Category Archives: exposition

Another bit on exposition– Abandoned fragment # 10– Uncle Zedekiah’s Bible.

I haven’t done one of these for a while. This is another snippet from my abandoned series of alternative history novels, an alternate beginning I never completed. In it I attempted a bit of incluing. It seems clumsy now, but I think it works as an example of how you can go about it. The main purpose of the scene, though, is to establish the relationship between Nathan Cooper and his grandmother, and to show what Nathan is leaving behind. The incluing is in the background, as it should be.

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
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It was surprising how little twenty years amounted to.

The recruiting officer had told Nathan he was allowed only one bag. The only bag the family had that he could reasonably carry in one hand was an old carpetbag that had been up in the attic for at least thirty years. He took it down and knocked the dust and cobwebs out of it, run a moist towel over the interior and then set it out in the sun all day, until finally it no longer smelled like an old carpetbag that had been in the attic for thirty years. Or, at least, not as much.

Now it came down to what he would take with him. Nathan laid his belongings out on his bed by the yellow light of his room-lamp. One change of shirt and pants, two of underwear and socks, a towel with his shaving kit and toothbrush rolled up in it— and there he stuck. In desperation he added an old pullover. He doubted he would need it in New Albion, but it was better to be prepared. There were mornings here in the Washita that turned cool, even in June. He would also be wearing his duster, although that was mostly for the train ride south. He wouldn’t need more than one pair of shoes, he figured, and he would be wearing those.

Even with the addition of the pullover, there was still a lot of empty space in the bag. Nathan was tempted to add more clothes. The recruiter, however, had made it clear that he shouldn’t burden himself with too many civilian clothes he would have to either mail back home or give away to charity. He looked around his room. The desk with its own lamp was obviously staying. The rug on the polished floor served no military function. The bookcase wouldn’t fit into the carpetbag.

He hesitated. My books. The product of years of scrimping, doing odd jobs, carrying golf clubs for Banker Nugent and Mr. Pinter who owned the feed store, doing carpentry and hauling trash and doing without a noon-day meal sometimes—he was going to have to leave them behind. Somehow that had not sunk in until this moment.

He ran his hand along the spines. Hermann’s History of the Confederation, Georges’ Works and Ways of the Native Fathers. Rabelais and Montaigne and two or three of the permitted Shakespeares. Cassidy and Simonides, Livy and Plutarch, Josephus, and Clark’s Tales of the Americas, which he had almost worn out through years of reading and re-reading. Modern historical novels and the speculative fiction that earned so much of Gran’s scorn. The complete set of Everett’s histories– The Wars of Faith, The Fall of England, and The First Fleet. Ickes’ Principles of Science, and the math and Latin texts that had once been the bane of his existence and with which now he didn’t want to part. A crowd of friends he was leaving forever.

Nathan sat down on the bed. He felt homesick already, and he was still at home. He hadn’t expected it to hit him this hard. His anger had carried him a long way, and his resentment even further. Now, he wasn’t sure anymore.

A floorboard creaked. It was Gran, come to stand in the doorway. She stood straight, but with her arms folded in that way of hers that told Nathan she was perplexed or upset. Perhaps both, this time around.

“I am trying to understand,” she said. It was a continuation of their argument before dinner.

“That puts you ahead of Anna and Cee,” Nathan said. “They’ve locked me out of their hearts already.”

Gran didn’t respond to that. “I know you’re disappointed….”

“It’s beyond disappointment, Gran.” Nathan sighed. “It’s just the last of a long series of insults.” He hesitated. “What do you think there is for me here?”

Gran did not answer at once. “I supposed,” she said finally, “that you could follow in your father’s footsteps…in mine. Help with the school…perhaps restart the gazette….”

“The gazette?” Nathan snapped. “And what good would that do? What good did it do Father? It’s not worth it if you can’t tell the truth in it. And the school— Gran, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I have no desire to spend the rest of my days trying to scratch out a living teaching snotty kids who’d rather be gigging frogs down by the river. You know I wanted more.”

“I know,” Gran said. “And your Uncle Richard has been very cruel. I do not excuse what he did. To give you every indication that he was about to help you, when he knew how badly you wanted to attend university, and then….”

“Don’t say it.” Nathan couldn’t bear to have it all rehashed again. The useless acceptance letter lay in one of his desk drawers. It had briefly made him the happiest young man in Garrison. The illusion had lasted two whole days. The apogee of my life.

“I do understand,” Gran persisted. “What I don’t understand is why you think going for a soldier is an answer.”

Nathan gave a short laugh. It was an unhappy sound. “Bare minimum, it’ll get me out of this town. Right now that looks really good all by itself.”

Gran sighed. “That’s not a sufficient reason throw away everything you have….”

“What do I have?” Nathan said, his voice rising.

“Do not raise your voice to me, young man,” Gran said back, glaring.

“No, Gran—I honestly want to know what you think I have.” Nathan knew his face was ugly with resentment, but he didn’t care. “Do I have a future here? To work at the family school, under Anna’s sharp tongue? To do odd jobs trying to make ends meet for the rest of my life? And you know there’s always the chance that I’ll get taken in a levy anyway. Better to go as a volunteer than be dragged. What other choice do I have, Gran? Please tell me.”

His grandmother met his look. “Child, I am not going to play your game. I hear your disappointment, but I also hear a good deal about yourself and your wants. God is not in the business of giving us what we want, least of all when we throw tantrums over it. If this is a trial, the Lord wants you to meet it with humility and faith.”

“It’s a little late to be bringing God into it, Gran,” Nathan said. “If you wanted to tell me that it was my God-given duty to endure and stay put, you should have mentioned it before I took the King’s coin and signed the paper. Unless you want another Cooper spending time in a royal prison.”

Gran said nothing for a long moment. “So that’s that.”

“Yes,” Nathan said, “pretty much.”

Gran hesitated, then said, “Wait here,” as if he were about to jump up and run away. She turned and left.

Nathan had just enough time to wonder where she was going before she was back. In her hands was a small Bible. Nathan recognized it as one of the old Bibles she kept on a shelf over her writing desk. Gran held it out. “This was your great-uncle Zedekiah’s Bible. He carried it with him when they took him in the levy for the Patagonian War. The one thing I know they allow you in the Army is a Bible. Take it.”

Nathan stared at it. “Gran, I can’t. It’s an heirloom.”

“It’s the only Bible we have of its size,” Gran answered. “You surely can’t take one of the study editions. It will make me feel better knowing you have it. So long as you promise to actually read it.”

Nathan, hesitating, reached out and took the Bible. The leather of its cover was worn; he could barely make out the lettering spelling out Holy Bible on its front; the former gold gilt was nearly all worn away. “Thank you, Gran.”

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Editing is a wonderful thing, even when you find icky stuff, or, a few thoughts on exposition

I am now about two chapters into the second draft edit of Princess of Fire. That’s around 13,000 words corrected for gross deficiencies, inconsistencies and obvious grammatical crimes, which, for me, is the main purpose of the second draft. In all, those 13,000 words represent about ten percent of the whole book. A fair piece of work for a couple of days.

But I have already turned up one major problem. Somehow, without intending to, I basically turned Chapter Two into one of the most blatant info-dumps in the history of sci-fi– and, brothers and sisters, that is saying something.

I distinctly remember feeling uneasy about the chapter when I wrote it, but under the principle of getting the first draft down without regard to its quality, I wrote the damn thing and moved on. Now, revisiting it, I can see it’s a blatantly clumsy attempt to tie up loose-ends from Princess of Shadows. Worse, for the most part it’s Kathy rehashing the past six months in her head, double-clumsy. It’s the sort of thing you read, and then afterwards, mentally, it’s as if you’ve been eating chalk.

The problem of conveying information to the reader, exposition, is a thorny one. Novelists have it a little easier than screenwriters, but it’s still an issue. There is nothing sillier, or more deadly to the story, than two characters sitting around telling each other what they already know– the dreaded “As you know, Bob” approach. This is generally considered the mark of an amateur, but I have seen published novels by big-name authors doing variations on this (one certain sci-fi author, not to be named, basically has his characters sitting around agreeing with one another– three or four books of that sort of thing and I was ready to drive nails into my head with a ball-peen hammer. I no longer read this author, out of self-preservation).

Having a character who’s a stranger to things is one solution to this problem. In the first Divine Lotus book I got away with a lot of direct exposition because Kathy was new to the Jauthur universe and had to have a lot of things explained to her. Peter Weir used this technique rather artfully in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World by the presence of Stephen Maturin, ship’s physician, who keeps having to have nautical terms explained to him (and thus, the audience).

Another technique is “incluing”, which undertakes to weave the needed information into the narrative in bits and pieces and by techniques other than stopping the whole story in its tracks. I favor this approach, as it seems far more artful– but, obviously, I haven’t quite mastered it yet.

And then there is the idea that it is okay to leave a certain amount of information to the imagination of the reader. Readers can and will fill in many gaps, and doing so will invest them more deeply in the story. You just have to make sure the gaps you’re leaving open don’t involve really critical information, for example, the gender of your protagonist (unless, of course, their gender has no bearing on the story. If so, have at it). However, many writers, and not just newbies, don’t seem to trust their readers at all– which says more about the writers than the readers.

As for Princess of Fire, I’ve already have an idea of where I can shift some of the information, and there’s probably more that’s actually non-essential and which I can leave out. What remains will, I hope, constitute a legitimate flashback. I should be able to straighten this out without too much difficulty.

But in the meantime…chalk. Bleech.