Friday, 13 February 2009

History Lesson

Good morning, or should I say good evening fellow Racers, as it’s technically Friday right now and I haven’t been to bed yet. It’s pretty early for me to be posting, I know (half past midnight is the morning, so it counts as early) but I won’t be able to post from work on Friday, as I’m doing recruitment and am not at my desk. I won’t be having a coffee as I’m on water, doctor’s orders to drink more of the clear stuff* due to having dehydrated corneas – why yes, they are as horrible as they sound – but please feel free to help yourself to caffeinated delights, hot chocolate, Neil Gaiman coffee, ginger tea, or mulled wine (hey, it’s still winter, why not?)

Now are we all sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

I’ve spent the past week in and among editing, wondering about history and consistency in plot. As a fantasy writer, I often find (or am informed – thank you darling) that I’ve made up something that either doesn’t make sense or has no particular reason. As Joss Whedon said, when asked how fast his spaceship Serenity travelled, “it goes at the speed of plot.” This may work fine when you are a famous and successful American TV show writer. It’s not so good actually when you’re ‘Jo Blogs’ (see what I did there?) from a little section of the North where the only claim to fame is that it’s the Rhubarb Triangle (thank you Stephen Fry and the QI team).

So – do other Racers have complex backstories, or things they need to explain to themselves, or character histories? It’s all well and good dropping the reader in at the deep end in the middle of the action, but if you don’t know where they came from, does it still work as well or do you risk confusing the reader? Is writing fantasy wildly different from writing plain fiction or chick lit, or is it all much the same when you get down to the bones of the thing, rather like Gil Grissom and his yummy designer glasses? When you’re all writing, do you work out any character history or backstory beforehand, or do you make it all up as you go along, or halfway through do you suddenly tweak and recap and invent an Aunt Mildred in Stoke who’s essential to the plot?

I do realise that writing backstory before you start ‘writing proper’ can lead to you procrastinating while you write reams and reams of who-begat-who and what Aunt Mildred said about Our Sally in 1982. Note: I am not advocating writing like this. I tried this when I was at university, building fantasy worlds at the expense of my actual writing. Mistake. However, some of that procrastination has been useful at forming the bare bones of my ideas, and has been duly battered into submission and is no longer recognisable as its original incarnation as ‘some ghastly bumph about fighting elves’.

So – how do people feel about history, backplot-to-be-revealed and character detailing? How do you create realistic 3d characters, or are you lucky enough that the sketchy notes work for you?

This post has been brought to you by lack of sleep, Viscotears eye drops and two hours of editing (and rather a lot of parentheses.)


*sadly not gin

24 comments:

Calistro said...

Interesting question! Mine's a coffee - I can't get going in the morning without one (not that I've actually been to bed yet...)

Because my books are paranormal I have to create a 'world' that the reader can believe in and I need to make it consistent. For example, in Haunting for Beginners I realised that I couldn't have the 'wannabe ghosts' recognisable by people they know or else everyone would be spotting dead people they knew walking around! I put in quite a lengthy exposition about how there's a split second twist in your perception when you see someone who's dead and blah blah blah and it REALLY slowed the chapter down. Yes, the reader needs to know that the wannabe ghosts aren't recognisable but they don't need to read the whole 'science' I've invented in my head about perception and colour blindness and ghosts and wavelength etc etc. I cut that whole section and instead moved it to another chapter. The MC nows asks "Why?" or another character and she's given a one sentence answer. And it's enough!

I don't have the 'world' or the rules of that world or the characters planned out in my head before I start writing but I do have a few basics. In the new novel I know what the angels can and can't do but new stuff occurs to me all the time while I'm writing so I just write it in. Same with the characters - I know the basics about them at the start but they come alive once I start to write in their voice. By the end of the book I know them really well and tend to go back to the beginning during the editing and change/update it.

JJ said...

I'll help myself to a cup to tea please. And there was me thinking Rhubarb Triangles were like apple slices... only rhubarb, and uhm, triangle shaped...

Hmmm, I was definitely guilty of this in the first book ... I made it to 24,000 words ... and hadn't really started the story. Doh.

This time, though, the complex backstory is what has to be revealed slowly during the novel as the explanation for why they are who they are. I'm still very conscious of how to manage or handle the release of that information. Scared bloomin' witless about it in fact.

liz fenwick said...

Really good question....and like Calistro and JJ in the first books and first drafts there is way too much backstory. I need it then but the reader doesn't. I through up a prolugue in ACH that I needed to focus me through the rewrite but the reader doesn't need this info until much later in the book. D. Maass does a great bit about this in his book. Backstory can work much more effectively revealed later.

Thinking of fantasty it would also come down to reader expectations...in other books of the same do readers expect much explanation or do they fill the gaps themselves. In a novel(romantic or women's fiction) I generally don't want graphic nuts and bolts details of sex, my mind is far better at filling the gaps :-), however if it was a non-fiction how to or an erotic one that a different story - my expectation would be very different.

Oh, and I'll have a green tea today - detox after partying!
lx

Un Peu Loufoque said...

It seems grossly unfair that clear liquid should not include Gin, what of champagne ? I am sure that counts and it is terribly lubricating..no? Oh well I shall have a fizzy water to keep you company !

I find that my characters reveal their past ( or back plot I suppose) as the plot develops. I am often suprised when suddenly I discover they have, if not an aunt in Stoke then, an absent mother who has run off with the footman. The little revelations like that explain a lot about my characters to me. I hope if I evr get a publisher that the backstory will do teh same to them. I like a subtle background to writing and one that is not too contrived.

Loads of sympathy for the eyes and a day of recruiting coming to you from this side of the channel.

Lucy Diamond said...

Builders' Brew for me and some Marmite toast please... still half asleep.

Backstory is tricky, isn't it? I make some character notes before I start, but only really a few paragraphs and various facts (job, age, ambitions, fears, any important events gone by which have made them who they are today and of course star sign - crucial!). It's just not possible for me to have perfectly formed characters with perfectly formed histories before I write a single word of the plot, mine are much more organic than that, they develop as the word count grows and I think Aha! That's why you're so hung up about blah-di-blah because this happened five years ago, or whatever.

As for dropping in bits of backstory - it's a delicate art and one I've bodged many times, saying too much at once (and thereby slowing down the pace) or not enough (thereby not making sense) etc. Stating the bleedin' obvious here but I guess you just try only to put in bits as you need them and not to dump in great blocks of the stuff all at once. And you can DEFINITELY tweak the backstory as you go - thank goodness!

Debs said...

I'll have a strong coffee please. I need all the help I can get after chasing a bus for nearly an hour, then still ending up taking S to school.

I make a few notes to remind me of various details, looks, certain past incidents etc, before starting my book, but then I just write and find that my characters tell me pretty much all about themselves. I then work through it all during the rewrite.

Regarding backstory, I ended up deleting the first 25,000 words of my first novel, which was all pretty much backstory, and the beginning read far better without it. It was a little harrowing to delete so much at one go though.

I hope your eyes hydrate soon!

Leatherdykeuk said...

Good post!
I explain things only when I have to to make the story flow. Laverstone is a pit of weird supernaturals but you don't need to know why until it becomes essential to the plot.

Calistro: Have you seen 'Dead like Me'? There's a bit where George, recently dead, sees herself in a shop CCTV and she looks different.

Crystal Jigsaw said...

Perhaps it's because I'm impatient but I tend to let the characters invent themselves as the story unfolds. I have a clear picture in my mind of who they are and have, upto now, given the book some background into revealing a little snippet of mystery which surrounds the plot - stemming from a past. But like Calistro, my book is paranormal, opening up a few surprises along the way.

I have recently changed a rather lame idea I had and with a lot of thought, hope I have finally come to agree (with myself) a more appealing plot. I guess the proof is in the pudding so to speak.

Might there be any decaff on the table? Do hope the eyes will be okay.

CJ xx

Captain Black said...

I fancy an espresso today. Nothing like a good jump-start to the day. Also, Lucy please look over there for a minute {steals slice of Marmite toast}.

Personally I find it useful, if not essential, to have a back-story; including time lines, geography, events and history. What I don't necessarily do though, is utilise all of it. This enables me to build a level of consistency in the story and characters, without having to do too much telling (or showing) of the back-story.

I don't usually write the back-story before the main story, rather they evolve together. That way I don't lose the flow of the main story be being diverted to something that won't get much used in the final text.

Another great topic.

Go on, have a sneaky gin. I won't tell if you don't.

Rowan Coleman said...

I'm with Lucy on this - its trying to remember to 'show' and not 'tell' when it comes to back story but I do find that hard, especially when I have a character that I know so well, or particularly when you are writing a sequel (like THE ACCIDENTAL FAMILY availbe in all good bookshops now!) And you have to assume that some readers won't have read the first book and some will so there's the balance between explaining what happened in the last book without overkill. It is hard, I work at it and then re-work at it and I hope I got it right. As for facts, I make stuff up. I once read that a famous writer makes up stuff and then get researchers to make the facts fit what she makes up. Facts are importan in some respects, for example I researched a lot about family law for THE ACCIDENTAL MOTHER but in others I think plot is king. In the Ruby books I make stuff up all the time to do wiht movies, and the tv world. Weirdly I find out after the fact that its often not that far from the truth!

Rowan Coleman said...

I'm with Lucy on this - its trying to remember to 'show' and not 'tell' when it comes to back story but I do find that hard, especially when I have a character that I know so well, or particularly when you are writing a sequel (like THE ACCIDENTAL FAMILY availbe in all good bookshops now!) And you have to assume that some readers won't have read the first book and some will so there's the balance between explaining what happened in the last book without overkill. It is hard, I work at it and then re-work at it and I hope I got it right. As for facts, I make stuff up. I once read that a famous writer makes up stuff and then get researchers to make the facts fit what she makes up. Facts are importan in some respects, for example I researched a lot about family law for THE ACCIDENTAL MOTHER but in others I think plot is king. In the Ruby books I make stuff up all the time to do wiht movies, and the tv world. Weirdly I find out after the fact that its often not that far from the truth!

Rowan Coleman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
KeVin K. said...

Coffee for me. Excellent topic.

Much of my own writing is in established IPs, so at one level I do not have this problem. (Though finding new ways to present events in a world readers think they know presents a different set of challenges.) The setting of my WIP detective novel is as much a character as anyone with dialog, so I've been working on how to explain southern coastal culture without lecturing in my own work.

C. J. Cherryh, one of my favorite SF writers, originally began Foreigner, first novel of her Atevi series, on what is now page 42. The opening scene was a man snapping awake and throwing himself on the floor as someone sprays bullets through his bedroom window. Throughout the book -- and the series -- Cherryh builds a wonderfully realized but completely alien culture as seen through the eyes of a lone human emissary. Most of what he sees makes no sense and he is wrong in many of his conclusions because he misinterprets cause and effect, not to mention nuance. The editor felt she was making the reader work too hard and required a prolog to frame the story and give it context. She makes it interesting because she's good -- in fact it contains one of my favorite lines about first encounters -- but it's clearly a summary of previous events. The gear change when the story proper begins is clear. (Her in media res style of explaining worlds and cultures can be found in all of her novels and series.)

One example of explaining a culture that I do not get at all is Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. I understand the passive narrative voice and omniscient point of view are supposed to be part of the series charm, but I haven't finished one of these books. I have tried. Valiantly. But I keep nodding off. Summarizing events from four yards away, with cute little editorial observations and a complete lack of forward momentum, leaves me wondering what I could be reading for enjoyment and struggling to remember what the previous page was about.

Perhaps one of the best technicians when it comes to weaving unfamiliar culture and worlds through narrative was Tony Hillerman. You can not come through any of his novels without a deeper understanding of -- and appreciation for -- the Navajo people and Native American world. But, while he does provide context through internal monolog or character conversation or simple exposition, you can not pick out passages in his novels that are exclusively history lessons and/or exposition.

I'd recommend reading writers who do it the way you like -- whether Cherryh or Hillerman or Smith -- until you get the feel for how they are doing what they are doing. Make their technique your own and go with it.

Calistro said...

Leather - No, I haven't seen it but lots of people, when I explain my book's premise mention it to me! Am scared to watch it in case my book seems like some kind of rip off! Not much I can do about that now though!

KAREN said...

I'd never heard of the Rhubarb Triangle, and I'm from Yorkshire! North though, so maybe that's why :o) I was rather hoping for a recipe ...

I write out a background for my characters that I can refer to now and then. It helps keep me on track with their motivation for doing whatever it is they're doing, and to keep them behaving consistently, though I don't stick to it religiously.

Cathy said...

Good topic.

I do have brief biographies for my characters, though sometimes as much is in my head as on paper. I'm learning how to layer the back story into my plot rather than overloading the first few chapters.

One thing that I am learning through writing a novel rsther than short story, is how inportant it is to keep notes on things like character details and timelines as I am very capable of getting myself into a terrible muddle!

ChrisH said...

Phew! Coming in a bit late here after wrestling with TMA 03. After 22 lines of 'poetry' I'll have anything alcoholic please. Cheers! I think other folks have pretty much summed it up for me, I'm certainly with Liz on D Maass's book which has been invaluable. I do need to know quite a lot of back story about my characters before I start, although it's a tricky balance. If I'm not careful I can 'write it all' out before I start and then it's easy to lose interest in them. On the other hand, I'm not really brave enough to fly completely by the seat of my pants... I suppose it's a bit like a relationship, you need to know enough to feel intrigued before you go any further.

KayJay said...

Lucy, Captain Black is stealing your toast! (Grabs remaining slice AND Builder's Brew).

Ah, Joss Whedon. Can't wait for Dollhouse tonight...

Anyway, on topic. Well, Joss is right. Speed of plot, I think. Everything has to contribute towards plot, or significantly inform character as to contribute towards plot. I'm not a fantasy writer, but I do think that in this genre you can probably plop a few random things into a book that will suddenly make total sense in Book 5 of the series ;)

I need to secure a firm sense of my MC from the get go - which may just involve a lot of day dreaming and long walks and not actually writing anything much down - but I also have to be free to make it up as I go along. There's a wonderful point in the editing process where the characters become strong enough in my head to attain a mutability which would have been unthinkable previously. This helps enormously when I realise I have to kill a few darlings or change something central to one of my characters in order to improve the big picture.

Exposition and explanation is generally a bit lame, if that's ALL it is. I think dialogue is absolutely key to helping the reader understand the characters and the world, as others have already said. I would add that having a confident voice as a storyteller is also massively helpful, and it's very clear you have that in spades! As a reader I will often forgive slightly extraneous or irrelevant elements of a story if I feel like I'm in strong hands. (Whether an Editor will is a different matter...maybe it's dangerous to think that way!)

Clare Sudders said...

I keep it to a minimum, knowing only what I need to know about my charcaters in order for the book to work. But I suspect it may be a weak point, and that I should really try and get to know my characters a little better, and then they may come out more well-rounded.

also, I tend to make it up as I go along. My characters are very vague when I first start writing.

Clare Sudders said...

I keep it to a minimum, knowing only what I need to know about my charcaters in order for the book to work. But I suspect it may be a weak point, and that I should really try and get to know my characters a little better, and then they may come out more well-rounded.

also, I tend to make it up as I go along. My characters are very vague when I first start writing.

Kate said...

Sorry I'm late - I reckon it's time for a mocha martini now (had one at Waterstone's bar lately, yum - all my perfect food groups in one glass: chocolate, coffee, cream, alcohol).

I tend to veer madly from overdoing the planning to under-planning, from book to book. I am currently writing a sequel for the first time, to The Secret Shopper's Revenge, so I already know a lot about my characters and the world, yet I am aware that I will have readers who haven't read the first novel. It's definitely a tougher balancing act than with previous novels. Another writer who has written series told me that, actually, you can possibly get away with a little more 'telling' in a sequel because to show all aspects of your backstory is very labour intensive and takes up too much space that you should be devoting to the new plot. We'll see. Am about 1/3rd of the way in so watch this space!

Kate x

Graeme K Talboys said...

OMG. Friday? It's not Friday already is it? Sorry, been busy, dare I say it: writing.

Bare bones.

I like a skeleton. That way, when I flesh out, it is consistent.

I tend to use a lot of photographs these days (huzzah for the internet). The thing I'm doing just now [the book I'm writing as an act of procrastination that keeps me from my w-i-p] is a fantasy with a vaguely Saharan setting, so I'm using lots of pictures from that area to give me consistent background.

Apart from that, if anyone points out inconsistencies in my work, I am inclined to point to the real world, which is about as inconsistent as you can get without it all actually falling apart. Oh. It is falling apart.

Annieye said...

I seem to do a lot of my writing 'in my head' (otherwise known as daydreaming).

Seriously though, I think your characters have to behave in a believable manner, whether you are writing sci-fi, fantasy or whatever. I often spend lots of time thinking about why one of my characters behaves in a certain way and that sets up the back story to a certain extent and is useful when rewriting/editing. I make notes on the manuscript too (it's quite easy in Word to add a note).

I check every detail I'm unsure about and if I can't find the answer on the internet, I spend a lunchtime in the library - this is particularly necessary sometimes if I need to check local history.

I stick timelines around the walls and use different coloured felt-tip pen for different characters so I can see at a glance how old they are at any given time.

As far as characterisation goes I use a detailed checklist and keep a paper copy in a file so I can check on physical as well as psychological details as I move through the story.

wordtryst said...

Craps, I'm late again! I see there's some ginger tea left so I'll have some. Hope your corneas are improving, Juliet, and never mind the captain - he's always up to mischief and that gin will do your eyes no good.

Backstory is important, but I suspect it's much more challenging for writers of sci-fi/fantasy/para since they have to build their worlds almost from scratch. But then again they also have conventions, so I might be wrong in my assumptions. I do most of mine in my head (this part can take months, or years) then I write a sketchy outline and work from there.

When I was writing the first story I'd probably never heard the term 'backstory' and I wrote quite a bit of it, I think. By the time I wrote the second I was so aware of it that I must have given too little, because my reader and the agent wanted more. *grimace*

As for realistic characters - there's nothing like real life for inspiration.

Kevin, I wish you'd share that line about first encounters.

Great topic, great comments. "...the real world, which is about as inconsistent as you can get without it all actually falling apart..." Tell me about it. It's only in fiction that everything must make sense and click neatly into place, isn't it. Maybe that's why I write.