Monday, August 9, 2021

A Fresh Perspective by a New Crime Writer

 I’m pleased to welcome Karen E. Osborne as a guest author. Karen and I met when we worked for a university in New York State. In those days we wrote a lot, but it wasn’t fiction – or we hoped it wasn’t. I was delighted when I learned last year that she’s joined our ranks. Her second book, which starts with a jolt, is just out. Here’s a chance to learn something about it, and about her. 

Karen: I’ve been writing since the age of twelve and making up stories for as long as I can remember. As a kid on the block in the Bronx, I kept my friends enthralled with fake adventures I pretended to experience. In middle school (junior high back then), I submitted book reports on fiction I created in my head. Gave them titles and authors. Never got caught. Under my photo in my high school yearbook next to “Ambition” it read “Writer.” For forty-three years I worked first as an academic administrator and then, in partnership with my husband, Bob, as co-owner of The Osborne Group consulting and training firm. I wrote the first draft of Getting It Right on airplanes and in hotel rooms. I’m delighted to share my new murder mystery, Tangled Lies with new and returning readers. 



Q: How do you deal with backstory? How much do you need and where do you put it? How do you know what to leave in and what to take out?


I love these questions. They get at the heart of character development, the adage of “show, don’t tell,” and the ultimate challenge of every writer, what to include and what to leave out. Not just backstory, but dialogue, scenes, and even chapters that you LOVE but realize (or a beta reader points out) don’t propel the story forward.


Character Development

Before I can decide what pieces of backstory to weave or not include in one of my novels, I first must create the cast of characters’ histories. I rarely start a story or novel with the plot. Characters come to me. They have conversations in my head and demand I listen. I see them, hear them, and ask questions. Something important happened to them or is about to and often that is the inciting incident for the tale.


Does that sound strange? Does this happen to you? But they don’t always tell me their backstory. I must uncover it — all of it. Where and when they were born. What devastating and formative events happened when they were children, young adults, later in life. Parents’ quirks and reactions, friends, and education. Heartbreaks. Strengths and weaknesses and how they came about. The events that shaped them into who they are today.


The award winning and groundbreaking television show, The Wire, reportedly had a writer assigned to each character responsible for the qualities, traits, mannerisms and so forth, along with a complete backstory so whenever their character appeared in a script, the writer knew how their character would react. That’s what we have to do with our characters as we strive to create complex, nuanced, interesting living, and breathing people on the page.

Tangled Lies was my first attempt at a murder mystery and thus a more plot driven story. But I wanted it to be as character driven as possible without losing the elements of a good whodunit. 


Including Backstory

Monica M. Clarke in this excellent blog post recommends starting with action. I agree. It is another way of following the “show, don’t tell” adage. Show the characters reaction, and then tell your reader why she reacted that way. Of course, not every time and every incident. Pick your moments.


In my third novel, Reckonings, coming out next year, I want the reader to know the main character, Roxy, was raped eighteen years earlier. In chapter one, you see her terrified about the antagonist’s return to town, but you don’t know why. In five backstory sentences, I tell you. “Eighteen years and he can still do this to me. She remembered rough hands pinning hers above her head on the scratchy Army blanket, the throb from the slap across her face and the excruciating pain from his forced penetration. His words rang in her ears. I should have done this a long time ago. You’ll like it better next time.” 


Sometimes, however, more backstory is needed. In Tangled Lies the first chapter provides the backstory — the discovery of the murder. Chapter Two jumps ahead in time. You can hear me reading Chapter One here.


Is This Sentence or Paragraph Working Hard Enough?

When deciding what to include or exclude, I ask myself tough questions. What is the purpose of this sentence, paragraph, scene? Is it the best way to achieve that purpose? Is it working hard enough, accomplishing enough goals? 


Another adage comes into play. “Kill your darlings,” attributed to William Faulkner and Oscar Wilde among others. It means you must cut your especially self-indulgent passages for the greater good of your literary work. Even if you love this chunk of backstory and how beautifully you’ve written it, is it necessary? Does it propel the plot and/or add crucial insight? I find this the most difficult. In my first novel, Getting It Right, I had a hilarious scene in another character’s point of view — different from the altering chapters of my two protagonists. The story was so tense, and packed with suspense, I wanted to lighten in the mood. My beta readers all agreed it was funny and well written but did it do anything else besides add a chuckle? In the end, I decided to add humor in a different way and different place. I killed my darling.


How are you handling this tricky but essential aspect of fiction writing? I’d love to hear from you. You can find me at and on my YouTube  channel or at Karen E Osborne Author on FB. 





Terry said...

Karen, welcome! This is a dynamite post. I have to say it's particularly right for me at this time. I'm in the stage of deciding what to include and what to leave out in my WIP, and you've spurred me on.

I call my "kill your darlings" entries "golden words." I often find those golden words that I thought were so brilliant and realize they have NOTHING to do with the story.

I'm looking forward to reading Tangled Lies.

Susan C Shea said...

The golden words I can do without most particularly are those I realize I used the the previous sentence!

Frank Zafiro said...

Welcome, KAREN!

Excellent post!

Karen E Osborne said...

Thanks for the warm welcome Terry and Frank. And Susan, thanks for inviting me. Terry, I hope you enjoy Tangled Lies. Let me know. Susan, I too hate repeating words and I seem to love some words more than others. Search, change, search, delete. LOL