Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What is the Backstory?

My husband and I are temporarily living in the house where he grew up. Our daughter recently came to visit us here. She enjoyed listening to the stories my husband and his brother shared about their childhood. After hearing them tell about some of their life experiences, our daughter said, “Well, that explains a lot.” We know a person’s character by the way he or she acts, but when we learn about a person’s past we come to understand what shaped that character. That is the backstory.

As an author, I need to know the backstory for my characters.  Even if I don’t use it, I need to know it. +Jack Cavanaugh gave me excellent advice at the Write-to-Publish conference in Wheaton, Illinois last year. I had started my book with much of the backstory. He recommended I cut the first chapter out completely and weave the backstory in subsequent chapters. He reminded me that I don’t need to share everything, either. I need to share the parts that are essential to the story.

For example, in my new work, my main character, Sonja buys an existing coffee shop. I needed to know Sonja was equipped to do this and that she had the funds to do it.  It is essential to know she majored in business and her grandmother left her a sum of money. Do I need to tell my reader where she went to college? Do I need to give actual sums of money? And why are the previous owners selling the business?

I decided Joe, the previous owner, has moved into a retirement home. In exploring this avenue of thinking, I discovered a story within my story. Now I want to know more about Joe and his family.

I had already given much thought to the backstory. When I charted the information about my characters on the spreadsheet, I was collecting data I may or may not use in the backstory I need for my readers.

I was surprised when I started writing that I actually drafted a prologue to set up the story. I hadn’t intended to do so. I know now it came out of my exploring the backstory. But I realize now the structure of this novel will be a bit different than Breathing on Her Own.  I find that exciting. I feel I may be growing as a writer.

By the way, this will be my last blog this week. Starting next week I will be moving to a once a week blog entry. It will be on Wednesdays. I am calling it Word Count Wednesday. I'll explain more next Wednesday so I hope you will join me then.

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