Time Signature: Writing in a Shared World

My science fiction romantic comedy novella Time Signature debuts tomorrow, May 10, available wherever fine ebooks are sold.  In honor of the occasion, I’m going to say a few words about one of the interesting aspects of writing this piece—the challenge of building a story in a world someone else has created.

Origin Story

The Wild Rose Press likes to develop series of books based on a common setting or theme.  The common element is announced, and authors are invited to submit stories to fit.  The stories may be of different kinds:  contemporary romance, historical romance, romantic suspense, paranormal romance, and so forth.  But the common thread ties them together.

A couple of years ago, TWRP announced the Deerbourne Inn series.  The creators placed a charming old inn in a small town in Vermont.  They described the layout of the inn and the town, the surrounding landscape, a set of inhabitants, noteworthy events, and the like.  Then they turned the writers loose.  At this point, I count no fewer than twenty-six books set in the Deerbourne Inn locale.  This small town, in other words, is crawling with lovers seeking their happy endings.

In a Wild Rose chat, I asked whether, among all these varieties, a science fiction (rather than fantasy) story might also fit.  Sure, why not, was the response.  And, having raised the question, I thought of an angle:  a chance to play around with the classic time travel romance tropes and, perhaps, turn them around in unexpected ways.  I ran the concept by Nikki Andrews, who was at that time my TWRP editor.  She thought it might be fun.  And thus Time Signature was born.

The Shared World

Man-Kzin Wars 3, cover

The idea of a shared world has a long history, especially in science fiction.  Back in the 1980s, Harlan Ellison recruited a band of noted SF writers to place stories in a setting referred to as “Harlan’s World.”  Later in the ’80s, Jerry Pournelle opened up a planet in his CoDominium future history to other authors under the series title “War World.”  Larry Niven, a frequent collaborator with Pournelle, performed a similar evolution based on an event in his Known Space future history, the “Man-Kzin Wars.”  More recently, Eric Flint’s 2000 novel 1632 has spawned an extensive cottage industry of alternate-history stories in the “Ring of Fire series.”

A storyline inhabited by different authors can also develop almost accidentally.  I’ve remarked on the roles of different writers in stories about the “Fuzzies” created by H. Beam Piper.  A set of follow-up books to James Schmitz’s classic The Witches of Karres brought three additional authors into play. 

The advantage of spreading out the efforts of exotic worldbuilding make science fiction a natural venue for shared worlds.  But even in more mundane settings, there are advantages to be gained.  A standalone non-fantastic contemporary novel must still stand up a set of characters, places, companies, and the like to populate the story.  A writer who’s invented such a panoply of features for a set of tales (like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County) has to put a lot of work into developing these details.  Bringing in a whole corps of authors to help in that enterprise can create a richness of detail that would be hard for a single writer to achieve.  (We can’t all be J.R.R. Tolkien.)

Thus, before I put electrons to screen in Time Signature, I already had a range of details to draw upon.  The inn and its staff were “already there.”  If my characters wanted to have dinner at a restaurant in town, I had a selection of eateries available.  More important, my main character Trina Kellander, a musician, could perform in town at the “Mad River Garden Party,” a summertime event already defined in the Deerbourne Inn corpus.

The Joys and Tribulations of Consistency

The flip side of these advantages is the need for consistency.  Nothing throws a reader out of a story faster than some blatant discrepancy in the details.  If it takes 39 minutes to get from Willow Springs to Montpelier, it’s unlikely the return trip will take three hours—barring traffic jams, severe weather, or the like.  (And if Trina makes the trip in fair weather, we can’t have another character suffering a torrential downpour in the same location at the same time.)

Achieving the consistency needed for a successful suspension of disbelief is hard enough for one author.  For a whole herd of authors, it’s a major issue.  How do we maintain the coherence that makes the shared world seem real?

Beth Overmyer’s recent guest post on writing a series mentioned the notion of a “bible”—reference notes that record details, from a character’s appearance to the theory of magic.  The bible is essential to a shared universe.  It’s the only way writers can stay consistent on key details without bogging down in endless inter-author consultations.

Great Eddy Covered Bridge in Waitsfield, VT
Great Eddy Covered Bridge in Waitsfield, VT, on the way from Willow Springs to Montpelier

The Deerbourne Inn bible establishes the location of the fictional town of Willow Springs (which actually coincides with a real small town on the Vermont map—allowing me to use Google Maps to determine the travel time to Montpelier).  It lays out the structure of the inn, its history, the owner and staff, a bevy of secondary characters at the inn and in the town, the shops and facilities in Willow Springs (right down to the high school mascot), and special events.  Characters introduced in the individual stories, up to the last update to the bible, are also listed.  The bible is accompanied by a street map of the town, making it easier to visualize geographical relationships.  (We’ve not yet progressed to the level of having a GIS layer for an electronic map.  But that innovation’s probably not too far away.)

However, it’s impractical to include all possible details in the bible—especially when 26 different books are involved.  This makes it harder to be sure whether a given fact has been established somewhere, or whether one is free to invent it.  My ebook copies of the Deerbourne Inn stories I read while writing TS are festooned with blue highlights to indicate facts that I might have to take into account at some point.  And still it’s not easy to tell.

Case in point:  My characters take a hike up into the nearby hills, and stop to look back down at the inn.  What color is the façade?  I couldn’t find a reference on that particular point.  If I were writing a standalone story, I would simply have made up a color on the spot (and, of course, carefully notated it back into my background notes for later reference).  But I was reluctant to do that here; someone else might have made a passing reference to the color in a story I hadn’t read.  I dodged the issue by simply not mentioning a color—often the simplest solution to a consistency problem.

At the same time, meshing your story smoothly into an existing framework has a joy of its own.  I enjoyed doing my best to meld TS seamlessly into the continuity of the locale and the stories.

Character Camaraderie

The greatest fun, however, came in the opportunity to integrate other authors’ characters and locales into the story as it developed.

Lyrical Embrace cover

My heroine Trina needed a best-friend-forever in town—someone she could talk to as the plot developed.  It occurred to me that a secondary character in Amber Daulton’s Lyrical Embrace, the sister of her hero, would make a fine confidante.  Like Trina, Ruby Haynes is a musician; that created a natural connection and explained a shared history.  And Ruby’s breezy good cheer made her a perfect foil.

I had a great time consulting with Amber and making sure my portrayal of Ruby was consistent with the original.  What kind of drinks would they share?  What would Ruby name a baby?  The circle was completed when the baby I’d named turned up again in Amber’s subsequent Deerbourne novel Harmony’s Embrace.  Like a volley in tennis, passing these story elements back and forth is a satisfying experience.

Mystic Maples cover

In a similar way, I found a way to make use of a specific location created by Tena Stetler for her novel Mystic Maples.  I checked with Tena to make sure my description meshed correctly with her conception of the locale, and wrote it into TS as part of the already-existing background.

The Draw of a Shared World

There’s a unique charm to finding connections and crossovers in the stories we like.  As with Easter eggs in a movie or a game, we delight in discovering an unexpected convergence.  Over and above the heightened realism of a universe in which consistent features recur, it’s just fun to see the web of connections grow.  Time Signature gave me the opportunity to weave a new layer into the tapestry of the Deerbourne Inn world; I hope that will please readers as much as it does me.

4 thoughts on “Time Signature: Writing in a Shared World

  1. Awesome post. Congrats on your new release of Time Signature. The cover is so cool, btw.
    Thank you for the shout out of Lyrical Embrace and Harmony’s Embrace. And yes, I love the name Sapphire for that sweet baby girl! Great choice. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ll check out the book! Everything else you’ve written was worth the money.

    In the meantime, speaking of shared worlds, the original one in f/sf that I’m aware of is Thieves’ World. Its success got Harlan’s World and the rest going, as far as I know.

    Liked by 1 person

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