While writing my second mystery novel, Border Field Blues, I found myself doing a lot of research on the areas where much of the novel takes place: the Tijuana Estuary and Border Field State Park. I wanted my story to help readers visualise this fascinating section of the California/Mexico border, as well as learn a little bit of its history.
I’d also learned about the proposed EPUB3 specifications, which allows for the inclusion of additional media and interactivity within eBooks. This got me wondering if I might be able to create an eBook version of the novel that included all the stuff I left out. To get started, I reviewed some interactive textbooks available for iPad on the iTunes store.
While these books provided some interesting and educational uses of EPUB technology, I wasn’t sure the interruptive aspect of the presented media would work as well in a fiction title. Textbooks are structured around key chunks of information. Novels are built on narrative and story. One of the strengths of fiction is the prose itself, the pleasure of getting involved in the story. It’s a specific mental process the reader falls into, a state of mind that gains strength by the reader’s immersion in the reading process. It’s the reason we stay up late at night to finish a chapter, or sometimes a whole book.
But hyperlinks, images, music, and videos tend to disrupt this kind of mental flow. As a novelist, I want my readers to enjoy my words and story first. I don’t want them stopping to look at something else. So, with the help of a quarter-long sabbatical from my school duties, and my own modest design and programming skills, I took on this challenge and created the app edition of Border Field Blues.
My design challenge was maintaining the integrity of the novel’s text and structure, while still providing the reader access to as much extra information as I thought they’d find interesting. My other challenge was simply getting it to work. Fairly early on, I decided on one essential interface design rule. There would be only one button on the screen, an ‘Extras’ button that sat at the bottom of the screen.
That button would open a new window, from which users had access to the following:
- Photographs of various locations
- Related videos from YouTube
- Playable audio files of music referenced in the book
- My own notes on each chapter
- Google Maps of the areas
- Email functionality, so readers could contact me
- A way for readers to share comments within the app itself
All of the above were embedded into one “Extras” screen so that navigating the interface remained simple and clear. Readers can pop into the “Extras” section and pop back to the text with one simple tap in either direction. I broke down the “Extras” into chapter-based chunks, since this seemed like the most natural break in reader’s attention.
The information available would only be relevant to the current chapter being read. Another decision I made as work progressed was that the “Extras” content needed to be dynamic, so it could be updated. I wanted readers to be able to email me with questions or suggestions through the interface. I could respond individually to readers’ email, or revise and add content based on their input. Commenting functionality was included so readers could create more public input, and see what other readers had to say.
After some debate, I decided to keep administrative control of the comment system so I could delete obvious trolling and spamming, but, for the most part, I hope to be open-minded and let reader opinions and comments run their course. One thing I hadn’t counted on was how much content would be needed to fill out the “Extras.” At times, it seemed as if I was writing a whole new book. But it’s been an interesting and valuable experience, for the programming and design process, but also in how I’ll be thinking about, and writing, my next novel.
Corey Lynn Fayman is the author of Border Field Blues, the second novel in his Rolly Waters crime series. Border Field Blues won the 2013 Hollywood Book Festival Award for Genre-Based Fiction
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