Pulling the camera back

Well, I am tired of worrying about formatting (but yes: the ebook version of Time Goes By is winging its way toward various retailers, and the print version is fixed and again for sale at Amazon, and I may be done waking up at night wondering if maybe none of my books have page numbers) and so today you get to watch me waffle on about one of my favorite topics: series fiction. (And, of course, where my books fit in.)

I’ve always loved books that come in series; it’s that joy of realizing, once you’ve finished a book you enjoyed, that not only are there other books by the same author available, but books with the same characters set in the same world. There’s perhaps a certain amount of laziness inherent in this reading habit – no emerging from the cocoon to face a difficult choice before you… crawl back into another cocoon, never mind – but there can be a depth and/or breadth to the experience that’s not possible with stand-alone fiction. (I am very fond of quite a number of stand-alone novels, perfect little self-contained universes that they are. But I know where my heart lives.)

Now, that “depth and/or breadth” in the last paragraph. Series fiction is not all one beast, but a small zoo of them. There’s what I think of as the old-fashioned style of serial storytelling, associated strongly with Golden Age detective novels but not vanished from today’s world, in which each book shares the same main characters but tells a completely separate story, and the characters don’t change very much from book to book. The advantage of this method are that a reader can dip into the series anywhere, and won’t stand a chance of feeling confused or lost. Now, even within this style a prolific novelist tends to feel the need to update characterization a bit; Hercule Poirot did eventually get old and his sidekick went off and got married, as in many series central characters find love or change jobs or acquire new possessions. But pulling books off the shelf at random still works fine.

I suspect Dorothy Sayers, who otherwise fits into this mold well, became partially responsible for the updating of the mystery series genre when she decided to make Lord Peter Wimsey not only fall in love and get married, but do so in a way that deepened his character and plunged us deep into the psyche of Harriet Vane. Today’s series mysteries (and other types of fiction that feature protagonists getting on with their jobs) are much more likely to develop character over time, and, behind the single-book plots, to have a series-long arc or several multi-book arcs covering events of major impact on protagonists’ lives, which makes it a bit harder (for those of us who prefer to know where everyone stands) to start in the middle of a series and progress backward or forward in undisciplined leaps. (I note that series television has developed in the same way over the last few decades, from case-of-the-week to blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appointment drama.) You’re still going to find a summary of previous events (adroitly or clumsily inserted depending on skill) and descriptions of the main characters included in each book, because most of us will start in the middle anyway, since the library or the bookstore never has book one. If you’ve ever sat down and mainlined a series of this sort, that repeated review of physical characteristics and circumstances gets annoying fast, but I suppose it’s necessary.

There are several other types of series fiction as well (and I’m far from an expert on this, so I’m sure I’m missing some).

  • Series that divide fairly neatly into separate volumes, but are really one great saga covering the lives and adventures of recurring characters (or multiple generations of a family). The first example that springs to mind is Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. I’d also put Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson books in this category, though they are much more tightly-plotted and need to be read in order, whereas you can get away with dipping into a random O’Brian you find in a vacation house. The Harry Potter books go here too, along with most of their fantasy counterparts. (Lord of the Rings is actually one giant novel.) Dorothy Dunnett’s historical series books. Et cetera.
  • Series that contain tight sequences of multi-book plot, best consumed sequentially, but also have additional material that is less critically ordered. I’m thinking of Laurie R. King’s Russell-Holmes books, and also Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series. Bujold purposefully writes books that can be read in any order, with a few exceptions that can’t be shifted; I think they’re best gulped down chronologically, though. King and Bujold also share the habit of inserting later-written novels into the chronological sequence.
  • Loosely-connected series that may share a setting or some characters, but tell a larger story when read all together. Robertson Davies’ various trilogies go here. I’m going to talk about cameras later, and I think of Davies’ books as changing the angle of a shot to broaden viewer perspective. Sometimes it’s the same story, told over from a different point of view (which has to be done cleverly to work). I think Bujold’s Five Gods series is going to be this sort too, but it’s hard to tell until she finishes it (it may just end up sharing a world). C.S. Lewis’s Planets series definitely goes here; the Narnia series is a sort of corollary of the type, but probably belongs more with its fantasy saga brethren.

Others? I think there are plenty of sagas that grow loosely-connected side branches, and that sort of thing; one could do a major study.

Anyway, how does the Waters of Time series (now that it’s starting to look like one) fit into this? I do try to write each book so that a patient reader who doesn’t mind using brain power could figure out what’s going on without reading the previous books, but certainly the volumes are numbered for a reason. I’m not sure the series will be long enough to constitute a saga, but it is a sequence – one long story broken up by necessity, and divided by secondary plot, themes, and character focus.

I meant to write a trilogy, but realized well before the end of Time Goes By that the story was developing beyond three-book scope, despite one significant thread of plot sort of tying up by book’s end. I know who to blame for this turn of events; you’ll meet him (or reencounter him) in Chapter Six. But I should blame my own tendencies and preferences too. Like many of my generation, despite being a voracious reader I think cinematically, always tracking shots and scene cuts in my head, and this works to some extent on a larger scale as well. I’m writing a series where, with each book, the camera pulls back a bit further, and more of the scenery is revealed – more context for the events, more of the broader picture. Consciously or not, I paralleled this by using more point-of-view characters in each book: just Olivia in the first one, Olivia and George both in the second, and in the third volume adding in Beatrice and Andy. (Luckily I did not feel obliged to progress along these lines; eight narrative viewpoints would have been a horrible mess to deal with in Not Time’s Fool. There are three. Basically.) And Time for Tea provides Olivia with mysteries tied to her personal life; Time and Fevers with some solutions to them and the addition of broader philosophical context; Time Goes By gives everyone a glimpse of the endless seas of time and politics before pushing them in. Whether Not Time’s Fool widens the horizon further you can decide next year; it may provide more of a new camera angle or the fitting of a different lens. But the shift from the tight-focused and personal to the landscape view (with closeups) continues.

The broadening of viewpoint in Time Goes By provided some structural challenges; it’s the first and only book for which I’ve reordered chapters and sections after writing, but it was easier (for example) to write a lot of Olivia’s story all at once before doubling back to check in with the others. This didn’t make for good reading, though, so I had to chop the book apart and fit it back together like a puzzle, or like a hanging mobile where all the elements need to balance and sense each other through connecting strings. It may look like a solid hunk of paper to you, but to me it still twangs with tension, and I’m still pulling the camera back, trying not to trip over the cables taped to the floor.

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