I’ve got a name for the prologue. It’s “what the author needs to know that the audience doesn’t.”
One of the fundamental reasons for research is establishing your world. As an author you must know:
- The look of your world
- The flora and fauna of your world
- What the culture of your people is like
- What they eat
- What they value
- How their economy works
- The politics of your world
- What their art is like (certainly what their stories are like)
- What technology they use
- Why they use that technology
- What their religion is like
- What is good to the people of your world, what is bad
- etc. etc. etc.
However your audience doesn’t want to be told those things. You might show them some of these things, if they are important to the story the world is happening in. Of course many authors have confused many people on the show/tell issue. Truth is it can be infuriating.
It often comes down to trusting your reader to get where you’re going when you let an action stand in for an explanation. If you, for instance, have a world where it’s very bad to be left handed you could tell: In Righthandistan it was very bad to be left handed
Or you could show.
The angry orphanarium proprietor slapped the spoon from Bob the plucky orphan’s left hand. “What have I told you?” He asked.
Of course this is a simplification.
Notwithstanding that the trick is to let the world bleed through the cracks of the story, showing the shape of it, not forcing raw data down the throats of your readers. You don’t want your novel to be a CIA factbook entry for Middle Earth.
So what does this have to do with prologues?
Sometimes it might be necessary to jot down some of those telly bits about your world in order to get the ball rolling on a project. Some authors will write whole encyclopedias about their worlds for their own reference but that might be overkill. My preferred method is to throw “Prologue” up at the top of the first page and let it flow.
When I’ve got the telly stuff out of my system and it’s all there in black and white I can get on to writing the actual story. Then the prologue gets cut… and usually the first half of Chapter 1.
But that’s another whole issue.
River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay (If I ever get five tigers published it’s Kay’s Kitai novels that I’ll be found wanting in comparison to so I had best at least know what he wrote).
Slavery in China during the Former Han dynasty, 206 B.C.-A.D. 25
An historical and descriptive account of China; its ancient and modern history…
Look I made a map of my own!
Ok, this might be a bit rough looking. It is, after all, not exactly something that’s ever going to actually make it the front of a book. You can tell from how it’s drawn on a spiral-bound notebook page. I use a lot of spiral bound notebooks.
drawing a map for yourself is helpful when writing fantasy, especially fantasy that takes place over a large land area (like an empire roughly the size of Han dynasty China). It lets you consider relative travel times for characters in different locations and helps to give a sense of place to your fantasy world. Everywhere seems more familiar when you’ve seen it on a map.
I colour coded this map to give me a reminder about the dominant palette for describing various areas. Dark green for forest, red and yellow for mountains, yellow and green for grasslands, yellow and red for desert and plateau. This helps me to keep track of descriptive language and gives a sense of cohesion to my description of place.
I put cities and forts in bright red so that they are easy to see.
As I was editing along I realized that it was time to set my fantasy novel in the late bronze age. Well, kind of, I am setting it in an analogue for the Qin dynasty (although my politics are pinched almost entirely from the later Han dynasty as it was more politically exciting). What did this mean? Steel exists but it is bloody rare. Iron exists, and people can smelt it, but it’s poor quality, mostly pig iron, and it’s not wide-spread for metal goods that are either supposed to be beautiful or are regularly used as tools of agriculture and war.
Bronze though, bronze is the bomb – this was the pinnacle of high-tin bronze smelting. What does that mean from a practical perspective?
It means people are carrying around things that looked like this on the battlefield.
That’s a dagger-axe people, it’s freaking awesome.
Beyond that this presents certain practical cultural considerations as well as technological ones.
Obviously, the end of the Bronze age in east Asia was one of a single mono-culture which had effectively formed into a new imperial power. Throughout the Qin and the Han empire, based on Confucian principles was actually a new and shiny idea and the shift away from Aristocracy and toward a meritocratic civil service was one causing substantial schisms.
One of the first acts of the first Han emperor was to manumit agricultural slaves. There were still eunuch slaves – their bondage was criminal punishment rather than financially based or as a result of warfare – but the idea of a large peasant class suddenly being granted rights was something that I latched onto as a political parallel.
Happily the Han dynasty military made use of cavalry as well as chariots, but the chariot was still very much a part of warfare so I’ll have to stick one of these bad boys into my story at some point.
So there’s that.
Fantasy writing tip du-jour: There’s a whole hell of a lot of freaking cool outside of “pseudo-noir modern” and “Europe circa 1400” – find the cool that fits your theme and use it.