Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Over-egged, or underdone? by Cathy Ace

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?

Backstory: I LOVE BACKSTORY!!!! There, that’s got that out of my system.

Anyone who habitually reads 7 Criminal Minds will have sussed out that I use it as a bit of a confessional. If not, you might not know that I’m a slightly OCD plotter – taking my plotting notes to a degree where I understand many other writers wouldn’t end up writing the book itself because they’d feel they’d already done that. I, on the other hand, have nothing but amazed admiration for writers who manage to find out, as they write, whodunit, and why.

Thus, as you might imagine, I spend a fair amount of time working out the detail of the backstory for every single one of my characters. A good example of what I mean? I know where they were all born, raised, and went to school, and, in many cases, where their parents went to school too. (NOTE: my own background is in psychology, and especially educational psychology, which I why I am highly attuned to how early-life experiences shape later-life psyche, attitudes, and behavior.) I then draft their entire life story.

Of course, most of this information doesn’t end up in the book – not even the first draft – but I need to know it to understand the characters I’m writing about before I plot, and write. No, my characters don’t walk into my writing room fully formed and introduce themselves (I think I wish they would). No, my characters don’t talk to me (even more on the fence about this idea). But, once they are thoroughly fleshed out in terms of their background, and their psyche becomes clear to me, THEN I’m able to drop them into the situation I have crafted for them (and, of course, I know how they came to be "there, then") and I can allow them to act within that setting and situation according to their psychological profile…which means they do things, and don’t do things, that are appropriate to my plot. If they aren’t cutting it as far as my needs are concerned, I have to amend their backstory to allow them to play the role I need them to play in the way I need them to play it…but with all of that arising naturally from their previous life.

So, I suppose what I’m saying, in a nutshell, is that I like to play God, and this is as close as I’m likely to come to it…I create these people.

That said, what I try to do is drip-feed any relevant backstory into the book as the character is developing, but I use different methods, depending on the type of book I'm writing. 

In my Cait Morgan Mysteries this is possible because Cait and Bud are in a different part of the world each time, with a different cast of characters – so they are always having to get to know those people afresh…which allows the reader to learn about them as my characters do. 

Artwork, highlighting the fact Cait's always on the road, by Free@LastTV

That’s quite a different editing/information selection process than in my WISE Enquiries Agency books where there’s a recurring cast of characters…which means everyone knows almost everyone else (as would be the case in a village/stately home setting where I allow for a few new characters in each book) so I have to use different devices to allow a bit of backstory to be communicated to the reader who might be reading books 2, 3 or 4 first, as opposed to book 1. 

Which one of the four WISE women PIs is a wizard at making Welshcakes...and why?

To be honest – I find the latter to be the greater challenge, because naturally-occurring reasons for a character’s backstory to be revealed are fewer and further between. And, yes, editing information dumps is difficult, or has to be managed carefully (eg: with four private investigators in the WISE books, gathering information about people, then communicating that in some form to a colleague is a useful way for me to provide the reader with information in a “business-like” way).

I hope I do it well enough that readers believe they are reading about the natural attitudes and actions of relatable human beings, rather than two-dimensional cyphers…but it’s a constant battle, and it’s where beta readers and editing really help: because I know so much more about my characters than my readers do, it’s only a reader who can tell me if I’ve over-egged the cake, or if it’s still a bit flat.

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The eleventh Cait Morgan Mystery will be published in November 2021! Have you taken all ten of her journeys with her yet? If not, why not catch up now?

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