locations that were “throw-away” settings become crucial. Street names, local businesses, magic systems, members of a military company—all of those details should remain consistent in characters’ lives.
Therefore, authors who write series need a method to organize all of their background information. Borrowing a term from television screenwriting, they need a series bible.
What is a series bible? It’s a compilation of the comprehensive background information for one or more works. There are as many ways to create a series bible as there are authors who use them. Different authors record different data, using their bibles in a variety of ways to increase their productivity and the accuracy of their books.
In The Beginning
As a threshold matter, authors must decide what format they prefer to use for their series bibles. Bibles can range from a collection of handwritten notes to a well-organized three-ring binder to word-processing files to specialized files in relatively rare formats. Some authors use combinations of formats to best achieve their goals.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever jotted down a note about a character (or a setting or a plot detail) when you’re out and about in the course of your daily non-authorial life! Virtually all authors have scribbled down some detail they’re afraid they’ll forget. Writers who eschew handwritten notes might send themselves emails or record a quick reminder on their phone’s audio system. Each of those prompts might be considered an individual “bible verse”, a separate piece of data to be kept for later use.
Just as some people continue to rely on paper calendars or organizers, some authors create their entire series bible on paper. Carlene Love (Let Me See) explains about the three-ring binder bible she created for her Sin Pointe rock-and-roll contemporary romance novels: “It was incredibly easy to organize this way and rather than having the information stored on my computer or other electronic device where I needed to ensure it would always be charged or have access to Wi-Fi for example, the information was always available to me no matter where I was.” Love finds inspiration working outdoors. With her paper system, she need not worry about permanently damaging expensive electronics when she works in a forest or on a beach.
Other authors rely on familiar software, such as Word or Excel to create their series bibles. Laurel Wanrow (The Twisting) uses Word because it allows her to copy and paste sections from her manuscript, adding in necessary ideas, notes, and research references. Elisabeth Staab (the Evergreen Grove new adult series) also keeps her bible in Word, relying on the familiar search function to locate character names or other details without jolting her too far out of her writing routine.
Some authors swear by Excel, relying on the spreadsheet program as a sort of database management system. Hope Ramsay (A Midnight Clear) tracks more than 250 characters in her Last Chance small town romance series. She uses a variety of tools, including Excel: “The sheet is organized with columns for first name, last name, maiden name, novel in which they appear, description, and date of birth/death/marriage. Not every character has all the boxes filled in. Only major characters have the birth/marriage/death information. But I try to enter every character into this sheet.” Excel’s sorting function allows authors to check on the availability of names as well as grouping all characters with the same family name.
Still other authors rely on writing-specific software such as Scrivener. Riley Edgewood (Truth & Temptation) uses the app’s Research folder, adding files for each category of information in her bible. L. Penelope (Whispers of Shadow & Flame) takes things a step further, relying on a specialized template: “I based mine off of the Worldbuilding Leviathan Scrivener template available on author Belinda Crawford’s website. (http://belindacrawford.com/2013/08/04/the-world-building-leviathan-scrivener-template/) I used this amazing and comprehensive template to write the first book, then just removed the manuscript and renamed the file to turn it into the series bible.” Four books into her series, she’s still going strong.
The format of a series bible is not carved in stone. Some authors modify their system as their series progresses, capturing more information as necessary. For example, Christi Barth (Risking It All) began scratching notes on memo pads, then converted her system to Scrivener when she realized she was losing track of information.
Many authors rely on multiple tools for their bibles. Hope Ramsay supplements her Excel document with a master timeline, a family tree, and images. She also creates a complete map of the town, using Corel Draw graphic software. (I’ve created a map of my own small town, Harmony Springs, using Excel to fill in row and columns for streets, color-coding parks, a stream, and various buildings. The resulting grid isn’t pretty, but it allows me to keep straight every location mentioned in the series.)
Chapter and Verse
Once an author has selected a system for maintaining a bible, she’s ready to choose what information to track.
Virtually all authors use their bibles to collect information about their characters. That information typically includes physical characteristics, along with various likes and dislikes. Personally, I complete a sixty-four question survey for each major character, recording details about family, occupations, sleep habits, superstitions, etc.
Most series bibles also include key locations. Such information may be as general as a statewide map showing the placement of a small town or as specific as a description of the furniture in one particular room. They key is to capture the details that need to remain consistent from chapter to chapter within a book and from book to book within a series.
Most bibles demonstrate their true usefulness by recording “special circumstances”—collections of facts unique to an author’s work. For example, Afton Locke (Cali’s Hurricane) records appropriate vocabulary words for her 1930s interracial historical romances. Similarly, Carlene Love tracks Australian idioms used by one of her Sin Pointe characters, providing an easy tool to bolster a crowd-favorite character’s unique voice.
Different genres cry out for different categories in a bible. Romantic fantasy series typically include extensive magic systems. L. Penelope uses her bible to record the various forms of magic in her world, including its uses, limitations, and a table detailing the relative strength of each of the main characters. Elisabeth Staab includes notes on the flavor of her vampires’ blood.
Series bibles are not only useful for otherworldly stories (fantasy, science fiction, or paranormals). Romantic suspense author Riley Edgewood uses her bible to track clues and red herrings planted in one book for use in solving mysteries several books down the line in her ongoing series. Contemporary romance authors Laura Kaye and Carlene Love use their bibles to track characters’ tattoos. Laura Kaye also maintains a possibly unique bible category: T-shirts (tracking the ribald T-shirts worn by one of her characters.) Other contemporary romance authors use their bibles to track characters’ playlists—either the music the characters actually listen to or songs that are representative of their nature.
Trials and Tribulations
Every author surveyed for this article noted that their series bibles were invaluable to their writing effort. Nevertheless, nearly half of the authors noted—unprompted—that both creating and maintaining their bibles was a large struggle. It was difficult for authors to determine how much information to include, and many authors disliked interrupting the flow of their writing to update their bibles.
Some authors have outsourced the creation of series bibles to other people. A few authors noted that loyal fans have taken on the burden of preparing and maintaining bibles. Some writers have paid personal assistants to do the same.
Several authors noted that they did not start their series with a bible; instead, they relied on memory and word processors’ search features applied to a manuscript. Those simple tools, though, were rapidly overwhelmed, even in the writing of a relatively short series; thus, a bible becomes necessary. Christi Barth even goes so far as to create a bible for stand-alone books, because the advantages of keeping information in one place far outweigh the time it takes to corral the data.
In fact, even in the face of significant costs in terms of time and/or money, each author surveyed noted that her bible has, at times, saved her from disaster. Authors noted that, without their bibles, they would have needed to re-read all earlier books in a series in preparation for writing a new installment. They told about writing multiple-book series in a year, tracking half a dozen heroes’ and heroines’ eye colors and hair colors, not to mention cars, pets, and homes. Authors could also time characters’ courtships and pregnancies, guaranteeing that social mores of their time periods or imagined cultures were properly preserved.
Two different authors (who will remain nameless to protect the, er, innocent) described times when they forgot to record a character’s name in their bibles, only to use that name for another character later in the series. In one case, a last-minute “search and replace” mission had to be completed after galley pages had been proofed. Both authors insist that they will never neglect recording character names again.
Other authors warned about the danger of creating extensive bible material, but forgetting to check it while in the course of writing. It does a writer little good to know that her character’s favorite food is chocolate-chip banana bread if that fact is written down but not included in the manuscript. Several authors recommended reading or re-reading the bible on a regular basis while generating new manuscripts.
Beyond the Bible
Clearly, series bibles are useful for authors as they create their multi-book series. But some authors push the boundaries of their bibles, adding other information about their individual books and series.
Riley Edgewood includes a lot of plot inspiration in her bible. She tracks questions that need to be answered across the entire series, red herrings, and other clues. She also records potential acknowledgments of people who have helped her write her book. Finally, she uses her bible to record her marketing efforts for each book: “I keep one (bible) for all marketing that I track from book to book, keeping track of contact information and feedback and policies. Stuff like that. And that’s something I keep track of for every book, regardless of series, though marketing will vary between series (and books). It’s nice not to have to reinvent the wheel with each new release.”
Hope Ramsay supplements her series bible with a calendar for each book. She relies on a simple Word document (applying that program’s calendar template) to adopt a timeline for each book’s specific year, making sure she knows the occurrence of holidays, the passage of seasons, and other important events.
Laura Kaye has found a way to harness her series bible for greater purposes: promotional materials for readers. She explains: “I was able to use mine to create a ‘behind the scenes of the series’ document for readers that I used as a pre-order incentive. Among other things, it included character sketches and bios that were made easier to pull together because of the bible.”
Series bibles may seem intimidating to writers who have never created one. They require organizational tools and an ongoing investment of time and effort. Nevertheless, they pay off time and time again, allowing authors to write new novels in less time with greater consistency.