WHAT PRICE THE PREQUEL?

The prequel serves an important purpose if a novel, or more often a trilogy, has strongly drawn characters wrestling with a dramatic situation. After the resolution, some readers may wonder how the story really began. What was it in the characters’ pasts or early personalities that might predict this drama could occur?

A prequel can provide the historic context

Alternatively, what was the historic context prior to the main story’s events? This may pique the reader’s interest. Were key events such as a financial crisis, a war, a change of regime or of borders the influence over the story to come? Either way, it’s a search for origins.

Consider TV’s TRAITORS

For those millions who, like me, were thoroughly captivated by Traitors on TV -whether the British, American or Australian episodes, many wanted to know what happened to certain participants after the show ended. Equally, there was an appetite for knowing more about each participant. Their back stories greatly enriched viewers’ involvement in whether they were faithful, traitorous, winners or losers. The traitor who won the lot seemed so straight and trustworthy. How did he develop that ruthless streak? Wouldn’t we like to go back in his life to gain insight into how that happened?

A writer’s prequel to an existing novel

A good example of a compelling literary prequel is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. A hundred years after Jane Eyre was published, Rhys imagined the reasons for the madness of Bertha, the attic-hidden wife. Keeping to the timeline of Bronte’s novel, Rhys set Bertha in Jamaica, just after Britain abolished slavery in 1834. Writing a story of Bertha’s childhood to her arranged marriage to Rochester, an English gentleman, Mr. Rochester, suggests underlying reasons for her “madness”. By this means, Rhys gives readers a social analysis of this historic period and setting. Rhys therefore enriched Brontë’s original novel both by introducing Bertha’s backstory and by providing an historical and cultural context.

A writer’s prequel to his own trilogy.

Whereas Rhys’ prequel was imagined from another author’s novel, predominantly prequels are written by the same author as for the main plot. La Belle Sauvage – although titled “Book One”, is really a prequel to main story in The Book of Dust. It is the back story of Philip Pullman’s characters in his latest trilogy. It is an in-depth extension backwards of an already developed plot and characters who figure in the world of His Dark Materials.

Similarly C. S. Lewis’s children’s book, The Magician’s Nephew, explained the creation of Narnia, the subject of his seven book series, The Chronicles of Narnia.

When should an author decide to write a prequel?

One pointer is when readers ask questions about the characters. Another is when the story offers many avenues to explore for which there is no room in the main work.

This is the purpose of a prequel, to provide context and psychological understanding of the novel or trilogy’s character(s). When not to write one? When the characters have not become real enough to garner sufficient reader interest, such as when the plot dominates and the characters are less important. Another reason is when the material is already known.

To be successful, a prequel has to offer new information.

“A fascinating peek into the story to come.”

In my own case, readers asked me what happened before the two main characters in A Relative Invasion (a trilogy set in Britain’s WW2 home front) became arch rivals, or rather, what made the boy ‘invader’ set out to acquire everything his cousin owned, an invasion over more than the course of a wartime, one that culminated in a disaster for everyone.

The Prequel has the adults narrate their issues back in 1925 before they married. My intent was to expand upon their personalities and conflicts. The prequel hints at the tensions that affect the way the two boy cousins are brought up. The war itself, the additional post-war hardships, evacuation, loss all inevitably play a large part in the boys’ experiences, but it is the adults’ personalities that are the greater determinant of the dramas and disasters in the final part of the trilogy.

Short Story Collections – Under-rated

interior of a bookshop

Browsing in a very large bookstore recently, I searched for the short story section. There wasn’t one. I had just read a collection of short stories, “Fabulous”, by Lucy Hughes-Hallett. I loved this clever collection where well-known the author has retold the stories of mythical characters but in a modern garb. I was ready for another such collection and to find a new author. Despite countless shelves of fiction, I could find only seven different titles for short story collections. There were more titles for knitting.

On Amazon, both .co.uk and .com, a search for literary short stories brings up over 50,000 titles, but these include many for foreign language learners. Local libraries rarely have a separate section for short stories, and there are few listed in their catalogues. You might expect a greater appetite for short stories than for poetry, but you can usually find a shelf-full of poems. It seems logical that short fiction would sell better than long when our tastes are for the quick bite: we text in condensed format, tweet in 140 characters, TV dramas change character and scene rapidly to retain audience attention. But there’s little evidence of eagerness for short stories. Most magazines dropped their short story features long ago and big fat Harry Potter novels are the best sellers. How few Amazon reviews there are for even the most respected short story writers in comparison with minor and short-lived genre fiction titles.

Even so, there are numerous competitions for short stories. If at least the top ten entries are publishable, that should mean hundreds of stories printed every year, but no. Perhaps it’s because there are so many sites where short stories can be read free? Typically, winning stories are available online. Leaving aside those sites where new writers are trying out their stories for online criticism and encouragement, such as Inkitt and Wattpad, free reads of past works are offered by Project Gutenberg.

The covers of short story collections are often bland and devoid of visual information. It’s unlikely they’ll catch the eye and win a serenditipous sale. Yet, such collections have likely some sort of theme. If none is suggested by the author, such as revenge or love or conflict, there is always the culture, time or place of the story settings. Isn’t it worth the designer encapsulating some relevant image to attract book browsers? 

Here’s a sample of fairly recent short stories well worth sampling. The Best American Short Stories 2023 ed Min Jin Lee (brilliant author herself); Christmas is Murder: A chilling collection Val McDermid; Old Babes in the Wood, Margaret Attwood (for which volume I enjoyed attending her promo in Bath). The Best Short Stories 2023, Ed. Lauren Goff;

And of course, I hope you would consider reading my own paired collection: Me-Time Tales and Curious Men.


Voice in historical fiction

Historical fiction needs an authentic voice

Studio portrait of a soldier in winter uniform and a man in an overcoat and cap official. Russian Empire. 1910s. Reproduction of antique photo.

For the readers, it’s connecting with a main character that arrests their interest when thrown into an unfamiliar time. For instance, apart from historians, who can imagine life as a soldier in Russia’s wars, the distances and climate and how their families fared without them? A convincing voice makes the difference between a factual account and a rich experience of distant and alien events – although the experience is second hand and in the comfort of an armchair.

Whether in prehistoric Britain, a Roman forum, a Scandinavian forest or an African village, the task of the historical fiction author is to persuade the reader that the story characters are real. For that, the narrative voice must strike as authentic. This validates the plot; what the characters convey are their life experiences.

Try one or two of these historical fiction authors FREE and test for yourself whether the main characters convince you that you are suffering or enjoying the same fate.

Fancy one of these FIRST in SERIES? Click here: https://books.bookfunnel.com/histficseries/fm3twqrsxe

5 problems in writing a series … and some answers

Jeans of different shades lined up in a row.

PROBLEMS:

  1. Plotting: to get beyond the stand-alone novel and develop it into a series demands a strong plot that will capture and sustain a reader’s commitment across all the books in the series. This is quite a challenge and many authors balk at the prospect of such a planning task. However, the pantser writer may well see where the story has taken him/her and plot each book at the end of the last.
    • Consistency: It’s no easy task to keep track of characters’ ages and acts, the plot points, and aspects of the story’s world – a continuity necessity that even the most pantser of pantsers must address. Readers demand this, and rightly so. Even a single mistake such as a character picking up a coat when she arrived in a jacket, let alone wrong birth order, can leave readers irritated or confused. A time-line is easy to set up, and all details can be added to it. This can be constantly referred to while writing a new chapter. It is vital for later books in the series.
      • Character Development: In a series, a writer can’t leave characters to remain exactly the same. They need to change as result of events, or over time. This is where a writer who can stand in his/her character’s shoes makes a mark. “How would X feel after Y has cheated or in the face of demotion? What would be his/her next step?” Given his/her origins and experiences, how is s/he likely to be on growing up or getting old?
      • Ending: Each book in the series needs a satisfying ending but with threads to be picked up in the subsequent book. When does the series really end? Characters will always have more to say and do, so the ultimate conclusion of the series must be definitive. Like a celebrity’s “final tour” there is always the temptation or desire for a come-back, for more to be said. Even a pantser can decide on that ultimate ending before getting far into Book One. If s/he has done that, the plot can unravel its way to that well conceived point.
        • Reader Expectations: At the end of writing a series, readers now expect the same quality and probably genre from the author. That’s a pressure: to deliver more of the same, rather than writing something different. Although wise to meet reader expectations to some point, life is short. Therefore it seems sad for authors not to write what’s in their heads. What they are most motivated to write is likely to be stronger than what others tell them to do.

        WRITING STIMULI

        To find but not discover.

        I often visit Jersey. (If you are not from the UK, this is an island nearer France than England with its own government and personality. It is not in the UK, but a crown dependency – in fact a bailiwick.

        From time to time, little observations that strike me as a mainlander also suggest themselves as possible triggers for a story. Here’s one:

        Mobile phone with broken screen isolated on white.

        I sat with friends for a picnic lunch and shared a photo from my mobile phone; a bridesmaid who had impressed for elegance. A left-behind phone on the bench resulted. I won’t be the first or the last to do that.

        If I’d been in England, that would have been the last I saw of my mobile. I still mourn a particularly nice Samsung full of scenic photos that somehow I dropped in South Devon, and no amount of form filling that the police offer brought the faintest hint of a recovery.

        But this was Jersey. It took me an evening and the next morning before I realised the phone was not in the house. In the meantime, a man passing the bench had picked it up and immediately messaged on Facebook that he’d found it, including its photo (a good identifier since I’d cracked the screen producing a particularly artistic web pattern). He added that if it was not claimed within an hour or two, he would take it to the police station. Well, Jersey is a small place, smaller than the Isle of Wight, so there is only one police station. The man will have had to drive there, the other end of the island from where the bench was. Bless his kind heart!

        We contacted him to thank him, and filled in a form for the police. They phoned us to confirm they had the phone (!) and said, because it was so hot, just collect when it suited us. Can you imagine that happening in England?

        I said to my host, “I wonder if that man is a cousin of yours.” Not a great joke, because if you’ve always lived in Jersey you will be related to a large number of other residents…a matter I’ll discuss in another post.

        Meanwhile, the WRITING PROMPT. Suppose your lost phone was picked up, unknowingly, by the one man you would least like to contact? Due to its security code, the only thing this man could see on my phone was my step counter. You might not want your man finder to see even that… The rest is for your imagination.

        Believability depends on accuracy

        Why careful research is vital

        An old literature books, inkwell with quill pen on a writer wooden table background.

        I’m writing my 12th book, but the one I’ve felt most attached to is Book 3 of my historical trilogy set in 1937-1951, A Relative Invasion. I called Book 3 “Impact” – indicating the dramatic outcome of the two main characters’ lives to date.

        Whereas I had concentrated on researching war and wartime experiences for the first two books, all of which is readily available from newspapers of the time, personal letters and first-hand written accounts, far less has been compiled for the years following the war. The invaluable archives of English record offices, many of which I visited while writing this trilogy (none more helpful than Surrey record office) provided a good proportion of this.

        However, I came almost to a halt in a later section of Book 3. The lower part of this book cover shows the exterior wall of an “Approved School”. This was the name of institutions for youngsters who had committed offences more serious than opportunistic shop-lifting or street brawls. Much of what went on inside the secure walls of these places – and not a lot was academic education – has been confidential. This is even more the case for the personal histories of the children who attended such institutions. Sufficient time must pass, usually 100 years, between the lifespan of anyone affected, which could include children of the person of interest, and the release of the documents safely esconced in the archives.

        Published first hand accounts are likely to be few. Not many people wish to write about their darker moments, and will be tempted to embellish or diminish their behaviour if they do. There is Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan, a remarkable work, but his background and experiences were very different from my character’s, who had no political leanings and whose journey would take a very different path.

        I had to use dry government documents and academic articles about the treatment of young offenders to glean any sense of these institutions. For the emotional impact of attending such a “school”, and the experience of the responses of adults, I had to draw on my professional background as a psychologist, and upon the nature of the characters I had already built up.

        In 20 years’ time, or so, I can return to a records office and see the information I had wanted but for my book, I had to search inner pages of local newspapers for court cases to gain some sense of what happened to young offenders.

        Murders are much easier to research! Even so, writing about the impact of the lead-up to a climax and the extensive and widespread fall-out was much more satisfying.

        On writing a trilogy.

        A Relative Invasion – The Trilogy

        Advice for writers typically suggests that a series works best for indies. Does it make sense for the first three in the series to form a trilogy? Not always…

        A trilogy suggests an entity like the three-movement sonata in music, or the triptych in art. The form must be complete, whereas in a stand-alone the novelist has more freedom to finish where s/he likes, at any point, at any length.  

        A Relative Invasion is probably the only trilogy I’ll write. It was meant as a novel. I began to write the story of a good-hearted boy, Billy, who was going to need all the resilience he could muster to weather the threat of war, as well as that of his manipulative cousin. A trilogy never entered my mind. I wanted to explore how the emotions that led to WWII might play out in micro, at home in a South London family. This is a story about a life-long rivalry that has lasting effects, just as a war anywhere has a long-term fall-out.

        INTRUSION Billy was only five years old at the start of the story. His cousin, Kenneth, was six, but smaller and weaker. Just like a country feeling inferior by size and circumstances, Kenneth resented Billy’s health, strength and size, his more comfortable house, his better toys. Billy’s parents were charmed by Kenneth’s sweet (perhaps cloying) manners and his delicate features. The mother, particularly, had not wanted a sturdy, vigorous boy. How nice to meet one who simply wanted to sit and draw!

        By around the third chapter I knew what the ending must be, and I wrote a draft of that. I then returned to where I had left the narrative, concentrating on getting the characters from that point to the end, but by the time I had written one hundred thousand words, Billy was still only seven. At that point I stopped, thinking I had better made the story into two books. Backtracking a little, I wrote a suitable ending to Book One, which came at around seventy-five thousand words.    

              

        INFILTRATION. When Book Two reached a similar length, World War Two had just ended, but I was a long way from the climax and culmination of the story. VE Day provided a natural conclusion of Book Two. Billy was then twelve, and cousin Kenneth, thirteen. Adolescence and the terrible austerity of London’s 1940s lay ahead, together with the eventual climax and then fall-out from their life-long rivalry. That was more than enough for an 80,000 word novel.

        IMPACT. Book Three had to bring the boys to adulthood, and by the time I’d written to that point, I had rewritten the climax and realized the fall-out deserved a full treatment. The “ending” was written just as I’d planned, except that it now came three-quarters way through the novel.

        Billy’s story was now told, the arc I’d envisaged had been completed. I had written a trilogy when I’d intended to write a stand-alone novel. What would I advise if I, or any other writer, was intending to write a trilogy?

        Early on, write a time-line.

        Put in the historic events, check exact dates of these. Ensure you record each character’s date of birth, location, key events. In a trilogy, you may need to come back to them. Old incidents come back to bite the bottoms of the unwary.

        Write your real ending before you get too far into the narrative.

        You need to retain a clear sense of where your story is going as you write chapter after chapter. 

        Mark out how much will happen in each book.

        This way you can pace the drama evenly, making sure you don’t stack up the high points too closely together.

        The flow of life needs to show:

        precursors in Book 1, developments in Book 2, outcomes in Book 3. In music the third part would be recapitulation. Outcomes do have this element: a reworking of earlier events. If there’s a crisis in Book 1 it can resolve, but not really conclude there;  longer-term effects should pop up in Books 2 or 3.

        There needs to be some sense of linear movement

        even if the books are not arranged in chronological sequence. The reader will want to feel the size of the whole time span by the time s/he reaches the end.

        Include several fully-imagined characters.

        Three books are too many to focus on just one or two main characters. The work needs other characters with their own concerns for the main ones to knock against and react to. The range of possible interactions gives a more detailed picture of the protagonist(s) and a fuller character development .

        Similarly, there needs to be more than one theme.

        For instance, the main theme in my trilogy is the far-reaching effects of an ongoing childhood relationship. Connected to this is the theme of coming-of-age, bullying, parenting issues, the subtler effects of war service, and a re-examining where personal responsibility lies.

        Although the trilogy will follow one arc, each book also needs its own arc

        The three books fell into line with historic events: Book 1 – the tensions leading up to the threat of war until its full onset; Book 2 – the war years; Book 3 – post-war austerity until the war effects in Britain lessened – (“You’ve never had it so good”). Each book contained its own drama; each marked great changes in Billy’s life. 

        It’s these changes that make for a satisfying place to end one book and start the next.

        I’d also suggest the following about a trilogy:

        The story has to be substantial.

        It has to touch on something in human nature that will resonate meaningfully over the timescale of your three books so that the three properly comprise an entity, not three stories about the same people.

        Finally, you need to be a sticker;

        someone with a persistent, resilient personality who does not give up what they have started. I wrote these traits into my main character, Billy, and working out his story helped me to stay the course.

        Characters save plot

        Period crime drama serial Dandelion Dead with Michael Kitchen and Sarah Miles was presented some while ago as a TV mini-series. I binge-watched one wet night. It held my attention until the end. And what an end! Its impact entirely depended on the strength of a minor character’s acting ability for one single shot of a few seconds. Chloe Turner did not disappoint and her silent reaction made the play sing.

        odd faces on wall

        Until then, the plot (based on a true crime from the 1920s) was simple and straightforward: fearsome, bossy wife; weak, lazy husband who kow-towed to her. He longed for a warmer, affectionate relationship; she provoked him with consistently bullying behaviour. He decided to poison her. The play followed the process of his temptation, the opportunity, the deed and its aftermath. The murder was fully predictable and so watchability did not depend on suspense. It might even have been a ‘so-what?’ ending if it had not been for that final brief key moment. It was enough in itself for the audience to know immediately what would inevitably follow…for all the characters. The beauty of this was The Look the character threw at her victim. If a writer can achieve the equivalent at the end of a chapter, or the novel or the short story, that leaves the reader feeling totally satisfied.

        This plot of Dandelion Dead might seem too light to please today’s television audiences when graphic and complex crimes – real and fictional – come at the touch of a button, but the drawing of the characters and superb acting made this play memorable.

        In novels, too, a light plot does not stop the read being compelling. Sally Rooney and Elizabeth Sturt don’t major on wild plots, but on meaningful relationships that move over time in a riveting manner. It’s often that key moment that remains in the memory.

        Characters show themselves.

        Do you often find yourself well into your plot before realising you haven’t written any character description for your own record? Planners may well have copious notes about each character’s life history, their personal habits, colouring, hair style and fashion sense. They may have a separate section detailing where each character lives. They may write dialogue including character reactions. They will have detailed his/her personality, the driving force, the key goal and fatal flaw.

        Pantsters, like me, will find their characters evolve through having to respond to the action. I don’t know whether I am typical, but I don’t know how a character will react until I am writing that scene. It is like a lived experience. I am with the character facing whatever challenge, embarrassment or dilemma he or she is suffering. They have the experience, they react, I learn what sort of person they are…just as in real life. It is through the scene just written that I learn their flaws. There’s no way I could write the other way around.

        Blank until I put them into the situation.

        Yes, I have tried to plan. The planning guides look so organized, so professional, but for me it’s like being told what to do before I know what tools I will have, or how to talk to someone before I have met them…or perhaps, just being told what to do (by myself, pre-planning) rather than being left free to find out.

        This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Furious-Angry-Woman-Screaming-Vector-Cartoon-Illustration-1024x663.jpg
        You want me to react!

        And when I’ve written a chapter where the character responds to the situation, I know what kind of personality s/he has, what background experience may have caused the reaction, and I recognize what I need to learn about how the other characters will respond to him or her. It is like an inner source of information that comes (apparently) spontaneously – but in fact will be based on older knowledge of people. This is a different part of the brain from the management, planning one.

        This is why I write non-fiction in a totally planned, organized way. Headings, sections, content, sequence. I may add detail later, but it will be clear, that is, pre-ordained, where it will fit.

        By contrast, my fiction is character-based. The character dictates the action. Therefore, I know what is going to happen in a later chapter only when I have completed the chapter I’m writing and the character has shown his or her colours.

        I do usually have the ending in mind at a very early stage, so in writing the scenes I am a lot of my writing s deliberate creating towards that end. That doesn’t mean I know how the characters are going to get there, or even, sometimes, which characters will do so. One thing I’m determined upon…no weak endings!

        PSYCHOLOGICAL SERIES – some problems

        How to keep track of everyone’s story

        Who is he? Who else is there? And Who is to be forgiven?
        AND NOW THE 4TH BOOK. Who should tell what to whom?

        This series begins with one character, Terry, and his awkward wife but then he spots his double… and his life unfolds into unbelievable complexity.

        FROM THIS POINT ON THE WRITER NEEDS TO KEEP TRACK OF THE EVENTS AND THE CONSEQUENCES TO LAY OUT THE SERIES CONTENT.

        Terry’s excitement in finding the twin from whom he was separated in infancy sparks him to think about other possible family. He has found one person but who else might be out there? Better try to seek them out…but not everyone is golden!

        Then it isn’t one person, but more, and more, and now he’s opened a Pandora’s Box that can’t be shut. You can’t un-know what you’ve seen. He must face the consequences, over and over and over again, as one contact after another is affected. Furthermore, he must re-assess who he is, himself.

        Writing the series requires a way of keeping track of discoveries and the psychological consequences. For instance, a change in the protagonist’s behaviour as result of knowing new information about other characters.

        As my series goes on, it is not just the main character whose story must be documented, the details accurate from one book to the next, but all the other characters who are making and filling out Terry’s story. I found that by Part 4, Why Should They Know? every chapter was taking me so long, not in the initial writing, but in the checking back over the previous books. It really was the case of making sure I knew who knew what! I couldn’t have a character surprised by information if s/he had discovered it or been told it in a previous book.

        Several times I had to rearrange chapters to make sure the who knew what was correct. Altogether, although I had planned the ending very early in the writing of this book, the checking and re-ordering and re-writing as well as the new events, not previously planned, meant the book has taken me over a year to write.

        Yes, I am a pantser, but even pantsers make notes or use other techniques to keep track of their narrative. Many more organized writers use a series bible where each character’s individual history and characteristics is listed, as well as the events and their sequence. My most useful tip is a simple time line. It begins with the birth of the oldest character and ends with the culmination of the narrative. If the series continues at a later date, the timeline is extended to allow for the new events but all the existing ones are solidly in place.

        That’s fine, very useful, but it does not allow for the detail of who said what, who knew what and when. It’s almost as if confirming my own words “Why Should I Know?”

        Because continuity really matters. Get it wrong, and the tale’s credibility is lost.

        There is software available if you need help. One example is Aeon’s timeline which is much more comprehensive than a simple date line with key events attached. It can link with Scrivener, every writer’s essential software.