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.