Writing Linked Fiction: Thoughts on Craft

 

I’m about to send a just-completed trilogy of Pecan Springs novellas (DeadLINES, Fault LINES, FireLINES) to my copy editor. This is the second of these trilogies (the first was The Crystal Cave, and a third is already beginning to take shape at the back of my mind. So maybe it’s time to think out loud about why, as a writer, I like this new-to-me form.

Definitions, to start with.

Novella: a work of fiction that’s longer than a short story and shorter than a novel. Famous examples: The Awakening (Kate Chopin), Turn of the Screw (Henry James), Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad). Length: anywhere between about 20,000-40,000 words. Mine tend to be longish, more like 40,000.

Novella trilogy: a group of three connected novellas. The connection can be the characters, the settings, an arcing plot, a theme—some of these or all. The two I’ve written tend to use all of these connections.

Why I like this form. You probably already know that I like to write long. While most mysteries clock in at around 75,000 words, the China Bayles novels are around 90,000. The biographical novels are all over 100,000 words. So why (as a writer) would I be interested in the novella?

Well, to tell the truth, I’m not. Not so much. Not as a standalone, anyway. Short is short, and my writer’s mind wants to keep probing away at a character or an issue or an event, finding out more about her or it or them. (I’m a why writer.) But short is a good challenge for me. It forces me to “write tight,” as one of my teachers used to advise. Good short fiction compresses a big story into a small space, its heavier mass giving it greater intensity (as opposed to the diffused force of a longer novel).

But with the trilogy, I get both the tighter, short work, linked with other tighter short works, connected in a longer story. Let’s say that my main focus in the trilogy is a central character who appears in all three novellas. I can see the main character trying to resolve three different plot situations, interacting with three different character ensembles, in three different settings.

For me, the interesting thing about this is the ability to do more with less. Shorter stories, linked, give us more different angles onto the characters, and more glimpses into what makes them tick.

For instance, in the Ruby Wilcox/Crystal Cave trilogy (NoBODY, SomeBODY Else, and Out of Body), Ruby (a central character in the China Bayles series) has three different adventures. Each new challenge teaches her something new about her psychic abilities and shows her learning how to more effectively use that part of herself. The novellas also introduce a new romantic interest, Ethan Connors, and give him a role in Ruby’s self-discovery. As a setting, the Crystal Cave plays a role, as well: Ruby’s shop is one of the ways she finds herself. There, she can pull together—and explore and showcase—all the unusual  aspects of her personality. In this trilogy, I published the individual titles in ebook; all three titles are available in an omnibus edition in both print and ebook (and soon, in hardcover, for libraries). There are audio editions of each, as well.

In the new Enterprise trilogy, the central character is Jessica Nelson (you may remember meeting er in Out of Body and Mourning Gloria). Jessica is a crime reporter for the Pecan Springs Enterprise, so she has a ready-made franchise for investigations. She also has a lot to learn, especially about the chief tragedy of her own life: the deaths of her family in an arson fire. Central to the trilogy: the overarching plight of the Enterprise itself, which plays a role in each book. Is this newspaper doomed to fail, as have so many other community newspapers in the era of the internet? If not, what (or who) can save it? Big questions for a small town. The individual titles in this trilogy will be simultaneously published (in April 2020,I think) in both print and ebook; the omnibus edition will be available in hardcover for libraries. I’m not sure about the audio editions–more about that when/if it happens.

So what about you? As a reader, do you like the shorter novella form or do you prefer to lose yourself in an absorbing 500-page novel? Do you like linking? If you’re a writer, what challenges do you face in this form? Readers and writers, what suggestions do you have for similar reading? I can’t reply to every question or comment, but when I have something to add, I’ll chime in.

21 comments on “Writing Linked Fiction: Thoughts on Craft

  1. The Trilogy format is wonderful for getting to know a character in depth. I prefer to read ebooks now since I am running out of space for hard copy books–retired librarian who is a book collector. I enjoy all of your endeavors and eagerly await
    the new trilogy in April!

    • I am a fan of all of Susan’s written work. So I will travel to Pecan Springs, Texas or Alabama or anywhere she chooses to take us! Agree that ebooks really win for efficiency. Love that I can fall asleep with my ebook via Smartphone, and don’t have to turn out the lights.

  2. I’ve said this before, but the advent of digital has allowed us to see all the work by our favorite authors, including novellas and short stories that previously only appeared in magazines etc. I really enjoy this.

  3. Ruby”s trilogy was a Christmas gift, and I loved it. I had to wait for it to be in book form before reading it. Looking forward to the new trilogy and a new China book. Like others have said they go to fast, but I love them all.

  4. Hi Susan. I love both, but prefer print. I like a full-length, meaty novel to nibble each night before bed, but I am also attracted to the shorter novella type that’s a quick easy read. It satisfies that feeling of having finished something w/o a huge time investment. I especially like the novellas when they are part of a series (as other readers have commented). Another contributing factor that is adding to my delighted eagerness for your upcoming novella trio is familiarity with places and characters. As a long-time fan of China Bayles, I immediately feel a sense of comfort by getting to explore other characters from that world. And a quick off-topic comment: Wow Susan, 80 years old, still sharp as a tack and still writing great stories. What an inspiration and blessing you are!

  5. I am a diehard library patron so I appreciate your efforts to make hard copies of your books available. In the last couple of years I’ve begun reading electronic editions of fiction (through Overdrive’s Libby) on my iPad when I can’t get a paper and ink copy. And of course on a long drive an audiobook, well-narrated, makes the miles fly by.
    I haven’t gotten to your novella trilogies yet, though I am intrigued. I think a solo novella would leave me wanting more, so using the linking device sounds like it would be more satisfying.
    This reminds me of a similar device used by Elizabeth Strout in “Olive Kitteridge”. It is categorized as a novel although it is a string of short stories. I enjoyed each story and found the linkages between them added more depth and breadth to the characters than if the book had been a collection of unrelated short stories. I did feel disappointed when I reached the end, wanting to see where Olive went next. Now “Olive Again” is available and I so I am getting my wish.
    I love that you have such diverse series, each with its own character and flavor. The research you do for authenticity and insightful detail really enriches each story. You incorporate so much information into a page-turner story, that the reader is unaware of being educated along the way.
    I also enjoy quotes at the beginning of chapters and the inclusion of recipes.
    Keep up the good work! Please!!

  6. I enjoy ALL of the forms you have chosen, and have read all of them, and look forward to reading them all again. It seems to me that it is your VOICE that we like so much. Every author has a distinctive voice – think of the difference between Virginia Woolf and Joseph Conrad,for instance . You have a very distinctive voice – it is clear , sensitive, pragmatic, comforting, witty, and deeply perceptive. Your characters are all interesting, unique, and likable, as are your settings. I say YAY !! for any new book of yours that is arriving soon.

  7. Hi Susan, I am looking forward to reading the “Ruby” trilogy of novellas. Like Peg I enjoy all of your writing and am happy whatever the format. I can understand how as a writer it would be interesting and challenging to try different ways of sharing your story. So enjoy yourself and thanks!

  8. I rather read a novel but have enjoyed the novellas especially when they were connected by a common theme. Exploring more on Ruby’s psychic abilities is a welcome addition to the China series. I also enjoy the Darling Dahlias and wish you would write more of them . I am all about history and the back story of an era .

  9. Can’t wait till it is available to all of your fans! Yes, I prefer the longer novel, but this will hold me till the next one comes out. Won’t be long till a nursing home or some such for me and I have all your novels lined up on the same shelf as the P D James books and have informed my daughters that all of those go with me as I plan to start over and reread them all.

  10. Susan, I am a fan of your stories. I anticipate each new adventure of China and Ruby with great delight. How you choose to write these stories is YOUR business. (Three novellas more than equal one book for those who count pages.) Thanks for giving us a glimpse into your process. Pecan Springs is alive and well. Who wouldn’t wish to go there? And wouldn’t that be a true vacation adventure to visit with China, Ruby, and company?

  11. I really prefer longer novels, in series, and have always thought that the China Bayles novels were rather short. (I’m never ready for them to end, because I enjoy them so much.) I have read them all, and own most of the older ones, although I now read more from the library due to lack of shelf space after 60+ years of avid reading. Really must “thin out” my book collection! While I prefer books in print, I am learning to enjoy e-books, and find it easy to read in bed using my laptop computer with Kindle and Bookviser e-readers. I find that I prefer Kindle format, as Amazon keeps track of all the e-books I already own in that format, which helps prevent me buying duplicate copies. (A common issue for me: I think, “I haven’t read THIS yet” & buy it, then get home to find another copy in my TBR stacks.) Looking forward to reading your novella trilogies; glad they ARE trilogies rather than “just” individual novellas, & plan to buy them by the set, so I can read all at once. Please keep writing, whatever length you choose!

  12. I enjoyed the first trilogy but I much prefer regular novels. I really love the China Bayles ones. I love reading about the area, the town, the restaurants, her house, yard, and pets! And I love Ruby’s psychic abilities. Please let us have more in the future!

  13. Susan, I love your books, especially the China Bayles series. Good for you accepting the challenge of the novella. As a mystery writer myself, your books and those of Margaret Maron are among my favorites. Currently reading Maron’s collection of short stories called “Suitable for Hangjng.” She wrote “Devil’s Island” as a challenge to herself to write a story with less than 500 words. This one is actually less than 300, but it’s pretty amazing. I’ve not read your first novella trilogy, but it’s on my list. Gotta love Ruby!

  14. I have been unable to obtain the Novellas as they are in kindle form and I do not have one. What are the chances of them being issued in book form ?
    I love all of your series. Have purchased all that are in book form

  15. I prefer a whole novel compared to novellas, generally. But I have loved the Crystal Cave trilogy, and enjoyed peeking into Ruby’s abilities more. Like other readers, I like digging deeper into the personalities and mystery with a longer piece. Plus the practical decisions of price of buying three or a shorter work versus just buying a longer novel. I will certainly continue to purchase your works, be they novellas or novels. I would also love to see more works focusing on Ruby.

  16. I refuse to read anything on a tablet. Reading on a screen for any period of time hurts my eyes, plus I just need the feel of pages turning and bookmarks and being able to page back and reread something a few pages earlier. I have read all the China books but not the Ruby trilogy yet. I love the idea of the trilogy as sometimes the shorter novella enables me to actually get some sleep instead of staying up all night to finish a longer book!

  17. I love having a wonderful book to read when I find time to sit down in a comfortable chair or when I read in bed. A computer, iPad, or phone just doesn’t cut it. (who wants to stare at a bright screen while enjoying a good novel?). I have all your China Bayles books except the last one. I love a good mystery and the way you have linked the novels with China and Ruby’s adventures, families, and friendship over several years. China is the kind of character who’s easy to identify with and the way you express her inner feelings is perfect. Once I start a China Bayles mystery I don’t want to stop reading.
    Carolyn

  18. I guess I tend to read so quickly that I prefer a longer novel so I can get deeper into the story. When I’m looking forward to the release of new book I try to remind myself to slow down. However, I really loved the Ruby trilogy.

  19. Since I was a kid, my passion was reading. I always have a book with me. Especially now, at my age I seem to spend far too much time with drs. I have a iPad I could read but I don’t. I love the feel of a book, to reread a well written paragraph. I have every book you have published except the novella. Yes I can afford to purchase your novellas, but I want it in a book. Maybe I will give in and purchase your novella, I don’t know. It just doesn’t seem like a book.

I love hearing from readers, so let me hear from YOU!