Those familiar with my book Mainline know that the protagonist Reva, an assassin, uses her ability to move between parallel moments of Now to do her hits. Each variation of Now she sees or flits through is a complete parallel universe.
When this first came to me in 1979, the multi-world theories of quantum physics had already made inroads in the science community, but were not yet part of the puplic dialog on the subject of reality and multiple universes. Even though the popular imagination has since caught up with my premise, that still leaves me with the issue of contemplating a shifting reality in my storyline, potentially whenever Reva moves around with her ability. Her “mainline” (subjective moment of Now that she lives in) is mutable.
Picking a Now and Staying There
There is a pitfall in this to me-the-author. Namely, I cannot allow certain “givens” that frame her world and her motives to be fluid, or the reader will get the same feeling that has plagued Reva for most of her life: that present “reality” doesn’t matter. Don’t like it? Move to a new Mainline.
While this is great fuel for existential angst for a character, it is likewise a great demotivator for a reader, if too many things change and what motivates conflict and dramatic tension is too morphable. Life with Reva became much easier for me as authorial channel when she decided to stay in one timeline.
Since she did that, as I continue to tell tales set in the Sa’adani Empire universe, I find my natural framework of reference is the Mainline to which Reva has anchored herself. This is so not just for her story, but for all the stories, people and events taking place concurrently. This brings me, then, to the issue of continuity: not only storyline and plot continuity, which is always important, but in particular the broad continuity of the Universe As It Exists in the specific mainline where those tales take place.
Laura Anne Gilman wrote a blog post recently about the challenges of maintaining continuity in two multi-book series she writes that take place in the same universe. She notes she needs to ensure that “nothing happens that’s too jarring, or contradicts something previously established.” She likens this working on jigsaw puzzles that share pieces from each other.
I deal with the same challenge, though my paradigm for it is a bit different. I am always conscious of my story universe as being a complete gestalt: self-contained, interactive, trundling down its own path quite well without any interference from me, thankyouverymuch. My duty in recording events there is to keep track of what I become aware of, and take notes on it so that How Things Are becomes (and stays) clear in my thoughts and memory.
In essence, I am a scribe, recording the customs, history and events of the world I am visiting. For instance, while I may not care if the Emperor in the background is Nalomeci II or Nalomeci III, the people who reckon their kinship and political power by the status of the throne most certainly do care – and are letting me know it. To ‘forget’ which emperor of which title sits the throne is sloppy scholarship on my part, if you will. Beyond that, if I were to let such things linger on the story page, it creates a level of cognitive dissonance (in me, in characters, and eventually in readers) if tiny details of that sort shift and change throughout a book. The gestalt needs to be rendered correctly, or it is not That Thing that I am intent on describing. Rather, it is Some Other Thing – snuck in from a different mainline, no doubt.
You might dismiss this as an author’s obssession with detail, but I think it has more to do with verisimilitude: finding it, creating it, conveying it. It is invaluable for creating and maintaining the atmosphere of the books and stories: those things come to life through the correct assemblage of myriad details, and to the extent those details are incorrect or jarring with what went before, to that degree the totality fails to hit the mark.
Managing the Details
So how, then, does one create this demanding degree of continuity throughout a story universe and the works taking place there? In my instance it starts with my notes – reams and reams of them. I’ve been writing in this setting or developing its background for three decades, now. (I have a lot of notes. 😉 Beyond that, it’s necessary to make this information something that is actually usable, both in form and function.
It has been a great help to me that much of the background material for the world of Mainline and Splintegrate exists as game material and sourcebooks, which I have produced over years for my rpg games and game design work. This has codified much of the setting and in a handily usable format, to boot. I have developed a wiki for managing (and searching) the encyclopedic content of this setting. I am constantly in search of the proper tools to manage the masses of information I have and steadily generate about this setting. That’s the difficult thing – I haven’t yet found a tool I’m really happy with in that regard, although when Tinderbox comes out in a Windows version, I might give that a try. I think that might potentially meet my needs.
At any rate, tools aside, there are two important things for me about the continuity. First is, that it is essential for storytelling purposes (and scribe integrity) to keep us all rooted in the right Mainline – readers, characters, and author included. And second, having the right tools to search, manage and work with gigabytes of multi-world histories, maps, tech notes, character events, etc is absolutely required in order to be able to maintain continuity.
Between those two things – the absolute need for it, and the tools to manage it – I enjoy the work of it. It is part of the process of Being There, and then Bringing it Here. But then, to my thinking, continuity is also very closely tied in to seamless world design, and that’s always been a strong suite of mine, both in fiction and rpg design work.
Later, when I have more brain, I’ll share more about continuity in rpg world design. Until then, I’m off to practice more continuity policing in my present WIP.
1. I’ve had a wiki for the Sa’adani Empire for at least five years now, but it has gone through several permutations and platforms. I’ve recently decided to make this material available to the public, so it has been ported one more time to a more durable long-term wiki platform. When the behind-the-scenes cleanup and expansion work are done, the Sa’adani Empire Concordance will be available online to anyone interested in the world/s behind my novels. I’ll announce that at this site when it goes live. Present ETA: late 2009.