Developing the story before the story begins and knowing where to put it is challenging. It’s easy for it to become repetitive or inconsistent. That’s a quick turn-off for your readers.
Many writers create a complete backstory only for themselves. It informs the decisions the characters make. It adds depth as they write and helps them establish a relationship between the characters and the readers. Once an author has firmly settled on the basics of ‘who, what, when, where, how and why,’ the writing begins and details are dripped in as the story develops.
One of my favorite examples comes from FINAL SENTENCE,* a cozy mystery by Daryl Wood Gerber.
“Aunt Vera, stop twirling me,” I yelled. But she didn’t. She continued to spin me in a circle. My eyes pinballed in my head. My brain whipped my cheeks — right, left, right, left. I didn’t ordinarily wear braids, but cleaning up a shop that closed thirty years ago, over a year before my birth, was almost as dirty a business as having a garage sale. I had dressed for the occasion: cutoffs and T-shirt, so I wasn’t worried about my clothes.
“Stop,” I repeated.
My aunt cackled with glee. “Jenna Starrett Hart, I am so excited.”
Because I had established myself in the advertising world as Jenna Hart, I had used my maiden name even after my husband and I got married. I decided not to change it to his, which was Harris. Hart…Harris. They were too close to mess with.
In less than 150 words, we learn a lot. We know both characters in this scene are women. Their names are Jenna Starrett Hart and Vera, who is Jenna’s aunt. Jenna is in her early 30s and is comfortable enough with her body to wear cutoffs. It’s likely she cares about her appearance.
She is, or was, married. This creates questions in the readers’ minds, “What happened to her marriage? Is her husband with her? If not, why?” This important backstory detail encourages readers to turn the page.
We learn Jenna previously worked in the advertising business. This snippet of information tells readers she’s college educated, social, creative and can meet deadlines.
The setting is an old, vacant shop and because they’re cleaning it, it’s about to be reopened. The mood is happy, expectant.
By the time Daryl Wood Gerber had typed her first page, she’d provided enough details to engage her readers without the dreaded, ‘information dump,’ many new authors fall into.
Mother Wilson suggests you try this with your own work. I’ll be back next month to review another section of FINAL SENTENCE and discuss successful backstory strategies.
Write on everybody!
*Gerber, Daryl Wood, FINAL SENTENCE, Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2013; p. 1
Interested in Daryl's books? Check out her web site here!
Barbara (Mother) Wilson is a writing coach for aspiring authors. She'll keep you and your book moving toward publication. Don't ever quit!