by: Joelle Charbonneau
This week, I started writing the second book in my new mystery series that will debut with Berkley in July. It feels like forever since I’ve written on a new project. (In actuality, it’s been since August, but it feels a lot longer.) I was thrilled to start adding pages, but writing a book in a series with already determined characters and events is a challenge for me. It seems like writing the second or third book in the series should be easier, right? I already know the protagonist and have created character arcs that span through several books. The opening chapters of the new book should be a snap.
Only they aren’t. The first chapter of a continuing series book takes me almost twice or three times as long to write as any other chapter in the book because I am very conscious that some readers will be familiar with the characters while other readers will be visiting my cast for the very first time. I have to find a way to give information about the recurring characters that helps introduce them to new readers while not annoying or boring the readers who have already spent time with them.
As a reader, I hate when a book opens with several paragraphs or pages of information I already know from other books. I find myself skimming those pages waiting for the story to begin. And I really hate when it feels as if that I’ve already read those same descriptions or character introductions in past stories.
Because of my expectations as a reader, I find myself slaving over the first chapter or two trying to make the book stand alone while also keeping it interesting for the readers who have followed the series from the beginning. Which means I question every word of backstory I put into the book.
Backstory is a tricky thing. The writer needs to include enough character history to facilitate the story, but add too much and it can slow the pacing, overwhelm the plot or just be downright boring. With each backstory fact a writer has to ask: Does the reader need to know X? Have I found a way to describe my protagonist that feels natural? Is the backstory getting in the way of the plot?
Too many backstory or information dumps can derailed your story before it even begins. The best description I’ve heard as to how best to use backstory is this: Pretend your backstory is a mirror. Take the mirror off the wall and throw it on the ground so it shatters into thousands of little tiny pieces. Then scatter those pieces throughout your book. If you do it right your story will only have utilized a very small percentage of that broken mirror.
So right now I’m throwing my mirror on the floor, stomping up and down on it and trying to pick the best, most necessary pieces to include in this book. And I’m driving myself nuts in the process. Because of that, I admit that I’m curious – if you’re a writer – do you struggle with backstory usage? How you do decide what backstory to include in your books? And for the readers, do you get annoyed when information from one book appears in the next or do you cut the author a break? Tell me what works and doesn’t work for you. Meanwhile, I’m going to keep stomping on my mirror and hoping that the metaphorical version doesn’t bring me 7 years of bad luck.