The Backstory

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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.

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Mystery Writer Jane Kelly (right) interviews me at the Longport Public Library

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.

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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?

Adam-Kaminski-Series

Jane Gorman is the author of the Adam Kaminski Mystery Series. Learn more at jane gorman.com or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.

 

Keeping a Series Strong

Amber in tree finalI hope this hasn’t happened to you, but … have you ever picked up the sixth or seventh book in a series you follow and been let down? Maybe the author crushed you with backstory aimed at new readers. Or worse, the author took your loyalty for granted and got self-indulgent with a book full of “darlings” that should have been killed. Series fans, myself included, sometimes forgive all of that and keep reading because they love the characters. New readers who happen to start with a later book in the series won’t be so forgiving.

Authors who handle backstory well (in my opinion) give very little and slip it in only as needed. In one of Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon novels, she briefly mentions that Anna acquired her dog, Taco, after accidentally causing the death of her friend who owned him. That’s it. No other details. The story moves on. To me, this was brilliant. The reader knows just enough with this bit of painful background to understand Anna’s feelings about Taco. I hadn’t yet read the earlier book, Blind Descent, in which the accident occurs. When I did read it, nothing had been spoiled.

I’ve started other series late in their progress and quit without finishing due to backstory overload. It wasn’t just dull; it ruined the earlier books for me. Of course, a series character’s personal life changes and grows in each book, and it’s inevitable that book three will give away transitions in the lead character’s love life or family life, but it shouldn’t spoil the mystery plots of books one and two. I suspect that most people like to begin a series at the beginning, but others grab the newest book first. Sometimes the new release in a series is the only thing my library has available in audiobook, so off I drive with no prior familiarity with that author. It’s usually a good experience, but once in a while I get a book that threatens to put me to sleep at the wheel with tedious summaries of the characters’ previous adventures, sometimes in the worst way possible: expository dialogue. “Remember when we solved the mystery of the missing heiress? You saved my life and hers.” “But it was your quick thinking that got us there.” “And then the press made a hero out of her husband, of all people.” On it goes. Both characters were there and know what happened and yet they tell each other so the author can tell the reader. Yawn. Hit eject button. Pull over for coffee. Try a different audiobook.

This experience has motivated me to get a new critique partner for each book in my series. I have long-term reliable partners who know my work and my characters, and who do great plot critiques, but I also need fresh eyes on each book. Because of my aversion to backstory, I include as little as I possibly can. The new person who hasn’t read the prior books lets me know what was unclear, and then I can insert the necessary minimum at the right place. The new reader also will not be as tolerant of scenes that are fun for me and for people who have a long relationship with my characters, but which are slow in moving the plotsymptoms of that other error which can creep into a long series: self-indulgence. My new critique partner will catch it and help me cut the fluff.

I want the person who picks up book five first to have a complete, compelling experience within that story, and to be curious what happened in the rest of series. Also, I hope for the later books in the series to be as alive and exciting for long-term readers as the first book was.