Tea & Series

I’m  trading in my coffee shop blog this month for a visit to the Fortnum & Mason Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon in London to discuss elements of writing a trilogy/series. There’s a shared experience, particularly among readers with stories that go beyond book one. The way I want to discuss with someone—anyone—after finishing a great series about the characters, the plot twists, and ooh the ending I didn’t see coming. The first book gets me hooked. I dive into the second book expecting a lull. I look forward to the thrilling conclusion in the third (or fourth, or fifth). How fitting is the topic of series-writing while sitting down to a three-course tea? I think it is meant to be. This trip is a bonus as I’m sitting with my dear friend who’s known me long enough to know I’m in love with this place from the moment the elevator doors open and I step inside.

From the first seating to the last, not a moment of quality is spared at the tea salon. I pick up a menu devoted entirely to just that, teas. I don’t have ask, is there enough? Do I have enough? When I write…when I think of potential story lines for a series laid out in my mind, the thought is often short-lived. If I try to imagine the offshoots of problems and backstories that can be used as a catalyst for conflict, the answer to the question is usually a resounding “No.” No, I do not have enough content for three plus books. No, I do not have enough trouble to sustain the tension between characters. Can every problem be solved in the first book? If the answer is yes, then a series isn’t realistic. It’s okay for a book to stop, well, at the end.

First Course

Writing more than one book using the same characters involves some dedicated world-building. I sit at a beautiful table dressed in white linen and a tea pot spoiled in pale blue with gold accents. Set the tone of the entire story, not just one room, one house, or a single city. Bring in elements of the bigger picture. Does the setting take place on Earth? Space? Another dimension? Whether the story is in another time or in the backyard of your imagination the tiniest details are important. It’s the first time your readers are seeing this world. Can you visualize the scene of stepping off the elevator and being greeted by the calming music coming from the woman sitting at the grand piano?

I take my seat and embark on a meal that isn’t meant to be rushed. The selection isn’t lacking what with the options of Black, White, Oolong, or Green teas. I go for the Iron Goddess with the orchid aroma. Afternoon tea consists of different courses, each one punctuated by finger sandwiches, scones, and tea cakes. The range of options will get me to the end of the meal without wanting more. Like a series, the plot must be maintainable and cannot lack in conflict—conflict is what gives a boost to the second book. The resolution should be appropriate, while leaving the door open for characters to work towards solving their problems. Stretch their story line and give away elements about their own histories throughout the chapters. Not up front and all at once. I don’t want the patisseries before the Coronation Cauliflower.

Our waiter brings the three-tiered serving tray with our food selections. It’s all uniform and detailed right down to the honey and apricot jellies. A sweet middle in what could potentially be lacking.

Second Course

Any solid series needs a healthy dose of struggle and action. Characters who are essential to the story cannot be killed off in the first book. Although, some may come to know loss, are better saved for pivotal points for the main character when he or she needs to grow the most. It’s that moment, they feel fire and can continue that drives the reader into empathizing with their pain and rooting for them by the end. Carry the tension over with fresh energy to the second book. By now, I’m familiar with the hero, the heroine, the and the villains and they each have a story to tell. I don’t want the same problem recycled. I want a story that strings out the problem of the first book with the introduction of new dilemmas in the second book. Whatever troubles the main characters, whatever or whoever works against them, also has a past worthy of being discovered. Utilize the untold stories to create tension. It is with this idea that I decide to go darker and select a black tea for my second tea.

Third Course

My afternoon at the tea salon is going to come to an end. I’m onto the tea cakes and considering ordering a glass of champagne. Did I get my questions about the menu items answered? Do I know what makes a tea rare? The third book should have every question answered; every conflict extinguished. The conclusion should be satisfying, leaving no room for second-guessing if the author will return for just one more installment. I don’t like to reach the end of a great story, but I’m afraid dragging it out would ruin the entire series and that should be considered when it’s time to let the characters go and when the story is truly over. At the tea salon, I can get anything off the menu more than once, but if I keep ordering, I’ll eat until I’m uncomfortable and I’d rather stop while I’m ahead. Don’t settle for writing a halfhearted series. Take the time to write a royal one.






At First Sight

​There’s a gorgeous coffee bar I can’t resist. Smack dab in the middle of the Bake Hall and Roastery at Harrod’s—the name alone stirs images of class and fanciness tangible enough to bottle up for a rainy day. I’m at a crossroads between old London and new, on the corner of preserving tradition and stepping ahead. It makes me think about intersections. Not the street kind. The character kind. The first time a hero and heroine meet. No—the first time their gazes lock and they feel a jolt of energy. It’s one of the sweetest moments in a romance novel and one of my favorites. The beginning of their journey is ignited all because she sat across from him. And they noticed each other.

Characters meet in many ways, from disrespectful neighbors to writing letters to each other in a graveyard, to hedging bets. I’ve been told (via a few rejections), that the hero and heroine must meet in the first five pages. I’m not sure if it’s a hard rule in the publishing industry. I’ve read books whose writers follow this guideline and others who do not. I’ve written both ways myself. My stance? I always side with the writer who lets the characters lead and not the trends. Sometimes it’s not realistic for the two mains to meet right away. Other times, it’s necessary and relevant to the situation. I might be stubborn on this point, but I like a little build. I want to savor the moment the hero checks out the heroine and makes his arrogant assumptions about her. Their circumstances of this introduction, whatever that looks like, should be natural. I don’t want forced. Or rushed. I don’t want to be disappointed.

Since the 1940’s, the term Meet Cute has been used to describe this first interaction between love interests. For writers, the question of how these two people meet is an important point…Why? I’m getting there. This all-important moment sets the tone of conflict. Romance novels are rarely love at first sight stories. Loathing at first sight is more like it. The attraction is there, yes, but the depth of genuine feeling comes later. There’s a whole lot of miscommunication to figure out first.

What’s in that special moment? The same as what’s in a great cup of coffee (or chilled espresso Martini from the menu). It’s the details that count.

What does the hero notice about the heroine? Is she seated at the coffee bar checking her phone and crying? Cursing? Annoyed that the hero has taken the seat of the date that hasn’t shown up yet? The latte with the delicate foam leaf sits in front of her, untouched. Will he think of this moment later?

What happens when the heroine meets the hero? Does she overhear him making demands? Is he rude? Cuts in line? Throws money on the counter because he’s too impatient to wait for the bill? She sees he’s on his second cup of Knightsbridge Roast. There’s a mystery to him she wonders about long after she leaves.

It’s the true start of the plot. Among the low-lit atmosphere at Harrod’s, are roses piled high on the centerpiece of the dark-wooded bar and on displays of teas, coffee, and treats all wrapped up with the decadent scents of caffeine and sugar and longing. The setting is right. If only the hero and heroine would give each other a second glance. Just maybe, they already have, and have given the writer a strategic turning point. What the hero/heroine say and do next are critical. They should be described in, or engage in behavior that’s memorable. When the hero leaves, he should think about this woman again. The heroine should have a strong opinion of him. The next time they run into each other, they meet carrying preconceived notions about the other person.

Their interactions raise the bar of conflict. Up until the moment of their first run-ins, the hero and heroine are two separate individuals. They might be interested in someone else, getting out of a relationship, focused on their career or hobbies. The idea of love gets in the way. They should work against each other, proving themselves that they aren’t what they seem. The first meeting is about what stands out. Make it count.