Thursday, August 12, 2021

Backstory Guestblog, with Liz Milliron

Craft: 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?

Catriona writes: Ask me how tough it was to have a guest this week and so miss the chance to answer this question myself? Zero tough. My answer was "Oh Lord, I dunno". Now ask how tough it was to be welcoming Liz Milliron back to Criminal Acres? Negative tough. Runny honey. Raw meringue. 

Liz is a writer of  two very distinct series with the same gritty sensibility: the Laurel Highlands Mysteries are set in the reality (not the idyll) of rural Pennsylvania, where shut coalmines, thriving meth labs, rampant wildfires and flash flooding serve as the background to the cases that challenge state trooper, Jim Duncan, and Sally Castle, the assistant PD of Lafayette County. In the Homefront Mysteries, Betty Ahern is working for the war effort at Bell Airplane in Buffalo and solving crimes in her blue-collar neighbourhood, helped by a tight crew of good friends.  I'm a big fan of both, and of Liz too. Liz, take it away!

Liz writes: Thanks, Catriona, for giving me a guest spot on the blog today. It’s always fun when I get to step “in front of the camera,” as it were.

Ah, backstory. We all have one. You, me, your next-door-neighbor, the characters in your favorite book. The question is not whether we have a backstory, it’s if we tell that story, how, and when.

Think about real-life. When you meet someone at a cocktail party, you don’t start the conversation with “Hi, I’m Liz. Let me tell you about every single thing in my life from birth until this morning.” (Athough the thought that someone might is what keeps the question of party attendance on a knife edge! CMcP) First, that would take forever. Especially if birth was, um, a while ago. Second, it’s a snooze and would probably send your newfound companion running for the bar before you got past the stories of kindergarten.

It’s not much different for books. Think about it. If every time a new character is introduced, the author treats you, the reader, to paragraphs of information about the person’s life, well, you probably won’t keep reading. I know I won’t. I’ll skip, skip, skip until I get back to the story. And that’s if I’m feeling generous. Remember Elmore Leonard’s rule? “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Yeah, that’s backstory.

But you can’t ignore it entirely. You didn’t spring into being this morning and neither did the protagonist in your favorite series. So how do I, as an author, balance the two?

First, I decide if the information is relevant. Do you really need to know that I got my shoelace caught in an escalator at age six and it gave me a lifelong dislike of moving staircases? Well, you might – if we’re standing at the foot of an escalator, that’s the only way to get to the second floor, and I refuse to go up. (See what I did there?)

Second, when do you need to know this? Probably not when we first meet. But it would be helpful to know the reason for my refusal to move if we’re at the bottom of the escalator and we’re going to be late if we don’t get upstairs.

Most authors will tell you they know all about their characters and their backstories. Most of the time it never gets used. But an author never knows. For example, Jim Duncan got into a fight in high school with the class bully. I knew about this because it informed his character. But I never planned on putting this into a novel – until one day he sat down to talk to his young trainee about why he chose law enforcement and the story came out.

In essence, I think backstory is like salt and pepper. When you sprinkle just enough, and exactly when you need it, it enhances the tale. A savvy author will dribble bits of backstory throughout the novel. Maybe it’s a scrap of dialog. Maybe through an unspoken thought. Or perhaps an emotional reaction.

So do I love backstory? Absolutely. I want to know the characters on the page, I want to feel they are real people, and I want to connect with them.

But please. Spare me the paragraphs of narrative history. Or else you just might find me making excuses to leave and get another drink.

Liz Milliron is the author of The Laurel Highlands Mysteries series, set in the scenic Laurel Highlands of Southwestern Pennsylvania, and The Home Front Mysteries, set in Buffalo, NY during the early years of World War II. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Pennwriters, and International Thriller Writers. Now an empty-nester, Liz lives outside Pittsburgh with her husband and a retired-racer greyhound.

About Harm not the Earth

When Southwest Pennsylvania’s summer rains flood the Casselman River, State Police Trooper Jim Duncan finds a John Doe body in what is initially believed to be a tragic accident. 

Meanwhile, Assistant Public Defender Sally Castle is approached by an abused woman who is accused of murdering her abuser.

As their separate cases become intertwined, Jim and Sally struggle to determine if their new paths can be traveled together . . .


Catriona McPherson said...

Welcome, Liz! Lovely to have you here. That's the perfect metaphor for caution with back story (and cocktail parties). Cx

Liz Milliron said...

Thanks for having me Catriona. And thank you for the lovely compliments.