Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Writing Backstory

by Holly West

So I was all set to write a post about how much I hated this week's Game of Thrones episode when I got a message from my friend Neliza Drew about an outline of my WIP I recently sent her. Then I thought, screw Game of Thrones, I'll write about this instead.

Now this is a typewriter.
Backstory. I'm not talking about character backstory here--although writing at least a few paragraphs about your character's origins and perhaps a timeline for them isn't a bad idea. I imagine that all the "pantsers" out there must do a little bit of this sort of work before beginning a novel in ernest.

But the sort of backstory I'm talking about is, if you're writing a mystery, what actually happened vs. what happens in the pages of your book. Presumably, you've got a protagonist, who, for whatever reason, is searching for the truth. As the writer, you can't just lay everything out on the page for everyone to see, otherwise it's not a mystery.

This has happened to me twice now (with the forthcoming Mistress of Lies and with my current WIP), so I'm thinking it might be a pattern: here I am happily plotting my novel, when I reach a point where the story just isn't flowing. Things are fuzzy, I don't feel like writing, I start doing work avoidance activities like re-arranging my bookshelves and testing my pens to see which ones still have ink. Stuff that needs to be done, sure, but not right this minute. It's a classic sign that something's not right in my writing world.

This period of insanely clean toilets and immaculately dusted knick-knacks lasted over three weeks.

What got me writing again was realizing that I didn't have a clear idea of what had happened leading up to (and to some extent, during) the story I was actually writing. What, in fact, was the mystery my protagonist was trying to solve? I had a vague idea that it involved the discovery of a large amount of vintage champagne and someone trying to double cross someone else, but that was it, and it certainly wasn't enough to drive the plot I was trying to suss out.

I went back to the beginning and wrote the alternate story--that is, the story of what happened that led to my victim's killing. Most of those details won't make it into the book, except in drips and drabs. But knowing exactly what happened before my book starts is the key to me figuring out how to best tell the story.

As I said, this topic might apply mostly to traditional mysteries. One of these days, I'll learn how to write a crime novel that isn't a mystery and then I'll have to come up with a whole different formula. Yes, I said formula. I like formulas. You should know this about me by now.

Thus, my questions for you are: For those who don't outline, how much "pre-writing" do you do on a novel? Also, what did you think about this week's episode of Game of Thrones?


John Dodds said...

I don't outline, though sometimes I will do some reverse engineering once I feel relatively comfortable with the storyline. I always get completely stuck three quarters through, and my first two novels had multiple back stories (lots of characters). My third, which Blackstone Audio should be releasing later this year, only has two character POVs, but it was only fractionally easier to write than the previous novels in my Kendrick Chronicles series. So, I suppose you'd call writing three quarters of the novel is my personal brand of pre-writing.

My novels aren't mysteries as such, either - my main characters are usually the criminals themselves. Does that make it easier than writing a mystery? I honestly don't know.

I don't know what you mean by "this week's episode" of GOT, because I live in Bulgaria, though I do watch it on HBO here (not sure if it's a simultaneous broadcast, but I've got as far as season 4 episode 7, I believe).

Your post was really interesting. I look forward to more, as I've only today found the blog.

John McFetridge said...

Good post. Good question.

"Presumably, you've got a protagonist, who, for whatever reason, is searching for the truth."

I wanted to highlight this because I think it's important. A lot of mystery fiction is really about the, "whatever reason," isn't it?

I say that because there's a difference between finding the truth and collecting the evidence that can be taken into court to get a conviction.

As for 'pre-writing,' since I started writing historical novels (even if the history is only the 1970s) based heavily on real events, I do a lot more.

And I still can't forgive HBO for cancelling "Rome" and replacing it with "Game of Thrones." I realize I am in a tiny minority here.

Dana King said...

I'm an outliner, so this doesn't affect me as much. I think the advice that works for scenes (get in and out as quickly as you can) works on the macro level, as well.
Someone famous once wrote, "Start as close to the end as you can." That may allow you to write all the back story you want, then decide later where the book actually starts, and what of what was cut needs to be worked in along the way.

Holly West said...

Yes, John M., you're right about that "truth" thing. I didn't think of it that way because my protag is an amateur sleuth, searching for evidence to exonerate someone in court, but is also looking for the truth--as in, did this person I think is innocent actually do it? Since it's not her job to find out what really happened, she needs other motivation.

John D., I'm glad you found the blog! I've not yet written a book that's not a mystery, so I'll let you know if it's harder when I do. It sounds as if you're in the same place w/ GOT as we are, but I won't comment specifically because I hate spoilers.

Kristi said...

Great post. I am slowly learning to outline and find it makes things so much smoother. But sometimes it's hard to do when I'm so eager to get the story down on paper.