I’ve been thinking recently about how an author’s work can refer to and interact with other stories they’ve written. Easter eggs, if you will.
I’m reading Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa, a semiautobiographical novel set in 1950s Lima. One strand of the story is about Mario’s coworker, who writes radio serials. So the novel alternates chapters between young Mario with chapters that tell the stories from those serials themselves. One of those serials, I was surprised to discover, centers on a character I’d read about in another of Vargas Llosa’s novels, Death in the Andes. (Wikipedia tells me he’s also the main character in yet another novel, one I haven’t read.)
There’s no need to have read one to enjoy the other. But for a reader who has read the other, it’s a fun detail.
In my short story in Steampunk: The Other Worlds, “Apprentice in the Steam Library,” the apprentice Jossian stumbles across an odd, forgotten book among the stacks of identical, mechanized user manuals. Within the story its role is simply to be something different in a world of sameness, but for those who’ve read some of my other work, it includes an easter egg.
A few years ago I wrote Spire City, a steampunk story that was meant to take deliberate advantage of serialization, not just a novel arbitrarily broken into chunks but a series of episodes and seasons to see how that affects the way the story is told. It was a very fruitful experiment, and the series was picked up by Musa Publishing. (When Musa suddenly closed two months ago, less than halfway through the series, I decided to re-release the whole thing, starting from the beginning, with the first episode out on May 4 and a new episode every week.)
The steampunk setting of “Apprentice in the Steam Library” is never explicitly stated, but the presence of giant riding beetles marks it clearly as taking place within Spire City. And the book Jossian found? A collection of stories that had originally been published in some local daily in serial form. As with the city itself, little is said about this serial, only what makes sense for layering in a little more about Jossian’s personality, but those little bits make it clear that it’s the story I’m telling in Spire City, a story of mad science and a deadly infection and the outcasts who try to fight back.
These kinds of nods to other stories have to be handled carefully. I’ve occasionally come across stories where the author seemed to rely too much on readers catching (and enjoying) these call-outs to other works. If I’ve read the other works, I might enjoy that at the time, but it risks cheapening the current story. If I haven’t read the others, then I feel shut out, unwelcome. Which is surely the last thing a writer should aim for.
Done carefully, though, in ways that fit with and add to the current story without overwhelming it, then they can be a quick thank you to all the readers who follow you from one work to another. So to anyone who has followed me here—from reading the story in Steampunk: The Other Worlds, from Spire City, or from any of my other short stories and poems that are out there, thank you. And watch for other easter eggs. There are doubtless some even I am unaware of.
Daniel Ausema is a writer and poet from Colorado. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and many other places, and he is the creator of the steampunk–fantasy serial fiction project Spire City, which is now open for subscriptions. He is a former teacher and current stay-at-home dad and can be found online at http://danielausema.blogspot.