Little Did I Know

Foreshadowing

Stories vary in how they hint at what’s to come.  “Foreshadowing” provides the reader with more or less vague clues about things that will happen later on.  As the Wikipedia article notes, even the title of a chapter or an entire work can give us such a hint.  (I once changed the title of a novel—House of Stars, currently seeking a publisher—because the original working title gave away too much of the plot.)

One particularly overt way of foreshadowing is to have the narrator tell us straight out about something they didn’t find out until later.  I think of this as the “little did I know” trope, based on the hackneyed formula for introducing such a hint in old-time books.  That method strikes me as rather heavy-handed, and I’m dubious about whether it’s really a good idea.

”I Was Soon To Find That Out”

Stranger in a Strange Land, coverA classic example occurs in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).  Mentor-figure Jubal Harshaw (not the titular Martian), as a side business, ghost-writes the kind of ‘confessional’ novels popular in the early twentieth century.  Every now and then in Stranger, he’s motivated to dictate a bit of purple prose for such a tale.  So in ch. 17 (p. 157 in my battered old paperback copy), we hear, as part of the opening for “I Married a Martian”:  “In those carefree childhood days I did not dream to what strange bittersweet fate my tomboy ambition would . . .”

The fragmentary example is classic because it’s supposed to be a sample of hack writing; Harshaw is contemptuous of the potboilers he turns out.  Of course, not every “little did I know” example needs to be so trite.

Summer of the Dragon, coverRomantic suspense novels are given to this trope, since a primary purpose of the foreshadowing is to build anticipation and suspense.  For example, Elizabeth Peters was a master of the witty, light-hearted romantic suspense story.  In Summer of the Dragon (1979), we see a whole series of such hints.

It was like a game.
But it wasn’t a game, and I was soon to find that out.”  (ch. 7, p. 150)

I know now what it was that woke me at the crack of dawn next morning; but at the time I was amazed at myself.  (ch. 9, p. 181)

Every passing moment made me more and more uneasy; it was as if some part of my mind knew something awful was about to happen, something I couldn’t prevent.  (ch. 9, p. 194)

The fact is, my compassion was stupid.  I didn’t know how stupid until it was almost too late  (ch. 10, p. 213)

If I believed in premonitions I would claim that I knew the next day was going to see some sort of climax.  Since I don’t believe in them, I will only claim I was nervous.  (ch. 11, p. 249)

“My second impulse canceled the first; and I still maintain, in spite of what resulted, that it was a rational decision.”  (almost at very end:  ch. 12, p. 285)

After being hit over the head repeatedly with such ominous notes, one feels they’ve begun to lose their effectiveness.  And, although the individual lines are well written, the cumulative effect is to give the story a sort of “pulp” atmosphere.  In fact, that may have been just what the author was going for.  (Her laugh-out-loud description of the cover of a Gothic romance at the beginning of The Camelot Caper shows that she knew exactly what she was poking fun at.)

Some authors are particularly fond of this technique.  Andrew Greeley, for example, regularly warns us that something bad’s going to happen.  In A Christmas Wedding (2000), the hero and heroine agree that her father is a sick man, and the hero adds:  “And, as we would later find out to our dismay, dangerous too.”  (ch. 19, p. 235)  In a later book in the same series, September Song (2001), ch. 5 ends bluntly with:  “The future would be a lot worse than I expected.”  Oddly enough, in many cases the foreshadowing seems to overstate the result:  what ultimately happens is less awful than we’ve been led to expect.

Medusa in the Graveyard, coverThe “little did I know” trope isn’t confined to older works.  Emily Devenport’s fascinating Medusa in the Graveyard (2019) seems to concentrate such hints in the midsection of the story:  “That was about to change, but I didn’t know it” (ch. 14).  “I didn’t know we were about to be confronted by . . .” (ch. 14).  Or, deploying one of my favorite stock phrases:  “Famous last words” (ch. 15).

As the examples indicate, this particular type of open foreshadowing by the narrator tends to occur especially in first-person narratives.  It can also be used in the third person (“Little did she know…”), but in that case the quasi-presence of a narrator other than the main character becomes apparent—almost like “breaking the fourth wall.”

Similar Techniques

There are less obvious methods than “little did I know” to telegraph what’s coming up in a story, sharing some of the same weaknesses and strengths.

When the Fellowship of the Ring reaches Lothlorien, Frodo sees Aragorn lost in memory of meetings with Arwen there in days long past.  He comes out of his reverie and, taking Frodo’s hand, “left the hill of Cerin Amroth and came there never again as living man.”  (end of Book Two, ch. 6, p. 367)  We wonder whether this third-person statement by the narrator means that Aragorn will die on the quest.  But that doesn’t happen.  (I think everyone is familiar with that spoiler.)  Aragorn survives; but there’s no particular reason why he should come back to that particular spot (unless he and Arwen wanted to reminisce on their honeymoon), and it happens that he never does.  When we reread the story, we may wonder why Tolkien makes such a point of telling us that Aragorn doesn’t come there again “as living man,” when nothing comes of it.  (We’re not told that he visits as a ghost, either.)

We see a similar effect when an author doesn’t merely hint at, but shows us, the future:  when a story starts at a later point and ‘doubles back’ to earlier events.  This is a classic technique, as for example in The Aeneid; the fact that the story opens with Aeneas telling Dido about his escape from Troy means that we don’t have any suspense about whether he escapes when we later read those scenes.  But sometimes the later-placed-earlier scene seems to be designed to set up our expectations, more or less explicitly.

Red Sister, cover

First volume of Book of the Ancestor

For example, in Mark Lawrence’s Book of the Ancestor series, the very first book of the trilogy suggests that certain things are going to happen before the end.  But (minor spoiler here) that scene, which is presented in several places during the story, is always incomplete and carefully limited; and when it finally occurs, the context makes it quite different from what we were led to expect.  I found myself feeling that the author had sort of cheated – although that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the story; it led me to wonder whether the foreshadowing scenes were really necessary at all.

In the limiting case, any first-person story gives us a pretty good idea that the narrator will survive at least to the end of the story, as noted in TV Tropes’ article on First-Person Perspective.  Although it’s been known to happen that the hero dies at the end; the tale may conclude there, or may drop back to a third-party coda for the conclusion.

Similarly, the spoiler effect is already present in any classic tale where one already knows the conclusion—the Arthuriad, for example.  Most ancient literature was written this way; Homer’s readers already knew that Troy lost the war.  In such cases, our anticipation is not to learn the outcome of the story, but to find out how the author is going to get us there—as is also the case with many genre stories, such as romances and mysteries, and with historical fiction.

The Function of Foreshadowing

As noted above, foreshadowing of any type serves the purpose of shaping our expectations and building suspense.  The mere glimpse attracts more attention than a complete revelation—a principle every fashion designer knows.  The Wikipedia article also suggests that foreshadowing can make later events seem more plausible, since we’re already conditioned to expect them.

Plausibility can also be served by the lampshading function of a character’s anticipatory retrospective reflections.  When Peters’ heroine in Summer of the Dragon comments on her own reaction—“ my compassion was stupid.  I didn’t know how stupid until”—we are a little less inclined to excoriate the character for being an idiot, since the reflection makes clear that they now know they were an idiot.

So, if “little did I know” has legitimate functions, what’s the problem with it?

Looking Through a Character’s Eyes

Woman sits on wall looking out over a city

Viewpoint
(Image by Pexels from Pixabay)

There’s a strong trend these days toward choosing the viewpoint of a story to encourage the reader to identify as closely as possible with the main character(s).  If a story isn’t told in first person, then one is advised to use “close” or “deep” third person, where the reader’s point of view is tightly limited to that of a particular character.  There may be more than one viewpoint character, but while we’re in a given person’s head, we see only what they see, know only the things they know, experience their feelings as we face their challenges with them.

Presumably this is intended to make the reading experience more engaging and immersive.  The frequent use today of present tense (“I open the door”) rather than the usual “narrative past” (“I opened the door”)—for example, in the Hunger Games trilogy—appears to be another means to the same end.

Now, I’m not slavishly devoted to the “close third” option.  Plenty of the stories I read growing up were told in “omniscient” third person, where the author felt free to give the reader information the characters were not privy to.  In the lost world-ship story Orphans of the Sky, for example, Heinlein fills us in on things that the characters, given the boundaries of their experience, cannot understand.  Or consider Victor Hugo’s notorious disquisition on the Paris sewer system in Book the Second of Volume Five in Les Misérables.  I’m comfortable with a more ‘distant’ viewpoint; I can read The Silmarillion as well as The Lord of the Rings.

The Downside of Knowing

Image of eye, shadowed

Image by Helmut Strasil from Pixabay

But to my mind, the heavy-handed “little did I know” sort of foreshadowing does tend to pull one out of the story.  We now know something the viewpoint character doesn’t; we are no longer sharing their feelings in the moment, but rather their retrospective evaluation based on later knowledge.  We are not quite in the internal time of the story, but viewing it sub specie aeternitatis, from a point of view that is not time-bound.  This distances us to some degree from the story.

The specific foreshadowing typical of these hints, as distinct from a general air of ominousness, builds dramatic tension; but it also reduces surprise.  Of course, this kind of surprise is lost the second time you read any book.  We already know what’s going to happen.  Still, the building up of expectations proportionately reduces even the apparent freshness of the experience when the foreshadowed event finally takes place.  We may find ourselves thinking more about the later events that are being implied than being “mindful” about the current action.

That diversion from the ‘narrative present’ may be particularly distracting when we don’t feel that the author makes good on the implied threat of the foreshadowing.  If we’re told that something terrible is in the offing, and then it turns out not to be so bad after all, we may feel disappointed or cheated.  Greeley’s stories are especially subject to this problem; on the second read-through, we may feel we’re being manipulated when the author earnestly warns us to expect something awful, but we know the outcome won’t live up to the warning.  After a while, we may begin to take the author’s insinuations with a grain of salt, since we know their habit of overthreatening and not delivering.

The not-delivering can actually be a relief, rather than a letdown:  ‘Whew, that wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.’  That reaction makes me ambivalent about the faux foreshadowing.  The release of dramatic tension in a positive way may be as satisfying as the fulfillment in a negative way.  Perhaps overthreatening actually is a useful device—particularly if we want the reader to be relieved rather than appalled.

My sense, in the end, is that “little did I know” is a technique to be used with care.  Foreshadow away; but be sure of exactly what you’re trying to achieve and how the language used will accomplish it.

The City as Character

In some fantasy or science fiction stories, a city actually is a kind of character.  The clearest example—as the title indicates—is N.K. Jemisin’s 2020 novel The City We Became. (Page references are to the hardcover edition, New York:  Orbit, Hatchette Book Group, 2020.)

Since I need to discuss some details of the novel to make the necessary points, I’m flying a

Spoiler Alert!

However, I’ll try to keep actual story spoilers to a minimum.

The City We Became

Jemisin gives the premise, as quoted in a review:  “The city of New York comes to life—literally, as in, the city has developed sentience and an ability to act on its own.”  This quickening takes place through the medium of human avatars.  The city chooses a human being to be “its . . . midwife.  Champion.”  (The City We Became, p. 304.)  In the case of New York, there are actually six avatars:  one for each borough, and one for the city as a whole.  (305)

The City We Became, coverHow does this happen?  A “real city” will “make a weight on the world, a tear in the fabric of reality” (7).  This metaphysical weight comes from the accumulated “strangeness” of the people who come there (8).  A city’s unique load of strangeness—its identity—isn’t a pre-established thing; it develops over time.

[Cities are] organic, dynamic systems.  They are built to incorporate newness.  But some new things become part of a city, helping it grow and strengthen—while some new things can tear it apart.  (46)

This incorporation of newness is especially true of New York.

The city needs newcomers!  He belongs here as much as anyone born and bred to its streets, because anyone who wants to be of New York can be!  (47)

Even the legends and lies about the city contribute to its essence, its distinctive identity—what makes it a “real city.”  (166)

The broader reality in which the weighty essence of a city tears a hole is an alternate-worlds multiverse (165-66).  Not only are there many worlds:  “Imagining a world creates it, if it isn’t already there” (302)—a kind of World as Myth notion.

The tearing isn’t purely benign.  The “hole” that “punches through” actually causes harm:  “The process of our creation, what makes us alive, is the deaths of hundreds or thousands of other closely related universes, and every living thing in them.”  (306)  In that somewhat curious postulate, the story reflects the popular contemporary focus on the destructiveness of progress or expansion.

The newborn New York has an Enemy:  a type of city so alien as to be fundamentally at odds with human cities, which wants to invade our world.  Several characters refer to the anti-city as an “eldritch abomination,” a term characteristic of H.P. Lovecraft and similar early twentieth-century horror writers.  (16-17, 38, 167-68)  But New York also has allies, elder siblings, such as São Paulo in Brazil, and Hong Kong.  Apparently there’s even a community of cities (“the Summit”).  (10, 21-22)

We will hear more about this:  there’s going to be a series, in which this novel is billed as “Great Cities #1.”  The novel itself was developed from Jemisin’s short story “The City Born Great,” a Hugo award winner for 2017, which constitutes the prologue to the novel.  It’s “urban fantasy” in the strongest sense.

The aspect on which I want to focus is that distinctiveness, a civic “personality,” is what makes a city alive.  Thus, in the opposite direction, the Enemy gains a foothold through the interpolation of chain businesses like Starbucks.  “They’re destroying everything that makes New York what it is, replacing it with generic bullshit.”  (357)  The avatars constitute—or express—the “spirit of the place,” the genius loci.

The Personalized City

It’s not unheard of in F&SF to give a city consciousness, though seldom in so full-tilt a manner as Jemisin’s.

Cities in Flight, coverIn James Blish’s Cities in Flight series, much of the action centers around the star-traveling city of New York.  New York aloft has a perpetual Mayor, John Amalfi, and a City Manager, Mark Hazleton (in the last two books).  But it also has a “server farm” of a hundred-odd computers which collectively make up “the City Fathers.”  That term, generally applied to municipal officials of some venerable sort, indicates authority.  But the balance of power among the Mayor, the City Manager, and the City Fathers is rather complicated.  Amalfi generally gets his way, but sometimes this involves working around the City Fathers—on one occasion, turning them off completely for a period.

While the City Fathers might be considered an intelligence for the city as a whole, they’re not much of an intelligence by modern standards.  Rather, they come across impersonally, a 1950s idea of what a giant computer would be like:  a pure logic.  Their dialogue is rendered in all capitals in the text.  Blish lampshades this typographical indicator in A Life for the Stars (1962), where young Chris DeFord reflects on first acquaintance:  “. . . he would never have mistaken it for a human voice.  Whatever the difference was, he thought of it as though the device were speaking all in capital letters.”

Thus Blish’s City Fathers are almost the polar opposite of Jemisin’s cities:  impersonal and generic rather than distinctive.  In a similar way, while Blish gives some details about the flying city of New York—naming subway stops and the like—he never makes the city “come alive” even in the merely literary sense, to my mind.  The focus is all on the human characters; the city is simply part of the landscape.

An entirely different tack is taken by Anne McCaffrey and S.M. Stirling in  The City Who Fought (1993).  This novel belongs to McCaffrey’s “shellperson” or “Brain & Brawn Ship” series, which originated with the stories collected in The Ship Who Sang (1969).  Here, infants with severe physical disabilities but competent brains may become

an encapsulated ‘brain,’ a guiding mechanism in any one of a number of curious professions.  As such, [they] would suffer no pain, live a comfortable existence in a metal shell for several centuries, performing unusual service to Central Worlds.  (The Ship Who Sang, first page)

Most of the Brain & Brawn stories are about shellpeople who are the animating controllers of spacecraft.  In The City Who Fought, however, we see a case of a “brain” partner who inhabits a space station, rather than a ship.  In that sense, Simeon, the hero of the novel, can be seen as the persona or “soul” of a spaceborne city.  But since the shellpeople are in fact normal human beings, in terms of their minds and personalities, the unique character of the city reduces to the uniqueness of any human being.

Presence

A city can also have a presence, a kind of personality, without actual consciousness.

So You Want To Be a Wizard, coverIn Diane Duane’s So You Want To Be a Wizard (1983, rev. ed. 2012), the heroes are translated from their familiar New York City to an alternate, darker New York:  “a shadowed island prisoned between chill rivers and studded with sharp spikes of iron and cold stone” (ch. 2, p. 65).  In this dark-side version, machines like taxicabs are sentient (and vicious); even common objects like fire hydrants are alive.  The character of alternate-NYC is evident from its dramatic contrast against the everyday version in which the rest of the story takes place.  The characters can feel the foreboding threat of the place even before they begin to run into hostile beings.

Charles Williams employs a similarly alternative London in All Hallows Eve (1945).  Here, however, the effect is the reverse of Duane’s.  The main character, a young woman who has recently died, finds herself in an uninhabited alternate London redolent of peace and a mysterious overawing holiness. Meanwhile, ordinary London, including her friend and widowed husband, is threatened by a black magician.

In Williams’ presentation, the city does exert a kind of agency:  the last chapter is titled “The Acts of the City.”  Here, though, the city acts rather as a conduit for the divine than through a consciousness of its own.  Its specific order has numinous importance.

This was a regular theme in Williams.  His friend C.S. Lewis observed:

Williams was a Londoner of the Londoners; Johnson or Chesterton never exulted more than he in their citizenship.  On many of us the prevailing impression made by the London streets is one of chaos; but Williams, looking on the same spectacle, saw chiefly an image—an imperfect, pathetic, heroic, and majestic image—of Order.  (C.S. Lewis, “Williams and the Arthuriad,” in Taliesin Through Logres, The Region of the Summer Stars, Arthurian Torso (1974), p. 289)

 

The City as Background

In most stories, a city is not so literally personified as in the above examples.  Normally its “personality” merely serves as a colorful background setting, giving a story or series a distinctive flavor based on the milieu.

G.K. Chesterton observes somewhere that in Charles Dickens’ novels, London is practically a character in itself.  It’s not that London is somehow animated or ensouled; it’s that the locale is described with such well-observed detail that it plays as central a role in the story as the actual characters do.  As Lewis noted above, a number of Chesterton’s own stories evoke a similarly distinctive London.  While Chesterton does not provide the wealth of detail Dickens does, the same affectionate appreciation for the city is expressed in a more impressionistic fashion.

Rex Stout’s numerous Nero Wolfe detective stories perform the same service for New York.  Narrator Archie Goodwin is constantly running around the city, intimately familiar with its nooks and crannies, and as we follow him, it begins to seem a familiar place to us too.  Well-known landmarks, both real and fictional, help give the place a sense of concreteness and aid our suspension of disbelief.

To All the Boys: Always and Forever, movie posterMore recently, in the Netflix movie To All the Boys: Always and Forever (2021), high school senior Lara Jean Covey “falls in love” with New York on a school trip.  Her attraction to the place is strong enough to lead her to change her college plans and throw her romance into disarray.

Interestingly, in the book, it was the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that attracted Lara Jean’s attention.  UNC-CH also has a nice campus, but the screenwriters seem to have felt that New York would be a more obvious candidate—and we can see why.  Some cities are famous for having more “pull” (or, as Jemisin put it, “weight”) than others.  I recall that, when I was going to law school in Cambridge, two friends were talking about going down to “the city,” and I was puzzled why they’d make such a big deal out of running across the river to Boston.  But that wasn’t the city they meant.  They were New Yorkers; even if you’re next door to another big city, “THE City” is NYC.

The Black God's Drums, coverOf course, it needn’t always be New York.  Most of Andrew Greeley’s novels are set in Chicago; and by the time you’re read a dozen or so, Greeley’s particular version of Chicago has “come alive” as much as New York.  I have a notion that The Black God’s Drums (2018), by P. Djèlí Clark, was aiming to do something similar for New Orleans, although one can’t go as far in a single novella as one can in a whole series of novels.

The Small Town

If big, brawling cities like New York or Chicago or New Orleans can become characters in their own right, what about small towns?  Certainly a story often invites us to become attached to a small town in the same way that we are to these big cities.  The question, I think, is whether we can find the same sort of distinctiveness in a habitation built on a smaller scale.

In Hallmark romances, we are constantly being introduced to a cozy, adorable small town, usually the site of a struggling local business.  We’re meant to find this municipality lovable and charming.  In most cases, though, the locations seem to be too generic to attract our interest.  The bakeries and bookstores and Christmas tree lightings all seem to blur together after a while.  True, these short films don’t have much time to develop an elaborate background identity.  But that’s not the only factor—because some two-hour films do manage to make a small town real.

Doc Hollywood movie posterMy favorite example is Doc Hollywood (1991), in which Michael J. Fox, a newly-minted doctor on his way to a high-paying plastic surgery job in L.A., gets stranded in Grady, South Carolina.  The whole story is about whether Fox’s character Ben Stone will shake the dust of Grady off his feet as soon as possible and decamp to the big city, or decide he likes it where he is.  For this to work, the town has to be vividly realized.  The actors, director, writers, and composer do a nice job of showing us enough quirky characters and local traditions to convince us that Stone’s inevitable decision makes sense.  Other rom-coms like Murphy’s Romance (1985) and Coffee Shop (2014), in my view, pull off the same trick.

For a more bookish example, we can look at Jan Karon’s long-running Mitford series (1994-present).  The dozen or more stories set in the village of Mitford, North Carolina (the first of which is tellingly titled At Home in Mitford), afford plenty of scope to develop the landscape, landmarks, quirky characters, and history of this hill-country locale to the point where it becomes a familiar retreat one can revisit at will.  As in Jemisin’s New York, it’s primarily the people who make the town what it is.

Conclusion

It appears that both big cities and small towns can become distinctive enough to rise to the level of being a quasi-character (or sometimes an actual character) in a story.  But the end results are different.  The big city tends to be distinctive by being roaring and stimulating; the small town, by being homelike and comforting.  It would be interesting to see if those characteristics could be reversed:  a cozy metropolis, an exciting village.  But those two types of place may be inherently linked to the number of citizens.  We can think of the reversal as a challenge for future writers.

Writing a Series

This week we have a guest post from Beth Overmyer, author of The Goblets Immortal, mentioned in our last episode.  The sequel to Goblets hits the stands on February 16.  It’s thus a timely moment to take a look at the special complications of writing a series.

Take it away, Beth!

Writing a Series — Beth Overmyer

There are many things to take into consideration when writing a series. Will it be two books (a duology)?  Or maybe it’s going to be a serial, books that pick up right after one another and could be slapped together as a single volume (The Lord of the Rings, anyone?)  How do I keep track of all my information?  Where do I even get started?

Let’s start at the end . . . of the first two books in a trilogy, that is.

Endings

The Goblets Immortal, coverSome writers advocate that it’s important to know where your book/series is headed.  If you aim at nothing, they reason, that’s what you’ll get.  Knowing the ending of the series before you pen page one of book one can be helpful and gives you something to reach toward.  When I was writing The Goblets Immortal books, however, I had only a distant idea of what I was aiming toward.  Not necessarily a clear target, but an emotional note I wanted to end on.

There are different types of endings, and each book in the series might have a different one.  Book one might be a HEA (happily ever after) or a HFN (happy for now), while book two might be a cliffhanger, and the final book might end in a tragedy.  I don’t necessarily recommend this path, however.  Despite liking surprises, readers also tend to want consistency from the author.

And I don’t recommend making every book a cliffhanger.  A lot of readers don’t like them.  A cliffhanger, of course, leaves the characters in a crisis.  The reader might be frustrated that they have to wait a whole year (or more!) to find out what’s going to happen next.  Also remember your genre’s expectations.  Fantasy endings can vary, but a romance or F&SF romance needs a HEA or a HFN.

Let’s take a look at the endings of one series’ first and second installments.

Star Wars, Episode IV:  A New Hope

The end of the story sees the episode’s main conflict resolved (the Death Star is blown up), but there are enough loose ends (Vader’s alive, the Emperor’s out there, Imperial Troops abound) left to keep things open for future installments.  Yet this movie could very much be a standalone.  Many Book Ones wrap things up to a greater degree than Book Two.

Star Wars, Episode V:  The Empire Strikes Back

The near-end offers up a few surprises, but the very end (Han is spirited away on a bounty hunter’s ship) sets up the opening conflict for the next movie.  This movie is less of a standalone, but it could be watched and understood without watching the first movie.

Series Bible

“But how do I keep track of all my information?” I hear you ask.  A very good question.  One simple way to solve this:  reread the first book/s in your series before you write the next installment.  Not only will this give you a refresher course on the details of the story, it will put you back in that world and remind you of the voice you’re writing in.

Series bible for The Goblets ImmortalAnother way to keep track of information is to make a series bible.

It’s impossible to keep every detail about every character (appearance, personality, catchphrases, etc.), location, event, and timeline in your head . . . especially if you’re a pantser or plantser and haven’t written all the details out.  Once book one’s been written, it might be a good idea to put together what is known as a series bible.  In fact, it might be better to develop one as you go along.

A series bible is a document full of details from the books in a series. When you have a question about a character’s appearance, flip back to their page and look it up. Forget the name of a town? Flip back to the locations section of your bible.

When I started writing book two in The Goblets Immortal series, I already had notes on each Goblet Immortal, what that Goblet did, where it originated, where it was at the end of book one, and other important details.  I also had a few character notes.

Getting Started

We’ve looked at endings and keeping track of details.  But how does a writer even get started with a series?

Let me start by giving you permission:  you are allowed to write out of order.  If you have an idea for a scene later down the road, jot down notes or go right ahead and write.  You can always revise it Holes in the Veil, coverto fit your opening better later on.

As with writing any other book, follow your preferred method.  Are you a plotter?  Write an outline for book one, and jot down notes for the books that will follow.  Are you a pantser?  Roll up your sleeves and dig in.  Plantser (a mix of a plotter and a pantser)—jot down some notes and get started writing.

The best thing to do, besides getting some experience under your belt, is to read and study other series.  What did you like about your favorite trilogy?  What made you stop reading your least favorite one?  Don’t make their mistakes, but emulate their triumphs—without outright copying, that is.

Another word of advice: keep a running list of questions that need to be answered in later books.  If a missing magical knife is mentioned in book one but is not referenced again in book two, remind your audience of it before its grand appearance in book three.  I have a document titled “Loose Ends,” and I highlight things in green once I’ve taken care of them.  Things I’ve mostly taken care of, I highlight in yellow.  Things that I’ve decided to let go of, I cross out.

Conclusion

So, there you have it. There are some good resources out there on series writing, though not as many as you would think. For your reading pleasure, might I suggest trying:  How to Write A Series:  A Guide to Series Types and Structure plus Troubleshooting Tips and Marketing Tactics (Genre Fiction How To Book 2) by Sara Roset, and Writing the Fiction Series:  The Complete Guide for Novels and Novellas by Karen S. Wiesner.

Thanks, Rick, for hosting me!

Keep your nose in a book and your pen on the page,
Beth Overmyer
Beth’s Web Site

Good Reading from 2020

We all know that 2020 was not exactly a banner year in most ways.  It did, however, afford some time for good reading.  Since everyone is doing year’s end compilations, I’m going to offer a selection of the new books I perused last year.  They weren’t all newly published in 2020; that just happened to be when I read them.

Science Fiction

  • Starsight, coverStarsight (2019). For some reason, I still haven’t been thrilled by Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy (other than his completion of The Wheel of Time, which was masterful).  I must be missing something, given his rep.  But I was intrigued to see him venture into science fiction with Skyward (2018).  His heroine, one of the young pilots defending an embattled human refuge on a far-off planet, is a near-outcast, fiery and determined.  She shone in Skyward; the sequel, Starsight, took her in new directions amid unexpected developments.  Her story appears to be complete as a duology, though the Wikipedia page for Starsight says there are two more books in that universe to come.
  • In the category of “best book about mercenary librarians,” I enjoyed Kit Rocha’s Deal With the Devil (2020). Dystopias aren’t usually my locales of choice, but I couldn’t resist a tale of near-future ninja-like librarians in a collapsed America, with a post-apocalyptic mission somewhat in the vein of A Canticle for Leibowitz or the Encyclopedia Galactica.  The strong romance elements didn’t hurt either.  There are more books in this series too, but I haven’t read them yet.
  • I’m still learning how best to appreciate John Scalzi, and his fabulously eccentric sense of humor. I didn’t take to his reworking of H.  Beam Piper’s Fuzzy stories, but his Collapsing Empire trilogy (2017-2020) was great reading.  It kept me eager for more, despite the atmosphere of inevitable disaster (see above re dystopias) and the deadly political infighting.  The story has just enough likable characters and just enough victory to keep it from being a downer.  It’s also a fascinating study in how to do space opera that’s sufficiently weird to qualify in today’s market—a subject in which I have great interest.
  • Arabella the Traitor of Mars, coverArabella the Traitor of Mars (2018) completes the trilogy whose first volume I discussed a while back. Still great fun, and a satisfying conclusion.  I suppose this counts as science fiction, though the premises—a solar system filled with breathable air in which open-decked ships actually sail between the planets—are so wild that one doesn’t want to examine them too closely:  way down toward the soft end of the “Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness,” but succeeding in spades under the “Rule of Cool.”
  • Kevin Wade Johnson’s Roads Between Worlds (2013) gives us a different take on the many-worlds theme, with unusual and engaging characters wielding conceptually mysterious talents. I’m pointing to the Amazon page here for reference, but Johnson is moving his books to another platform and I gather there may be a brief hiatus before they’re available again.

Fantasy

  • Shorefall, coverShorefall (2020) is perhaps the winner in the category of “books that seemed like endings but weren’t.” I read Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside (2018) with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club a couple of years ago, and was fascinated by its exotic magic system, colorful and diverse characters, and steampunkish city setting.  As with Starsight, the sequel both doubled down and expanded the universe in new directions—a combination I’m coming to think is crucial for a series.  Right up to the end of Shorefall, I had the idea this was a duology; until at nearly the last minute I realized, OMG, it isn’t over.  Bennett raises the stakes almost unbearably in this second volume, and now I’m going to be watching the skies to see the “Unknown” listing for the third volume on Goodreads turn to something definite that I can anticipate.
  • Sorcerer to the Crown (2015) and its sequel The True Queen (2019), by Zen Cho, win the award for best Regency fantasy of the year. (One might suppose that “Regency fantasy” would be a vanishingly small category, but it seems to be a growth industry, from The Enchanted Chocolate Pot to the many series of Gail Carriger.)  Dragons, dilettantes, Malaysian mages, and British political intrigue blend in this very entertaining series.  There’s a third volume expected here, as well.  The pull of the trilogy is hard to resist.
  • Among Others, coverJo Walton writes not only crackerjack commentary on fantasy and science fiction, but some of the most offbeat and philosophically sophisticated fantasy around. I try to avoid buying hardcopy books these days—I’m running out of bookshelf space—but I sent away for a copy of Among Others (2011) to keep after I read it from the library (and promptly lent my new copy to my daughter).  It’s not easy to tell where the story is going—it keeps you guessing; but the end is satisfying and appropriate.
  • Beth Overmyer’s The Goblets Immortal (2020) is a promising series opener, with plenty of adventure, sympathetic characters, and a unique system of magic. Aidan and Slaíne are an unlikely but engaging pair, on the run from their pasts, seeking to solve the mysteries of the Blest and the curious effects of the Goblets.  The next book in the series, Holes in the Veil, comes out February 16.  Join us here next time to hear a bit about how Beth developed the series.

Neither

  • Dash and Lily's Book of Dares, coverAs we wind up the Christmas season, I want to give a nod to the Dash & Lily books by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn (2010-2020), even though (a heavy burden to bear) they’re not science fiction or fantasy. I caught the Netflix series based on the first book, and was motivated to hunt up the books themselves (read two, one to go).  Loved these characters; just the right combination of snark and warmth to celebrate the season.

Nonfiction

Uncharacteristic as it may seem, I spent some time this year engrossed in nonfiction works too.  Many of them I can claim as research for my next project—or maybe it’s just that when you’re focused on X, everything you read seems to have some relation to X.  The nonfiction catch included—

Happy reading in 2021!

Next Stop—Anywhere

Last time we talked about the sequels to the movie Tangled.  But I didn’t say anything about the music.  One song in particular deserves a comment of its own.

Music in the Movies

Rapunzel and Eugene in boat, in Tangled

“I See the Light”

Disney generally gets good composers to do the music for its major movies.  Tangled was especially productive; I already had on my playlists the charming love song “I See the Light” (video here), and the end-credits song (is there a name for that niche?), “Something That I Want” by Grace Potter.

The theme song for the TV series actually premiered in the short film Tangled:  Before Ever After.  “Wind in My Hair” deftly expresses Rapunzel’s excitement as she anticipates continuing to discover the wide world outside her tower—the “endless horizon.”  And there’s a bit of humor in the title:  who, after all, is more suited to having the “wind in her hair” than Rapunzel?

Put On Your Sunday Clothes (movie) dance number

“Put On Your Sunday Clothes”

“Wind in My Hair” falls into a category that TV Tropes calls “Setting Off Songs,” like “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” or “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly!.  There’s always a certain excitement when people are getting started on a journey, be it an epic trip to the Emerald City or just a Sunday jaunt to New York City.  In keeping with Rapunzel’s character, “Wind” is upbeat and optimistic, adding to its charm.

But Rapunzel has much farther to go than we see in the short movie, or the first season of the series.  Most of those stories remain inside the Kingdom of Corona.  It’s at the beginning of the second season that Rapunzel and company set out into the real terra incognita outside the kingdom.  And at that point we get yet another expeditionary song, one that simply knocked me over.  Hence the inevitable reflection:  why do I love this song?

“Next Stop, Anywhere”

“Next Stop, Anywhere,” by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, is a Setting Off Song squared and cubed.  It appears initially in Season 2, Episode 1, at about 3:23.

Next Stop, Anywhere:  video

Next Stop, Anywhere:  lyrics

Rapunzel has a mission:  to backtrack the ominous black rocks that began to appear in the short film.  The prologue to S2E1 gives us some rather grim history hinting at what she’s going to find.  But when we flick back to Rapunzel and her True Companions in the present day, she’s mostly excited about venturing into the outside world (“It’s our first big city outside of Corona!”).

Rapunzel leaps from the caravanThe song starts with a fast, steady beat, and a series of flute trills, which suggest movement and vigor along with the sunny lightness characteristic of our heroine.  The visuals of a hummingbird and a field of flowers reinforce the musical cue.  Rapunzel leaps out of their ambling caravan and races around in a montage, observing the heavens, using her hair to climb a giant tree, dashing off her signature paintings, turning cartwheels.  The refrain comes in with a bouncy drumbeat that bears out the lyric:  where might we be going next?  Anywhere!

The steady beat continues throughout the following mix of dialogue and singing.  Rapunzel’s enthusiasm is indomitable.  Her romantic interest Eugene is not quite as keen on following “a bunch of creepy rocks” into the unknown; but at Rapunzel’s wry loving look, he has to admit that of course he’s excited:  “I’m with you!  What else could I be?”  He alternates lines with her in the next verse, and they both participate in the next series of acrobatic misadventures.  The theme of first love is an additional source of excitement.

Cassandra and the wild horsesThe pointy black rocks turn up from time to time as they cross the landscape, but Rapunzel and Eugene ignore them; at this point their grim purpose seems trivial.  That theme of leaping over the difficulties to focus on the adventure is refreshed when the caravan, driven by the wary Cassandra, catches up with them (2:05).  Cass admonishes Rapunzel for running off and warns her that “the real world isn’t all fun and games.”  Doesn’t matter.  The song resumes, and even Cassandra can’t resist singing a line or two.  Rapunzel is going to seek out her destiny, but that will cause her to grow:  “find the best in me.”

The Reprise

As the canny viewer may have expected, Vardaros, the “first big city” they encounter, falls disastrously short of expectations.  One character narrowly dodges death, and another, marriage.  The mystery warrior Adira turns up with more ominous warnings about where they’re going.  They’re not ready to move forward again until the end of the second episode (listed on the Web pages as Part II of Episode 1).  (Actually, they spend another couple of segments in Vardaros anyway, but the reprise of “Next Stop” occurs in the second episode at about 20:50.)

Next Stop, Anywhere (reprise):  video

Next Stop, Anywhere (reprise):  lyrics

Rapunzel and Eugene, hands joinedThe music starts with a tensely suspended organ tone.  Then, over a somber bass note, Eugene begins singing more slowly—but his words are expressing determination to continue.  Rapunzel joins in, and they clasp hands.  As the music speeds up and brightens, they invoke their faith in each other.  By the time we reach the refrain, we’re back to full speed and full strength.  The “with you close to me” line expands visually to include Cassandra and the others:  they can overcome the coming obstacles with not only the power of love, but the power of friendship.  Even the serious aspects of the journey give way to the boundless exuberance with which the original song started.  The music, as well as the lyrics, firmly rejects somberness in favor of joy—like the opening passages of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony:  not by ignoring the dangers and difficulties, but by acknowledging and surpassing them.

“Out There”

The theme of exploration and discovery is a favorite of mine, and the Setting Off Songs tend to live and move in that theme.  “Out there . . .” is exactly how “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” begins.  We don’t yet know what’s out there, but we’re eager to find out.

The theme isn’t confined to songs, of course.  The iconic opening of the original Star Trek series and its Next Generation sequel hit exactly that note, invoking the “sense of wonder” SF is famous for:  “The final frontier . . . To seek out new life and new civilizations.”  To my mind, the intro to the “Star Trek:  Enterprise” series is even better, with its sequence of daring steps in exploration (real and fictional) over inspiring music.  Similarly, the best scene in the unfortunate first Star Trek movie occurs at the very end, at about 1:30 in this clip.

Kirk gazes forward, ending of Star Trek IKirk:  Ahead warp one.
Sulu:  Warp one, sir.
Helm:  Heading, sir?
Kirk:  (pauses)  Out there. . . . (motions vaguely)  Thattaway.

‘Let’s see what’s out there.’  That attitude, it seems to me, is highly to be prized:  with the sense of incipient wonder, the expectation of finding amazing things, and some degree of confidence in our ability to deal with them.  (Chesterton said, “Man must have just enough faith in himself to have adventures, and just enough doubt of himself to enjoy them”—Orthodoxy, ch. 7.)

It’s important that we be able to see the trials and perils of life as an adventure, not merely an imposition.  That attitude is one of the essential factors in a mature human personality, and it merits perennial refreshing and reinforcement.  That’s why “Next Stop, Anywhere” is so pleasing:  it hits just the right note.

And besides, it’s a cool song.