How Much Context?
I recently finished slogging through a non-fiction book for Day Job. The book is very well written, but has a cast of hundreds, covers at least six states, and provides no background. The authors are telling the story of a small group of people involved in the Civil Rights movement, so their focus is appropriate. But I kept falling out of the book thinking, “Sheesh, I know why this happened, and I know what that term means, but I bet other folks are really going to be confused.” Unless you already know a great deal of history, the adventures take place in a vacuum.
This applies to fiction as well, especially when you have a series. I caught myself launching into the Work in Progress (WIP) without laying any foundation for a reader unfamiliar with the series world. Why? Because I’d done that with Miners and Empire, and could get away with it. Miners had to rebuild a world from the point of view of a different character from the rest of the series. So no backstory was needed, just launching into the tale and building as I went. It is a stand-alone novel in the Merchant universe. Also, the protagonist does not give a rip about politics or imperial events or trade. He wants to get a contract done, get paid, and move on before people start asking questions he cannot or will not answer.
Shikhari #5 does not stand alone. It starts six years after the end of the previous book. I’d better do some context work and back-story or else I will have very unhappy readers.
What about something like the Familiars? I don’t give anyone the least bit of context until, um, [trots off to look at files] the third book in the series, and even then it’s more hints. The first two volumes take place in a vacuum and a lot of “trust me” is involved on the readers’ part. You know that everyone is in or around a major city on a river. You know that they have animal Familiars that are not black cats, or other sorts of cats, or dogs. And the world is sort of like ours, but not. And there’s magic, everyone acknowledges magic, there are civil laws regarding magic (Familiar registration at the DMV, for example), but why? Where did things go different? Who is president? Where’s the city? Nothing.
I got away with it. This time. Urban fantasy is more forgiving of slow context revelation than are some genres. Even so, I filled in some of that context over the course of the next books, adding in the Spell Eruption Event and hints about the arrival of Familiars into the world. If there’s another book in that series, I will have to provide far more context, in part to satisfy readers.
However, I’m not going to do a Frank Herbert and include chunks of memoirs and imaginary reference books as chapter headings to provided the needed information. I could, and I’ve actually done something like that for a blog post (What would a Blue Guide entry about the Drachental be like?). However, that feels too much like Day Job.
There’s a balance between oh, say, including a discussion of colonial politics and policy debate in the Shikari books to explain why thus is so, and letting Shikhari orbit and the people have adventures with the occasional comment about policy and history. I think it boils down to why. Can the reader get and enjoy the story without knowing the detailed why of something? If so, then context is nice to have, but not critical. Will the reader be dreadfully confused and even wall the book without some background and outside information? Then context matters and you’d better work it in.
Ah, an example. Fantasy story, the protagonist is a captain in the king’s army. Major battles have endued against a usurper and her army. All looks well, protagonist is taking a breather before starting paperwork, and trumpets sound. The army of the Great Kurgan is over the hill! Battle magic, elephants, chaos ensues!
Have you, oh author, even mentioned that this might be a possibility? Did you drop a few hints that the Kurgan hates your king for something that happened between their ancestors, oh, two hundred winters ago? Did someone caution that getting distracted by the usurper might lead to the Kurgan taking advantage of the situation? No? What the fuzz is a Kurgan anyway?
Your book just got walled unless you have a very, very good reason for your PoV character not to know anything and to be caught blindsided.
Like the non-fiction book I mentioned at the start of the piece. There’s no reason given for why discrimination, of what interposition doctrine was (or is), or why some places might react more violently than others did. None of the justifications for Jim Crow were given, nothing about economics or culture or the politics of the 1890s. You are plopped into the middle of the action, more of less, and just have to take things as they are presented.
Fiction writers can’t get away with that nearly as easily.