Stir the Pot. Treat back story as a pungent spice.
When back story is sprinkled modestly onto your prose, stirred well to conceal its presence, and brewed until the flavours coalesce, you will create layered characters that your reader will engage with.
But, if back story is explained to the reader, or revealed in large lump, it can feel like SHOUTY CAPITALS. You will either make the reader roll their eyes at the obvious disclosure, or send them to sleep.
Benefits of seamless back story
* Maintain story pace.
* Reduce the amount of explaining (otherwise known as the dreaded telling instead of showing).
* Get the reader to empathise with the character enough to make them care about the outcome of her predicament.
* Make your reader eager to find out more.
What is back story?
Back story is the base line from which you can show a change in your character by the end of the story. Usually, back story includes secrets, shame and regrets — all powerful tools to create internal conflict — none of which the character wants to reveal. So, you’ll have to tease it out of her slowly.
It encompasses any event that occurred to any character in your story before the moment it starts. However, the author should only be concerned with significant events that shaped the character into the person he is today. All of these events have affected his personality, morals, innermost fears, hopes for the future, and misguided views of the world.
I like to look at back story as a nice filtered coffee. To avoid a bitter after taste, you need to let it percolate and permeate your story. (For more information about the “osmosis method”, enquire about doing my back story workshop).
The first step
I like to develop a character history for each of my characters, because it’s important to understand where each one of them is coming from. The story length and importance of the character in it, the more detailed the back story.
Context is critical
The reader doesn’t need to know about the horse riding lessons John had when he was six years old… unless he’s a jackaroo, or falling in love with a dressage master.
You may have created an amazing back story for your character, but the reader doesn’t care unless it’s related to what’s happening in the story.
For example, in Inheriting Fear, Mya suffered at the hands of an alcoholic father. The reader doesn’t need to see every time he came home drunk, or every argument, or every bruise on his wife’s cheek. Instead, I chose a single incident that had a profound effect on her.
Also take care to make back story relevant to the immediate situation. You don’t tend to think of a past event out of the blue, rather it is triggered by something you see, hear or do. So it should be with your characters, or the revelation will feel awkward.
How much is overpowering?
Remember, spices should be used modestly, or the strong flavours can overwhelm your dish. Back story should also be applied by the pinch.
The best method is to sprinkle a little back story often in the beginning. Intertwine it with the front story (that’s the life your character is living in the story), until it’s so infused with every other element of character, plot, setting and pace, that the reader doesn’t realise they’re getting to know him so well, until they feel his emotional pain.
For some reason, writers tend to forget the “show, don’t tell” mantra when they need to squeeze historic character information into their stories. Avoid large info dumps and giving too much away too soon.
* Perhaps the most obvious is flashbacks, where the character day dreams about something that happened to them in the past. Keep them brief. Here’s an example from Inheriting Fear: A long time ago she decided no man was going to beat her the way she’d watched her mother get beaten.
* Dialogue is a good, interactive way of revealing back story, but don’t be over obvious. Example: “As you know, Bob, I used to be a rodeo clown”.
* Other characters can be a very useful device, because they can ask lots of questions, or might even know a secret about the main character.
* Reflection and mirroring. Use what is happening in the front story to illustrate back story.
* Subtly hinting at back story, using the character’s physical and emotional responses to what’s happening around them.
Hopefully you are now suitably armed to give your latest story a stir to make sure the back story is well and truly blended, making for a mouth-watering read.
Don’t hesitate to ask me any other questions you have about back story.
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Unearth story gems
Ever wondered how authors gather all the fascinating information you see in their stories? Is it fact or fiction? Well, put your ballet-flats on, because we’re going to sneak up on a few authors in action and peer over their shoulders to discover the truth.
Previously — in Artistic licence: from tweek a little to utter balderdash — I spoke about just how far an author can stretch reality and still get buy-in from readers. This time I’m going to investigate how to mine the truth from obscure sources, and use it like a smattering of diamonds to make your story sparkle.
Many authors expend a great deal of effort seeking the truth. (Some even utilise the librarian gene as a tool for procrastination.) Often gems of wisdom and previously un-thought-of details and subplots can emerge from the fascinating facts uncovered during research ventures. Still, there is a fine line to walk between adding authenticity and an information dump.
Nothing sends me in search of a cup of tea faster than the obvious injection of mind-numbing facts into a fictional story. I want to be transported to an exciting and emotionally anguished story with my new imaginary friends. So, it’s time to break out the old ice-berg principal. An author may unearth an enormous chunk of cold hard facts, but it’s advisable to only sprinkle 10% of them into the story. Just enough to make the story real to the reader.
Luckily, authors use research material in all sorts of ways, so from a single research bender ideas may stem for multiple stories, characters, underlying themes, or just details to add to existing plots.
Now that we know the truth is out there (sorry couldn’t help this X-files reference), how do authors find it? An author needs to be her own private investigator, to track mere traces of interest and root out the cause and effect. By collecting copious amounts of subject matter the author can understand it thoroughly, but just because she knows how to select the best gun, field strip and fire it, doesn’t mean the reader needs to.
Many authors build a library of information that is relevant to their genre. (Being able to lay her hands on the right piece of information at the appropriate time is another blog all together, where organisational and cataloguing techniques come into play.) All kinds of good stuff is buried deep, and these are the facts you want. Everyone else can Google the same subject and come up with the same initial list of resources and facts. What authors want is to scrape the icing off the cake to find out what the flavour is underneath. To dig deep for gems of fruit and chocolate chips that will make their story stand out from the rest.
Knowing which trails to follow and which to disregard is a skill honed over time, but gut feeling and a dash of speed reading will help no end. It’s a gift to be able to see unlikely subject connections and where apparently unrelated ideas intersect.
For example, you may be researching bathing habits of the 1400’s when you stumble across a newspaper article about a gentleman who drowned in his bath tub and wet foot prints that were too small to be his, were found at the scene. As you follow this research trail you discover hearsay about a female serial murderer, whose MO is drowning. Now there’s a great story waiting to be told.
This is the most obvious and prolific tool for seeking information, but not everything out there is fact. An astute author will always double-check important facts. When using search engines remember, less is more with key words. Although, more specific words will help reduce the white noise of irrelevant information.
Seek out experts in the subject matter and interview them. Make sure you prepare some questions and know what you want to get out of the exchange, because the interviewees time is as precious as yours. One of the benefits of face-to-face interviews is that you can explain what you are trying to achieve in your book. Often these discussions bring forth tangents of information that you didn’t know existed.
Ask your friends and acquaintances if they can help. You’ll be surprised what obscure subjects they know about, from sports to musical instruments, operating a back hoe to yoga.
Remember those heavy paper things that smell a bit musty and woody? Visit a library and rediscover them, because there’s a book on every topic you can think of. Come to think of it, there’s probably a magazine and a club too. Don’t stop there, delve into science and scholarly journals.
Time to peek over shoulders
Carla Caruso had to do research for her Astonvale cosy suspense series with Harper Collins. Carla read a newspaper article about some local women who worked in the industry and how they often became ‘accidental counsellors’, because going through people’s possessions can also mean dealing with a tonne of emotional baggage. From that, the idea for a mystery series just took hold and wouldn’t let go. What other job would have you going through the deep, dark corners of another person’s closet, under their bed and beyond?
Before she started writing, Carla interviewed a few professional organisers to find out about the nitty-gritty of their day jobs. She also read Gail Blanke’s book, “Throw Out Fifty Things”, which encouraged Carla to do a bit of a clean-out of her own!
Rowena Holloway undertook a time consuming language study for her latest release ‘All That’s Left Unsaid’. Now that’s dedication! She wanted to capture the cadence of the language so that her Italian characters sounded authentic and didn’t slip into cliché accents or overused Italian phrases. What Rowena discovered was so much more than verb drills. Her teacher explained the language through examples of Italian culture: “I learned that cappuccino is only consumed at breakfast, that when meeting it is customary to shake hands over the phrase ‘piacere’, and that when first names are exchanged a native Italian will say ‘now we speak to each other as friends’—a sign to use the less formal ‘tu’ forms of verbs when speaking. I also learned it takes more than a year of weekly lessons to master the language!”
Sandy Vaile (yes that's me). I interviewed a detective, coroner and fireman for my latest book, as well as drawing on my own experience as a cook, motorbike enthusiast, and with the devastation of alcoholism on families. Check out 'Inheriting Fear' here.
Part 2 - Write the Speech
Standing in front of a crowd is a terrifying prospect, but I’m going to do it anyway.
So, I decided to share my journey from volunteering for a public speaking event, to writing and finally performing the speech.
In Part 1 I defined the topic/theme of my speech. This wasn’t too difficult, because I had to conform to the event criteria. Still, ‘my passionate philosophy’ was a broad subject. I settled on the philosophy that the people we meet every day shape our identity.
Now, I’m going to talk about the techniques I used to write my speech.
During my short time with Toastmasters, I have already learnt so much about the most effective way to get my message across. One of the keys is to stay on target and keep reminding the audience of the speech’s theme. One way to do this is by developing a phrase that summarises the theme, and sprinkle it throughout the speech.
My phrase is my philosophy: The people we meet every day shape our identity.
I kept that phrase in mind as I wrote every paragraph of my speech, to avoid drifting along undoubtedly interesting, but irrelevant subject matter. After all, I only had 5-6 minutes to make my point.
Naturally, the first thing you do on stage is introduce yourself and what you’re talking about. Writing the introduction was easy, but then I had to elaborate on the theme by saying how it was relevant to this event and the people who were attending it.
Always keep the audience in mind as you write the speech, and try to choose relevant facts/stories that will resound with them. This might mean relevance to the location, or demographic age, or shared interest.
I’ve got to tell you that I’m a bit of clown in reality, but struggle to weave comedic relief into my writing. If you can make light of part of the subject matter, or yourself, it goes a long way to helping the audience relax and connect with you.
The next part of the process was to brainstorm relevant points and choose three or four that supported my philosophy.
In this case, I wanted to show that the courageous characters in literature aren’t as far from reality as we might think. Throughout my life I’ve met remarkable people who are just work colleagues, parents, children and neighbours to others.
My inquisitive nature and thirst for new experiences has lead me to all kinds of adrenaline fuelled experiences and I wanted to tie this into how I’ve met amazing people that influenced by beliefs, and therefore the types of stories I write.
Since I had been invited to participate on this panel as an author, it was a logical progression to give the audience some insight into my literary journey, the difficulties I experienced and how I came to realise my dream of publication.
A key component of my motivation to persist and triumph, were the people I met along this journey, and most of them were through the literary groups I joined. So, I made the bold claim that joining a writing group was the most important decision I made.
It might sound simplistic, but after meeting the first woman to kayak the length of the Murray River, a psychiatrist, commercial pilot and one time team leader of the Mawson Station in the Antarctic, how could I not be inspired to write equally remarkable fictional characters?
For every point I made, I tried to tie it back to the original theme. To keep reminding the audience of my philosophy.
And so it was with my final point, which was to illustrate how the heroine in my latest romantic suspense novel ‘Inheriting Fear’, challenges traditional gender roles and battles adversity.
The audience isn’t likely to go home and tell their friends about the clever points you listed, or the well thought out arguments you laboured over. What they are likely to respond to, are the personal tales you’ve shared.
It might be frightening, but you need to let you unique approach to the subject matter shine through. We each have a different view on life, based on our experiences, and that is what other find fascinating.
You might think your life is dull but, where possible, use personal stories to demonstrate the theme of your speech. I do the same thing to lend authenticity to my stories, using the things I’ve seen and experienced to tap into emotions and make my characters genuine.
You want the final things the audience hears to resound. Your conclusion should reiterate your theme and provide a call to action, e.g. so the next time you are chatting to someone on the bus, really listen, because they probably have an amazing story.
I also like to thank the audience for listening.
Once you are happy with your speech, it’s important to time yourself as you read. Do it several times to make sure that you don’t run over the allotted time, because that’s bad form.
The final thing you need to do before the big day, is practice, practice practice!
Part 1 - Define the Topic
If you are terrified of public speaking, then you are in good company. Most people are, including me.
I am a great believer in biting off more than I can chew and then figuring out how to swallow it later. After all, you don’t get anywhere in life by playing it safe. My latest mouthful is volunteering for a public speaking event. What was I thinking?
I’m going to take you through my journey in three parts.
Standing in front of a crowd is a terrifying prospect, but I’m going to do it anyway, because if I declined, I would regret it. Self-promotion is a necessity that accompanied the release of my romantic suspense novel ‘Inheriting Fear’.
At a recent Toastmasters meeting, Paul Shannahan said something that made sense to me: “Feel the fear and do it anyway”. It was exactly what I needed to hear!
It’s impossible to know what I can achieve unless I push myself out of those comfy flannelette pyjama boundaries. Now all I need to do is figure out how much wine I’m going to need to help swallow this mouthful...
Often I find that what I need seems to appear right when I need it. So it was with Toastmasters. This marvellous organisation provides a supportive venue for anyone who wants to improve their communication and leadership skills. I have met many exceptional individuals and learnt all sorts of interesting things by listening to accomplished speeches.
Now, just five weeks out from my speaking engagement, I’m not going to become an exceptional public speaker, but I do hope that by watching and listening I can at least garnish enough tips to help me get by. (Or at least be bold enough to do this thing.)
Part 1 - Define the Topic
The first hurdle is to decide on and define the topic for my speech. Thankfully, that part isn’t too difficult, because I’m speaking on a panel and the theme of our speeches is set. My Passionate Philosophy sounds interesting, but how does it relate to me? That is the tricky part.
I had a brainstorming session, and ended up with a page of things I could talk about. But then I had to sift through them to extract only those ideas relevant to the event. People aren’t coming to hear me waffle on about my love of chocolate cake, or my belief in home-made insect repellents. I was invited to participate on this panel of exceptional women, because I’m an author. My stories show courageous women, struggling against adversity. Yes, they are afraid, but they do it anyway. And so shall I.
So, I know what the theme for my books are, and now I had to let my unique approach to the subject matter shine through. Every one of the women on this panel could talk about literature subverting female stereotypes, but each speech would be different, because nobody has walked in another’s shoes.
No-one else has experienced life exactly as I have, and so I can put my own brand of reasoning into the subject of courageous women and their persistence to overcome hardship. Right there, I had it. Persistence is the only way to success. I believe that philosophy with every atom in my body, because I’ve experienced adversity, I’ve struggled to overcome difficulties, and I’ve persisted in order to improve my life.
Next week I’ll talk about techniques I used to write my speech.
If you live in South Australia, you might like to come along to My Passionate Philosophy on 12th April, at the Links Lady Bay Resort, Normanville. You will get to mingle with exceptional women, and have afternoon tea to the mellow sounds of John Lennon. Bookings essential.
If you'd like to read some 'behind the scenes' gossip about what makes my characters (and me) tick, then sign up for my newsletter on the home page.
Have you ever wondered just how far an author can go when creating a work of fiction?
Naturally artistic license is used and it can be anywhere from ‘tweek the truth’ to ‘utter balderdash’.
Now hang on a minute, does that mean authors can just make stuff up? Well, yes, to a degree.
The key to whether or not readers will tolerate artistic license, hinges on the author’s ability to develop a world where it’s plausible.
So let’s look at the boundaries of probability to determine what is realistic.
It seems plausible for a troubled teenager to turn to drugs, and you might even believe a housewife turned spy, but can you trust a six legged alien that saved planet Earth? Sure, if the author has shown you the alien’s motivation for wanting to put itself in harms way to perform this grand feat.
An author can say that bullets move in circles when shot from a gun if you’re bold, but any gun (or TV) savvy reader is going to put the story aside and not come back to it. They know bullets don’t move like that and you will have lost their belief. On the other hand, if the author explains why bullets move this way in the world they’ve created, e.g. atmosphere or magic, then they have set the parameters of reality and the reader is likely to accept it.
What you don’t want is for an equine expert to read that the hero tied the saddle on with rope, when it ought to be buckled with a girth. Yep, you guessed it. He’s going to put the story aside and never enjoy the brilliant climax the author spent months perfecting.
It all comes down to the appearance of being real.
Here are some more of my favourite authors who stretch facts like chewing gum, wrap them around their fingers and occasionally get them stuck in their hair:
* Russell Blake – Action-packed suspense, international spies and fight scenes to rival James Bond movies. Are all of the incredible and disturbing facets of his books true? Who the hell cares, it’s too much fun devouring them to get stuck on tiny little specifics like that!
* Janet Evanovich - A broke, kinda single woman with attitude enough to land her a new job as a bounty hunter. Now all she has to do is learn to hold a gun, catch bad guys and sort out her love life...
* Helen Young – Romantic suspense where characters are not always what they seem. Plenty of troubles threatening Australia’s boarders and way of life. Can pilots, housewives and undercover cops survive the disasters thrown at them? Well, maybe with a little help from this author’s pen.
* Josie Brown– A mild-mannered housewife who doesn't take shit from anyone (except the kids) is involved in murder, suspense and sex, which is all wrapped in a polite, neat package with a pistol slipped under the covers.
I sure would like to know what fantastic stories you've been enjoying lately. Drop me a line at any one of my sites.