Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Sharon Wildwind

This time of year of full of extras, things like a tiny ornament tucked in a gift bow or finishing a meal with a piece of shortbread, or taking the kids to a special holiday program.

I’m one of those readers who loves extras in books. Maps thrill me. House diagrams, particularly in classic British mysteries, make me squeal, “Oh, there’s a floor plan.” And there’s more than one book, which I wish had included a list of characters up front because, by page 50, I couldn’t keep Harry, Barry, and Barty straight. On the other side of the coin, I hurriedly skip past genealogy charts—at least when I start reading a book—because who was related to whom might be a clue I don’t want to know this soon.

Recently I heard a wonderful group of people speak about the pros and cons of including extras in books. Those people were Tad Williams (Shadowmarch trilogy) ; L. E. Modesitt, Jr. (Saga of Recluse series and others); Julianne Lee (Matheson Saga and Tenedrae series); Susan Forest (Canadian young adult fantasy writer); and Barb Galler-Smith (Canadian fantasy writer).

There was complete agreement that authors needed the extras for their own benefit. Everyone of them had files for all their books filled with maps, charts, and character lists. There was a not-so-tongue-in-cheek suggestion that working on material like maps can give an author the appearance of working hard when really what he’s doing is having fun with colored pencils.

The panel was less unanimous about the value for supplemental material for readers. Some readers love extras, some readers skip them and get on with reading the story.

Tad Williams commented that if a reader has to go back and forth between the text and a glossary, map, list of characters, etc, the author is doing something wrong. However, he also admitted that he’s grown fonder of supplemental material helpful now that he has to read in a household that also contains small children. Since his reading time is now more episodic, he finds it a help to be able to refresh his memory when he has been away from a book for a while.

L. E. Modesitt, Jr. concluded that the author could include a pronunciation guide if she wished, but a reader will form a pronunciation of their own as they read written names. No matter what the autor includes, it’s that internal pronunciation they will use. If a name is too complex, readers assign short-cuts, referring in their head to a character as “Mr. G” or “that town beginning with an X.”

A large part of this panel discussion centered on maps, and here are some of the writing tips offered from that discussion.

If landscape is important to the story, ask yourself why you are drawing your geography the way you are doing it. If you don’t know, get a good atlas and look at it for a while. Turn the atlas sideways or upside down. This may give you a new geography that works for your story. If you do this, be careful to reorient your river flow. Some reader, somewhere will know that you have a river flowing in the wrong direction or a mountain range existing where the surrounding geography would never produce a mountain range. That’s the reader who will write you a letter.

Remember topography (the up and down of the landscape) maps as well as two-dimensional (how far and in what direction) maps. If you send a character away to call the police, be aware of how long it will take her to get to where she can make the call, and how long it will take for the police to answer that call.

If something you created becomes tedious—for example, half of the characters live on one side of a high mountain range, the other half live on the other side, and getting the characters back and forth over those mountains is a real pain—learn to work with the difficulty. This makes you face the same challenges as the people who live in your story, and creates a resonance that the reader will recognize.
Boy do I know this one in spades. In one of my books, a winter storm took out power, and I quickly realized I could not do some of the things I’d planned to do with the plot because those things happening depended on electricity being available.

Adding extras also has an economic effect on publishing. Forty to sixty percent of the cost of a book today is paper. The more supplementary material that is included, the higher the printing cost, and too much material may price your book outside the print cost range that a publisher is willing to consider. As an alternative, authors are experimenting with putting supplementary material on web sites, or creating a CD for the supplementary material. If you’re a fan of the Midsomer Murders series on DVD, you’ll know that there is, on each DVD, a copy of the map of Midsomer County, which is a good thing, considering that it is a fictional location in England.

Do you have a favorite extra?


Sheila Connolly said...

I've always loved maps and floor plans in books (confession: I have a large framed copy of Middle Earth hanging in my house now). I don't see why anyone would think they're annoying--they're there if you need them, although I would agree that the writing should be clear enough that you don't have to refer to a guide.

Berkley Prime Crime loves to include recipes in their mysteries--even if the protagonist can't cook. That logic escapes me.

caryn said...

I love all of the extras in books. I think a floor plan is nice, but a map of the area-even if it is used as the endpages of the book is helpful if the book is set in a small town or a small area of countryside.
As for the geneology charts or even a list of characters with brief bios-I look at them and like to have them handy to refer to. The one time I think they are really necessary though is with a series with many characters. If a book comes out once a year and each one picks up a slightly different group of supporting players, it's nice to have some sort of a chart to refresh my memory as to who these people are and how they are related to each other or the role they play in the series.
And I would hands down rather authors use the words of the time or place that the book is set in and just give us a little glossary page or whatever at the beginning or end for us to look over than to change the language to modern day or American words. That way I learn something.

Sandra Parshall said...

I appreciate maps, floor plans, and character lists if the setting and cast call for them. But like Sheila, I'm baffled when a book that's NOT a culinary mystery includes recipes anyway!

Anonymous said...

My favorite is house diagrams. Back when I was a kid playing Clue what frustrated me most was not being able to change the floor layout. I mean, the dining room was always the dining room and the pantry was always the pantry, and I thought I should be able to mix them up and add secret passages, etc.

I'm with Sandy about recipes in non-culinary mysteries. Doesn't make sense to me either, except maybe where a dish or the making of a dish was a big part of the mystery.