Jilly: Backstory Break

 BackstoryHow much backstory do you like with your fiction?

I have to confess, I’m a fan. It has to be well done. I don’t like honking great paragraphs of infodump or entire sub-plots set in the past (my cue to skip, even if it’s a favorite author), but I do love to know where the characters have come from and how they have been shaped by their past experiences. If the story is mostly in the now, without being anchored by deep roots, it seems to slip-slide through my brain without making a lasting impression.

I wonder if it’s a British thing? I used to work for a Frenchman, and we spent many a happy hour teasing each other about our national characteristics. He said that whenever you ask a Brit a question, the first thing we’ll do is to put it into its proper historical context. Magna Carta, or Oliver Cromwell, or Winston Churchill. Ahem. I hate to admit it, but he might be on to something.

The best fictional backstory is sparingly provided and woven in so tightly to the present-day story that you gobble it up without even noticing you’re accumulating knowledge – until something happens later in the book and you’re perfectly placed to judge, interpret, explain or speculate based on the inside information you gleaned.

That kind of story is great fun to read, and damn hard work for the writer. The trouble is that you need to know so much, and only a tiny fraction of what you have discovered will (should!) find its way into the book. Worse still, you don’t know which tiny fraction will be needed until you start writing. So it’s a lot of work and no words in the manuscript to show for it, just sound foundations for your characters.

I’ve discovered recently that my romantic fantasy WIP needs a lot more backstory. The first book is fine, but over the course of the following five books I need to dig much deeper into the history of the ancient beings with scary superpowers, the early days of the city of Caldermor, the monastery where Alexis was raised, both sides of her family (apart from her mother, she’s never met any of them), and Kierce’s mother’s home and family. That’s a lot of foundations to dig.

Fortunately August is the month for vacations. I’ll be spending some time in a beautiful, remote corner of Scotland, watching wildlife, enjoying the scenery and maybe sipping a dram or two. I’m pretty sure there will be no wifi and very likely I’ll have plenty of opportunity for quiet reflection. I have no word-count goals and hopefully it’s the perfect time to create story building blocks without caring that they’ll probably never go further than my notebook.

If I do a good job, my backstory break should help me to power ahead when I get back on the sofa with my laptop. Fingers crossed!

So that’s my vacation plan. What’s yours?

4 thoughts on “Jilly: Backstory Break

  1. I expect you’re enjoying your vacation, Jilly! It sounds like the perfect place to cogitate. I’m departing soon on a three-week road trip myself, and I’m still debating if I should take my laptop. I probably will. By now, it’s just an appendage, it seems.

    As for back story: I like to know my characters’ background when I write them, because that helps me ground their actions. But I don’t feel a big urge to read backstory in other people’s books—a little goes a long way with me. Maybe that’s more of an American thing, since we can’t seem to remember history back before last Tuesday. That might be more of a reflection of how writers do it—as you say, it takes a lot of skill to incorporate backstory successfully, without doing a lot of infodump. If done well, I probably wouldn’t even notice it.

  2. My dream vacation plan is to crash yours! A remote corner of Scotland sounds heavenly right about now.

    I have mixed views of backstory. Sometimes I love it, and I don’t even mind full scene flashbacks (heresy, I know!). Other times, even the stray paragraph annoys me. I’m sure it comes down to whether it’s necessary to the plot and well-done enough to keep me engaged, even as it pulls me out of the now. Some years back, I was on a Kris Radish kick, and she uses long backstory in her books all the time, or at least she did in those days. A few of them grated, but one in particular – Annie Freeman’s Fabulous Traveling Funeral – I loved. It’s been about 10 years since I read it, so I’m not sure how I’d feel about it today.

  3. I never gave it a thought until we were at McDaniel and Jenny was so adamant about not including any. Now it drives me crazy. (Cause I can pick up someone else’s neurosis in a heartbeat.)

    I may have talked about this on here before, but the reason Bet Me gets by without backstory is because the issue Min and Cal have with their parents are ongoing. Min’s mom has always nagged her about her weight and she still does. Cal’s dad is convinced he’s an idiot, even though he has a very successful, education-based business. I’m not sure that’s always feasible.

    To have depth, your characters must have a reason why they are the way they are and that reason lies in their backstory.

  4. I love a good infodump. I think that’s a big thing in science fiction (and often necessary, because sometimes tech or history is so alien that we do need it — we don’t have the backstory floating around in our cultural baggage if something is really new). And backstory, to me, is often infodump on a personal, character level.

    But what makes it good? It’s got to relate to the story now. It’s got to be interesting and relevant in-and-of-itself. And please, please, don’t let it drag on too long. Don’t cliff-hang the main story just to go into a less-interesting story. OTOH, if the backstory is more interesting than the main story, why not just go back in time and write that? I don’t have any answers to these two questions; I know it’s complicated and sometimes it works and sometimes it fails. They just occur to me.

    This is a case where the prologue can work. It’s a mini-story that the reader can skip or consume as s/he wishes. Also, maps are good. Timelines are good. Dynasty/family trees/organizational charts can also be very good at displaying in a page or two backstory that may not be all that interesting within the text.

    Also, part of our jobs as writers is writing down a whole bunch of stuff, then re-organizing it, and most of all, cutting it to make our stories sing and dance. I often forget that — I think, “The story doesn’t need it” — which is true, but I still need to write it down anyway because that helps my brain organize information. It seems wasteful to write and cut, but I think you get a better product in many cases.

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