Backgrounds, Foundations

One of the Cards from the Exhibit

Last week my writing mostly focused on background work for various projects.  There now exists an updated and extensive list of characters from the first three Star Kingdom novels.  Cover copy has been written for the upcoming new releases of my three “Breaking the Wall” novels.  Stuff like that…

Then, this past weekend, as a change of pace, Jim and I went to see the Jim Henson exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum.  One of the pleasures for me in the exhibit was seeing how various projects and characters developed.  I’m not really a “making of” sort of viewer.  I’m the sort who wants to believe for those couple of hours that whatever place I’m viewing and the people who live in it are real.

However, seeing how Henson and his team brought script and characters together—especially how the process evolved over time, and as different collaborators became regulars in the team—was fascinating.  I found myself feeling better about the amount of background work I’d been doing for my own projects.

It also made me think about a comment Beverly Martin, one of the regular participants in my FF, had made about a book she was reading.  Let me quote her:

“It is kind of suffering from middle book syndrome – lots of words but little movement in the main plot. I get that they move on horseback, but does the story have to move at the same pace?”

Even as I understood her point, I found myself thinking about what it implied.  For one, there’s the question of “main plot.”  When I was a very young reader of the “Lord of the Rings” novels, my least favorite novel was The Two Towers, especially Frodo and Sam’s journey.  There were none of the clashing armies, none of the hints of romance, none of the moments of humor that livened not only the other two books in the series but the other major plotline.

Frodo, Sam, and Golem’s journey was a tale that moved not only “on horseback” but on foot, through the mud, up endless staircases, and, even worse, into increasingly thick bogs of distrust, suspicion, and even outright hatred and betrayal.

And, as an older reader, I realize that this is the most crucial part of the entire epic tale, without which not only the climax of the story, but also the concerns felt by the rest of the Fellowship and allies would seem groundless, shallow, and weak.

I’m not saying this is the case for the book Beverly is reading.  (If you want to know which one, you can look on the FF for last week.)  Sometimes writers do lose touch or reach a point where they are indulged because they can be counted on to sell a fair number of copies to loyal fans.

A friend of mine recently confessed that she wishes a writer whose work she used to love received more editing because she had found his more recent works “turgid.”

One thing I’ve learned is that the answer to what makes a book “slow” varies widely, not only from author to author, but from reader to reader.  The other day, I had a lively chat with a friend who is reading my Wolf’s Head, Wolf’s Heart for the first time.  He had numerous questions about the “societies” that are mentioned as a background element in the cultures of Hawk Haven and Bright Bay.  I could tell him a considerable amount that never made it to the page.

Almost every novel I’ve written, particularly if it belongs to a series, has a host of background material that may never make it onto the page.  If there’s a point where things seem to “slow down,” perhaps because I’m providing background material or seem to have strayed from the plot…  Well, maybe I haven’t strayed.  Maybe I know a little more about what the “main plot” is than a reader who may be misled by anything from jacket copy to what the characters themselves think is important.

Which brings us back to the behind the scenes elements of the Jim Henson exhibit.  A friend had enthused that Jareth and Sarah’s costumes from the iconic ballroom scene were on display.  I was certainly eager to see them.  In the end, while I appreciated the opportunity, I could have done without.

Gowns and jackets meant to be filmed, meant to be seen with perfect lighting picking up the highlights, may not look as wonderful on a dummy in a case.  I’ll take the illusion.  I’ll take the story.  But, y’know, I’d also take Jareth’s jacket!  (Or the wonderful silver pendant.)

And I’ll keep writing more material than the reader will ever see, because, just like the support rod that’s invisible but makes the puppet’s arm movements possible, so background that is only hinted at supports the rest of the story.

10 Responses to “Backgrounds, Foundations”

  1. King Ben's Grandma Says:

    I saw the pictures from The Labyrinth and got excited, because I love that movie.
    What a fun exhibition that must have been! Jim Henson gave us so much magic and laughter (which is another form of magic).

    I like to see how things are done. I’ve read all the appendixes, and any other related material, for LOTR and I think it gives me a richer, fuller experience of the story.
    Seeing a ‘behind the scenes’ has never taken the magic from any movie, for me.

    You must have notebooks and notebooks of information about the different societies! They are so detailed and different. I wonder how many people who enjoy Firekeeper and Blind Seer have thought about all the work that went into making the rules, clothing, government, etc for each country? They are detailed and part of the background. I’ll bet that’s not easy to do. It just shows what a fantastic job you did creating the world and telling the story!

    • janelindskold Says:

      Thank you, Angie. Yep. I’ve got the notebooks and/or computer files. For some books, I have massive bibliographies of what I read.

      Jim and I are now sampling Fraggle Rock, which I’d never seen. Kid’s show, for sure, but the opening episode was SO gorgeously anthropological that we’ll definitely watch more.

  2. Beverly Martin Says:

    Very good blog! I see what you mean that what may seem “slow” to me is essential information I may need later. I finished the book and now I have to wait for the third book to be published.

    • janelindskold Says:

      And it could just be lousy, self-indulgent writing. I am glad I did not offend you, because you gave me such lovely things to think about.

      Let me give you an example, though… In Skyward, the whole mushroom thing. I’m willing to place a bet that it’s going to be more than comic relief. (I haven’t read the sequel yet, but will.) But Sanderson showed a lot of thoughtfulness elsewhere. For a writer, the line between too much,too slow, and “Where the heck did that come from?” is a tough one.

      Thanks again.

  3. Dawn Barela Says:

    this was a really interesting post.
    I love the LOTR trilogy and Two Towers is my favorite of the three.
    Probably because it is setting the stage for the last book. The same goes for all series books. It can’t always be battles and action. It would get too distracting to me if that was the case.
    As far as the Henson Exhibit, I haven’t seen it yet.
    I am looking forward to seeing the costumes from Labyrinth.
    Especially Jareth’s! Seeing something that David Bowie actually wore is cool to me. He was a fascinating person. A true icon in music and film. To see it in person is as close to seeing him in person as I could ever have gotten. Even if he were still alive. I might have had an opportunity to see him in concert, but even then I would likely have been far from the stage due to ticket prices,

    • janelindskold Says:

      It’s a good show. Chronologically arranged and very rich.

      I think you’d like it.

      When lived near enough to see a Bowie concert, I was too poor to go. But my sister gave me her program from Glass Spiders. That remains a treasure.

  4. Harried Harry Says:

    I’m catching up with my computer since my back decided I shouldn’t sit down. Your discussion of background is on the spot. Louis L’Amour who wrote many Western novels and Dick Francis, who wrote mystery novels both developed extensive background information before they started writing their stories. In L’Amour’s case, he did a lot of siteseeing in the locales where his books took place. I know this since I’ve been to many of those places and scenery exists pretty much as he described it. In Francis’s place, his stories are oriented around horseracing in which he was very knowledgeable since he was a Grand Champion jockey in England.

    My two cents is without a detailed knowledge of the background an author won’t have a believable story, even if the detailed background never shows up in print. I’ve read stories in which the author just put words in place and “assumed” the reader would understand the background. Since the majority of my reading is science fiction or fantasy, the author must include a certain amount of background so the reader can understand the plot.

    I agree with all the comments regarding Jim Henson and the Muppets. Fraggle Rock was a very creative program which had information for both children and adults. Just like the Muppets, anyone can learn from the shows.

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