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Floodtide

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Back when I introduced the profession of armin in Daughter of Mystery, it was to some extent a means of creating a social context in which Barbara would make sense. It also became an aspect of developing Alpennian society as its own thing. Other societies had a dueling culture. Other societies had systems for guarding the virtue of young unmarried women. Other societies had personal bodyguards. But somehow in Alpennian culture those elements had come together in a recognized profession that acted as proxies for their employers in the public performance of "honor culture."

Worldbuilding for a series is a tenuous balance between casual references to people, places, concepts, and events that will later be important, and not overwhelming the reader with details that appear (and may in fact be) unimportant to the immediate story. So how prescient does an author need to be to figure out what to mention long before that topic suddenly needs to have been clearly established long before?

I blogged once about how one of the things I value in a protagonist is standing outside the norms and structures of societal power in some way. It gives them more incentive to see the cracks in the system. The fact that all my protagonists are women in early 19th century Europe gives them a head start on that outsider status, though there were certainly plenty of women who didn't view themselves in that way. Ones who enjoyed and accepted the place that gave them in the world.

I was feeling smug this morning about getting on the road by my target time (before 6am). I'd have lots of time in the coffee shop in Berkeley to compose this blog and maybe get some other things done as well before going to the office. And then I saw the big flashing freeway sign "West Hwy 24 accident all lanes blocked." They don't go to that extreme for a minor fender bender, so I quickly reviewed potential alternate routes and took off into the hills, detouring through Moraga, up Canyon Road, and winding through the east bay redwoods.

No teaser last week because it was a topsy turvy day: no morning coffee shop session because I took the train in to work so I could go straight to the airport (motel) from work to catch an early morning flight to Kalamazoo. Also because all my spare writing time was being spent polishing a 40-minute first draft of my paper down to a 20-minute presentation. As my regular readers may be aware, writing short is not one of my strong points! But now we're back to the weekly teasers!

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.

The issue of character motivation weaves deeply through chapter 3 of Floodtide. Why did Dominique reach out to Jeanne to help Roz? Why did Jeanne agree to see what she could do? (These were covered in last week's teaser blog.) Why did Jeanne approach Margerit? (“Who did she know who kept a large enough staff that there would always be a place for one more? And who could not possibly object to the reason for the girl’s fall? The answer was obvious.” Mother of Souls ch. 12) Why did Margerit agree to give her a try?

Because Floodtide is written solely from Roz’s point of view, there are a lot of details that she (we) don’t have access to. Like why in the world Dominique would go out on a limb to try to get Roz another position in service? And how did she arrange for Margerit Sovitre, of all people, to consider her?

Fortunately, if one has read Mother of Souls, the answer to the second question is laid out there, although purely in passing.

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[from Mother of Souls]

For a reader, the backstory and characteristics of a character should appear to be “just how things are”. But from the writer’s side, it’s a careful process of designing that character’s history, abilities, and skills so that they have exactly what they need to fit into the role they’re required to play.

I had to fine-tune parts of Roz’s backstory carefully to give her enough experience with dressmaking to have developed an ambition to learn more, and enough sewing skills to make up for starting an apprenticeship at such an advanced age (all of sixteen!).

It isn't that I go into a writing project assuming that I know exactly what needs to go into the story and what would be superfluous, but it would be accurate to say that I don't go about writing entire chapters without a clear purpose to them. So when the editorial feedback (in this case, from my beta readers) comes back pointing out serious issues that can only be fixed by eliminating entire scenes, events, and characters, there's always a twinge involved.

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