Thursday 26 June 2014

What is it? The dictionary defines 'backstory' as:
'The experiences of a character or the circumstances of an event 
that occur before the action or narrative.'

Once told that if my story was good enough it shouldn't need back story, I seem to fail every time! I believe that backstory can add depth to a character or a plot but the secret is how to write it without slowing down the story. And that's my problem. When reading, I have noted how experienced writers have introduced backstory - using alternate chapters written in different times, dual narratives, bringing backstory in through dialogue, reading letters or diary entries. When I received a rejected story back from an editor this week, I knew it was the backstory that let it down. It needed to be included because what had happened in the past to the main character, Amy, had a direct influence on the type of 'super woman' she was trying so hard to be but I'd ended up doing too much 'telling' and not 'showing'.  You've probably heard it said that what we leave out is as important as what we leave in was a comment in the feedback.

On my recent holiday, I did start a story set in Greece about a girl who travels there after following her mother's instructions to read her diary. I thought that I could tell the backstory of her mother's life in the early seventies through the diary entries. But, guess what? I'm bogged down with too much detail and the story has slowed almost to a stop. So what is the answer? 

When searching for some images to illustrate this post I came across this wonderful picture, entitled 'Backstory', which in turn led me to a blog post by Roz Morris . Her blog is called 'Nail Your Novel' which she describes as 'a diary of writing tips as I tackle challenges in my own novels and help others to shape theirs, plus all the latest news about my books.' I found her post 'How to wield backstory with panache' really useful and recommend it to you. She goes through a number of points and explains them with examples. Her main advice is to make backstory part of the action, leave it as late as possible and to use it to bond characters together (where the backstory is important to both characters). 

Where do I go from here? I shall look as my rejected story again and see whether I can prune a lot of the backstory. Maybe I'll be able to keep the part which affects the two friends, Lauren and Amy, but introduce it in smaller bits rather than in a 'pouring her heart out' scene as it was in the original story. 

How do you use backstory when writing? Please share any tips that have worked for you. Thank you for reading.
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P.S. Do you remember last week's blog post was all about setting? I've just read an excellent blogpost by Janet Gover on Women Writers, Women's Books. It's called 'Location, Location, Location' - worth a read!

Thursday 19 June 2014

Setting the Scene
Does anyone else think that knowing the setting for a story or novel can help with your enjoyment and understanding when reading? I came to this conclusion when I was on holiday recently. 

I had not visited the beautiful island of Crete before and wanted to get to know something about its history. As a teacher, I have lost count of the times I have told or read the story of 'Theseus and the Minotaur' to classes of children so you can imagine how excited I was to be visiting the site of the Palace of Knossos, the home of King Minos, which has always been associated with the myth.  Minos, after getting advice from the oracle at Delphi, had Daedalus, the famed architect and inventor, build a huge labyrinth near his palace at Knossos. The purpose of the labyrinth was to hold the Minotaur, a monster which was half-bull and half-man. 

On our journey there, our guide retold a version of the story of Theseus in such detail and with so much conviction that we were captivated. 

Sir Arthur John Evans (1851-1941) was the archaeologist responsible for unearthing the Palace of Knossos. He believed that the legendary kingdom of King Minos was real and used clues he found in the myths and legends to prove it even though he came up against strong opposition to his views. 

As we walked around the site, I liked to think that the reconstructed frescos often depicting bulls and the twisting passages of a possible labyrinth were part of a story that had always been so popular with my pupils.  

In complete contrast to that story which has been around for thousands of years and on the recommendation of a guest at the hotel where we were staying, I read a novel written in 2005, also set in Crete. 'The Island' by Victoria Hislop is about a leper colony on Spinalonga, a small island off the north coast. It is set both in the present day when a first-generation English girl travels to Crete to find out more about her Greek heritage and in the 1930s. What unravels is the tragic tale of four generations of women in the Petrakis family whose lives are affected by leprosy. I think the fact that I was there on the actual island of Crete and could recognise the descriptions of the countryside and places mentioned, the food and drink referred to and some of the characteristics of people I'd observed in the local shops and tavernas made it more credible and enjoyable to read. I didn't even know about the leper colony  which closed in 1957 until I read about the boat trips to the now uninhabited island which are on offer. I spoke to the owner of a book shop where the book was displayed, taking pride of place in the shop window.  He told me that it was based on true stories and that the author had researched the novel well. I loved the way the layers of family secrets were revealed and recommend the book, especially if you can travel Crete to read it! 

Have you read a book where knowing the setting has enhanced your enjoyment? Please comment and recommend some good reads. Thank you for reading my blog.

You may also follow me on Twitter @JanBayLit and on Facebook Jan Baynham Writer.

PS When I was away another of my moving on stories Meet Me By The Jacaranda Tree was published on Alfie Dog Fiction. If you'd like to read it, please click on the title and you can download it for £0.39.