Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Slivering the Backstory

Authors are constantly admonished not to get sucked into the quicksand of backstory—especially early in a book or at the introduction of each new character—yet there are aspects of a character’s prior experiences that writers really do want readers to know. There are relationships and episodes from the past that help in understanding who the character is in the today of the story. You can recognize when there’s too much backstory when your mind wanders. And “too much” doesn’t refer to word count, but to relevance.

A great many authors have steered around that particular hazard and made it work for them. Richard Osman did in The Thursday Murder Club with his character Joyce’s diary—a natural place for someone to record observations about the past; in Ann Patchett’s clever The Magician’s Assistant, the backstory is the story.

Since my character, Archer Landis, is about age 60 in 2011, he was in his early twenties as the Vietnam War was ending (I’ve done this arithmetic about a hundred times, convinced I have it wrong!). The war, the draft, the demonstrations would have been very much top-of-mind for him at a crucial and formative stage of life, and their impact would have been indelible.

I didn’t need a deep dive into his war experiences—like Michael Connolly did so well in his first Harry Bosch novel, The Black Echo, or as Frederick Forsyth did in The Avenger. Characters in both of these novels were tunnel rats, and their Vietnam war experiences shaped their subsequent lives and futures. Understanding their war experiences in depth was appropriate. Those scenes were so powerful and immersive that each time the story returned to the present day, I was briefly disappointed.

But I didn’t need that. Instead, I doled out Landis’s war memories in small bites. He returns to his Vietnam experiences at three points in the novel. I hadn’t realized it as I wrote, but in each case, those experiences recapture his attention when he’s in the greatest immediate danger. It’s as if the intensity of the hazard resurrects them. In one example, anticipating a possible violent confrontation, he contrasts his experiences confronting the Viet Cong with his options in the present-day situation. This memory triggers a reflection on the kind of person he has become. It isn’t a digression to tell a war story; it’s showing who he is now.

These snippets are reminders that Landis engaged in the issues of his day, in the past and the present. He was a part of those past events, just as he’s aware of the world of 2011. Such fleeting references help me—and the reader too, I hope—see Landis as a fully rounded person who has a past, but is not dominated by it.

Image by Vinson Tan for Pixabay.

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