Backstory on WIP Wednesday

Backstory gives our books depth and texture. Backstory is the stuff we know about the characters and their lives that never finds its way onto the page. Some writers I know do very little backstory. Others have whole histories and landscapes that exist in their imaginations and notebooks, and that influence the story but don’t appear in it.

I lean in the second direction, not least because I find it impossible to understand a character’s motivation without understanding the influences that made her who she is.

This week, I’m inviting you to tell me a bit of the backstory of one of your characters or locations. Mine is from Lord Calne’s Christmas Story, my new Christmas novella, and is about the relationship between my hero, Philip Daventry, the new Earl of Calne, and his uncle Brigadier General Lord Henry Redepenning.

Lord Henry links the latest novella to my Golden Redepenning series.

Lord Henry Redepenning met Lord Hugo Daventry at school. Both were younger sons of earls. Both were destined for, and looking forward to, a future in the military, as officers in a cavalry regiment. They became fast friends.

In due course of time, in a London ballroom, they met Miss Susana Blanchard, older daughter of Admiral Blanchard, and both fell in love. To Society, either young man was a good match for the granddaughter of shopkeepers, though her father’s rank and their own lesser position in their families made it acceptable. They waited and watched to see if the two close friends would fall out over the maiden.

But they were to be disappointed. If Hugo’s heart was broken when Susana chose Henry, he hid it well. Indeed, the friends were closer than ever, with Susana included in their charmed circle, and Hugo assured Henry that his feelings had turned brotherly. If it had not been true at the start, it was certainly true the day he came to visit his friends and met Susana’s sister, Arabella.

Arabella was seven years Susana’s junior, and just out when she was introduced to her brother-in-law’s dearest friend, whom she had adored by report since her sister’s Season. He was everything she expected and more. Arabella’s worship-from-afar soon turned to something warmer and more personal.

Hugo found that Arabella was as lovely as her sister and three times as adventurous. Where Susana was happy to stay at home with her growing family, Arabella spoke of following the drum, her eyes sparkling with excitement. By the end of his visit, Hugo was deeply and irrevocably in love.

And so the two friends married two sisters. Henry and Susana created a haven for their five children and other family and friends, a place to be cherished and restored. Hugo and Arabella raised their son and daughter in army camps across the globe, enjoying the travel and adventure. Two very different couples, but firm friends, even to the next generation.

Nearly none of that is in the novella. But I needed it anyway.

Your turn.

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Tea with Callie

Her Grace has heard about the wedding, and sent her carriage and her companion to the hotel Magnus chose as a refuge for the rescued bride. Caroline Thrushnet was carried off to Haverford House to be cossetted, cherished, and prepared for a second wedding, to Magnus and not Lewis, in a few days time.

Now she has followed the footman assigned to wait in the corridor outside her bed chamber, and is being ushered into a small private sitting room, clearly the domain of the duchess, who waits for her behind a large tea tray.

“Miss Thrushnet, come and sit down, my dear. Tea?”

“It would be welcome, Your Grace. I hardly know whether I am on my head or my heels.”

“Indeed. You have sustained several shocks in quick succession.”

That was putting it mildly. First being forced to marry Lewis, who had cruelly closed all other avenues when he threatened Nanny, the only person Callie had left to love. Then being rescued moments before the vows by a man she thought long since dead. And now contemplating marriage to that man, who swore that marriage to him was her only safety.

The duchess asked how Callie took her tea, and busied herself preparing a cup. “Fenchurch is my godson, Miss Thrushnet. He was a fine boy, but his sufferings have changed him. If you wish to marry him, you may do so from Haverford House. If not, then you may remain here with me.”

“But Lewis, Mr Colbrooke…” Lewis had threatened to tell the whole world that she was his whore, and she could not deny that she had lived in his house, though he had done no more than tell her in salacious detail what he would do when they were wed.

The duchess patted her hand. “I cannot deny that marriage to the Earl of Fenchurch is the best answer to his cousin’s lies, my dear. But I am not without my own resources. If you do not wish to marry Fenchurch, we shall contrive.”

Callie is the heroine of Magnus and the Christmas Angel, a story in my forthcoming collection Lost in the Tale. Magnus and the Christmas Angel is set six months after Magnus and Callie marry, and tells how they became reconciled. The excerpt that follows is from a start I made to turn the short story into a full novel or novella.

He was always correct and pleasant in front of others, and she made certain to stay in company as much as she could, but if he caught her alone she could expect to be stroked, fondled, squeezed, even pinched. And at any time she could expect him to sidle up beside her, and bend to whisper in her ear.

Such disgusting things: what he planned to do to her, what he would teach her to do to him. ‘Train’ her, he said, as if she were a dog to be brought to heel or a filly to be taught manners with a curb rein.

One of his delights was to speculate about whether he should wait until after their wedding to introduce her to her marital duties, and each night she propped a chair under the handle to prevent his entrance. Not that such a measure did more than postpone the inevitable, but at least she did not have to fear him entering to rape her while she slept. Nanny had insisted on sleeping in the dressing room, but her presence would not dissuade Lewis if he had not chosen to stay away for his own purposes.

Nor did he do more than frighten and dismay her during her waking hours. No mercy, that. He wanted to give her fear time to build, and it had worked. Now, as each turn of the carriage wheels carried her closer to the church and the vows that would imprison her for life, she fantasised about hurling herself screaming from the carriage and throwing herself at the knees of the kindest looking passer-by to beg refuge. Only the knowledge that the alternative might be even worse—for Nanny, if not for her—kept her in her seat. That, and the watchful presence of Lewis’s guard dogs.

The ride was interminable and over too soon. She climbed the steps of St George’s, flanked by the footmen, and entered at the back of the huge church; walked the great empty length of the nave towards the small crowd of Lewis’s hangers-on, sycophants, and cronies.

They watched her approach, avid-eyed, spectators at her execution. They believed her to be Lewis’s mistress already; had she not lived in his house these past six weeks? For some reason of his own, he had taken her to a hotel when they came up to London yesterday, but her reputation could now only be restored by this marriage.

She kept her back straight, her face calm; stilled the trembling of her hands by sheer force of will. No one would know she was afraid. No one but Lewis, who knew and was pleased.

When she was close enough, Lewis grabbed her hand and squeezed hard enough to leave bruises, digging in his fingers. She hid her wince, but the minister noticed and frowned, and frowned still further when Lewis instructed him to begin.

“She’s here. Get on with it man. Splice me to the damn chit. I have other engagements this afternoon, and a wife’s maidenhead to breach before I can get to them.”

“Sir!” The minister was horrified. “Your rudeness is not to be tolerated in this sacred place, and in the presence of a lady. Miss Thrushnet, such lack of respect does not bode well. It does not indeed. I urge you to consider carefully before you proceed.”

Callie shook her head. “I have no choice. Do it quickly, please.”

The ministerĀ  shook his head, but he began the words of the service. Callie barely listened, until he reached the point that he spoke to the congregation, almost, it seemed, begged the congregation. “If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in Holy Matrimony, ye are to declare it.”

He fell silent and waited. If only someone would speak up! They would not, of course, but even so Callie turned to look at those witnessing this travesty of a wedding, ignoring Lewis’s foul words as the minister ignored his commands to proceed.

The door to the church crashed back, and a large angry man shouldered his way past Lewis’s footmen, beating them off with his walking stick and shouting, “Stop the wedding!”

His face. Callie knew that face. This was a man, and not a stripling boy, and barbaric black whorls and dots disfigured all of one side—forehead, cheek, chin, and half the nose. But she would have known him had the tattoos covered all, by his resemblance to his father and by the leap of her heart as he fought his way furiously up the nave of the church.

Magnus. It was Magnus returned from the dead to save her.

Her head felt light, and then the world spun around her and went black.

The minister caught Callie as she fell, fainting at the horror his face had become. He would have to explain. The men on the ship that rescued him grew used to his tattoos during the long voyage home. Could Callie?

But no time for that now, with Lewis shaking his fist in Magnus’s face and demanding he be removed, not that anyone seemed anxious to oblige him. Lewis’s lackeys were unconscious on the ground at the back of the church; the onlookers eyed Magnus’s stick warily, and his grin with even more caution.

Magnus looked Lewis up and down and his grin broadened. The monster who had made his youth a torment was now six inches shorter than him, and showing signs of dissipation in his broadening girth, his soft jowls. While he indulged every vice in London, Magnus had survived shipwreck, fought to earn his entrance into the elite of a warrior culture, and worked his way home from the other side of the world on a naval vessel.

Lewis turned his shoulder, ostentatiously. “Get on with it,” he told the minister. “This madman has nothing to do with us,”

The minister had lowered Callie to the ground and now stood protectively over her. His words were addressed to Magnus. “Who are you, sir? And what cause or impediment do you bring?”

Lewis argued. “He is mad, I tell you. Will no one rid us of this violent lunatic?”

Magnus ignored his cousin, but raised his voice for the benefit of the onlookers. “I am Magnus Colbrooke, Earl of Fenchurch, and this lady is my betrothed.”

Amid exclamations and questions from the onlookers, and shouted imprecations and denials from Lewis, the minister and Magnus locked gazes for a long moment. Then the minister nodded, and turned his attention to Callie, who was stirring.

Magnus had to attend to Lewis and one of the footmen, who had recovered from the blow that knocked him out and was gamely approaching again. He backed off when Magnus shook the stick at him, more frightened of another blow than of his master, who was red faced and hissing like a steam kettle.

“This is not my cousin,” Lewis shouted. “My cousin is dead. I am the Earl of Fenchurch.”

Magnus would have known Callie’s voice anywhere, though maturity had given it a depth and richness. “My dear Fenchurch,” she said, and the church hushed as everyone turned to listen. She was shaking off the minister’s supporting hand, crossing to Magnus with her hands outstretched in welcome. “You are very welcome. Sir,” she glanced back at the minister, ignoring the avid audience, “this is indeed Magnus Colbrooke, Earl of Fenchurch, and my betrothed.”

Another surge of comment from the rabble, which Magnus did not bother to untangle, instead enjoying the sensation of Calllie’s soft hand in his, and keeping a watchful eye on Lewis and his henchman.

Lewis was shaking his head. “No. I don’t know where you found him, Caroline, but this masquerade won’t work, and you will pay for it in the end.”

“You will be receiving notice from my lawyer, Lewis. I am returned, and I will be taking back my own.” Magnus gave Callie’s hand a comforting squeeze. “Starting with my betrothed, but also my houses, my estates,” he looked pointedly at Lewis’s hand, “my signet ring.”

“I deny it. I deny it.” Lewis shook his fist at the minister, who was smiling. “Do you hear me? I deny it.” He threw a threatening look at Callie. “You came here to marry me. I demand that you marry me. You promised.”

Magnus took a step towards the cur, but Callie pulled on his hand and spoke her own defiance. “I came here to marry the Earl of Fenchurch, to whom I was betrothed before he left for the ends of the earth. I stand ready to do so.” She looked up at the unscarred side of Magnus’s face and smiled. “For here he is.”

“Now?” Magnus asked. “I am willing.”

The minister, though, was shaking his head. “Miss Thrushnet, I cannot wed you to any man today. The impediment to your marriage to Mr Colbrooke is clear, and the name on the licence must be changed if you are to marry another man.”

Lewis blustered some more, but Callie ignored him, thanking the minister politely.

“I am staying at Grillions, Fenchurch,” she said. “Shall we return there so that we can talk in private?”

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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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Backstory on WIP Wednesday

mourning-picture-watercolor-and-gouache-on-silk-1810-nh-metpWe writers know a whole heap of stuff about our characters that never makes it into the final novel. We call it backstory, and every rounded character has one. The art is to trickleĀ out just the facts the reader needs without making it boring, while hinting at further depth underneath.

So this week on WIP Wednesday, show me your backstory. It could be a scene that you have decided not to use, or it could be the trickle of facts that will probably make it all the way through to the final draft.

Whether the passage that follows will survive editing I don’t know. It’s the first few paragraphs of A Raging Madness, and I wrote them yesterday.

The funeral of the dowager Lady Melville was poorly attended—just the rector, one or two local gentry, her stepson Edwin Braxton accompanied by a man who was surely a lawyer, and a handful of villagers.

Alex Redepenning was glad he had made the effort to come out of his way when he saw the death notice. He and Gervase Melville had not been close, but they had been comrades: had fought together in Egypt, Italy, and the Caribbean.

Melville’s widow was not at the funeral, but Alex expected to see her when he went back to the house. Over the meagre offering set out in the drawing room, he asked Melville’s half brother where she was.

“Poor Eleanor.” Braxton had a way of gnashing his teeth at the end of each phrase, as if he needed to snip the words off before he could stop chewing them.

“She has never been strong, of course, and Mother Melville’s death has quite overset her.” Braxton tapped his head significantly.

Ella? Not strong? She had been her doctor father’s assistant in situations that would drive most men into a screaming decline. She had followed the army all her life until Melville sent her home—ostensibly for her health, but really because she took loud and potentially uncomfortable exception to his appetite for whores. Alex smiled as he remembered the effects of stew laced with a potent purge.

Melville swore Ella had been trying to poison him. She assured the commander that if she wanted him poisoned he would be dead, and perhaps the watering of his bowels was the result of a guilty conscience. Ella was the closest to a physician the company had since her father died. The commander found Ella innocent.

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