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?