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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