What exactly is a ‘book within a book’?


We’re getting ‘meta’ here. Of course there is a book inside those covers, or behind that e-book screen. But what about two books, one inside the other? One that reflects, develops, and deepens the other?

That was the task I set for myself when I wrote ‘The Frenchman.’ In the story, Merle Bennett goes to France for an extended stay to let the beauty of France cure her ills (as we do) and write her gothic romance she alluded to in the previous book, ‘The Things We Said Today.’ In that story she is briefly in France during the time of her sister’s wedding in Scotland. While watching the cherry blossoms at Pascal’s cottage she has an idea: write a gothic romance like she and her sisters loved to read when they were younger. A character came to her, based on the neighbor’s goat farm. Her character would be a goat herder during the French Revolution. It would be a way to incorporate some history, always a bonus for me.

Along the way I read a mystery that includes a book-within-a-book, The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. This classical-style mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie features another puzzle mystery written by a curmudgeon of an author and a Hercule Poirot-type detective. As Janet Maslin said in the New York Times: Magpie Murders is a double puzzle for puzzle fans, who don’t often get the classicism they want from contemporary thrillers.” 

Although there are parallels between the stories — and I admit I do not find puzzle mysteries particularly compelling — in the end they didn’t really reflect on each other. They are separate mysteries, so as Maslin says, double the fun for puzzle fans.

After reading this mystery (I ordered a British edition to get it early!) I realized that, for me, for the inside book to work it had to be close to the main story in some way, either in ideas or plot or something. Without this connection your mind just bounces from story to story, unable to connect the dots. So I worked hard when writing the nine chapters of ‘Odette and the Great Fear’ that are included in ‘The Frenchman,’ to make the stories hang together.

Then there is the issue of history itself. The French Revolution was a rolling nightmare that didn’t begin or end with the beheading of the king and queen. It lasted for ten years, until a short guy named Bonaparte ended it all. Unlike the American Revolution of the same period, there was no happy ending, only more war and deprivation. But the French Revolution did change France– and the world– in remarkable and lasting ways, and I hoped to show some of that in ‘Odette.’

But only some. Because with a scant few chapters and a real story to portray within them, there isn’t a lot of time for exposition about the Committee for Public Safety, or the Commune, or the storming of the Bastille. (If you’re interested in the French Revolution I recommend a fabulous book by Peter McPhee called Liberty or Death.)  With ‘The Frenchman’ done, and the included chapters of ‘Odette’ as seamless and reflective of the main story as I could make them, I then turned back to ‘Odette’ to flesh out her story.

Odette ‘Odette and the Great Fear’ now has nearly 20 chapters, instead of just the nine, and more back-story into the characters and what happens to them. It is such a fascinating time. I wondered what a young merchant’s daughter, radicalized by the Parisian women who marched to Versailles to demand decent wheat prices so their families wouldn’t starve, might do after all that. Odette wanders south by foot, to the Dordogne, and finds a farmer in need of a goat herder. It’s not her favorite job — goats don’t follow directions — and she won’t stay forever, but she’s grateful to the farmer and his wife for taking her in, giving her food and a place to sleep, all the things she took for granted before the Revolution. When she finds a wounded man near the farm, her life changes. But who is Ghislain? Why is he so secretive about his past? Like any good gothic there is a creepy, half-burned chateau, a scarred noble, and a bunch of rabble-rousing villagers.

The Great Fear was a time early in the Revolution when a panic went through French society, a rumor that nobles were trying to starve the peasants by burning wheat stores. Like all good gossip it spread like wildfire and contributed to violence and a general terror in the populace.

I’d love to hear what you think about my success, or lack thereof, of my book-inside-a-book experiment. ‘The Frenchman’ is now available from Thalia Press on all e-book platforms. ‘Odette and the Great Fear’ is available for pre-order.

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