Backstory in WIP Wednesday

One of the most challenging skills in the writer’s arsenal involves the backstory. We need readers to know what led to the circumstances of the plot; what made the characters the way they are; what secrets they hide, perhaps even from themselves. But, by definition, the backstory is the events that happened before the story we’re telling. How much do we tell? How much ‘telling’ is going to disturb the flow? How can we weave backstory into our writing so that it illuminates rather than drowns?

So this week’s WIP Wednesday is for excerpts with backstory. I’ll show you mine, and you show me yours in the comments. I have two bits from The Realm of Silence, showing Gil’s and Susan’s relationship from each POV.

First, Gil:

The traffic thinned as they left the town, crossing the bridge into the country. Gil held his horse to the rear of the phaeton, giving silent thanks for the rain in the night that had laid the dust. He had little hope that staying out of Susan’s sight would lessen her ire. Any man would understand that he could not let a female relative of his oldest friends wander the roads of England on her own.

A female would not understand the duty a man had to his friends. And the goddess—her appeal in no way dimmed today by the carriage coat covering her curves—was very much a female. He would not revisit his reasons for insisting on escorting her. He’d spent long enough in the night cross-examining himself. Duty was reason enough, and the rest was irrelevant.

It was true that, for twenty-seven years, since she was a child of ten and he a mere two years older, he’d been prepared to move heaven and earth to be near her. It was also true that his heart lightened as he rode further from his responsibilities in the southwest. Not relevant. He was her brothers’ friend and her cousin’s, and therefore he would keep her from harm and help rescue her daughter.

And then Susan’s, several pages later.

“If you ride with me in the phaeton, we can discuss our strategy.” It would be a tight fit. The phaeton was not designed for three. Still, Lyons could go up behind. But Gil was shaking his head.

“No room. And your man won’t last half an hour on the footman’s perch. He should be retired, goddess.

“Don’t call me that!” He had made her childhood a misery with that nickname. One long summer of it, anyway. She had still worn the ridiculous name her parents had bestowed on her. Not just Athene, though that would have been bad enough. Joan Athene Boaducea. Jab, her brothers called her. But when Gil and two other boys had come home from school with Susan’s cousin Rede, Gil dubbed her ‘the goddess’. It had become Jab the Goddess, and she had been forced to take stern measures to win back the space to be herself.

She glared at him. To be fair, he had not been part of the tormenting; had even tried to stop it. But she could not forget that it was his mocking remark that set it off.

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Little maids from school

I’ve been on a grandmother expedition this week to help my daughters and granddaughter examine a couple of new schools, and in the spare moments of my trip, I’ve been writing The Realm of Silence, which begins with the discovery that the heroine’s daughter Amy has run away from school.

Back in 1812, most girls were educated at home. A girl from a wealthy family might have a governess and a series of instructors in ladylike skills, such as dancing and painting. A girl of more modest means would be educated by her parents, learning whatever her mother was capable of teaching her and her father was ready to permit.

Some, though, went off to school, perhaps because they were from upwardly mobile families seeking social skills that were not practiced in their home, or perhaps because the family circumstances made the usual home education more difficult.

The available schools were private affairs. They were usually run by spinsters or widows, although some teachers were married and assisted by their husbands. Teachers had no formal qualifications, and those who ran schools needed a head for business and a good circle of friends to speak for them to the parents of possible pupils.

Day schools were less expensive to run. Boarding schools, as Mary Wollstonecraft and her sisters found, presented more of a challenge. They needed to take lodgers, as well as pupils, to cover the rent and the wages of servants.

A series of advertisements published by Susana Ives gives us an idea of the programme and fees. Some were very basic: the fundamentals of reading and writing, and for the rest the kinds of skills daughters required to attract a husband at or just above their social circumstances. Other offered a very extensive programme. English and French languages, history, needlework, music, dancing, writing, arithmetic and geography might cost between 30 and 40 guineas a year. Or twenty guineas might get you English and needlework, with other subjects available for an extra fee.

A Female Seminary is conducted at the above place; by Miss Woollaston, who pays particular attention to the health, comfort, and improvement of her young charge.—Terms, for general instruction, 24 Guineas per Annum.—Entrance One Guinea. French,  Italian, Latin, Music, Drawing, Dancing, each Four Guineas per Annum.—Geography, with the use of Globes, two Guineas per Annum. Writing and accounts, Ten Guineas per Annum.—Washing, 12 shillings per Quarter.—Terms, for Parlour Boarders, 24 Guineas per Quarter.

Girls’ schools were an important part of the scene in Regency England and provided a crucial opportunity for gentile ladies to make both a living and a social contribution.

Teachers often made their start as boarders or half-boarders, learning the skills they would later teach, and bound to the school as an apprentice for a certain number of years. They could then become a schoolmistress or a governess. Some also inherited their position; many of the most successful schools were family affairs, with daughters taking over from their mothers, or nieces from an aunt.

Teaching was one of the few professions open to a lady, as a school teacher or as a governess. The former was less secure but might lead to eventual independence; the later offered security, but with little chance of saving for retirement.

It would be another fifty years before the rising feminist women’s movement would place emphasis on a better education for girls as a pathway to greater equality, but the private academies and seminaries of England were a step in that direction.

Two hundred years on, my granddaughter is off to a co-educational school to study subjects her peers of two centuries ago were denied on technology they could never have dreamed of. And her career choices are limited only by her aspirations (which include university). The Regency is a lovely place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

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Opportunity knocks on WIP Wednesday

This week, I’m thinking about opportunities lost and opportunities seized. Do your characters steal a kiss or catch a ship or turn left instead of right, and that made all the difference? Or do they miss their chance, and the story unfolds from their regrets?

Share an excerpt of the opportunity or the aftermath. Mine is from The Realm of Silence. My hero and heroine are travelling alone, posing as husband and wife, but sleeping in separate bedrooms. I’m being economical and squeezing two opportunities into one segment. One recent, and one long past.

Susan managed not to break into a run, but only because five paces took her to her door. Once it was safely shut behind her, she sagged against it, tipping her head back, eyes closed, heart racing.

She heard Gil’s door slam. Perhaps the wind caught it, though she preferred to think he had been shaken out of his imperturbable calm. Serves him right.

Why did she kiss him? She did not even like him. And why on earth did he kiss her back, taking over the embrace and setting her on fire. Annoying, arrogant, overbearing.

She crossed to peer into the mirror, tracing her lips with one finger. They tingled, tender from his passionate assault. Or from hers, since it had begun gently enough. Her body hummed; demanding that she march across the hall and finish what she started.

Her breath huffed; a laugh that caught like a sob. She had come full circle. Long ago, on the other side of her entire adult life, she had been kissed by Gilbert Rutledge, had kissed him back, had waited with all the confidence of her seventeen years for him to speak to her father. Until she learned from gossiping matrons that he had been posted overseas.

She had read into the kiss more than he intended. She would be a fool to repeat the error.

 

 

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