Tweet chat 14th May 2021 Writing the Backstory

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Participants: Gerald Hornsby, Elizabeth Holland, Maria Johnson, Anita Belli, Bradley Galimore, Kathleen Marple Kalb, Sandy Stuckless, Chris Towndrow, Cheryl Whiting, Leah Bailey, Deborah Klée

Please introduce yourself by sharing your backstory! Why and when did you commit to writing your first novel or other work?

Maria: Hi, I’m Maria, from NW England. I’ve always been scribbling down stories and I’ve had the MC of my 1st 3 historical fiction novels, Daniel, in my head since I was 7. Started writing it properly when the hubs and I moved to London and I had a bit more time to write.

Anita: Hi All. I’m Anita. Mancunian by birth. When The Manchester Evening news printed my story and poem on its children’s page, I thought I could be a writer! Which is possibly why I spend so much time encouraging children to enjoy writing!

Elizabeth: Hi I’m Elizabeth from Kent My career started off in the legal profession, but it was short lived. My mental health hit an all-time low and I quit my job to focus on myself. With extra time on my hands, I wrote my first novel.

Leah: I’m Leah Bailey, originally from the US, in the UK for 18 years. I’ve released 1 poetry collection ‘Between Hindsight and Foresight’, in May last year. New one will be out in Sept. Novel is in progress. I started poetry as a teen, as release of emotion, love of words.

Bradley: Hi, I’m Bradley. I always knew I wanted to write, but when I was on deployment (US Navy) I started to really consider it. Post military, I decided to actually write during my undergraduate. During grad school, I decided to fully commit.

Chris: Hi, Chris from Richmond. Aside from a few childhood stories (or at least grand plans to write them!) I started writing my first book in 1991 during my Final exams – great timing, huh? It was a modern-day Raymond Chadler-esque PI story.

Sandy: I’m Sandy and I’ve always had an active imagination, even as a young child. I was a voracious reader and somewhere around junior high, I decided to start writing stuff down. Haven’t looked back since. 

Deborah: I have always been busy as the only breadwinner for my family but when my mum died in 2013, I decided my dream of writing a novel could not be put off.

Kathleen: Hi! I’m Kathleen. I live in Connecticut. I’m a radio news anchor by profession, but wrote (and even tried to sell) fiction as a teenager, and went back to it after my son started school.

Gerald: My name’s Gerald, born near Birmingham, lived in East London, now in Essex. I spent my working life building my career. Only when I ‘stepped down’ from a director’s job did I think I had time to write-firstly short stories, then a novel.

Anita: Hi All. I’m Anita. Mancunian by birth. When The Manchester Evening news printed my story and poem on its children’s page, I thought I could be a writer! Which is possibly why I spend so much time encouraging children to enjoy writing!

Cheryl: Hello everyone I’m Cheryl. My back story is: University Lecturer for 25 years teaching Medical Imaging and Clinical Research. Pulling together all I have researched, published and ever taught on the subject of professionalism into a book. 

How and when do you create a backstory for your protagonist and any other key characters?

Chris: During outlining – that’s about as specific as I can get! It’s woven into the arc – what internal barriers exist for them to overcome. Sometimes I stumble across more backstory during the draft – to add resonance, or even a memory they recount which makes them real

Leah: I usually have a rough sketch of the character and their traits in my outline. Occasionally use flashbacks. But it’s not always a reveal directly, more indirectly revealed through actions and dialogue.

Gerald: My novels are very plot driven, so my characters’ back stories are mostly in my head, in terms of how it has brought them to my novel. I never write massive character descriptions.

Elizabeth: I consider the personality I want the character to have and then I work backwards. I look at what the character’s background is to have led them to where they are in the story. Very intrigued to see if anyone has a different approach. My stories are very much based around character development and so this way of forming their backstory works for me.

Maria: Ooh that’s interesting, I think mine might be similar but I hadn’t thought about it that consciously.

Deborah: I think I do that too. The situation/premise for the story requires a certain character. That is probably the starting point.

Kathleen: I do the same thing…but I think about it a little differently. My characters come to me first…and their personalities and situations drive the plot.

Elizabeth: Yes, my characters definitely just appear in my head and set up camp! Then I get to know them 

Deborah: I write a letter to me from them long hand telling me about themselves and of course the Hole in the Soul which I always seem to mention here.

Maria: I’m a plotter, so I have my MC and other major characters worked out beforehand. In terms of when I try to drip the backstory through, rather than the whole character’s story at once hopefully! Backstories can sometimes be used as plot twists/surprise the reader too.

Chris: During outlining – that’s about as specific as I can get! It’s woven into the arc – what internal barriers exist for them to overcome. Sometimes I stumble across more backstory during the draft – to add resonance, or even a memory they recount which makes them real

Sandy: A lot of my backstory is created after I have a draft to work with. I don’t like just creating random facts for my characters. My backstory has to be focused on driving the current plot forward.

What are the techniques you have used successfully to feed in backstory avoiding an information dump?

Kathleen: I’ll often just mention something early, then expand when it makes sense in the plot. So, you know early on that my historical MC had a difficult childhood, but you don’t know how bad until a later flashback.

Chris: This is what I’m doing in my #WIP . I’ve been conscious to peel back the layers when there is a catalyst to do so, mostly through dialogue, and to an ignorant 3rd party. I use a flashback for raw detail when the MC is having a sense memory

Gerald: Much of my backstory is fed in, as and when I think of it. Along the lines of ‘oo, I can get them to do this, but why would they do that?’ so I create their backstory which informs their behaviour now.

Leah: Dialogue, flashbacks, responses to stimuli and action within plot events.

Anita: Flashbacks are good; and only link backstory to the current events in the story

Maria: I think this can be a pro of 1st POV. If you’re constrained by your narrator, you’re less likely to dump character bios! Dialogue can be useful too, e.g., a character answering where they’re from, so the reader learns the same time as the MC.

Deborah: A good point. I should think it makes 1st POV more challenging though. I have not written in 1st POV yet.

Kathleen: That is one major advantage of 1st POV (which is what I am most comfortable with) — you’re already in the character’s head, so it’s natural enough to follow their thinking and memories.

Deborah: Does changing from 1st to 3rd or vice versa stimulate your writing and improve your craft do you think?

Kathleen: I think it’s what you’re comfortable with and what works for the story. For me, it’s more fun to experience the story with the MC…and actually helps with spinning out the mystery evidence, because she can’t see everything.

Maria: It was definitely a learning process for me to write in 3rd and a whole new genre! Interestingly instinctively I always knew Lottie would be 3rd POV, whereas Daniel was always 1st. Not sure how I knew, but the thought of writing Lottie in 1st POV never crossed my mind! 

Kathleen: I’m curious, too! I’ve never written in 3rd. I’ve considered multiple 1st if the MC were offstage for some reason, but never 3rd. I can see situations where close third would be more comfortable for writer, and reader. If it’s something very sensitive, whether romantic, traumatic or otherwise — you would want that little bit of distance.

Maria: Being flexible with backstories is also helpful. E.g. I gave a secondary character a twist in their backstory that made their relationship to my MC even more complicated. Another reason why you might not want to have all the backstory worked out yet so you can tweak!

Bradley: Flashbacks and introspective questioning. If the characters question their past, they are essentially giving the reader a glance. 

Sandy: A lot of my backstory is created after I have a draft to work with. I don’t like just creating random facts for my characters. My backstory has to be focused on driving the current plot forward.

Maria: That’s interesting. Do you find you have to do a lot of editing/tweaking if you think of certain developments/backstory elements after your first draft?

Sandy: Oh, for sure. I’m a notorious underwriter when it comes to character (and setting, but that’s a different chat). It usually takes me 3 or 4 drafts to add in enough so you really get to know my characters.

Elizabeth: I’m a lover of flashbacks in my stories!

Deborah: Me too. That’s the technique I used for Ryan, in Just Bea.

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What are the mistakes that new writers make in conveying backstory? What advise or resources can you share to help them?

Maria: Either not explaining any backstory at all, or giving all the backstory at once, e.g. in a fantasy novel giving the details of every race and myth etc. Either way can leave the reader totally lost. Best to have a balance and give the reader a breather. 

Gerald: Info dumping, obviously. Jumping into back story too soon, before we’ve got into the story and begin to understand the characters.

Leah: Listing physical traits, introducing them as if they were a public speaker. I hate the phrase ‘show don’t tell’ but needs must. Consider how you evaluate and learn peoples’ background in real life (asking friends, direct convo, evaluate actions) use among characters.

Elizabeth: I’ve read stories where not enough backstory has been given and you’re expected to just know what’s going on in this fictional world. It all comes down to balance! The reader needs to know just enough. Beta readers are really helpful!

Kathleen: Totally agree on balance! As Maria said, it’s about giving just enough info at the right time — especially at the beginning. You want the reader to know why we’re here and what’s happening…and you can clean up the details once they’re hooked.

Anita: Info dumping backstory in large clumps is one error. Also starting with backstory delays the action and can be boring.

Jeff: Not lining the backstory up with how the character has transitioned into who they are now. Ensure you provide the reason why you are placing the backstory in your piece, and have the necessary steps to get your character from then to now and the pivot points that got them to now.

Sandy: On top of putting in too much or not enough, where you put it can be an issue. You don’t want your character thinking about a childhood trauma or a long-lost love when they’re in the middle of a big action scene. Pacing is an important element to remember

Deborah: I think that new writers try to tell us the backstory in chapter one. I say that the first draft is you telling yourself the story. Put it in so you know but then edit out later and drip feed the info.

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What has been your biggest challenge in conveying a backstory? How did you tackle this?

Bradley: Expanding on a backstory without keeping the focus only on the backstory. You don’t want to bore the reader but you also don’t want to miss the opportunity to build the character in the present with details from the past. 

Elizabeth: Knowing when enough is enough! I like to chatter on Beta readers are great for being brutal and telling you when to stop.

Maria: I think it can be a challenge simply to remember all the details about your characters and keep it consistent. Eg a younger brother not becoming an older brother halfway through! Another big one is pacing/the balance of a backstory and how it serves the characters and plot.

Elizabeth: Yes, this is tough! I try to write a ‘cheat sheet’ for each character. I keep it to one piece of paper and always have it to hand when writing. It includes things like parents, siblings, age, eye colour, etc…

Maria: I have so many plot notes for how my characters are related to each other, especially the royal characters! I’m curious Liz, do you think of detailed descriptions eg eye colour, height etc for all your characters or only your main ones?

Elizabeth: I do it for most of them! The story plays out like a film in my head so I feel as though each character needs to be exactly how I see them

Kathleen: How much to give and when. In my historical series, the MC has flashbacks to a very distressing scene in her childhood…and I had a hard time deciding how much to share in each book. That’s one moment where you REALLY need a good, savvy editor.

Bradley: THIS! This is the exact moment that’s so hard to get clear in writing.

Gerald: Because I do very little character planning, I can often insert a surprise <thing> into the story as I’m writing it, which then means going back to flash out the backstory mid-draft. I recently created a surprise ex-wife for my mc.

Anita: Probably The Spanish Civil War in The Traveller and The Rose. It took great discipline to only include details which were relevant to my characters and the story. And the causes of the war were less important than the impact on the town the story was set in.

Sandy: Figuring out what the reader needs to know and what can be left out. Also, coming up with specific events for the backstory. It’s a constant struggle.

Deborah: I used the discovery of letters and birth, marriage certificates to reveal a backstory.

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