The Thanksgiving holiday has just passed, and as usual I have found much for which to thank God. I am richly blessed in family and friends. Three decades plus and some ninety books into my career, I continue to be able to publish, and for that I am truly grateful. Life on this side of Heaven is not always (or even frequently) easy, however, and never perfect. We require God’s grace, guidance and goodness to get us through, and that’s the exact theme I try to convey in my writing. It’s the theme of my life, after all. How could I write about anything else?
God was especially good to me when He linked me together with a specific group of other authors for a continuity project. Continuities are always interesting. Writing is a very solitary endeavor, but continuities require cooperation between writers and much brainstorming. Sometimes egos can get in the way. Sometimes schedules can conflict. Sometimes styles clash dramatically. Somehow it all works out in the end, but seldom does it all go smoothly.
The editors set up the bare bones of the thing: the premise, the backstory, the setting, even the characters. They provide brief synopses of each book, which typically have a timeframe of one month each. Then the authors have to figure out how to make everything work. Inevitably adjustments have to be made––sometimes huge ones.
Research must be done. Details must be agreed upon (Streets even have to be named!) and minor characters must be invented, descriptions written and distributed...
|Our town map drawn up by Val Hansen so we all had the same visual. You don't think about how important little details are until you put a drugstore where someone else has a firehouse or the auto parts store inside a rectory!|
In the end, every mystery must be solved, every question answered, every loose thread tied up, every main character matched, and it all has to be satisfying and believable. Moreover, everyone must do her part without stepping on the “writerly toes” of every other author.
|We shared pictures to visualize how each person saw the town and their buildings. This was the Fidler Inn.|
And the one below is how Ruthy saw Mick McGuire's ranch, the "Double M".
It isn’t always a pleasant experience.
Thankfully, The Big Sky Centennial continuity series from Love Inspired was an absolute joy. The other authors, Valerie Hansen, Ruth Logan Herne, Carolyne Aarsen, Brenda Minton and Jenna Mindel, made it so.
Mine was the sixth and final book in the series, HER MONTANA CHRISTMAS, so I had to depend on the other authors to set up much of my story. I was, in a very real sense, at their mercy. By the time the series gets to the last book, everything is set in stone. The first two or even three books may already have been through editing. The editors certainly aren’t going to be open to change at that point!
All along, however, Val, Ruthy, Carolyne, Brenda and Jenna were shooting me details, descriptions and questions via email. We set up a Yahoo group at the outset so we could post photos, track emails and upload manuscripts easily. That’s standard procedure, but it’s only as helpful as the people who use it. More importantly, they asked me to write descriptions and details for them so they could portray my characters as I wanted them portrayed in their books.
Better yet, we did a lot of brainstorming through the entire process to make the premise work logically and smoothly for all storylines. That meant that we were all involved in some way in every book.
What made the process really fun was the excitement we all felt in the creative process. Every time it became necessary to invent a new character (waitress, librarian, wannabe florist…), the ladies naturally shared. Of course, we needed to keep track of such things as names and physical descriptions so everyone in town didn’t wind up all named Jane and looking alike, but this went beyond that. For the first time in my personal experience (and I’ve done many continuities), that meant not just reporting what had already been done to the rest of the group but everyone actively participating in the creation.
I found that particularly helpful when it finally came time for me to write the sixth book. Over the years I had been involved in many stages of a continuity series, from the first book through the middle books, but this was my first time to write the end book. Frankly, I expected only to be heavily involved early on when the town (Jasper Gulch, Montana, in this case) was being designed. Like everyone else, I had to find photos that resembled the characters I envisioned in my head and the specific buildings they would inhabit. After that, I figured the other authors would fall away as their books were finished, their group participation diminishing as they wrapped up their own stories.
It didn’t really happen like that, though. The email traffic did slow down, but the group hung together right to the end, and I was so thankful. I had lots of questions, lots of details to work out and loose ends to tie up in this story. More than that, I was going through a terrible season in my life: unexpected losses and illness in my personal life. These ladies prayed me through. (And people wonder why I write Christian/inspirational literature!)
Keeping notes is very important when writing any book but especially a continuity book. It’s necessary to keep track of such things as names and descriptions, but it’s even necessary to know what types of vehicles the characters drive and what kind of pie they serve at the diner. We kept group lists, and everyone was great about keeping them updated. I didn’t realize how very helpful this would be until I got into composition with my book. It’s easy to make these “minor” decisions when writing a stand-alone book, but when writing a continuity book, every detail has to be consistent, and by the last book, the details are myriad. With their generous record keeping, my “partner authors” kept me from having to comb through five preceding manuscripts for those details.
In all honesty, the premises that the editors dream up aren’t always completely believable, but the books that we authors write based upon those premises must be believable. Otherwise, the reader goes away unsatisfied. When an author comes up with her own premise, she already believes in it herself. When she’s handed a premise dreamed up by someone else, she has to find a way to make it work for her and her characters. By book six in the continuity process, the premise has been stretched and pummeled as far as it can seemingly go.
All the clues have been dropped. We’ve had five happy endings. Now, book six must give us TWO resolutions. The main couple must have their happy ending, and the backstory must come to a satisfactory conclusion.
My work is always character-driven. I simply let the characters do the work for me. They have to get past their personal hang-ups, doubts, fears, misconceptions and mistakes (which I invent) to the right choices/actions. When you think about it, life is pretty much the same way, isn’t it? We all have to get past our personal hang-ups, fears, misconceptions and mistakes (which we invent) to make the right choices and take the right actions, which God will direct if we allow Him to do so.
Ruthy here... Arlene has graciously offered to give away 3 copies of "Her Montana Christmas" today! Leave a comment inside (and yes, Helen Gray's got the pot perkin' and I brought holiday creamer flavors! Oh, happy day! And hot water in the kettle for you tea drinkers!) Stop in, chat it up, and imagine yourself working with a team of authors... Would you love it? (I did, absolutely)... or would you run, screaming? Head inside and let us know!
ARLENE JAMES is the author of more than 85 novels. Publishing steadily for nearly four decades, she has concentrated on Inspirational Romance for several years. She and her husband, artist James E. Rather, have traveled much of the world and, after living in the Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, area for 33 years, now call northwest Arkansas home. She can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook.