Shawn L. Bird

Original poetry, commentary, and fiction. All copyrights reserved.

workshop notes: Back story by Diana Gabaldon November 30, 2018

The following notes were taken at Surrey International Writers’ Conference, October 21, 2012. (On Oct 23, 2012 I posted a blog that said I’d post notes ‘soon.’  Is six years later soon? lol)  

What to do with the Back story

Diana Gabaldon

SIWC 2012 Friday  

Backstory is what happened to your characters before they got to your front story.  Backstory still exists, the secret story you’re not telling, but you may give the reader a peek, but it’s every bit of a story.  How much are you going to let them see of the back story?.

Story doesn’t have to start when the character begins, it starts where the conflict starts.

How much does the author need to know vs how much the reader needs to know.  Some authors like to know everything, family trees, index cards, details  Myer Briggs

(Aside: Diana is INTJ/F (50 each end) on Myers Briggs)

What situation is your character in.  Remembering back to when she wrote Disney comics… In comic books, first page set up, big square shows main character and conflict.  4 small squares provide details, bottom of the page off on adventure.  Very straight-forward structure.  In novels, first page we need to know char/conflict.  Need to refer to your back story that explains how he does what he does, pick and choose where things are, when they go off on the story adventure.

Motivation: Entire arcs depends on the motivation, get out, get in deeper.  Want to give the story shape.  Back story explains motivation.  It helps to understand the psychology of the character

Diana starts writing and discovers it as she goes along.  The story evolved as the characters did over the years.  Logistically, something happened, use something else if you’ve mentioned previously.  You don’t need to know everything.  You just need to know them by the end! J It’s for you as an author to burnish and polish them to know.  Motherlode of info to mine out as you need it.  Characters detailed resume and psych profile, actual personality and speech is what lets them do the job.

Show vs tell.  Character needs to speak for himself without telling everything.

What does the reader need to know, don’t tell anything until they need to know it.  Gloat over your secret.  (Know the 5W+H)

Who’s central?  Where and what is he doing?  When may/not be important (Once upon a time there was a woodcutter who lived in a forest.  One day…)

Backstory IS the story in a mystery- historical novels, Josephine Hay Daughter of Time Richard 3,  thrillers and murder mysteries, what led to the moment of violence?  The identity novel- adopted.

19th c they spread out the story longer picturesque novel- it’s out of date- no patience these days, you have start with the excitement.  Unless you’re writing in a deliberately antiquated voice.  Follow the action in both front and back story.

Modern version modified authorial intrusion.  Old fashioned, Narrator unobtrusively adds.

(she tells the marijuana with grandma in the hospital story…lol)

When Lord John talks it’s normal, but the modern reader needs a little more info to understand how it was then.  (“of course there would be no rule of order” Author must  sneak up behind the character and whisper over his shoulder)

Reminding people of the Jacquard effect : Same colour, so it’s very subtle, rich look.  In text , weave back into the front.

e.g.Percy blurp from MOBY daily line last week. (Can’t find a reference to Percy Oct 2012 daily lines. Perhaps this from ECHO?) https://www.dianagabaldon.com/books/outlander-series/an-echo-in-the-bone/excerpt-5-an-echo-in-the-bone-sometimes-theyre-really-dead-lord-john-grey/

or tell it to another character, because the character needs the info.  You have to have a reason for telling that char what happened in the past.

Rachel and Ian walking to Valley Forge (Diana doing Scottish accent. HA!)   Ian having been married before/ not asking Rachel to marry him when he thought  Wolf eyes over her knee, Rollo making his allegiance clear…  Sneaking insertion of back story of Ian joining the Mohawk and marrying Emily  “Oh Ian, I do love thee”  (See end of notes for section*)

You have high tension dialogue going on, keep sense of the relationship, following the importance of the book.  The front story is clearly more important than the backstory, but response reveals current info.

.

Question time at end of workshop:

Is your throat okay? I just naturally sound hoarse, but it’s better when I have some water

Should we have prologues? Prologue some people skip the prologue, but those are probably the same people who skip to the back of the book, and we don’t talk about those people.

Sometimes the Prologue can be used as hook if first chapter is slow.

For Diana, the prologue is the thematic statement. It reveals the “Voice of the book”.

Do you plan the arc of the conversation?  No

I ask, 😊 “Were the short stories and the Lord John books back story before they became stories on their own?”

Not really, Lord Johns fill in gaps, but I didn’t know there was gap.  I wrote Scottish Prisoner little gap  time. Check the timetable of history, oh. Battle of Quebec, I’ll send him there.

WW2 buff told her a Spitfire couldn’t have travelled over the channel, so she says “I bet I can work out a way that this is true…” and so Wind of All Hallows.  Didn’t know Roger’s parents’ story, but knew they had an interesting story.

How did a story as long as Outlander get accepted?! Outlander 304,000 words shortest of the series.  It was far too long to be accepted at the time, but she was sneaky and hid the length.  One way she got away with it

Deception: Husband was a programmer, back then publishers didn’t use computers. Outlander ms was all in written Courier 10, normal set ms Times Roman 12, looks 25% shorter than it was, played with margins .9”  When finalized with traditional sizes the typesetter nearly had heart attack, but it was too late. 😊

How to research- university libraries, research closest to hand and follow the thread (who said what info about what interesting thing, what resources did he use).  Sometimes you just can’t find, and that’s lucky because then you can just make it up. 😊

How do you start? She starts writing each day with a kernel, something concrete- euphonious, where is the light, what’s happening?  She thinks back and forth around the kernel,  things are floating around in your head, bits start sticking together, after a couple years it makes sense

Someone asks about the duality of having a science PhD and writing: Art and science are both the same thing, the ability to find patterns.  Devise hypothesis- is the pattern real- artist embodies in other way of showing, Scientist test purpose observation.  For a writer the hypothesis is the novel and research is peoples’ response.  Predict what happened in the gap.  Historical serendipity- imagine something that later turns out to be true- if you really embody it well.

How long did it take to write? It took 18 mos to write Outlander.  Scene polished as you go, so later revision basically unnecessary- just tweeks.

*Here is part of the daily line chunk that was read as example earlier to show how background information is given, but it weaves in with current story:

“Perhaps,” Rachel said, and swallowed, pushing him away with one hand flat on his chest, “perhaps thee should finish telling me about not being married, before we go further? Who was thy—thy wife—and what happened to her?”

He let go of her reluctantly, but would not surrender her hand. It felt like a small live thing, warm in his.

“Her name is Wakyo’teyehsnohnsa,” he said, and felt the accustomed inner shift at the speaking of it, as though the line between his Mohawk self and his white self had momentarily disappeared, leaving him awkwardly suspended somewhere in between. “It means Works with her Hands.” He cleared his throat. “I called her Emily. Most of the time.”

Rachel’s small, smooth hand jerked in his.

“Is?” she said, blinking. “Thee said _is_? Thy wife is _alive_?”

“She was a year ago,” he said, and with an effort, didn’t cling to her hand, but let her take it back. She folded her hands in her lap, fixed her eyes on him and swallowed; he saw her throat move.

“All right,” she said, with no more than a faint tremor in her voice. “Tell me about her.”

He took another deep breath, trying to think how to do that, but then abandoned the effort and spoke simply.

“D’ye truly want to know that, Rachel? Or do ye only want to ken whether I loved her—or whether I love her now?”

“Start there,” she said, lifting one brow. “_Does_ thee love her?”

(selection (c) Diana Gabaldon Written in My Own Heart’s Blood)

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