I had a great event at the Longport Public Library last week, in Longport, N.J. It’s a fabulous New Jersey Shore town—I highly recommend it if you have a chance to visit! One of the things I loved about the event was having to respond to some remarkably in-depth questions about process and writing. I tend to think about these things peripherally or as I’m doing them, so it’s always valuable to have to sit back and spell it out.
One issue that came up in our conversation was the use of background information. There’s a lot of that in every book. Each character has his or her own backstory. In my books, the setting is one of the characters, so it has its own backstory, too.
The dilemma every author faces is, how much of that information do I include in the story? The trick is to find a balance, to include just enough to let the reader understand and relate to the character or the place without feeling overburdened by history.
While my books focus on different cultures, they take place in present day. But that doesn’t mean there’s no history. Every place I visit today is the way it is because of its history, and I need to explore and understand that history in order to faithfully reproduce that place on paper. It takes skill to let that backstory seep through the plot, through the characters and their actions, rather than simply dumping facts and details in giant piles on each page.
I can only imagine how much harder the task of culling down the details is for someone who writes historical mysteries!
I leave so many words out of each book, descriptions and details that I write down diligently, only to cut in later editing as I see that they’re not really needed. I hope that with each book, my skill in this area is getting stronger.
Fortunately, I love learning these details of each place I visit and the places I write about. I don’t mind working through this background then cutting it — I know it’s not wasted time. Getting those facts and descriptions and timelines down on paper means that the story I write will be accurate and informed by each location’s unique characteristics.
What do you think? Have you read something that overburdened you with backstory or left you feeling like you didn’t get quite enough?