In my last post, I talked about the changes I’ve made to the new, improved 10th-anniversary edition of ‘Exile’. In addition to adding a few ‘aids’ at the front of the book to help readers get into the world of ‘The Chronicles’ more quickly, like a Cast of Characters, I also took the opportunity to slightly rewrite the first couple of chapters in order to adjust the story’s initial ‘psychic distance’.
‘Psychic Distance’ is a technique that deals with where the narrative, and therefore the reader, stands in relation to the characters, with how far the reader is taken, by the narrator, inside the characters’ heads. Generally speaking, there are 5 levels of distance, from the most objective (where the narrator provides information and context about the story at the expense of the characters’ internal lives) to stream-of-consciousness (where the narrator is so embedded inside the characters’ emotions, thoughts, and senses that we see little of what’s going on in the outside world). In a book, authors will often go back and forth between the different levels of ‘psychic distance’. It all depends on what they need to achieve at any given point in their story.
With ‘Exile’, I started off with a more remote ‘psychic distance’ mainly because of the book’s genre, historical-fiction, and particularly its sub-genre, stories that are set in early-mediaeval Britain, the so-called ‘Dark Ages’. Crucially, ‘The Chronicles of Iona’ does not follow a single historical personage; it does not have a single main viewpoint character, which is most often what you see in my genre. Rather, it is a dual biography. It tells two stories simultaneously, that of St Columba of Iona and of his compatriot and partner-in-crime, Aedan mac Gabran, king of Dalriada—men, moreover, who, though they set about changing the world, are not yet household names.
In addition, it was hugely important to me from the start that I also give voice to those who are traditionally under-represented in both my genre and the historical sources for my period as a whole—women, children, the dispossessed, slaves, etc. So, in each book, I also needed to bring in key secondary viewpoint characters who would help to carry that particular story’s narrative weight. These key secondary viewpoint characters change with each book. In this way, just like the mediaeval world they are trying to bring to life, the books needed to be ‘polyvocal’: they are to have many voices.
To add to this, the series is set predominantly in Scotland and Ireland—a Gaelic world. It is not Saxon, British, or Viking, which are the ‘Dark Age’ worlds most often explored in historical-fiction of this period. In many respects, the early-mediaeval Gaelic world of ‘The Chronicles’, with its unique customs, laws, languages, religions, myths, and histories, is another country altogether. This required that I find just the right balance between my expertise as an historian and the story’s narrative needs—that is, between fact and fiction.
For all these reasons, what I was attempting to do would be new for many readers and I needed to ease them in.
So, the start of the book, crucial for any reading experience, had to do two essential things: it had to introduce Columba, whose excommunication from Ireland in 563 and exile to Scotland is the inciting incident for the series as a whole, and it had to begin to build a relatable world.The easiest way to do this was through a more remote ‘psychic distance’. It allowed me to set the stage before launching into the heart of the story.
That done, I could shift in closer, and then stay in that more intimate ‘psychic distance’ for the rest of the series. (Though observant readers will note that I pull back occasionally to use a ‘narrator’s’ voice—or a ‘bard’s’ voice, if you like—particularly when introducing new locations like islands or hillforts.) In theory, this kind of approach allows the reader to ‘feel’ the story as the characters live it, and it is the ‘psychic distance’ most often used in fiction today. I switch over to this closer ‘psychic distance’ at Chapter 2, a shift which coincides exactly with the introduction of Aedan as the story’s other main viewpoint character.
Which is all well and good. Except that, as a number of readers have said over the years, it is with Chapter 2, with Aedan’s point-of-view, that ‘Exile’ really takes off. When I go in, they go in.
That may be precisely because I have, by Chapter 2, built the world well enough that readers can now just go with it. That the first chapters in their more remote ‘psychic distance’ did the job they needed to do.
But … and this is the really fun part about writing … what if I could go back and do the same from the start of the book? What if I could I accomplish the same amount of ‘world-building’ at the very start of ‘Exile’, but within the confines of a closer ‘psychic distance’? From deeper within Columba’s point-of-view? It’s more challenging, to be sure—there’s a lot going on in those first forty-or-so pages—but could I do everything I needed to do while getting readers immersed into the world more quickly?
With this in mind, for ‘Exile’s’ revised 2nd edition I set myself that challenge …
And I am happy to report that I could and I did. It was an informative and hugely satisfying exercise. With this 2nd edition, I now launch into Columba’s mindset immediately, indeed with the book’s first sentence. This not only quickens the pace, it should help new readers get straight into the story, which is where we want them to be.
I loved doing it, and I hope you enjoy it! You can find the updates via this Linktree link – and as I mentioned in my last post, as big thank you, if any long-time readers would like a free copy of ‘Exile’s’ 2nd edition, send me a photo of your copy of the original edition (print or digital), and I’ll forward you a link! Pics can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.