Explain that to me again, would you?
Neither of my two new releases, The Gilded Scarab and Gyrfalcon, are set in our contemporary world. Scarab is an alternate, steampunk London of 1900, and I’m not entirely convinced Gyrfalcon is even in this galaxy.In some ways, that offers tremendous scope for building my own worlds and since that’s something I just love doing, I was, as you can imagine, stoked about the opportunities.
Certainly a long, long way across it, anyway.
Certainly a long, long way across it, anyway.
The hard bit came with explaining those worlds to the reader without going into acres and acres of exposition. That can be so jarring, it isn’t true. The first time I read David Weber’s Honor Harrington books, I was happily gobbling up the action as our heroine had her spaceship chasing after the baddies at light speed—at which point her ship slammed its nose into about six pages of Weber telling us how faster-than-light travel was done in the Harrington Universe. Aaand back to the chase again… To say that it shot his pacing to hell and back is an understatement.
In The Gilded Scarab, I have a first person narrator. I found that made the explaining of a steampunk world, ruled by a system of powerful Houses in an oligarchy where influence is everything, actually very much easier than I had anticipated. The hero tells us: in his experiences, his reactions to them, in dialogue with the other characters, in acidic little asides as he’s recounting his adventures. Using Rafe as narrator allows the world picture to grow slowly, with no huge sections of exposition, and the reader gets everything in Rafe’s own, sardonic ‘voice’. It works for me—and I hope for the reader, too.
Gyrfalcon, though, was harder. While Rafe’s story was helped by being in a place recognisably London, only skewed a molecule or two to the left, Gyrfalcon is set somewhere way across the galaxy. There was much more to try and convey: that this is a colony of Earth in the far, far future, that Earth itself is dead and gone, that this colony is at war—and losing. And again, trying to do this without going for the Weber effect of a wall of technobabble. Where to drop the explanations in, and how?
Here’s some of the things I learned:
(i) Use it sparingly. Only tell what the reader really, really must know. James Scott Bell says use three lines in the first ten pages, and no more than three paragraphs in the next ten. Sound advice, if hard to follow.
(ii) Can you convey it in dialogue? Real dialogue, not the sort of thing that has a wife saying to her husband, “Betty, our adopted daughter, is…”. That might have the merit of establishing with the reader that this couple has an adopted daughter called Betty, but really, shouldn’t the husband know that already? And that bit of dialogue, by the way, is from an Agatha Christie novel.
(iii) The same principles apply to books in a series. Keep the recapping to the same level in subsequent books, and use the same techniques. Very helpful for me, since Gyrfalcon is the first of six books.
I don’t think I got it perfectly right, but I hope what is there doesn’t throw itself up like a wall in front of my hero while he’s chasing after Maess drones!
What’s your take, reader or writer, on how worlds should be explained? I’d love to hear your views.
The Gilded Scarab
When Captain Rafe Lancaster is invalided out of the Britannic Imperium’s Aero Corps after crashing his aerofighter during the Second Boer War, his eyesight is damaged permanently, and his career as a fighter pilot is over. Returning to Londinium in late November 1899, he’s lost the skies he loved, has no place in a society ruled by an elite oligarchy of powerful Houses, and is hard up, homeless, and in desperate need of a new direction in life.
Everything changes when he buys a coffeehouse near the Britannic Imperium Museum in Bloomsbury, the haunt of Aegyptologists. For the first time in years, Rafe is free to be himself. In a city powered by luminiferous aether and phlogiston, and where powerful men use House assassins to target their rivals, Rafe must navigate dangerous politics, deal with a jealous and possessive ex-lover, learn to make the best coffee in Londinium, and fend off murder and kidnap attempts before he can find happiness with the man he loves.
(Cover by Reese Dante)
Whenever someone asks how my life came to take such a sharp and unexpected turn—and they do ask, because people are insatiably nosy—they get my most charming smile. I know it’s charming because I practice it every morning in my shaving mirror. It’s devastating.
It’s even better without the shaving soap.
The short answer is “I crashed one of the old Queen’s aerofighters into the African veldt, fighting the Boers.”
The timing is the most important thing. Wait a heartbeat, savor a mouthful of the best coffee in Londinium while they absorb that, and as their mouths open to ask more questions, drop in the next line.
I put a little gap between the syllables so they can’t miss it. Koffie—pause—fontein.
Some of them laugh. The clever ones, the ones who see the delicious irony when they think about how my life changed. How I changed. Not all of them do. Most people are… how shall I put this? Not the brightest lucifer in the box. It takes them a few minutes to understand before they snigger and nudge their companion with a “Koffie! Like coffee, see. One of them Boer places, likely. Coffee fountain or some such. That’s rich!”
No. Definitely not the brightest.
I saw the irony at once, though. Given my life since then, it had to be some sort of divine joke, a little prod to the ribs from the Almighty. “Wake up, Rafe Lancaster, and pay attention! Change is coming.”
It was a sign, of sorts. The first step into a new life when the old one was taken from me, sending me in the right direction—the crash at Koffiefontein, selling my mother’s jewels, reopening relations with my House, and yes, even the scarab. All of those things came into play.
Mostly it was luck. The famous Lancaster luck. They should name things after it. Ships, or aerofighters.
Or perhaps a racehorse.
WHERE TO BUY THE GILDED SCARAB
All Romance as an ebook
Earth’s last known colony, Albion, is fighting an alien enemy. In the first of the Taking Shield series, Shield Captain Bennet is dropped behind the lines to steal priceless intelligence. A dangerous job, and Bennet doesn’t need the distractions of changing relationships with his long-term partner, Joss, or with his father—or with Flynn, the new lover who will turn his world upside-down. He expects to risk his life. He expects the data will alter the course of the war. What he doesn’t expect is that it will change his life or that Flynn will be impossible to forget.
A shadow fell over the page. Someone was standing in front of his table. He shot a fast look up through his lashes, and returned his gaze to the book. Thought so.
Bennet turned the page. “Good evening, Lieutenant.”
“You don’t often see one of those outside a museum,” Flynn said. “Most people use datapads.”
Bennet smiled. “Me too, usually, but this was a present.”
Flynn mimed interest and Bennet obligingly turned the book so that he could see the spine. Flynn made an exaggerated wince. “A bit of light reading, I see. A History of the Theban Peoples, Volume sixty-three.” He looked blank. “How many are there?”
“Volumes? Eighty seven.”
“And you have them all?”
Bennet nodded. “A graduation present from my parents.”
His mother’s idea, probably, since he and his father still hadn’t been on good terms. There were too many sharp words between them about Bennet’s selfishness and perversion. To Caeden the books symbolised what he considered to be Bennet’s fall from grace, every selfish choice Bennet had made from refusing to go to the Military Academy when he left school, to falling under Joss’s spell at the Thebaid.
Caeden hadn’t come to his graduation from the Thebaid. On a mission, Meriel had said, but Bennet hadn’t been fooled for a minute. He reckoned that his mother had forged his father’s signature on the card that came with the books. She’d definitely made up the bit about ‘all our love’.
“That’s not how it’s supposed to go,” Flynn said. “They’re supposed to buy you a fast red sports car. If I were you, I’d complain and make them do the right thing.”
Bennet laughed. Joss had looked like a cat with its head in a cream jug when they’d come out of the Thebaid together, the day of his graduation, and there it was, parked directly at the foot of the wide, sweeping stairs at the main door: the shiniest, reddest, fastest sports car that Bennet could ever have dreamed of. He still had it. “I got the car from someone else.”
“Red and fast?”
“Very red and very fast. Are you joining me, Flynn?”
“I came over to invite you to join us.” Flynn nodded at a table where a number of officers were sitting. “Thing is, this morning was a bit basic. We didn’t buy your artless performance, by the way.”
Bennet nodded, fighting to keep his mouth from curving up. “You think I was up to something?”
“Of course you were. I’m just wondering what you were looking for.”
“And if I got what I wanted?” Bennet issued a fair and friendly warning. “I should tell you, Flynn, that I don’t drink very much and I’m trained not to say a lot even when I do.”
“I don’t know whether to be more appalled at your lack of trust in your fellow man or at how transparent I am.” Flynn grinned at him and it was remarkably attractive, slightly lopsided, and only the sheer good humour kept it this side of insolent. “I’ll be good.”
That grin decided it. Flynn was altogether too pretty as it was and that grin should have carried a health and safety warning. Bennet closed the book and stood up, picking up his beer. “Sure you will. Which one of them have you set up to be bad?”
WHERE TO BUY
Gyrfalcon is available as an ebook at Wilde City Press (a print version will follow soon) and from an Amazon near you (Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk links for starters)
Comment here and get an entry in a rafflecopter to win an Amazon gift card (drawn when the blog tour is over at the end of March).
In addition, one commentator chosen at complete close-eyes-stick-a-pin-in-it random will get their choice of a little pack of Gilded Scarab or Gyrfalcon loot and a free copy of FlashWired (a gay mainstream sci-fi novella).
Anna Butler was a communications specialist for many years, working in UK government departments on everything from marketing employment schemes to running an internal TV service. She now spends her time indulging her love of old-school science fiction. She lives in the ethnic and cultural melting pot of East London with her husband and the Deputy Editor, aka Molly the cockapoo.