Of all Rohinton Mistry’s poignant and ‘pain-full’ stories the ones I love most are in his ‘Tales from the Firozsha Baag’, about an apartment building in Bombay (as was), told through the eyes of a boy who lives there and knows all the quirky tenants and the connections between them. The eleven stories are linked by the boy and a place, and we follow the complex trail of friendships, quarrels and animosities which leads from one episode to the next.
A trilogy, three stories in a sequence, can have similar delights, and present similar challenges. I didn’t make a conscious decision to write a trilogy until I found my main character Jessie Whelan, months after starting to write ‘A Good Liar’, and quickly discovered that she was too complicated and interesting – to me at least – to be lost after just one book. So I left the ending of ‘A Good Liar’ ambivalent and unresolved, to encourage the reader to want more, jumped ahead ten years, and carried on.
It was only when planning the next part ‘Forgiven’ that I realised that for some readers this would be the first book, not the second. I needed to build on the prior knowledge of some readers without repeating too much and boring them, while at the same time enabling new readers to have sufficient backstory to develop the internal tension I was striving for.
Flashbacks weren’t going to work: there was too much detail that could seriously interrupt the forward movement of the plot. So I had to reveal necessary backstories through reminiscent conversation, or questions from ‘new’ characters requesting and receiving information that new readers might also find useful. All that couldn’t be within the first few pages, but if the new reader was kept waiting too long they might give up. Not all that the new reader might find interesting is needed at one time: little morsels can be dropped in from time to time, just to add flavour to what’s currently happening.
It all needs to be planned of course, and I’m getting better at that from a very cold start. My early assumption that I could start to write and all the necessary plot details would fall neatly into place was the main reason why my first effort ‘A Good Liar’ took four years to complete, compared with a tight year or less for each of the following books.
Once the first draft is readable, it then needs to be looked at both by ‘experienced’ readers, who’ve read the previous parts of the trilogy and ‘newbies’ who have not. Their needs are different and both have to be reasonably happy with what’s presented to them. In commercial terms, it’s helpful if, wherever the reader starts, she is keen to read either the previous parts of the trilogy or the following ones, or both.
Selling more books was not a major consideration when I decided to write a trilogy, but it’s been noticeable that when the second part appeared it boosted sales of the first one. I’m hoping of course that the publication of Part 3 of the trilogy ‘Fallout’ will similarly bootstrap the sales of the previous two. For a self-published author of fiction, finding a readership will always be a challenge. A single book might have novelty value but then sink without trace when the first flurry of attention – if you’re lucky – is past. Producing three books in a series in successive years is a writing challenge, but should help sales, if the books are worth reading. If the first one is a reeker, then it could work the other way. Until the author’s name on the cover is so well-known that anything you write will sell, you’re only as good as your last book.
Despite the complications, I’m glad I decided to write three linked books, each set in the same area with overlapping characters and ten years on from the previous one. The story encompasses the first half of the twentieth century in West Cumberland, and I enjoyed the long view as well as the microcosmic details of each episode. It’s a West Cumbrian saga as well as a family saga, and I’m happy about that.
Now that the third part is virtually complete, I’m casting about for the theme, place and time of the next book. I may even try a different genre, crime fiction this time, but set in the past like ‘Life on Mars’. I won’t be making a definite decision about that until ‘Fallout’ is ready for the printers in about three months’ time.