One of the ways J R R Tolkien broke new ground with The Lord of the Rings was through his massive back-story, partly published at the end of The Return of the King in the form of appendices.
That story was better there than interspersed through the text – ‘information dumping’ is the biggest turn-off to readers – but it underscored the sheer depth of Tolkien’s master-work.
In the 1950s it was unusual for this sort of thing to be published. Tolkien, of course, re-defined the genre and now the notion of back-story has become passe. Authors are almost expected to be able to have a complete world behind their story, to create chronologies, maps, gazeteers – even to provide swatches of cloth for their characters’ clothing.
Few, I suspect, can ever get the detail that Tolkien did, without an equivalent amount of work. He began crafting Middle Earth in the trenches of the Western Front. That framed a good deal of the darkness in his mythos. His world also grew from the languages he developed – two full languages and several partial constructions. And it grew from repeated iterations – endless work, which he put into it in university holidays, of evenings, even scribbled on the back of old exam papers. Lines like ‘In a hole in the ground lived a Hobbit…’ expanded into – well, I don’t need to repeat that story, do I?
It would be difficult to repeat such a tremendous construction. But we can approach it, and I think every fantasy story deserves to have a fair back story.
That’s where e-publishing comes into its own. One of the ways to sell books these days is to have ‘extras’ available online. And what better place to put the back-story than as extra tales, stories and appendices online?
It’s a thought. What do you figure?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014
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