The first thing I have to confess is that I didn’t set out to write Gangster School as a series – my idea was for one book about two nice kids flung into a world that they didn’t like and didn’t want to be in. But fairly early on, I realised that the world of Blaggard’s School for Tomorrow’s Tyrants was ripe for continued exploration. There was far too much to include in one book. There were (and still are) masses of stories to tell, lessons to set up, perils to establish.
I think that with a series, perhaps even more than when writing a standalone book, it’s important to have a clear idea of your characters from the outset. Before you even open your lap top you need to know what drives them, frightens them, their favourite foods, what they like and hate about themselves. What happens to them can develop at its own pace, but if you don’t know their reaction to whatever you’ll dream up, you’ll flounder.
I like Milly and Charlie, my protagonists, which helps, and there’s so much more to find out about them. Will they fall out? Fall in love? Will their determination to avoid lives of crime continue? Or will they give into family, teacher and peer pressure and reconcile themselves to their fate as future felons? What enemies will they encounter as they negotiate their perilous path through Blaggard’s?
By the end of Book 4, Pecunia Badpenny (who I also like very much – I think it’s as important to like your villains as it is to like your heroes) seems to be out of the picture. But has she really gone away forever? And if so, who will replace her?
Then there are the secondary characters: Gruffles, Charlie’s stinky but devoted dog and Wolfie, the terrifying robot guard dog turned good guy. Their roles grew and grew. I could write about them till the cows come home. And the teachers are ripe for further exploration – we’ve discovered the truth about headteacher Griselda Martinet’s affinity to cats, but how did Fabrication teacher Edgar Borgia lose all grip on the truth? Why is Defiance and Discourtesy teacher Jane Vipond perpetually angry? What sort of upbringing created the monster that is Pecunia Badpenny? These were among the many questions that I was yet to explore.
Milly’s and Charlie’s families – the Dillanes and the Partridges – became part of the back story. At the outset, they were just – well, parents, and I wasn’t clear how much they should be allowed to intrude into their children’s adventures. They’re pretty eccentric, as readers of Book 2 will discover, when they attend Blaggard’s Founders’ Day celebrations and respond to Milly’s and Charlie’s predicament in very different ways. I think they need to be kept under tight control. They could easily get out of hand. I suspected as much.
As it was now going to be the basis of many adventures, I had to have a really clear idea of the world my characters would inhabit. I needed to know what Blaggard’s looks like, its history, ethos, idiosyncrasies, and beyond that, the world it sits in. One of my friends is a sailor and she spends hours poring over charts before she decides where she is going and what route she will take. I had to create a similar chart in my mind – a virtual map of the world of Blaggard’s – and then decide what was going to happen in it.
Then there are lessons. I spent weeks deciding on the curriculum. The possibilities are pretty well endless, even within my self-imposed parameters of no violence (although historic violence is mentioned as part of Blaggard’s rich history), no politics and nothing even remotely sensible in terms of criminal tips.
I discovered numerous pitfalls and problems, of course. If ends are left open for future adventures, they need to be closed at some point, and maintaining continuity as the world and the plots enlarge is a headache.
Who is the Captain of De Bohun House? Is it Jezebel Jackson or Seth Daggersby? How old are they? What colour are Miss Vipond’s eyes? Brown, aren’t they? Or grey? What did Milly say to Jet Mannington when she and Charlie were appointed joint Vice Captains of Martinet House? What was the title of that book that I introduced at the end of Book 1, that I now want to reintroduce in Book 4? I don’t want to get these details wrong. That would shatter the world I’ve been at pains to build. And I DEFINITELY don’t want to guess at the answers to these questions without double-checking. It takes time, but it has to be done. I even have to recheck the things that I think I’m sure about, just in case. Menopause does weird things to my brain and I can’t risk getting it wrong.
Some clever person (I can’t remember who) said that there are on 7 basic storylines in the pantheon of writing. So how many millions of times have each of the 7 been tackled? How are you going to make your story fresh?
My answer to this was simple: trust your instincts and write the story you want to write. Your characters, their world and above all your personality will distinguish it from all the other permutations.
If you’re writing a series, you will have created a world. Explore it. Reach out from its centre. What will you find there? The heart of the Gangster School books is Blaggard’s School for Tomorrow’s Tyrants, but there are other, related worlds to explore. Crumley’s School for Career Criminals are Blaggard’s bitter rivals. It’s a terrifying place, that Charlie sees every time he opens his bedroom curtains. It crouches on a craggy hill, just a few miles away from Borage Bagpuize, the sleepy town that unwittingly houses Blaggard’s. But what is Crumley’s really like? Can it be as horrific as Blaggardian legend paints it? Crumley’s is the world I explore in Book 3.
Then there’s the Dependable world, inhabited by honest citizens like you and me. How would Milly, Charlie and the other Blaggardians cope if they were thrust into that environment? Would it be as alien to them as a school for criminals would be to us? That’s the backdrop for Book 5, which I haven’t yet written. I think it’s going to be fun.
That’s about it, so far. I’ve got no doubt that more pitfalls and pluses will present themselves as I continue to explore the world of Gangster School. I really hope that I’ll be allowed to write more adventures for Milly, Charlie, Wolfie and Gruffles – there’s much, much more to discover.