The Craft of Writing — January 2023
THE CRAFT OF WRITING — JANUARY 2023
James Scott Bell on writing a series
I’m excited to begin a new year of the CRAFT OF WRITING blog. This year we’re focusing on writing series, and we’re starting off with a master of all things writing, James Scott Bell.
James Scott Bell is not only a best-selling author of books on the craft of writing. (I counted about twenty books, including the #1 Best-selling Plot and Structure). He is also an award-winning fiction author. His legal thriller Final Witness won the first Christy Award for suspense, and Romeo’s Way won the International Thriller Writers Award.
Today we’re going to talk about the series Jim’s written, so sharpen your pencils. You won’t want to miss anything he says.
Writing the Series with James Scott Bell Click To Tweet
Happy New Year, James Scott Bell. Welcome back to the Craft of Writing blog and thank you for joining us!
Great to be here!
This year we’re concentrating on writing series, and you have several series you’ve written over the years. Which of your series was first and why did you decide to write it?
My first series was historical-legal thriller-romance. How about that? I had the idea for a series featuring a young woman who came to Los Angeles in 1903 to practice law…when there were virtually no women in the profession. That period of L.A. history has not been done very much, and I love it. The city was growing up, but there was still a bit of the Old West vibe, even in the courtroom.
That’s how The Trials of Kit Shannon series was born. Bethany House publishers loved the idea, and had the good sense to team me up with one of their star authors, Tracie Peterson. We did the first three books together, and I did the next three on my own. It was a great collaboration, we got along famously, and learned from each other.
Can you tell us a little about each of the series you’ve written?
I wrote a contemporary legal thriller series featuring lawyer Ty Buchanan. I drew upon my own courtroom experience practicing criminal law in L.A. It’s three books. I’ve been asked if I’d continue it, but the last book ended so perfectly I don’t want to mess with it.
Then I got a crazy idea. Another Los Angeles legal thriller series…only this time, the hero would be…wait for it…a zombie! Yes, zombies were “hot” back then, but they were always the monsters. I thought, what if my lawyer, Mallory Caine, was turned into a zombie as a curse, and spends the series trying to get her soul back? I love how the books came out. Legal thrills featuring vampires, werewolves, and shape shifters, but with a spiritual arc for the hero. That’s how the Mallory Cain, Zombie-at-Law series came to pass.
You have a very successful series going now with Mike Romeo. What inspired you to write the Mike Romeo Series?
I love classic pulp fiction. Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, John D. MacDonald. There’s a “lone wolf” tradition there I wanted to try, only not with the standard PI. So I came up with a character who is living off the grid in L.A., a former cage fighter with an even more curious past—a portly genius kid who went to Yale when he was 14. How the heck did he end up a fighting machine, living with his only friend in the world, a rabbi and lawyer, in L.A.? There’s a whole reveal in there that I will not divulge here!
How do you keep a series fresh after readers become familiar with the stories?
The key is characters. Put interesting, colorful, unique characters in your twisty plot, and you’ve got freshness. In Romeo’s Way, the book that won the International Thriller Writers Award, Mike has to go to San Francisco and falls in with a sub-world of “little people.” Some great characters came out of that.
How do you handle the situation where a reader jumps into the middle of a series without reading the first book or two?
Each book can be read and enjoyed on its own. Important backstory is summarized, and then there’s always the option to pick up the earlier books if one wants to. But for a long-running series, I do think each book’s individual plot should be wrapped up.
Do you have plans for future Romeo books?
I plan to keep riding this train. I always have one book I’m writing, one I’m developing, and various ideas that spring up. I’ve got at least 20 titles ready to use. After that, I’ll break out the thesaurus and find 20 more.
What advice would you give an author who’s considering writing a series?
I wrote a whole blog post about this. Here’s a clip:
I see five qualities in the best series characters. If you can pack these in from the start, your task is half done. Here they are:
- A point of uniqueness, a quirk or style that sets them apart from everybody else
What is unique about Sherlock Holmes? He’s moody and excitable. Among the very staid English, that was different. Jack Reacher? Come on. The guy doesn’t own a phone or clothes. He travels around with only a toothbrush. Funny how every place he goes he runs into massive trouble and very bad people.
- A skill at which they are really, really good
Katniss Everdeen is killer with the bow and arrow.
Harry Potter is one of the great wizards (though he has a lot to learn).
- A bit of the rebel
The series hero should rub up against authority, even if it’s in a quiet way, like Miss Marple muttering “Oh, dear” at the local constabulary. Hercule Poirot is a needle in the side of Inspector Japp.
- A vulnerable spot or character flaw
Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian has a vicious temper that sometimes gets the better of him.
Sherlock Holmes has a drug habit. Stephanie Plum keeps bouncing between two lovers, who complicate her life.
- A likable quality
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe has some of the greatest quips in the history of crime fiction. We like them because Marlowe is also vulnerable—to getting beat up, drugged, or otherwise manhandled by forces larger than himself (like Moose Malloy). Wit is one of the great likability factors. Another is caring for others besides oneself. Stephanie Plum has a crazy family to care for, not to mention her sometime partner Lula.
For the rest of the article, go to: https://killzoneblog.com/2017/08/ingredients-of-great-series-character.html
In addition to your successful thrillers, you’ve written a library of books on the craft of writing, and you teach at various writers conferences. Do you have plans to speak at any writing conferences in 2023?
I’ll be speaking for the Historical Novel Society in San Antonio, in June. But I’m not going out on the road as much anymore. That’s because I’ve done a complete, 12-hour course for Wondrium.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
The main hub is JamesScottBell.com
I can be followed on BookBub: bookbub.com/authors/james-scott-bell
Those who enjoy short fiction can try out mine at patreon.com/jamesscottbell
And of course people can join you and me and our colleagues each day at our group blog: killzoneblog.com
Thank you, Jim, for being with us today.
Writing the Series with James Scott Bell Click To Tweet
James Scott Bell is a winner of the International Thriller Writers Award and the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure (Writer’s Digest Books). His thrillers include Romeo’s Rules, Romeo’s Way and Romeo’s Hammer (the Mike Romeo thriller series); Try Dying, Try Darkness and Try Fear (the Ty Buchanan legal thriller series); and stand-alones including Your Son Is Alive and Final Witness (which won the first Christy Award for Suspense). He served as the fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine and has written several popular writing books, including Just Write, Conflict & Suspense, and The Art of War for Writers (all from Writer’s Digest Books). He’s also published How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, Write Your Novel From the Middle, Super Structure, and How to Make a Living as a Writer.
What a treat to have you on Kay’s blog today! It’s always fun to read your interviews and see what you’re up to. Thank you!
You are quite welcome, Barbara.
Good morning, Barbara! Thank you for stopping by.
Yes, having Jim here is like having our own personal writing course. Reading the Romeo books is a good study in keeping a series fresh.
Have a great week!
Thanks, Jim and Kay. Great post! And thanks, Jim, for the review of five qualities of the best series characters.
Best wishes to both of you for success in 2023!
Back atcha, Steve.
Good morning, Steve! Glad you’re here.
Since you write a fantasy series, I knew you’d be interested in Jim’s information. Btw, can we expect a new book in the Mad River Magic series any time soon?
Yes, book #6, Perfect Strand, is in the final editing stages and should be out in about a month.
Good morning, Jim & Kay! Plot and Structure has been a mainstay in my library for many years. Thank you, Jim, for your great advise on everything from the craft of writing to publishing options. Your generosity toward other writers has come through everything of yours that I’ve read. What I noticed in this interview was how much fun you seem to have with your writing. You obviously choose your characters, settings, and plots based on what interests and excites you, and that makes it interesting and exciting for your readers. Good lesson there. I’m really interested in the first series about the young woman practicing law in 1903 L.A. Thank you both for a great blog this morning. Now, off to Amazon….
Lisa, thank you so much for the very kind words. Yes indeed, writing needs to be fun at some level because that will show up on the page. I have most fun saying, in effect, “Come close, let me tell you a story.”
Good morning, Lisa!
I’m glad you brought up the subject of having fun with our writing. It’s so easy to get side-tracked with marketing, reviews, sales, and a bunch of other things.
Have a great week.
Great post! I started out with Plot and Structure and went on from there to read and study probably every craft book you’ve written…more than once. And I’m anxiously awaiting the next Mike Romeo book! And I enjoy your short pieces on Patreon–some days they’re what keep me going and a good break from writing.
Wow, Patricia, that’s high praise indeed. Thank you. I am purposely going for 2 Romeos a year now. But also, to paraphrase that old Paul Masson commercial with Orson Welles: I will sell no book before its time.
Like you, Plot and Structure was one of the first books I found when I started writing. What good fortune that was!