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.

Remembering the Adelines

Adeline and Adaline

One of the functions of imagination is to make odd, sometimes random connections.  In this case, the random connection is between two very different stories about women with almost the same name.  The “Addie” in V.E. Schwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (2020) is Adeline, a young girl of the seventeenth century who becomes immortal—at a price.  In the 2015 movie The Age of Adaline, the titular Adaline is also immortal, for entirely different reasons.  Yet both face certain issues that resonate particularly well with us today.

Addie’s Dark Deal

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, cover

Addie LaRue doesn’t set out to become immortal.  A village girl in seventeenth-century France, she wants to avoid being shunted into an unwanted marriage that will trap her in this small country backwater, isolated from the larger world she longs to know.  Although she’s cautioned by her eccentric mentor never to deal with the gods that come out after sunset, Addie incautiously promises her soul to a Darkness in return for freedom from these entanglements.

This supernatural entity grants her wish in a way that’s as tricky and cruel as any fairy-tale curse.  Addie will be free of entrapment because everyone she meets will forget her once they’re out of her presence.  She won’t die or change until she willingly gives up her unremembered life; but she can form no lasting relationships.

Addie’s family fails to recognize her when she returns to the village.  A good Samaritan who’s convinced to help her forgets about it as soon as she leaves to bring food, and never returns.  If she pays in advance for a room, the innkeeper has forgotten the payment next time they meet.  Addie is, of course, prevented from explaining her predicament to anyone, even if they would believe her.

Much of the story takes place in the present day, where we meet Addie living by her wits from moment to moment, as she has for three hundred years.  While the wish gone wrong is a classic fairy-tale trope, this is not a fairy tale; it’s more like science fiction.  Schwab does an amazing job of showing us the logical ramifications of the curse and how a highly sympathetic character copes with them.

Then the ground shifts when Addie meets a young man in a bookstore who—somehow—does remember her name.  This leads to a haunting illustration of human life and how we live it that, as a perceptive book review notes, is hard to forget.

The Perpetual Reboot

No one can remember Adeline from one meeting to the next—even a lover waking up in the morning.  In this respect, her situation resembles what we find in other stories that deal with memory issues, or with repeating circumstances that only the main character can recall.  Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors in Groundhog Day (1993) finds himself with a similar problem:  when he finally wants to form a permanent relationship with the woman he’s falling in love with, the permanence is all on his side.  He has to win her affection again every day.

50 First Dates, movie poster

The same result occurs, from an opposite cause, in the movie 50 First Dates (2004).  Lucy Whitmore, the girl Henry Roth becomes interested in, has suffered a traumatic short-term memory defect:  she remembers her life up to the date of the accident, but each night she forgets everything that’s happened after that time.  Her family and friends find ways to cope with this—but she knows them from before.  Henry, who wants to get to know her, has no previous relationship to build on.  Like Phil, he has to ingratiate himself with her—court her—each day anew.

Addie’s case is harder.  No one remembers her from day to day; she is prevented from making any permanent mark on the world.  But the hardest part is similar.  She can form no lasting relationships.  The essential loneliness of the main character is each case is what makes the stories so poignant.

In that respect, there’s a similarity to Diana Wynne Jones’s eerie story The Homeward Bounders (1981).  Jamie, the narrator there, is condemned to wander from one alternate world to another whenever a “move” is made by supernatural players who game with human lives.  Like Addie, he can’t be killed or seriously harmed—but he can never find a home.  “You wouldn’t believe how lonely you get” (chapters 2, 14).

Adaline’s Accidental Immortality

The Age of Adaline movie poster

In contrast to the stories mentioned above, which mostly depend on fantasy tropes of one sort or another to set up the situation, The Age of Adaline is straight science fiction—though it’s not advertised as a “science fiction movie.”  A voice-over narrator explains to us that when Adaline Bowman, born in 1908, falls into a freezing lake in 1937 and then is revived by a lightning strike, the “principle of electron compression in DNA,” which will be discovered in 2035, causes her to stop aging.

This fact only gradually becomes apparent to her.  We see it through a narrative sequence that jumps back and forth in time, just as in Addie LaRue.  As her birth date recedes, but she does not visibly age, people look at her more and more oddly—say, in a traffic stop where the policeman examines the date on her driver’s license.  Eventually the FBI takes an interest.  Adaline escapes and begins changing her identity every so often to conceal her real age.

Methuselah's Children cover

Adaline’s situation resembles that of the long-lived “Howard Family” members in Heinlein’s classic novel Methuselah’s Children (1941, 1958).  She lives a perpetual “masquerade.”  She is not quite so deprived of permanence as Addie; she can live for a while in a given identity, build up a bank account, buy a home.  Ultimately, however, she has to keep moving.  Her problem is in a way the opposite of Addie’s:  Adaline needs to keep from being remembered (by the wrong people).

But this deprives her of long-term relationships just as in Addie’s and Phil’s cases.  We see Adaline’s (latest) dog die, reminding her that she will outlive anyone.  Her first husband died young, before her immortality began; for her, love means growing old together—but she can’t have that.  Becoming involved with an “ephemeral” can only lead to tragedy in the end.

As a result, Adaline shies away from long-term commitments.  It is too emotionally wrenching for her to confront the fate reluctantly embraced at one point by Lazarus Long, one of Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children characters, who does marry a short-lived ordinary human in “The Tale of the Adopted Daughter.”  But Adaline finds the lack of such relationships more and more a grief as time goes on.  As a character who’s learned her secret tells her (at 1:27):  “All these years you’ve lived, but you never had a life.”

Reaching for Continuity

Phil and piano teacher in Groundhog Day

The long lives of Addie and Adaline have their compensations.  For example, by living for so many years as a youthful adult, one builds up a sizable store of skills.  Addie knows many languages; so does Adaline.  Phil in Groundhog Day becomes a whiz at the piano by taking a one-hour lesson on each of his innumerable repeating days.  Adaline can win a game of Trivial Pursuit; she also seems to a friend to drive like a maniac—but she can do this safely, since she’s had more experience than any professional race-car driver and still has the reflexes of a 29-year-old.

But these pragmatic advantages aren’t worth the isolation they must endure.  Not the inability to connect—but the inability to forge a permanent connection, as we see in the desperate moments at the end of a cycle in several of these stories.  At one point, Addie reflects:

Sure, she dreams of sleepy mornings over coffee, legs draped across a lap, inside jokes and easy laughter, but those comforts come with the knowing.  There can be no slow build, no quiet lust, intimacy fostered over days, weeks, months.  (p. 100)

We are fond of admiring the freshness of love’s beginning:  most romances stick to the courtship stage.  But we may not be as attentive to the charms of continuity.  At p. 171, the one man who can remember Addie calls her his “date”:

Date.  The word thrills through her.  A date is something made, something planned; not a chance of opportunity, but time set aside at one point for another, a moment in the future.

In an article about the fast-moving changes in our culture, a recent article in Wired observes:

. . . what most of us long for, whether we realize it or not, is continuity – the sense that our lives are part of an ongoing narrative that began before we were born and will continue after we die.  (Meghan O’Gieblyn, “Cloud Support:  Am I Obligated to Join TikTok?”, Wired, March 2021, p. 25)

Age of Adaline:  It's not the same when there's no growing old together.

We want to be remembered, to be held dear, to make a mark on the world.  The burden with which Addie grapples is the inability to achieve those things.

We honor freedom, the ability to be unconstrained by the past; and that is both true and good.  But that value too can be taken to an extreme. Addie LaRue serves as a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the absolutism of freedom.  The “god” who cursed her says jeeringly:

You asked for freedom.  There is no greater freedom than that.  You can move through the world unhindered.  Untethered.  Unbound.  (p. 149)

What we want, as ever, is the happy medium—or, to put it differently, to have our cake and also eat it.  We are willing to expend our freedom to make commitments in relationships, even though this necessarily involves giving hostages to fate—we can always lose the ones we love.  We do this because it’s the only way we can achieve other good things:  “inside jokes and easy laughter,” shared memories, the comfort and the pride of a relationship seasoned over many years.

Not remembering can be a problem; being remembered too well can be a problem too (as we are keenly aware in these days when the Internet preserves all our youthful indiscretions forever).  The ways in which these two Ad(e/a)lines respond to memory, and seek after continuity, are well worth a look as we employ the freedoms and build the permanences of our lives.

Picking Up the Pieces

It’s now becoming apparent just how big a risk Marvel Studios took when they decided in Avengers:  Endgame (2019) that those disintegrated by the “Snap” would not return until five years later (the “Blip”).  What the post-Endgame shows are giving us is a tantalizing, but incomplete, new world.  Obviously, however, in order to comment on it, we’ll have to issue a

Spoiler Alert!

for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) generally.

The New World

Once time travel was on the table, it would have been simple for Marvel to set up the plot of Endgame to put things back the way they were.  I fully expected the heroes to go back and undo the Snap altogether.  But instead the storytellers took a different tack; see our previous discussion in Changing the Past – Or Avenging It (2019).

Avengers Endgame posterThe post-Endgame new world is radically changed.  It’s no longer simply our own world with superheroes added.  The immense loss, and then the return of the lost, almost more disconcerting, has created a world-wide trauma.  This doesn’t just violate the iron law that a series of adventures must always return to the status quo ante; it veers away from a principle that’s almost inherent to superhero stories.  Famed comic book writer Kurt Busiek observed:

One of the most charming elements of the superhero story, for me, lies in the fact that the world it all happens in is our world—that this fantastic, furious, cosmic stuff happens in what could be the skies over our heads—and sure, it should transform the world into something unrecognizable, but it doesn’t . . . It’s not a realistic world, but it’s a fascinating one.  (Astro City:  Life in the Big City (1995-1996), Introduction, p. 9)

That’s no longer true in the MCU.  Between the Blip, and the potential of the alien technology left lying around after the Battle of New York (see Spider-Man:  Homecoming (2017)), and the immediate awareness of extraterrestrial threats that motivated Nick Fury into forming the Avengers in the first place (see Captain Marvel (2019)), we’re not in Kansas any more.  The screenwriters have abandoned the comfortable world of the serial comic book for the permanent change of more serious science fiction.

The New Shows

Marvel’s output since Endgame explores the ramifications of the now-completed Avengers saga.

Spider-Man_Far_From_Home_posterSpider-Man:  Far from Home (2019) has Peter Parker joining his high-school classmates on a summer field trip to Europe.  Fortunately for the plotline, his closest friends Ned Leeds, Betty Brant, and Flash Thompson, and his crush MJ, were also among the “Snapped” and thus are still Peter’s age—unlike those of their former classmates who lived through the intervening five years.

The story doesn’t really make a lot out of the dislocation caused by the time lag.  It does, however, tell us that Tony Stark had posthumously turned over to Peter control of a powerful orbital weapons system via an AI called “EDITH.”  In a sense, this automated defense system is the fulfillment of Stark’s long-time dream—handing over the defense of Earth to robots who can fight without sacrificing human lives.  That didn’t work out so well, however, in Avengers:  Age of Ultron (2015).  Nor does its course run smooth in Spider-Man, where Peter is tricked into handing over to a super-villain control of a system that could allow him to dominate the world.  One begins to think Stark was barking up the wrong tree.

p_wandavision_disneyplus_poster03_20118_66028c77The TV series WandaVision (2021) deals more directly with the fallout from Endgame.  The death of Wanda Maximoff’s android husband, the Vision, in the Infinity War is the underlying tragedy that drives this very peculiar series.  Wanda herself is the principal antagonist in this storyline, since her grief has driven her to transform an entire town into a re-enactment of the life she wishes she could have led.  Yet she is portrayed sympathetically, on the whole.

Less sympathetic are the people supposedly in charge of resolving the problem.  These include some admirable characters, such as the eccentric Darcy Lewis from Thor (now an astrophysicist in her own right) and FBI agent Jimmy Woo.  But the force in charge of addressing Wanda’s fantasy-in-a-bubble is an organization called SWORD, a complement of sorts to the more familiar SHIELD.  The SWORD forces are run by one Tyler Hayward, who ends up as the real villain of the piece.  Since SHIELD has already turned out to have been a cover all along for the nefarious Nazi-derived organization Hydra (see Captain America:  The Winter Soldier (2014)), Marvel’s “secret agencies” are batting 0 for 2.

Falcon & Winter Soldier posterNor are things looking up in the currently running series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.  Cap (Steve Rogers) had turned over his emblematic shield to Sam Wilson, the Falcon, at the conclusion of Endgame.  Sam, feeling unworthy of Cap’s mantle, turns the shield over as a museum display rather than using it himself.  This noble humility is betrayed when someone—the U.S. government?—instead gives the shield to a newly-appointed Captain America, John Walker.  At the halfway point of the six-episode series, Walker is not a bad guy—yet—but he isn’t much of a good guy either; he shows signs of going off the rails a bit, as apparently happened in the comic books.

The same could be said of several other forces.  A “Global Repatriation Council” seems to be responsible for resettling refugees from the Blip; but their behavior seems high-handed and violent.  The enemies against which the authorities want to mobilize Sam and Bucky Barnes (the “Winter Soldier”) are the “Flag Smashers”—but they’re not entirely villains, any more than the GRC are heroes.  They want to ‘smash flags’ not to destroy civilization, but to destroy nationalism.  And they devote themselves to helping the refugees, albeit by unlawful means.

It gets still more complicated.  Sam and Bucky ally with Baron Zemo, the anti-superhero villain of Captain America: Civil War (2016).  They meet up with Sharon Carter, a SHIELD agent and passing romantic interest for Steve in previous movies, now an embittered outlaw on the run.  When they find the mad scientist who’s making super-serum for the Flag Smashers, he says that “When HYDRA fell, I was recruited by the CIA.”  (Huh?)

It’s unclear—to me, at least—exactly who Sam and Bucky are working for, if anyone.  That’s a deeper question than it seems.  The Civil War sequence sought to grapple with the classic superhero issue of vigilante action.  Do superheroes act wholly on their own, or do they answer to someone?

The conflict among the Avengers was about independent action and distrust of authority.  They put that aside to deal with Thanos.  But in the post-Thanos world, relying on the authorities seems even more dubious than before.  The MCU seems to be descending into what TV Tropes calls “black-and-gray morality.”

The New World Order

Who are these authorities, anyway?  Who’s in charge?

SWORD logo & HaywardIt’s murky.  In WandaVision, SWORD can bring in a massive armed force to surround an American small town for days on end.  Is it an agency of the U.S. government?  FBI agent Jimmy Woo cooperates with them—for a while—so maybe SWORD is at least on good terms with the feds.  But where does it get its authority?  (This was never very clear even for SHIELD in the comics, much less in the movies, where it initially appeared to be run by the Omniscient Council of Vagueness.)  In F&WS, Bucky is getting a presidential pardon, but is required by somebody to attend therapy sessions.  Possibly he was never actually discharged from the U.S. military.  But we don’t really see who gave Sam the mission he’s on in the opening episode.  Presumably John Walker, the wannabe Cap, was appointed by the government—though how long he’ll stay in line is anybody’s guess.  Meanwhile, Tony Stark’s orbiting satellite defense is apparently in the hands of a New York teenager.  Well, there could be worse caretakers . . .

If we ask who’s in charge on the superhero end, the situation is even worse.  I can’t tell if the Avengers are still in operation.  Most of the central characters who held things together in earlier episodes are gone:  Steve, Tony, Natasha, Thor.  When a bank loan officer asks Sam probing questions about his income, he seems to have no answers.  The right person to ask might be Pepper, who at least must be in charge of the Stark fortune.  I’m not sure whether the Sokovia Accords are still in effect, giving a tenuous respectability to the costumed vigilantes.  If so, SWORD is violating those accords, according to the Wikipedia squib.

At this stage, it would seem to be dubious to put much trust in either the government(s) or Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

Where We’re Headed

In a weird sort of way, the post-Return Marvel world has become a sort of proxy or allegory for the COVID-19 pandemic (which didn’t occur in the MCU).  The whole world is under major unexpected stresses.  Traditional economic and political and legal institutions are unsteady.  Everyone is trying to adapt to a new way of life, all at once.

The overall impression I get is rather dystopian.  We see plenty of crime, civil unrest, and lawlessness, but not much that’s positive.  The decent characters like Sam and Darcy and Jimmy are not in positions of power.  It’s rather a letdown after the brilliant, if costly, victory in Endgame.

On the other hand, a period of dislocation and disorientation would not be surprising after the kind of upheavals the world has gone through in Marvel’s composite story.  A more promising trajectory may yet emerge.  I can’t say that’s evident from the new stories so far, though.  Maybe Wakanda will emerge from its isolation and lead us to a brighter day—though in real life we’ve lost Chadwick Boseman, too.  Maybe Nick Fury will pull another rabbit out of his hat.  Or maybe dumping the Fantastic Four and the X-Men into this jumble will somehow make things more rather than less clear.

It’ll be interesting to see where it all goes.

all-marvel-titles-1250041-1280x0

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.