Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Writing a Novel Backwards

About twenty years ago I wrote Harald, my first novel, started a sequel, decided to work on an unrelated novel instead, wrote a sequel to that, planned a third book in the series. When that project stalled I decided to go back to the abandoned sequel and try to complete it. 

At which point it occurred to me that there was something I should do first. Harald has an implicit backstory, a history of the lands and people before the story starts. To produce a second novel in the same setting I should know that history. 

It was my first novel and it had not occurred to me while writing it that I needed to work out the timeline implied by things characters said, scenes they remembered, bits of dreams. Solving that problem, reconstructing the backstory from fragments of information, felt like historical research — except that the history being researched was fictional. World building, in my experience, feels more like discovery than invention.

I started by going through the book collecting everything in it that had implications for events before the book started, then worked out how to make all of it as nearly consistent as I could manage. It was fun, so I decided to write a blog post about it. 

For example ...

Central to the story is the repeated attempt by an aggressive empire to annex the kingdom of Kaerlia, where most of it happens, four invasions before the book starts, three more during it. Comments by characters imply that the first invasion was  twenty years before the start of the story. Or twenty-five. Or thirty. If I had spotted the inconsistencies before the book was published, as I should have, I would have reduced the disagreements to a more realistic year or two. Since I didn't, I needed to decide what the right number was, interpret the others as careless mistakes. To decide which number to pick ...

My protagonist's grandson appears to be about twelve or thirteen when the story starts. If I assume he was born when his father was eighteen, which is as young as seems plausible, his father would have been conceived about thirty-one years before the story starts. It is clear from details in the text that Harald was not yet married to Gerda at the time of his first battle, probably not for a year or two after, so that battle must have been at least thirty-two years before the story starts. It ended a failed invasion of the empire by the kingdom, so it seems plausible that the first invasion the other way would have been a few years later, putting it about thirty years before the story starts. That also fits the fact that my protagonist, a young adult in his first battle, appears in the book at about the age I was when I wrote it, somewhere in his fifties.

So the first invasion was thirty years before the story starts. Problem solved.

What about the fourth? There are three passages that could all be references to the same battle. One describes Artos, an  important secondary character, as the junior legion commander in a defeated imperial army. By the time we see him he has become the most prominent commander in the empire, which should have taken at least a few years. Another passage implies the death in battle of a woman whose daughter, a young adult, describes someone as sounding like her mother. The context is archery practice, which suggests that she was at least seven or eight before her mother died, which puts the battle she died in at most ten years before the story starts. 

I conclude that all three passages are references to the battle that ended the fourth invasion and that it happened between five and ten years before the opening scene of the book.

Why, for the sequel, do I need the dates of failed invasions? I do not know all the reasons, since I have not written it yet, but I expect parts of the story to involve Belkhan, an imperial province with a history of rebellion. The most recent rising was set off by the Imperial defeat at the end of Harald, which makes it plausible that earlier rebellions were similarly linked to earlier defeats. My objective is to make the whole story, two books, perhaps eventually three, feel like a consistent picture, one where things fit together. 

My main points in this somewhat odd blog post are:

1. I should have done all of this before publishing the novel. So should you if you are writing a novel.

2. But  doing it backwards was fun.


SB said...

I don't know if you've read any of the _Thieves' World_ stories. A bunch of competent fantasy authors (led by Robert Asprin) got together, agreed on some basic facts about a medievaloid world, and each wrote stories set in that world. And frequently the stories involve conflicting facts about the same historical events... and that's JUST FINE. All the narrators are presumed somewhat unreliable, with their own conflicting interests, and everybody in the city views things from hir own perspective, slanting memories (consciously or unconsciously) in hir own favor.

In other words, don't worry too much about different characters having inconsistent recollections of historical events, especially those several decades back; that happens in the real world too, even before the Trump era of "alternative facts".

David Friedman said...

I think remembering events thirty years back as only twenty is pushing the plausible limits, but not intolerably. It would have been better if I could make it twenty-five, but that gets Asbjorn to about eight when we first meet him, which isn't plausible, or alternatively his father to thirteen when he is born, which is possible but not likely.

I expect most readers never bother to check this sort of thing, but it feels right to me to maintain logical consistency, even if characters make mistakes.

I read at least some of the thieves' world stories — I knew Bob Asprin in the SCA. For a more extreme example, and one that I don't think can be explained away, Cherryh in the foreigner books repeatedly changes facts from one book to another. I assume that's partly a result of a very long series — I think it's at twenty books now — and discovering in the 20th that the plot she wants for it doesn't fit the end of the 19th. She is a much better writer than I am and I am willing to overlook such things, but I still prefer to keep a consistent world.

Eugine Nier said...

Frankly consistency in these kinds of things is overrated. This is the kind of thing the Harry Potter series gets criticized for by people whose books don't sell anywhere near as well.

William H. Stoddard said...

I remember many years ago, when I interviewed Vernor Vinge for the Libertarian Futurist Society newsletter, I asked him a question about the situation in one of his fictional settings—I think it was the Zones of Thought universe. He answered that it was possible that such and such a situation obtained. I thought the phrasing was striking; he spoke as if there already was a truth about the situation in his fictional world, but one that he had not yet discovered, rather than as if the answer was for him as the creator to decide.

David Friedman said...

At a tangent, Vinge is a good deal of the reason I abandoned the _Harald_ sequel to write _Salamander_. I described both projects to him and he thought _Salamander_ sounded more interesting. Probably the right choice at the time.

Jonathan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Hammock said...

This is also something that a gamemaster is encouraged to do when building a campaign world as well. Create a basic timeline of major events, a rough map of the world, and the major political decision makers and their objectives. It's often a good idea to run the timeline forward a bit as well, creating events that have not yet happened, but will happen in the future (and are likely beyond the control of the player characters).

One doesn't have to be Tolkien, but some basic planning lends a sense of realism and history that makes life easier for the GM (and presumably the author of a novel) later. Some GMs prefer to improvise everything all the time, but this can result in nonsensical stories and confusion on the part of both the GM and the players.

Mike Hammock said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan said...

Inconsistencies in a novel bother me somewhat if I notice them. I'm more likely to notice them if I like the novel enough to reread it repeatedly.