Last Monday on Twitter, I had a short conversation with Jim Duncan.
Me: Trying to decide if WAY complicated backstory / history is going to be worth all this frackin’ WORK, argh!
Jim: I’ve had the issue with my epic fantasy. Soooo much material that could be fleshed out, but then how much do you really need?
Me: *I* need to know it all, but how much goes into the synopsis for my agent, and how much into the book for the reader?
Jim: Good question. My fantasy story is very suspense/thriller oriented, and goes light on the immersion, so worried it’ll throw folk
Jim: as a reader, I only need to know enough to explain things in the presented story. Do I want more? probably. Put it on ur site.
So here I am, putting it on my site. *g* How much backstory / history does an author need to know before writing, while writing, and how much of that needs to go into the book for the reader?
Simple answer? That depends. And it actually depends on two things: the book and the author.
It’s easiest to give examples from my own experience, so here are three. The first is the project I mentioned in this post. The second is a project my agent will be shopping as soon as I get it tweaked and back to her! The third is the project I will tackle next in my never to be thwarted efforts to be published well!
The “Letting Go” project is the most traditional in its use of backstory. It’s set in the present day. Circumstances bring a 17 year old “incident” into the lives of my story people. Each member of the affected family has to deal with what is essentially a betrayal by someone dear to all of them. Each has to rethink how much they allowed this person to impact their lives. Do they continue on as they have been? Or does this new information negate everything they thought they knew about themselves?
For this story, all I need to know of the past is what inspired this incident, what about the characters involved evoked their flaws, their weaknesses, that they allowed this to happen? Would they have considered the affect on their families should the betrayal be discovered? Most of that is for me only. The two main characters involved died before the story opened. They won’t be on the page to show any of this, but as the author, *I* need to know in order to make their motivations believable.
The third example (yes, I’m skipping around) has a backstory element that occurred in 1950 but drove everything one of the characters would do for the rest of her life. She’s already passed on when the story opens, but the mystery surrounding her life is a a major part of the plot. The husband and I were dicussing this idea, as we do with most of my books (he is the best story sounding board ever, no matter how often we fight our way through), and he disagreed with a direction I’d gone. He said it wasn’t in character. He was wrong. *g*
The character was born in 1922. She grew up during the depression, saw WWII, Vietnam, the sexual revolution, the women’s rights movement. She started her family in the 1940s, and would have been a traditional homemaker, not a woman of the world. The backstory had everything to do with who she was, the choices she made through the years before her death at 86. To portray her honestly, *I* had to know what she experienced, how societal changes shaped her.
Not all of those things will make it onto the page as the story takes place in the present day, but as the author, *I* must be aware of them. This character would not ring true if I used my own world view to create her. I wasn’t born in 1922. I haven’t lived through the things she did, so it’s important I take all of those influences into consideration when writing her.
However, I don’t need to give readers a history lesson, explaining the depression or women’s rights. Those things are part of our culture. We’ve studied them in school and know (or once did) names and dates and other facts. They’re in our collective subconsious. They don’t need to be infodumped into the book.
Example #2 (yeah, yeah) is a bit different. I’ve gone back to 1540s Chile and the invasion of the Spanish for my backstory. I have learned more about the Mapuche people of Chile and Argentina than anyone will ever need to know. (The colors of their flag each have meaning: red – blood drained in the wars: green – nature, earth: blue – sky, hope: yellow – sun, light: white – the Mountains of the Mapuche Land. See? No one needs to know that!) What all this research has done, however, is given me a firm foundation on which to build.
The Mapuche mythology will be born out in my characters, but readers won’t necessarily know that. Or what bits I reveal will be enough to answer their questions about why something has happened, or what a certain tradition means. Much more of this project’s backstory will be given to the reader than the backstory in the other two proposals. Or at least given directly as opposed to just being used to shape the characters. Wherein readers don’t need a refresher course on WWII or Vietnam, most won’t know that the Mapuche vice toqui Lautaro, once a captive of the Spaniards, used their own weapons against them and led his indigenous army to victory. If I find when writing that I need to give that bit of history to readers, I’ll need to find a non-Dan-Brown-infodump way to do so. Honestly, I won’t know that until I get there. But when I do get there, it’ll come naturally because it’s something I’ve already learned and used in my world-building.
Now, I know that a lot of authors only do research as they need it. They don’t pour over Websites about the Mapuche people unless they find a place in their stories where the information needs to be inserted for the reader to understand the plot or the character development. I’m of the other school. I need to know as much as possible before writing because I won’t know I need something if it’s not there waiting for me to use. The devil is in the details. Make sense? And, yes, when I put together a proposal, I do include all of my research with my pitch package so my agent will see that I know what I’m doing. *g*
What about the rest of you? Do you create monstrous backstories before you settle in to work, or do you put your characters’ histories together as you write? Do you find all or little of what you develop making its way into your story?
detail of a life history photo courtesy of *madalena-pestana* – half of me