Natasha Sharma: On Writing a Series

In our second post on writing series, Natasha Sharma talks about writing the HistoryMystery series, which is now five books strong, has won a few awards and has a wide fan following.

When the platypuses asked whether I’d write a piece about my experience with writing a series, it was the easiest dodge to stay off the topic of why I am dilly-dallying and not getting on with the next History Mystery and instead focus on how many I’ve written in a respectably short amount of time.

Five books into my History Mystery series with the kindly platypuses nudging, prodding and waving their flippers for a sixth is a good time to turn back and think of the origin and the journey since.

The History Mystery series grew from the most bizarre origin, as organically as it could, giving it, what I’d like to believe, its unique tone.

In case you haven’t read a previous post on its origin, I first wrote a 1500-word story in Duckbill’s writing workshop after picking historical fiction as a genre I’d never written in. Feeling rather dare-devilish by then, I went on to pull out a scruffy sock (it was scruffy- don’t believe anything that the platypuses say on this) from a bag of evil props. The story, based around Akbar, whose life and times I was most familiar with featured footsteps as a nod to the scruffy sock and grew into an entire book. Anushka and Sayoni read Akbar and the Tricky Traitor and wrote to me saying that they liked the book and they’d like me to consider building this into a series. I must have been half-asleep to have agreed so readily.

Writing a series is hard work. It calls for determination to stay the course, build it up and reinvent every time. Especially so in the case of the History Mystery series when I have to create every bit afresh for the next book. Being set around different characters and in different periods of history, it doesn’t allow me the luxury of characters already in place, something that a character-based series provides to its writer.

Every book involves a ton of research. Perhaps the biggest challenge is knowing when to stop researching! Then to sort out all that research each time around, wrap my head around a new place and a new era and finally work factual bits into my fiction story or have my story evolve from facts. It’s time-travel seated at my desk. I have to be able to get a feel of time, place and character before I can begin to write.

I’ve never worried about reader fatigue since I am conscious of not making this formulaic in any way. I enjoy having fun with the facts I discover and use them often as my inspiration for a plot point, a setting or a character trait. Raja Raja and the Swapped Sacks presented an opportunity, thanks to maritime trade in the Chola time, to set the mystery in a sea voyage unlike any of my earlier books. While Akbar and the Tricky Traitor held forth from Fatehpur Sikri featuring leopard hunts, musical evenings, huge feasts and the like, the other Mughal-based story, Shah Jahan and the Ruby Robber is set at the time of the inauguration of the Peacock Throne at Agra Fort with the Taj Mahal being built in the background (an overlap in the actual timeline that I was most excited about) providing a rich backdrop to go berserk with. Razia and the Pesky Presents allowed me to touch upon the challenges faced by a woman in power at the time and also indulge in ending the story in a twist based on my own fear of lizards. For me, it’s almost like approaching the next in the series as a new book. Perhaps that helps keep it fresh!

The thing in common across the series is the length, tone, humour, style and a nutty mystery (the last having to be reinvented each time). This provides ready direction and a framework to work within, which certainly helps. What I love to do is add little elements that some children pick up on through the series – one such being the names of the investigators. The Super Six, Tremendous Ten, Fabulous Forty, Only One and Smashing Seven. At readings, guessing the number and the accompanying adjective is a highlight.

There is author fatigue though since each book takes a lot to put together! I like mixing up my writing since I also love writing picture books and chapter books other than historical fiction. I find the best remedy for fatigue is to write something else between each book. That and travel, bouts of baking, chewing over whom to write about next and then lots of reading for research give me that much needed time to clear my head. I think that a gap really helps, especially since I wrote the first three in the series at breakneck speed.

To make my life easier in terms of deadlines, I’m also writing a series with Harper Collins, the first of which will be out in June this year called The Good Indian Child’s Guide to Eating Mangoes. I’ve also written a picture book, which is in the works with Karadi Tales.

Now, it’s all about interspersing and taking a break in writing one series with writing another!





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