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Fine-Tuning Your Author's Note
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
February 6, 2014
What to Include
What should you put into an author's note? Well, of course, that depends on what you have to say. Here are some ideas.
Relevant Background Information: In my Author's Note for The Highbury Murders: A Mystery Set in the Village of Jane Austen's Emma, I quote a couple of passages from Jane Austen's Emma. These paragraphs would have been impossible to include in the text of The Highbury Murders because the characters have to behave as if they were not in a novel (or as if they were in an earlier novel). The passages from Emma are important because they allow me to show readers what led me to write a murder mystery based on that novel.
Explain Your Choices: Readers often come to a story with certain expectations. You can use the Author's Note to acknowledge their expectations and to justify your choices, which may be either because you know of other versions of the events or because you are taking poetic license. This, by the way, can be very important in restoring credibility. A reader may be enjoying your story but be niggled by the fact that she knows that Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492 but your story claims that he actually took the journey in 1452, you might be forgiven if you acknowledge your poetic license in your Author's Note.
Talk About Your Discoveries: While writing your book, you may have done some research that really excited you. You may have incorporated the results of your research in your story but the story may not be the place to tell your readers what is so special about this discovery.
While working on Antigone & Creon, we realized we had the perfect setting. A little east of Thebes, Greece, are a pair of caves. They are also ancient royal tombs and, according to what the local director of archaeology told me, possibly even the tombs of Eteokles and Polynikes -- the identical twin brothers whose war and whose deaths precede the showdown between Antigone and her uncle Creon. They are not well known to visitors, nor are they really worth a visit, as they have unfortunately have been used as a dumping grounds for many years. Still, discovering them was just so cool and made us feel that we were digging up the story rather than inventing it.
Point Out Things That Readers May Have Missed: There may be some things that you have included for artistic reasons which slip by the reader. For example, in my Author's Note to The Highbury Murders, I point out some of the parallels to Emma inserted deliberately into The Highbury Murders. Emma, a romance, opens with the characters discussing a wedding; The Highbury Murders, a detective story, opens with the characters discussing a death. In an Author's Note you can mention these sorts of relationships. You can't do it in the story, because it doesn't fit.
Students writing book reports should read the Author's Note, as this act will improve the chances of getting good grades. Serious reviewers who want to do more than proclaim that they loved, hated, or were indifferent to the book should also read the note.
Your Experiences While Writing the Story: Sometimes you want to share some of your own experiences that you had while working on the book or the story. It may be something that inspired you to write the story in the first place. It may be something that impacted the writing process, such as my ski accident that slowed down the work on Antigone & Creon. It may be something which deepened your understanding of what you were writing, from the crazy circle of Art imitating Life imitating Art.
Explain What Is Fact, What Is Fiction, and What Remains Open to Debate: You have probably done more research than 99.5% of your readers so they will look to you to tell them what is true, what is made up, and what you may have changed for the sake of the story. In historical fiction, may be portraying actual events but in most cases the dialogue will be invented. If you have reason to say that a dialogue is based in reality, then that may interest your readers too.
You may have changed some names because several are similar or complicated -- consider I, Claudius by Robert Graves, in which the names and titles of the actual historical personages are long and complicated and need Roman brains to keep straight. You may have invented characters, such as a bastard son that Sharon Kay Penman admits to creating in her novel When Christ and His Saints Slept, because as a storyteller, you need another character to simplify the storytelling. Or you may have deleted significant personages because your story simply did not have room for them. Fiction is an abridgement of what happens in life; it has to be or no writer and no reader would finish any novel.
Frequently Asked Questions: You may anticipate other questions that readers will probably pose, or if this is not your story's first edition, you may already know the frequently asked questions. An Author's Note gives you the chance to answer them. It is much easier to answer FAQs in one spot than to discuss the same subject over and over with many individual readers.
Acknowledgments: If your list of acknowledgments is long, you may want to give them their own section. On the other hand, if it's short, or if there are particular acknowledgments that have anecdotes attached to them -- in other words they are little stories themselves -- then they may be worth including in your Author's Note.
Let me add a few caveats: do not write too much, and do not be too self-indulgent in your Author's Note.
A Chance to Be Yourself
It can be pleasant, after telling a story of many thousands of words, to take off the mask and to be yourself. I'm in the rather peculiar position of my first six novels not being written in my own voice. The books in my Tapestry of Bronze series were written with a co-author, and although Alice Underwood and I are very pleased by the results, the books don't sound like either of us. The Highbury Murders is written in the style of Jane Austen, or my best channeling of her, and I don't sound like her either.
Even if you are using your own voice, you still may want to let your hair down and address readers directly, without the pretense of fiction. Besides being a relief and a release, it is a chance to explicitly say what you wanted to inside your story, but could not.
Do Author's Notes Work?
Determining the success of an Author's Note depends a little on what you wanted to achieve when you wrote it. By the way, it helps to have some idea of what you want to achieve when you write your Author's Note -- or when you're writing anything.
I can say that after reading one historical novel, which will remain unnamed, I was very angry with the author. The characterization was, in my opinion, extremely thin, and the plot had too much in common with Harlequin romances. I'm not bashing Harlequin romances, for they serve a purpose, but I had expected a different type of novel. I felt as if I had been duped into wasting time and money.
Her Author's Note, although it did not make me want to read more of her books, did reduce my level of irritability. She talked about some of the tidbits she had used to create a mysterious character and some of the research she had done into the times. So even though I'm not inclined to read any more of her novels, I respect her more as a researcher and a person.
Several readers have also told me that they appreciate my Author's Notes. They said they understood the book better afterwards. No one has told me that they didn't like my Author's Note (but that may be out of politeness). As readers always have the option of not reading them, there is very little downside -- unless you do something offensive or silly in them.
So: should you include an Author's Note with your novel? Do you have anything to say and does your genre permit it? If you have a publisher, then what is their policy? After you have answered these questions, the decision is up to you.
The Author's Note is your last chance to make an impression on the reader. First impressions have a strong influence on readers -- but so do last impressions. The feeling readers have after reading your Author's Note may very well determine how they feel about the work.
Finally, in your Author's Note, you can thank your readers for spending some time with your imagination -- just as I want to thank you for taking the time to read this article.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.