I’m working on a Skin short story at the moment, one which has been on my mind for years. I’ve mentioned the story once or twice in my travels, describing it as Skin’s origin story. The events take place Labor Day weekend 1971, when Skin is 18 years old. Obviously he’s not a homicide detective at this point. He’s not even a cop.
Over the course of four novels, I’ve mentioned a bit of Skin’s early history with his friend Tommy. They share a first name, but Tommy had other ideas about that and saddled Skin with his nickname. The new story, “Heat Death,” will elaborate on their friendship in the context of an event which will influence to Skin’s decision to become a cop. More importantly, it gives me something to focus on while I wait to find out if a publisher wants my recently finished novel.
But after cranking out a few thousand words, I realized I needed to double-check some details. It’s been a long time since I last looked at the Skin books, and it’s easy to forget the little stuff.
No problem. In Lost Dog, the relevant passage is in chapter 16 when old friend of Skin’s relates to Peter the story of how Skin got his name. In Chasing Smoke, Susan Mulvaney gazes at a picture of Skin and Tommy from 1967. “I’m the one with the thing on his neck,” Skin tells her. So far, so good—
Oh, wait. In Lost Dog, Tommy moved into Skin’s neighborhood in 1960. In Chasing Smoke, Skin ruminates on how Tommy arrived on the scene four years before the ’67 snapshot.
As mistakes go, it could be worse. Easy enough to chalk it up to Skin misremembering, after all. Still, there’s part of me that wants to travel back in time and fix the mismatch. I’m not sure how others who write series handle their character’s life history. Do they keep a stack of note cards? A document on their computer? A database? I admit to being kinda seat of the pants myself. It wasn’t until I was writing Day One that I sat down and worked out Skin’s major life milestones, and even that was incomplete.
Fortunately, I don’t seem to have introduced any damaging contradictions. Tommy either moved into the neighborhood in 1960 or 1963. Everything really important happened after that. And hell, if Arthur Conan Doyle can forget Watson’s first name, an inconsequential date mix-up is nothing to fret. Right? (Please say yes.)
Back to “Heat Death.” There’s a lot to figure out, so I won’t describe the story itself. But I there are a few details worth a mention. It takes place in central Oregon. Tommy’s car is a ’67 GTO. They’re drinking cans of Rainier. And there’s a moose, which is absurd in central Oregon. So maybe people just think they’ve seen a moose. It’s something of a running gag. (For the record, moose have been sighted in Oregon only rarely in the last few decades, and those exclusively in northeast Oregon.)
Except I keep checking my books, and it turns out I described the set-up for “Heat Death” in great detail in Day One. On page 348 of the print edition, Tommy and Skin are at a cabin in the forest not far from Whistler, British Columbia. Tommy’s car is a ’61 Impala. They’re knocking back bottles of Molson’s when the moose appears and—
A moose in a British Columbia forest isn’t a running gag, it’s a potentially dangerous pest. Besides the moose, it would have been pretty embarrassing to write a story about Skin and Tommy’s adventures in central Oregon in that GTO when I’d already established said events took place hundreds of miles north.
At the moment, I have about 5,000 words worth of “Heat Death” written. Since it’s a first draft, probably 4,500 of those words are crap, and now I suspect the other 500, which deal mostly with that GTO and central Oregon, have to go too.
There’s a lesson here, kids. And I’m starting to think that lesson is write standalones only.
UPDATE: In a new review of Chasing Smoke, The Thirty Year Itch notes the 1967 Oops as well.