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Breaking the rules of how to explain things to readers

Tuesday, July 12, 2016 - 08:00

(A reminder that I'm running an e-book give-away this week of Through the Hourglass, a (now) Goldie-winning anthology of lesbian historical romance, that includes my story "Where My Heart Goes". Comment on any blog entry between now and next Monday, July 18, to be entered to win.)

One of the difficulties of using a really tight point of view (whether 1st person or 3rd person) is how to convey useful background information to the reader when it wouldn't make sense for the viewpoint character to be explaining the topic, whether to themself or to another character. There are work-arounds, of course. A 1st person narrator could frame the story as something like a journal, or as if they were relating the story to a listener who is enough removed from the events that they need to be filled in on everyday details. But those choices then need to inform the structure of the entire narrative, and that isn't always what an author wants to do.

In Daughter of Mystery, I broke the tight-3rd point of view in the two bookend chapters: in the Prelude, because I wanted to sketch out the basics of the setting and Barbara's place in it quickly from an external angle; and in the Coda because--not knowing if I would have a chance to continue the series--because I wanted to reassure readers that the characters continued on happily as a couple. There wasn't any similar need in The Mystic Marriage and I stuck to a consistent, tight point of view.

But for Mother of Souls, early reader feedback indicated that people were lost and floundering a bit about how the weather magic, and floodtide, and the relevance of the Rotein river underpinned the other events of the plot. I could include a few bits of it from characters explaining things to Serafina, who is still unfamiliar with Alpennian things. But Serafina already has a heavy burden of info-dumping, just for her own background. And I also knew that the place where the character point-of-view part of the story ended left off a significant consequence of the climax that the readers needed to be aware of. (Astute readers might well figure it out for themselves, but I didn't want to depend on that.)

So after dithering back and forth several times, I added bookend chapters to Mother of Souls providing that brief essential background. And as the first in a series of pre-publication teasers, here is the Prelude chapter. (I've realized that I can't do the same "chapter a week" teaser series that I did for The Mystic Marriage because there isn't enough time to cover all the chapters by November! So the teasers may be a bit more randomly distributed.)



Prelude - April, 1823

High in the mountains to the east and south of Alpennia, spring rains and warming winds wash the winter’s snow from the peaks and send it tumbling down the valleys. The melt gathers in rivulets; rivulets turn to streams; streams feed rivers. The Esikon, the Tupe and the Innek swell the Rotein in turn, which flows through the heart of the city of Rotenek. And the city flows through the Rotein: in barges bringing goods up from French ports, in riverboats rowing passengers along the banks and up the narrow chanulezes that thread through the neighborhoods of both the upper and lower town.

They celebrate floodtide in Rotenek when the waters turn muddy and rise along the steps of the Nikuleplaiz as far as the feet of the statue of Saint Nikule, who watches over the marketplace. Sometimes the floods come higher and wash through Nikule’s church and along the basements of the great houses along the Vezenaf. Then the streets of the lower town merge with the chanulezes, and all the putrid mud from the banks and canals is stirred up, bringing the threat of river fever. For those who can leave the city, floodtide signals an exodus to the pleasures of country estates. Those who remain light a candle to Saint Rota against the fever.

But sometimes floodtide fails to come. When the weeks stretch out long past Easter into the rising heat of the late spring, and the falling level of the chanulezes turns the exposed banks rank and fetid, the priests at Saint Nikule’s will raise a bucket of water from the river and splash it over the feet of the statue and ring the floodtide bell.