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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When you break eggs, make omelettes

I’ve set myself a challenge in the epilogue of Farewell to Kindness. My secondary character David, who is hero of the book I plan to write next, is reported to be missing. No-one has heard from him for four months.

I don’t know where that came from. It was in the plan to send him searching for his heroine, known in Farewell to Kindness as Mist. But four months? Where did she go? Where did he go? What is holding them up and why? I have absolutely no idea. And I don’t know how the answers are going to affect the already plotted chapter outline of Encouraging Prudence.

I started Farewell to Kindness thinking I was a planner. And I am. But the bits of the book that excite me most are the ones that came out of nowhere and insisted on changing all of my carefully structured plans. My main villain turned out to be someone quite different to who I intended, the book ended a month earlier than intended and in a different locale, and several characters that weren’t even in the first draft demanded their own place in the 3rd.

I’m tentatively learning to trust my subconscious. When I find I’ve dropped a whole heap of eggs all over my plot, I’m learning to give a cheer and enjoy the ensuing omelette.

I came across this article by Juliet Marillier that talks about characters taking overeggs. What she says rings true to me:

So here I am, getting to the pointy end of this manuscript with my characters in increasing peril from external sources and at the same time beset by internal conflict (there’s a strong thread in the Shadowfell books about conscience and responsibility – can lies, deception and violence be justified if they’re the only way to achieve a greater good?) I know already that my two protagonists can’t come out of the story without significant psychological damage. And now one of those protagonists has started making choices I didn’t plan for him. Awful choices. Crazy, unwise choices. What’s going on?

I find while I’m writing the last part of a book, the part where I ratchet up the tension and present my characters with impossible choices, I sleep fitfully, dream vividly, and think about the story and characters most of the time, often to the detriment of whatever else I’m supposed to be doing. I get a lot of ‘brain churn’, a not-especially-helpful overload of story details bubbling around in my mind. I become quite disturbed when my characters have to face terrifying situations or sink into a mass of dark thoughts. Perhaps that’s because their stories, though fictional and including fantasy elements, are not so different from the situations some people still face in our world, in places where tyrannical regimes use terror as a tool of control. Or perhaps it’s because my protagonists feel like real people to me, and I, the author/God of this creation, have chosen to subject them to hell on earth. Now one of them is challenging me in a way that makes me uncomfortable.Go on, push me. Push me to the edge. See how much more I can take before I jump.

Characters don’t exist independently, of course, however real they may become to us. They are indeed all in our minds. If another writer came to me for advice on the situation outlined above, I’d say keep writing, let the character have his head, finish the novel, then go back and rewrite that section if you’re not happy with it. If a character seems to be pushing or pulling hard, chances are that’s the natural direction for the story to take. If the guy is in your head all the time, urging you on, what you write may well be inspired.

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