Hidden in Plain Sight

One of the great pleasures of writing fantasy is the leeway it affords to layer the setting. The sovereignty of an author over his secondary world allows for seemingly insignificant props or brief asides to be imbued with world-historical significance. And the awareness of this among genre-savvy readers, in turn, allows a careful author to conjure visions of significance with minimal effort. A narrow hallway lined with padlocked doors becomes a catwalk over vast and unfathomable depths. We just know there’s more to the story.

Of course, because this fragile imaginative construct is built on trust, it will disintegrate without tending. There must actually be whole worlds behind at least some of the doors. Tolkien set a high bar: none of his doors were facades, even if we weren’t able to gain admittance to many of them until after his death. Fortunately, one doesn’t need to write deep backstory for literally every little mystery in order to cultivate a sense of readerly awe comparable to that which I experienced upon entry to Middle-earth. Kick open some of the doors, and we’ll assume the others function as well.

But a door is just so obvious. What about those hairline cracks in the wall?

A hallway without doors invites much closer scrutiny. Either the author is unimaginative, or ridiculously sneaky. Wait—what about that name? Is that significant? Or that tree? Or that rock? Or that half-heard snippet of a ditty sung by urchins down an alley? It’s this sort of investigatory potential that makes innocuous-looking stuff like The Kingkiller Chronicle so rereadable.

I love doing this. It’s my hope that my novels not only withstand a second reading, but grow ever more enjoyable as previously-unseen connections get made. In fact, I often hamstring myself by burying my clues too deep, forcing myself to excavate them during revision. As a genre-savvy reader myself, I’m always leery of giving too much away, and have to consciously take risks for the sake of reader accessibility. But while some readers may instantly identify what I’ve hidden, I’m confident that, for others, the experience of backtracking through my hallway whilst peering at the wallpaper will prove rewarding indeed.

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