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Story behind Tarnished by Rhiannon Held

Here’s something you may not know about my newest book, Tarnished: it started as ideas for two books, rather than one. My editor pointed out that I’d plotted a filler book and I needed to skip it to get to the meat of my characters’ experiences, so I figured out what part of that original book wasn't filler and should be saved and dumped the rest. That learning experience stood me in good stead for all my later novel-plotting. Since then, all my single book ideas have worked out as single books.

At the end of my first book, Silver, my two main characters, werewolves Andrew Dare and Silver, realized that the Roanoke pack alpha was dangerously incompetent, and they needed to challenge him. The reason I plotted the next book that turned out to be filler was not because I was afraid of showing that confrontation—I had it all planned out in my head already—but because I've always disliked it in fiction when characters decide they must lead…and they’re instantly perfect at it. Who is ever perfect at anything the first time they do it? And even if they have some natural ability, why would anyone trust them until they've proved themselves? Why would they be confident in themselves, even? If they've never led before, they don’t know if they can do it!

The original outline for the book had Andrew and Silver proving their leadership skills to themselves and others, but the trouble was that then the book ended. What I hadn't realized was that while it was important to show them learning those skills and confidence, they then had to apply those things to the task I set out for them at the end of Book 1. Otherwise my poor readers would have seen the characters getting ready for a battle…that didn't happen until the next book. That’s pretty unsatisfying!

With that realization in mind, when I looked at the original outline once more, I suddenly saw all kinds of slow, flabby sections that I’d put in unconsciously to make up for the fact that my idea was too short for a whole novel. My characters traveled to another city, waited for a while, and then came back after nothing of importance had happened. Mostly, they discussed things, which can seem like something is happening if you’re not careful.

Brief discussions do have a place in your novel, of course! The heroes have to make a plan before they do battle, and they also often have to emotionally process events before they can truly change. What suckered me in this particular case, though, was using discussion to do worldbuildng. Worldbuilding is huge in my series, since part of the way I aim to be different from other werewolf books is using my archaeology background to give my werewolves culture. They’re a separate species, not humans who have been cursed or turned, so they’re born to a whole suite of myths, religious rituals, children’s games, etiquette, and all kinds of things passed down to them by their ancestors. 

In the first book, I made a considered decision not to have a human or outsider protagonist, because I wanted readers to find out about the werewolf world from the inside. I should have remembered that for my original outline of Book 2! That outline had—and Tarnished still has—a human point of view character. That meant the werewolves could explain things to her—and in the original outline, explain things they did. Explained, discussed, and basically sat around for pages at a time. Once I started writing Tarnished in its current form, and there were a lot more things happening, I realized that rather than having characters tell each other the details of the world, I could show the details subtly as the action happened. That was something I knew already, but when there’s too much empty space in a novel, the lure of cramming in one more religious myth that has nothing to do with anything is pretty strong! Especially since I've heard from readers that they really enjoyed the worldbuilding in Silver.

So after the experience of creating the original outline and then tossing much of it out and writing Tarnished instead, I’m much more careful about several things when plotting novels. I make sure that if my characters learn something throughout the course of the book, they put it to use accomplishing something important at the end; and I make sure that I slip in worldbuilding in the course of the action, instead of having the characters sit and talk and talk.


Rhiannon Held
Official Website
Order Tarnished here:
Amazon US | Amazon UK

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