Backstory: Relevant Information or Inconsequential Event?

Today, I’d delighted to welcome my good friend and fellow author, Brenda Hill to my Blog. A novelist, short story writer, Brenda is the author of two novels, Ten Times Guilty, and Beyond the Quiet, and a non-fiction book, Plot your way to Publication, which I can highly recommend. Brenda also writes features and restaurant reviews for her local newspaper and teaches novel writing and edits manuscripts on a freelance basis. Her website can be found at www.brendahill.com

A few months back I read Brenda’s article on Backstory, something that many new writers spend too much time on, and I’m glad to say she’s agreed to let me post it here.

When we begin a new novel, we need to intimately know our characters. We must know their motivations – why they do certain things and what causes them to react to events with warmth or hostility. Otherwise, their strong reactions or nonchalance may seem strange to other people.

So, to prevent our readers from thinking our character is an escapee from the psycho ward, we create backstories for them, inventing histories, naming parents and siblings, all information we hope will bring that character to life on the page. Some writers go into such detail that they fill page after page of character history, even listing grades the character received in school.

Not me.

While I’m a strong believer in plotting my story beforehand, I’m not one who needs to know what day of the week my character washes her hair – unless it’s relevant to the story. That’s the key. Our readers do not need to know every facet of a character’s life – unless that particular facet is an important storyline.

Suppose, for example, I begin a new book and name my main character Lucy. And let’s further suppose I create a northern Minnesota history for her, and after describing her, I want a character trait that other people would consider a bit ‘quirky’ but harmless. While I’m trying to decide what to give her, my husband flips the TV channel to the latest rerun of Arachnophobia, so I decide to give Lucy a strong fear of spiders. She’ll scream and run at the sight of even a harmless garden spider that may have found its way into her apartment or dormitory.

What do I do with that information? I could use it as a comic relief and show this fear as a source of teasing from her friends, but if that’s the case, it’s not very important and isn’t relevant to the story. When you’re writing tight, it should not be included.

But what if I include WHY Lucy’s fear is so strong. Remember, in fiction, we need to show motivations, not only in character conflicts, but we need to know WHY Lucy screams at the sight of a spider. We must remember to be like a child and always ask why, why, why? Why did George slug his brother on graduation night? Why does Lucy have this overwhelming fear of spiders? While most people do not particularly like spiders, most will not go into hysterics when spotting one. So why does Lucy scream and run?

Now we can invent something brilliant, such as a near-fatal black widow spider bite when she was seven. Venomous spiders are rare in Minnesota, but let’s say her parents visited the Twin Cities and bought home a tropical houseplant from Florida, and one of the leafy branches hid this nice, fat, poisonous black spider. Lucy survived the bite, of course, otherwise there wouldn’t be much to the story, but we could create this horrible experience at the hospital and how she was deathly ill.

That event, even though it’s dramatic, is just that – a dramatic event in her history. As with our friends’ and neighbors’ background, we might find the event mildly interesting, but really, who cares? I shouldn’t bore my readers with that bit of backstory unless it relates to the main plot.

If the plot is about Lucy meeting the love of her life while in graduate school and debating whether or not to marry him and move to another town in Minnesota, then the spider background is not an issue. It’s simply an event that happened in her life that is of no interest to anyone else and shouldn’t be mentioned.

But suppose I want to use it in my story? Suppose I want Lucy to overcome her horror of spiders as part of her character growth? If so, I’d need to invent a storyline where spiders could be an issue.

How about if the love of her life is a young man who thinks the curved tail of a scorpion is fascinating, loves to examine the long, hairy legs of a tarantula, and can’t wait to compare the beautiful red markings of different black widows? Lucy adores him beyond everything, or most everything – she’s repelled by his career choice, which, of course, is Arachnology. He wants to study these creatures and write a book about them, so he plans to move from nice, safe Minnesota and live in the states where their species thrive.

Ah hah! Now we have a possible storyline with the character trait as a main source of conflict.

And to make matters worse, we turn up the heat and say he’s just been offered his dream job as an assistant to the country’s foremost authority on spiders, but only on condition that he immediately accept the position and make the move within the next two weeks. He asks Lucy to marry him and accompany him to his new location.

Lucy now has a dilemma: her fear or her lover? She must make a fast decision, one that could affect her entire life. And readers, if I’ve written the story well enough, will turn the pages to see what she decides. Now I’ve taken a character trait and not only used it in my story, but I’ve used it as a major interest of conflict and built a story around it.

How about traits for your characters? I’m sure you can be more imaginative than the fear of spiders, so list several that are of interest to you. Then explore the conflicts each could trigger. If you can develop a trait and use it to build your story, it’s relevant. The others you can disregard – until the next novel.

Book signings, radio shows and talks!

This week has been a rollercoaster ride, and it’s not over yet!

Monday evening I attended a talk given by best selling author of romantic comedy, Adele Parks. It was good to take time out from working on my third novel to listen to Adele read excerpts from her new novel, ‘Love Lies,’ and to hear how Adele approaches the writing process.

I spent most of yesterday away from my desk visiting my best friend and my goddaughter on the Wirral. It’s always a pleasure to see them, and the time spent in their company yesterday was no exception. While we were chatting over a cup of coffee my cell phone rang. More often than not I forget to switch the darn thing on, so it was a surprise to learn the call was from the producer for BBC Radio Sheffield inviting me to take part in a programme called “Girl’s Talk.”

Not only that; I arrived home to find a message on my answering machine from the organiser of the local branch of the University of the Third Age inviting me to talk to their group.

This morning I received an email informing me that my interview with host Don McCauley of The Author Show, http://www.wnbnetworkwest.com/WnbAuthorsShow.html, be available on Friday 7th August. This weekend I shall be signing copies of my novels, The House on the Shore and Three Weeks Last Spring, in Borders Books, Warrington, and on the 14th August at 11.30 I can be heard on Girls’ Talk on BBC Radio Sheffield http://www.bbc.co.uk/southyorkshire/radio_sheffield/.

Saturday 15th August will find me signing books in Borders Books in Stockport, and I be talking to the readers’ Group at Borders Books, Cheshire Oaks on Wednesday the 19th August.

And in my spare time? Well, hopefully you’ll find me hard at work on my manuscript!

Readers’ Groups

Thank you to Jill Craven, Reader Development Officer for Barnsley Libraries, and all the members of Dodworth Readers’ Group for making me feel so welcome on Tuesday evening. There’s nothing nicer than talking about books with people who love books too.

While I’m no stranger to chatting to people in book stores during signing events, I’ve never stood in front of an audience and given a ‘formal talk’ before.

Now I’ve been interviewed by the local paper and by BBC Radio Sheffield, but the idea of addressing an audience really made my knees knock! Not only was the prospect daunting, I also had to think about what to say. Fortunately, Jill had given me plenty of time to plan my talk, but I still had to decide whether the members would want to learn about how my plot for The House on the Shore came about, or whether they’d like to hear about my writing process. And should my talk be ‘off the cuff’ or planned down to the last comma and full stop?

I’ve attended author talks before, and most of the speakers have the audience rolling in the aisles, but I’ve never thought of myself as a funny person. Oh, I enjoy a joke like everyone else, but I’m not known for coming out with witty or pithy phrases.

So it was with some trepidation that I set out on a rather damp Tuesday evening. But I need not have worried. The ladies I met were charming and I managed to raise a laugh or two from them when I told them about my own experience of staying on my own in a remote Highland croft!

Jill is a mine of useful information for any writer, and through her kindness I’ve made many useful contacts. Thank you, Jill!

And I raise my glass to the ladies of the Dodworth Readers’ Group. Not only did you listen to me, but you made me feel very welcome. I had a lovely time talking to all of you, and the supper afterwards was fabulous. Stephen especially liked the scones!

Author Events

Gone are the days when most authors could sit back and let their publisher sell their book. Nowadays authors new and established often get little marketing help, and the prospect of doing it yourself can be daunting. But with a little perseverance and a little practice it can be fun, especially if you enjoy talking to people, as I do.

I’ve been fortunate; every Borders Books store I have approached has agreed to host a book signing event for me. So far, I’ve met readers in Batley, Leeds, Cheshire Oaks, York, and only last weekend, I was in Inverness.

And while the shoppers might have co-operated, sadly the same can’t be said of the weather. I’ve roasted in York, and been rained on in Inverness. The British weather has an odd affect on shoppers. When it rains, they seem to flock to the stores in droves, and conversely, when the sun is shining and there’s no need for raincoats and umbrellas, they stay away!

Everyone I’ve met has been charming, which makes my job of engaging them in conversation and telling them about my book and the writing process, a pleasure.

Surprisingly, everyone who purchased a copy of The House on the Shore during the signing in York lived in Scotland, and what’s more, within fifty miles of where I used to live in Keith. Even more surprising, was the encounter in Inverness with a gentleman who at one time taught at Queen Mary Grammar School in Liverpool – my first grammar school. And while in a restaurant that same evening, I bumped into the guy who cut my hair during my twenty years living in Scotland! It just goes to prove what a small world it really is.

But occasionally, you do meet strange people, for example, the child who just stood in front of the signing table and stared at me for what seemed like hours in Barnes and Noble in Dayton, Ohio, and the pleasant gentleman in York who wanted to tell me what was wrong with our current government here in the UK (as if I didn’t know!).

What if someone asks seemingly endless questions about writing a novel and the publishing industry, or just wants to stop and talk about the weather, before walking away without purchasing a book? I smile and remind myself that an author event, be it a book signing session or an author talk, is a means of a creating a presence – getting your name out there and interesting people in your work. Any sales they generate are a bonus. And if you’re very lucky the local media might take an interest.

So, if you’ve a spare half hour or so, and happen to be in any of the following bookstores over the coming weeks, pop in and say ‘hello,’ and see if I can’t tempt you into buying a book – preferably mine!

Saturday 1 August 2pm-5pm Borders Books, Speke

Saturday 5 August 11am-3pm Borders Books, Warrington

Saturday 15 August 2pm–5pm Borders Books, Stockport

Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team

My novel, The House on the Shore, set in the Scottish Highlands with its rugged terrain, has an intense scene in the rocky gorges of the moors and mountains, and when I was researching, two team members of Wasdale Mountain Rescue came to my rescue…supplying technical details of rescue in rugged terrain and helping me to create the stupendous scenes in the novel. Thank you gentlemen!

The House on the Shore


CELEBRATING

The House on the Shore ISBN 978-1-935407-24-9

and

Support the

Incredible Volunteer Mountain Rescue Teams

Midnight June 4th, 2009 – Midnight June 17th, 2009

To celebrate the release of The House on the Shore, a romantic suspense novel set in the remote Scottish Highlands, a deeply suspenseful novel with intriguing plot twists, and harrowing mountain rescue scenes, my publisher, Vanilla Heart Publishing and I, are pleased to announce we will donate $1 per copy sold during the time period above to the Wasdale Mountain Rescue, to see their video, which provides education, training, facilities, equipment, and more to this incredible group of rescue volunteers.

To register your purchase of Print or Kindle editions, please email VHPPromoTeam@vanillaheartbooksandauthors.com with your name, email, and the info of your purchase including edition (Kindle or Print), and the last 3 digits of your order number. All Ebook sales are automatically counted by our Ebook Catalog detail counter, so no additional ‘work’ is necessary for Ebook purchases.

Every dollar donated goes to a great cause, with volunteers who make a difference and save lives, and now, …YOU can make a difference!

Friends of the San Juan Islands

CELEBRATING

Three Weeks Last Spring ISBN 978-1-935407-04-1

and

Supporting Marine Conservancy in the San Juan Islands

Midnight May 31st, 2009 – Midnight June 7th, 2009

To celebrate the release of Three Weeks Last Spring, a romantic suspense novel set in the San Juan Islands of Washington State, with intriguing plots and deeply developed characters and scenes, Victoria Howard and Vanilla Heart Publishing are pleased to announce we will donate $1 per copy sold during launch party week to the Friends of the San Juans, which provides education, training, and project management for the caretakers of the beautiful beaches, creatures, and waters of the San Juan Islands in Washington State.

To register your purchase of Print or Kindle editions, please email VHPPromoTeam@vanillaheartbooksandauthors.com with your name, email, and the info of your purchase including edition (Kindle or Print), and the last 3 digits of your order number. All Ebook sales are automatically counted by our Ebook Catalog detail counter, so no additional ‘work’ is necessary for Ebook purchases.

Every dollar donated goes to a great cause, with volunteers who make a difference to the flora and fauna of the region, and now, …YOU can make a difference!


Books with Heart on BlogTalk Radio

Victoria Howard celebrates The House on the Shore
and Three Weeks Last Spring


Thursday – 6/4/2009
1:00 PM Pacific time – 60 Minutes

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/Books-with-Heart

All Books with Heart Shows are archived for your listening convenience, and if you can pop in, a blogtalk chat room is the place to ask the author questions or chat about books. All computer based for listeners, including the chat room, so come on ‘in’ and sit a spell…

Call in number for live chat with the author
(646) 478-3750

Joan Hessayon Award

Each year the Romantic Novelists’ Association presents the Joan Hessayon Award to those members who have come through the Association’s New Writers’ Scheme and have succeeded in having their manuscript published.

This year there were seven contenders, myself included. The winner was announced at the Association’s summer party held in London on Wednesday, 13th May.

As the chairman of the Association, Katie Fforde commented, each and everyone of the women up for the award had won.

Congratulations must go to the overall winner, Allie Spencer, for her novel, Tug of Love, published by Little Black Dress.

As for me… knowing that The House on the Shore was deemed good enough to be a contender and seeing it published, is sufficent reward.

Reviews

I thought I would take some time out from working on my current novel to share some reviews for The House on the Shore.

The first comes from Front Street Reviews. www.frontstreetreviews.com

The House on the Shore
Victoria Howard

Reviewed by Ashley Merrill

Victoria Howard has painted her readers a beautiful picture of Scotland with her words and descriptions. Set in modern times, she tells a wonderful love story that is riddled with suspense.

Anna MacDonald moves to the Scottish Highlands to make a fresh start. After ending a bad relationship and leaving her job, Anna moves into a croft that was left to her by her grandmother. She is tired of the city and wants some peace and quiet so she can spend her summer writing a book and also reconnect with her childhood friends.

The last thing on Anna’s mind is meeting a man. Not only does she meet a very good looking American man whose boat breaks down near her croft, but she instantly feels an emotional and physical connection with him. Trying her best to ignore these feelings, Anna finds herself in a heap of trouble. She gets a letter offering a hefty sum of money to sell her croft, which she quickly declines. Soon after, she appears to become a target to someone. This someone is pretty adamant that he wants her dead. She gets shot at, her home gets broken into, and her car is tampered with, among other things. Fearing for her safety, Anna’s friend convinces her to allow Luke, the dreamy American with a heart melting smile, to stay with her until she can find out who wants to hurt her.

As the days go on, Anna and Luke form a special bond and cling to each other. At the same time, Anna’s stalker is upping the ante and Luke will stop at nothing to find the man so that Anna will be safe.

Victoria Howard does a wonderful job with her character creations. In fact, I found myself falling for Luke! She allows you to see inside their world and form a bond with them. I also liked the description of the landscape. Victoria Howard gives just enough description without going overboard.

The suspense of the story was what really captured my interest. I adore a good love story, so with the added suspense Victoria Howard has created an amazing story that will captivate her readers until the very end. I would recommend this story to any romance and suspense lovers. The romance is not too over the stop, so it will not spoil the story for all of the suspense lovers out there!

The second is from Armchair Interviews. http://reviews.armchairinterviews.com/reviews/the-house-on-the-shore

Reviewed by Jenny Saylers

Anna MacDonald has been betrayed! The coveted teaching position she has been waiting to get has been given to the other woman that her boss, and boyfriend, has been sleeping with. In anger, Anna quits her job, gives up her flat in Edinburgh, and takes off for the only place that she has ever felt truly happy–Anna’s late grandmother’s croft, located on the shores of Loch Hourn, in the Scottish Highlands.

The croft is isolated. Anna has no phone, no close neighbors, and only her two border collies for company. Her plan for the summer is to nurse her broken heart and pride back to normal while working on the novel she has been yearning to write for years. She doesn’t plan for company during this time. Especially not the unexpectedly handsome company offered in the form of the slightly rude American who knocks at her door one morning.

Luke Tallantyre is a well-known artist from Cape Cod Massachusetts. Faced with an artistic dry spell, he has set sail for the unknown wilds of Scotland. He has braved the Atlantic Ocean alone, and has come to Loch Hourn. When his yacht develops a navigational problem, he ends up knocking on Anna’s door for help.

Anna is more than a little resentful of Luke’s intrusion. Faced with an attraction she doesn’t know how to handle after her last rejection, she finds him an unwelcome distraction into her hermetic life. However, when an unknown assassin tries several times to kill both Anna and Luke, they find themselves thrown together in an attempt to find out why.

Will Anna and Luke find out who is trying to kill them and why? Will either of them realize the opportunity for true love that arises during the time they spend together?

I really enjoyed this book. The story drew me in quickly. I found myself having to pace my reading in order not to rush through the book. I enjoyed Victoria Howard’s descriptions of the Scottish Highlands, and Loch Hourn.

Watch for the re-release of Three Weeks Last Spring, due out in June 2009.

Armchair Interviews says: Victoria Howard writes a very compelling story.

Author’s Web site: http://www.VictoriaHoward.co.uk

From our armchair to yours…

Backstory

On my recent appearance on the Rony Robinson Show on BBC Radio Sheffield, we talked about backstory or the infodump, and why telling the reader too much, too soon, should be avoided.

What exactly do writers mean when they talk about backstory? Basically, it is filling the reader in on the background of your story, why the action takes place where it does, the subtext of your character’s lives, and the reasons for the big question or problem they have to solve.

Backstory is essential to novels, but the opening pages aren’t the place to go into depth about your character’s past or the places they inhabit. The trick is to give the reader just enough information to make them care, and want to find out what happens next.

You need to think carefully about the opening chapter. Readers don’t necessarily have to know that your heroine has blue eyes, blonde hair, and lives with her aged mother in a tumbledown cottage, or that the hero has two siblings who have green eyes and regularly tap him for a loan.

Think of the opening of your novel as the equivalent of an appetiser—a bit of teasing in order to keep the reader hooked. A couple of sentences here and there, no long blocks. Backstory is showing not telling. Your readers want to launch into the action. They want to see what’s happening. They don’t want to be told.

What about flashbacks – those little scenes where your character starts to think about something that took place weeks/months/years ago? Flashbacks can slow the pace of the story and confuse readers. They are best used in a prologue, but be careful that you don’t tell the reader too much, too soon. There are three primary ways to include backstory in your novel.

  1. Dialogue.
  2. Narrative.
  3. Description.

I prefer to use dialogue. It feels more natural to have my characters talk about their past, or explain their reason for acting in a particular way. But it’s a personal choice and you have to decide what works best for that part of the story.

But how do you know how much backstory to use?

That’s a difficult question, and to a certain extent, the decision is yours. Just remember, too much backstory will make the reader bored and tempt him or her to put the book down. You’ll lose their attention. They may even wonder why they picked up the book in the first place, and that’s the last thing any writer wants.