What I'm reading: Contest entry #7 of 8
I've been reading books for a contest lately. A fair number of the books I've been given are part of a series, or at least connected books, which is the most common in romance. This means they'll have characters who have appeared in previous books, but aren't the "stars" of this one.
Most of what I write falls into this category. The only exception is Hidden Fire, which is a true sequel to Finding Sarah. Randy and Sarah are the protagonists of both books. On the other hand, the new book (still untitled, but I'm working on it. Ideas still welcome!) is set in the same town, with many of the characters readers met in the first two books, but the hero and heroine are brand new. They've never appeared before. This is unusual in series/connected romance books, too. (Have I ever mentioned that I didn't know the "rules" when I wrote Finding Sarah and Hidden Fire, so I didn't really set things up for a series.)
I did take one secondary character from Finding Sarah and give her a book of her own, but then when I got the rights back and switched publishers, I had to sever her ties to Pine Hills. So, although Colleen from Nowhere to Hide actually started out in Pine Hills, through the magic of fiction, she sprang forth with a new place of origin. (If I decide to request the rights back, I just might change the book and give her back her history with Randy and Sarah.)
My Blackthorne, Inc. series falls into the "connected book" category. By the time I started writing them, I'd learned enough about the genre to know I needed to keep my options open. Thus, readers meet Dalton in When Danger Calls, but he's secondary to Ryan, the hero. In Where Danger Hides, Dalton gets his own book, and in the upcoming Rooted in Danger, it'll be Fozzie's turn. Danger in Deer Ridge features Grinch, who created a few problems because I inadvertently mentioned that he had a kid in When Danger Calls, so I had to work with that.
But back to the books I've read for the contest. Some of the authors handle the requisite back story very well, and although I'm meeting characters who have already had their stories told in other books, their history doesn't intrude. In other cases, the author stops the forward motion of the book to explain who everyone is, and gives the reader all sorts of information about what happened to them in "their" books.
Of the two approaches, I'm definitely on the "don't tell me if I don't need to know" side of the fence. Sometimes the cast of characters gets huge, especially in an ongoing series, and authors use the "family gathering" technique to put everyone on the page. That makes me want to stop reading. A reader has enough trouble figuring out who the main players are, and we don't need the supporting cast in chapter one. Or two. Or even three.
If you're writing a series, my personal advice would be to ask yourself the same questions you should be asking yourself every time you deal with back story.
1. Does the reader need to know this?
2. Does the reader need to know this NOW?
As far as I'm concerned, if you're bringing in characters from a previous book, telling me Sam walked in with his wife, Judy is plenty. I don't need to know how they met, or that he rescued her from terrorists, or that she's a chocoholic. SHOW me when it becomes important. Does Judy freak out when a large, tattooed man approaches her. If so, then that's when you can mention it (or, better yet, have Sam explain it to someone else).
I've read books by well-known authors who have told me so much about what happened in book 1 while I'm reading book 2, that I have absolutely no desire to go back and read the first book, because I already know what's going to happen.
It's a constant struggle for me, regardless of whether I'm writing a true series (I hope to write the second Mapleton Mystery), or connected books. To further complicate things, I decided to release Danger in Deer Ridge BEFORE Rooted in Danger came out. This meant readers were actually reading book 4. Since Grinch is the hero of Danger in Deer Ridge, I had to make sure I didn't reveal much of what happened to Grinch before that book without giving readers a feeling that they've missed something.
How do you feel about series books? Do you read out of order? What are your preferences for handling back story, as a reader and/or a writer?
Want to go to Florida? Come back tomorrow. Jason was there last week, and he's got some more great nature shots.
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