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Teaser Tuesday: Back-story in a Stand-alone

Tuesday, April 30, 2019 - 07:26

When writing a series, there's always the tricky question of how to bring readers up to speed on the characters' back-stories without brining the narrative to a screeching halt for an info-dump. But when writing a book that's meant to be able to stand alone but exists within a series, the issue of back-story becomes even trickier. You need to provide readers enough information so they understand why these minor characters are wandering in and out of the book, but without setting up expectations that they will be important to this particular story. One failure mode is "egregious fan service" where back-story is included primarily for the eyes of readers of the full series. Another failure mode is misdirection, where people and events are referenced in an intriguing way but not followed up on. A third failure mode is "orphan characters" where references to people or events are just dropped in without clear connection to the current narrative.

It was a very deliberate choice to set Rozild up in a context where the central events and characters of the previous books would be relatively peripheral to her life...for all that she'll be employed by Margerit Sovitre and spending much of the book in her household. Some of the previous viewpoint characters will intersect her life briefly--perhaps in a single scene--others, not at all. Luzie Valorin is never mentioned by name. Antuniet appears in a single scene, though she is mentioned a couple times prior to that so that we'll know who she is. Jeanne pops into the dress shop and chats with Roz on one occasion...before which Roz had no idea that Jeanne had been her benefactor.

But since Roz is working in Tiporsel House, and will be interacting significantly with a few of the other inhabitants, I needed to dump some info on the reader in a concentrated way while signalling that it wasn't crucially important. Fortunately, when someone starts a new job, it feels natural for them to spend a few moments mentally sorting through the players on the stage...

* * *

Then it was up and down stairs again following Ailis to find all the folk who did for the family and let them know what I was to look to. I tried to remember all the names and hoped Ailis would help me sort them out later.

A stern older woman gave me a small bundle, saying with a sniff, “There’s Maisetra Pertinek’s caps. Get them as white as you can and don’t tear the lace!”

Next a younger woman with a country accent—not like from Sain-Pol but more eastern—looked me over and said she’d wait and see if I was good enough to wash her mistress’s things, but she gave me a man’s shirt with a rip in the sleeve. “The Mesnera tore that during her sword-practice, mind you do it up strong so it doesn’t tear again, but it needn’t be pretty.” She said it as if it were an everyday matter for a lady to go off in shirt and breeches to a fencing salle.

I worked out the family from bits and pieces like that. At the Fillerts it had only been Maistir and Maisetra Fillert and their daughters, and a guest or two sometimes. But old households like this one were filled with relatives and people with odd connections, like a little village under one roof. There was Maisetra Sovitre. I figured the house must be hers because she’d hired me. The man of the house was Mesner Pertinek, and I knew he couldn’t be the maisetra’s father because he was noble. But “the mesnera” wasn’t Mesnera Pertinek. She was only Maisetra Pertinek because he’d married beneath him. Even though she was Maisetra Sovitre’s aunt, she was more like a lady’s companion, like rich old widows sometimes had. The mesnera was a baroness—and didn’t that make me stare! To think I was serving in a house that had a baroness. But it wasn’t Baroness Saveze’s house either? Ailis gave me a strange look when I asked about that, like I was stupid. She explained that before she was a baroness, she was Maisetra Sovitre’s armin, to protect her because she was rich. There was some long story about that. But when she found out she was a baroness they were fast friends and Maisetra Sovitre invited her to stay on as a guest but more like a sister. I figured I’d work it out in time but my head was spinning too much to remember it all at once.

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