Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Guest Author J. Kathleen Cheney: On the Hunt for Easter Eggs

By J. Kathleen Cheney

We welcome to the blog today science fiction and fantasy writer, J. Kathleen Cheney. In honor of yesterday’s “Talk Like a Pirate Day,” she’s posted a free pirate story. You can get it here, or get it through Smashwords here. The Smashwords version also has the shorts "Masks of War" and "Fleurs du Mal."

J. Kathleen Cheney is a former teacher and has taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, with a brief stint as a Gifted and Talented Specialist. She is a member of SFWA, RWA, and Broad Universe. Her works have been published in Jim Baen's Universe, Writers of the Future, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Fantasy Magazine, among others.

When not writing, she likes to don a mask and get sweaty fencing, both foil and saber, or put on her Wellingtons and get her hands dirty in the garden. Quieter hobbies include quilting and taking care of her husband and dogs–big hairy dogs.

Take it away J. Kathleen...

Back in college, I read C. J. Cherryh’s Morgaine books. One of the things I loved about them was my perception that the author didn’t feel the need to supply me with extensive backstory about Morgaine. Instead, she left most of the woman’s history to my imagination.

I read those books many times and, through those readings, my brain collected a series of small tidbits about her relationship to a long-deceased character: Chan. She called him ‘the dearest of my companions’, she recognized a piece of jewelry that might have been his at one time, and what was with that ring she traded away? Never in those books did Cherryh have Morgaine say anything conclusive about Chan, and the POV character, Vanye, never knew Chan.

But as a reader, I felt like I’d found an Easter Egg, a hidden bit of information that only the slickest of readers would have caught.

In reality though, that may not be the case. In reality, there are several ways the author may have approached this:
  1. The author put all those little hints in so that the wise reader would figure out the truth.
  2. The author put in those little tidbits randomly. Perhaps they were a subconscious expression of what she knew the backstory to be, but she never had the clear intention of supplying it to the reader.
  3. The author had some random details in there which didn’t mean anything. The reader is reading into the story what they want to see. (Rather like hearing my white-noise machine talking to me.)
So as a writer, what does this mean for me?

Well, it depends on whether the perceived Easter Egg was intentional. I’ve included two Easter Eggs in my current WIP, one that foreshadows information in Book 2, and one that will open out in Book 3. I believe I included enough information in the book to make the inferences, but I have to accept that most of my readers (who won’t read my story over and over again) will miss the Easter Eggs completely. Nevertheless, some won’t , and we’ll have a little secret we can share together. Ooh!

But what about the Easter Egg that’s case # 2 or 3?

I’ve had this happen to me before. Readers have seen a deeper secret in my lines that, um… I didn’t put there. Readers like to do this. But sometimes, as Richard Adams said, it’s just a bunch of stories about rabbits.

For example, I once wrote the tale of the transformation of a young English seaman. By the end of the story, he’s become a pirate. The supposed Easter Egg? Well, I named that character Jonas Davies. And almost immediately readers told me that I’d written the origin story of Davy Jones. In actuality, though, I’d used filler names while writing the story and only selected final names after it was complete. I chose the surname Davies because it was the surname of the captain of the Dulce Bella in Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands. Since that was a Welsh surname, I needed a given name to go with it. I was then watching Season 6 of Stargate SG-1, which includes a new character named…Jonas. I liked the character, so I stole his name and slapped it onto my Lieutenant Davies.

One of my first readers contacted me and told me the name was brilliant! I thanked her politely, but had no idea what she meant. It took me 3 days to figure it out. I was amused and decided to leave the name in the story. So was that #2 or #3? Did I subconsciously set out to write a Davy Jones story? I’m sure I didn’t--the date is wrong. (Davy Jones appears in literature as early as 1750, but my story was set about 1825.)

The truth of the matter is that, as a writer, I can’t control what readers find when they read my story. I can intentionally put in an Easter Egg, but have to accept that most readers won’t look under the shrubs for it. If I don’t hide any Easter Eggs, I have to understand that there are some readers who will find the darn things anyway…and I need to be polite when they congratulate me on my supposed cleverness.


  1. loved the story. You're an excellent writer

  2. I like to add in little references to movies and books here and there in my writing. I often wonder who'll spot them, but they're just in-jokes really, nothing essential to the plot.

    That said, I do like to foreshadow things where I can do it well. I tend to plan my writing in terms of series, so I like thinking about a series as one long story with complimentary acts and scenes so that, when taken together, they all feel like part of a greater whole.

  3. Fun post! My Easter eggs in Shifter are the names. I used Afrikaans words for a lot of them, and they mean something about the place or character. Since Afrikaans is close to Dutch, I've had Dutch readers email me and ask if I did it on purpose. That was fun :)Someone actually found the eggs!

  4. @Paul,
    Yes, I tend to put in things that will foreshadow some future work! It makes everything more seamless. And I would feel bad springing some fact on the reader in a later work that they don't have some reason to expect. It can be off-putting...

  5. I like to do world-building Easter eggs, where you write several stories set in the same world and every once in awhile you mention something like the national flower, or royal crest. When you mention that particular thing in future stories, your reader gets a lovely little shock of recognition.

    Those tidbits aren't vital to the storyline, but I feel like they make the story-world seem bigger.

  6. This touches on a subject which has a particular fascination for me: creative brain function. There used to be an apocryphal "truism" that we only use 10% of our brains. Studies using fMRI scanning and computerized EEGs reveal that we may only be conscious of 10% of it, but brains are very busy. In the case of your "Davey Jones" character, it seems like the cigar was just a cigar. But it is very difficult to know what subconscious thought processes lead to the insertion of a detail that just seems right at the time. When characters "take over the story," it is the writer's own unconscious mind busily computing likely scenarios for this given character, too quickly for the conscious to follow, then serving up the results. Part of that calculus may very well be connections and "Easter eggs" that enrich a story. Writing and rewriting are the process by which we discover what it is we are trying to say. Sometimes the reader discovers if for us.

  7. I do put in deliberate Easter Eggs, and then sometimes I don't mean to, and then I wonder if I didn't mean to consciously, but my subconsious did. Very interesting to ponder. Thanks!

  8. I like rereading books, so I do try to include little Easter eggs in my writing for those who feel the same. Mistborn is really good at this -- reading the trilogy a second time puts all kinds of things into perspective.

  9. @ Chicory,
    Yes, that 'pleasant shock of recognition' can be very rewarding!

    @ Justine,
    It is a valid point that sometimes we're doing things subconsciously....

    @ Terri-Lynn,
    Yep, sometimes it's hard to be sure which one it is! That particular case was clearly unintended, but other times I wonder if things were subconscious.

    @ MK,
    Yes, those things are most obvious on the re-read...when you're going back. Sanderson is probably a very good example of that! When the author has the whole trilogy laid out in their minds, then it's easier to include things that will be important later!

  10. Great post… I do this a lot as a reader; I look for the “deeper” meaning.

    Sorry, I haven’t had internet for a while, I am trying to catch up with all the blogs I follow.

  11. Oh, I love this idea - as a reader and a writer! I like the possbility of weaving in some secrets for savvy readers to discover. :)

  12. @ Jeff,
    It's good to know the effort isn't wasted!

    @ Nicole...we have to create our own fun ;o)