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'The Prologue', as Frankie Howerd was want to say...

There's been some discussion on Proglues in the past, mainly of the 'do you love or hate them?' variety.

I like Prologues and always read them. But I've come across a couple of novels lately with Prologues which, when read, turn out to be backgrounds or settings which are unrelated to the story itself. Now to me, these are Forewords, not Prologues, since the latter should form some part of the storyline.

Anyone else feel the same way?

Asked by: Jonathan Hopkins

  1. Edward Richardson on February 12, 2020


    Thank you for the comments. It is the 'straight into the action' part I found most interesting.

    My intention is that my story, 'A Canary Dies' starts with: "Author's note. I met my great-aunt Elizabeth once..."

    'Author's note' is a deception, for this is all part of the action - and important to the story.

    Am I trying to be too clever?


  2. Jonathan Hopkins on February 11, 2020

    Edward - that's really good!

    Technically, though, I'd say that's an afterword. 'Author's Note' is fine, but after the action rather than before.

    Writing HF I tend to use a Note after the End/Epilogue (and being cavalry-oriented it's called 'Author's Tail') to explain any relevant historical details not spelled out in the narrative, or if the story departs from accepted fact.

    Out of interest, Allan Mallinson often uses a Foreword containing various thanks and a little story background, but, though I'm just an ordinary reader, I'd rather get straight into the action so it's not for me.

  3. Edward Richardson on February 11, 2020

    Are we writing for the reader or the publisher’s reader? The reader wants to be entertained; the publisher’s reader generally wants ‘instant’ action. Does a prologue give ‘instant’ action? Does a foreword give the reader sufficient to whet their appetite? I am inclined to think, ‘Who Knows?’

    In one of my writings I used the ‘Author’s note’. All my test readers loved it, but as I have not sent it out (yet), I do not know how it might be received professionally.

    I give it below, and at 1,250 words (three pages at the start of the book) it may be a little long to read here, and of course it does not have the layout I decided upon, but if you do get through it, note my comment (to you) at the end.

    Edward Richardson

    Author’s note:

    I met my great-aunt Elizabeth once; on September 13, 1963, for about an hour, and sandwiched between attendances at the Liberal Party Assembly in Brighton.

    Having taken time off from the debates, I went by train to Eastbourne (this was the afternoon Lady Violet Bonham Carter was shouted down and I missed the fun). My great-aunt’s flat was a luxurious one overlooking the promenade, the pier, and the English Channel. A maid answered the doorbell; I was shown into the lounge.

    My great-aunt stood to greet me, a shorter woman than I imagined, but that may have been due to her age, she would have been nearing eighty at the time. Shaking my hand, she asked how my father was, and indicated I should sit down. She instructed the maid to bring tea, and from that moment our interview commenced.

    I say ‘interview’ for the meeting was conducted with almost military precision, due, I suppose, to her many years in nursing management.

    She told me of her early years in a mining town in the West Midlands, and how her mother had insisted all the children ‘get on in life’. As a four year old, my great-aunt had been out early delivering bread (from the family bakery), and said this had given her the capacity for hard work. She told me (rather sadly I thought) about her time as a VAD nurse in the First World War, when she worked in the gangrene ward of a military hospital in northern France. She talked about the devastating affect gas gangrene had on so many young men; caused by bacteria infecting a wound. There was no such thing as penicillin in those days, and she told me gas gangrene was a deadly killer. After the war, she started a private nursing home in Eastbourne, and her life had ‘blossomed from there’. And that was it.

    We drank tea, my great-aunt reminded me of the time of the train back to Brighton, we stood, shook hands, and as I turned to go, I saw two oil paintings. One was a portrait of a young man in army uniform with a large house in the background; the other was of a different young man with a coal mine as its background. My great-aunt came alongside me and told me there had been two good men in her life. I asked who they were, but she told me I would learn about them later. I didn’t know at that time what she meant.

    So my meeting with my great-aunt was short, and there was no further direct contact. I received a Christmas card from her every year (always privately printed), but apart from that she led a secluded life.

    I didn’t know she had died until a letter arrived from her solicitor.

    The letter indicated a sum of money was to come to me, together with a gold pocket watch, an opal ring, and six chests of documents.

    The money was welcome, and I knew of the gold watch, for my father called it the ‘African’ watch, and told me he had seen it on his father’s watch-chain. The solicitor’s letter said my great-aunt had been interested in my work as a professional writer, and the chests might provide material for a novel. A condition was that if I used the material, I was to change the names of the people mentioned, and her family surname must be changed to Williams (I never discovered why). Only if I agreed to these requirements would the chests be released to me.

    I decided to see the material, and, in due course, six large sea-chests arrived at my home. They were numbered ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’, and so on

    Inside the chests were cardboard boxes containing hundreds of letters; not only to my great-aunt, but also copies of her correspondence to others. During the war years she had made a fair copy of each letter; after the war there were carbon paper copies of her typed letters. There were also volumes of journals filled with information about people and events; however she found time for all this writing I will never know.

    Fixed inside the lid of chest number ‘1’ was an envelope addressed to me, I opened it, and this is what my great-aunt had written:

    October 1985.

    Dear Edward
    I have followed your career and enjoyed reading your
    magazine and newspaper articles, and it may surprise you to know
    I wanted to be a writer, but other things intervened. The best I
    could do was to keep a journal, in the hope that one day someone
    would find my writings of sufficient interest to do something
    with them.
    I have carefully packed six chests with all the material I
    preserved. I have been something of a magpie, and collected every-
    thing, and rarely has anything been destroyed. I always worked on
    the basis (and I know from your writings that you agree) my life
    was important and unique, and even after I am dead, my life will
    be of interest to others. These chests are my life preserved.
    If you feel you could write something from this material,
    then my life will have had additional usefulness.
    I apply no pressure on you over this, you may do as you
    please. My only stipulations are that if you do use this material,
    names must be changed, and dates of calamitous events altered.
    Our family name MUST be changed to Williams, I do not want
    you to run into legal problems.
    The originals are private, and I want a fifty-year embargo
    placed on them.
    If you decide to proceed, you are to inform my solicitor,
    and two oil paintings will be forwarded to you. You will under-
    stand their significance after reading the contents of the chests.
    Yours sincerely,

    Aunt Elizabeth

    What writer could ignore that last paragraph? My great-aunt certainly laid the bait!

    It took me six months to read and collate the contents of chest number ‘1’, but even in the first few weeks, a story began to piece itself together. The chests provided far more information than I could use in a single volume, and once I had been through everything, the papers were put into a specialist store at constant temperature and humidity, with instructions they are not to be released into the public domain for fifty years.

    ‘A Canary Dies’ is based entirely on my great-aunt’s writings, though I have made things ‘readable,’ and put them into the style expected of a novel. The names and dates have been changed according to her wishes.

    I think you will agree with me, she had an interesting life.

    I acknowledge assistance from the Public Record Offices in Lichfield, Walsall, Truro, and Lewes.

    My thanks go to staff of the Western Gazette (Yeovil), Lichfield Mercury, Express & Star (Wolverhampton), Walsall Observer, Falmouth Packet, and Eastbourne Herald.

    I am indebted to the Secretary of Yeovil Gilbert & Sullivan Society for the description of the picnic held on Ham Hill in 1919 (of which a remarkably detailed account survives in the society archives).

    Special thanks to the Maire of St Mare (M. Auguste d’Elan), who made the records of the former military hospital at St Mare available to me, and also provided newspaper cuttings reporting the visit of Sarah Bernhardt in 1918.

    My wife Heather deserves (and receives) my utmost gratitude for assisting with research and generally looking after me during the period of gestation.

    Edward Trainer.

    Crowland, Lincolnshire.
    October, 2012.

    NOTE to my W&A readers. All the above is a complete pack of lies - though my wife is named Heather, and I do live in Crowland.

  4. Keith Barrett on February 4, 2020

    Hello Jonathan,

    Yes, I do agree with you. I must admit, the area for me is slightly confusing. So for example, is there a difference between an introduction and a prologue and when is it appropriate to use either instead of diving in to chapter 1.

    I always imagine a foreword would be used to give some information which is not part of the novel but which makes it easier to understand some of the events to follow perhaps giving some of the context without being part of it. However, I have read some novels where the foreword seems to be unrelated to the novel in any way.

    I tend to think of the prologue as a way to start before getting in to Chapter 1 perhapse a way to get some information in that would need to be known but does not easily fit in an early chapter.


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