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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writing- #SiWC16 Keynote by Donald Maass October 26, 2016

Transcribed from my notes at Surrey International Writing Conference last weekend..  While I was sitting in the front row, I wasn’t typing, so he was speaking faster than I could record.  This is what I got.  Others may have something different!

Donald Maass keynote SiWC luncheon. Sunday, October 23, 2016

We live in a very angry age.  Everyone wants you to listen to their complaint and live as they do.

SiWC is our place of positivity. Our tribe.  We want to live here all the time, but it ends.

So as SiWC 2016 comes to an end, how will we survive the year until SiWC 2017?

We will write.

We will schedule writing time, give ourselves daily word count or time goals, put Xs on a calendar, work with a critique group so we have deadlines, read books on writing.

(Check his blog Writer Unboxed for ideas).

 Why do we write?

Orwell says it’s for hubris, aesthetics, a historical impulse, or to lead the way.

Susan Orlean says it’s to learn about the world

American Christian Fiction Writers say it’s to answer your own questions

Jodi Picoult says it’s to puzzle out the questions she doesn’t understand.

Exercise: For a minute free write why YOU write.  (Everyone writes)

Take that ^ exercise and make it visible, remind yourself daily why you do what you do.  Don’t worry about publishing.  Just sit down every day and write what you need to write.

When we write we connect to others.  When we read, others’ experiences become our own and we are no longer alone.

We are passionate about writing- we’re excited about conveying truth

Matter in motion creates energy.  Writing what matters creates energy.

Life disappears in a moment.  There might not be a chance beyond the writing session today.  Write your best truth in the best way possible.  Today.

#ThisDayWeWrite

(Donald at the podium, me directly in front of him with the long white and purple hair)

 

 

poem-circles October 24, 2016

Filed under: Poetry — Shawn L. Bird @ 2:52 pm
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I’m

circling

I’m

adding,

growing, and

learning.

I’m

becoming

the dream me

I see her

in

laughter

applause

award

I’m

circling

up to the prize

it’s closer

and

closer

with every

word.

.

.

I just came back from the annual Surrey International Writers’ Conference.  My first year there, I successfully pitched to a publisher.  My third time I successfully pitched to an agent.  When I first started attending, I admired the amazing writing of the winners of the $1000 Storyteller Award and the humorous writing by the winners of the 75 word Silly Write contest.  I dreamed of winning those contests. I’ve entered a couple of pieces 5 or 6 times over the years.  This year I didn’t have a project to pitch, but I submitted to both contests.  I was short listed for the Storyteller (3rd year in a row short  listed for a writing contest at SIWC!) and my entry came second in the Silly Write.  I was thinking “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.”  🙂  On the other hand, I feel the precipice I’m standing on- I am appreciating the fine line of difference between good and great.  

When several hundred people are laughing at your jokes and cheering when your name is called, you can’t help but feel inspired.  

You know how there comes a time when the craftsman requires particular tools to create true art? Because of the amazing craft workshops I attended (Donald Maass, Diana Gabaldon, Susanna Kearsley, Shari Green) and meal conversations (Larry Brooks, Nephele Tempest, Jack Whyte) I feel like I’ve been given the master tools that will make the difference to leap off the precipice and FLY.  I feel that intangible sense that things are about to change, and I’m excited!

 

reading, reading, reading… December 22, 2012

Filed under: OUTLANDERishness,Reading,Writing — Shawn L. Bird @ 3:25 pm
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At the moment, I’m listening to the last chapter of Diana Gabaldon’s Echo in the Bone which will wrap my eighth trip through this series (some 8000 pages) since I discovered it October of 2011.  I read constantly: novels for adults, teens, and children, magazine articles, e-books, knitting instructions, blogs, and research material.  I knew it was ‘a lot,’ but I wanted to quantify it, so this time last year I signed up on Goodreads.com with a challenge to read 100 books in 2012.  I am at book #98, and as today is the first day of Christmas holidays, I should have no trouble surpassing my goal in the last 8 days of the year.  (I only got to count the Outlander series the first time I read each book in the calendar year, which definitely has impacted my totals).

I read somewhere on her blog that Diana Gabaldon herself reads 3 to 400 books a year.  That seems super-human!  At the Surrey International Writers’ Conference author Chris Humphreys casually remarked in a workshop that “Diana doesn’t sleep.”  I know that she works at night, but it seemed to me that she must be both a fast reader, and one who incorporates reading into most of her daily activities.  I just came across this blog post of hers that tells exactly how she does it.  Précis: books are everywhere, and her nose is always in one!

I feel like she does, that a house without books is weird.  Moreover, they feel kind of ‘wrong’ to me!  There is not a single room in my house that doesn’t have a few books in it!  Bathrooms have a book or two on the back of the toilet tank, bedrooms have them on shelves or night tables, kitchen has cookbooks, living room has my latest research material, writing books, and a stack of whatever I’ve got from the library.  The basement has travel books, craft books, and hundreds of university books. (I was an English major, so my classics library is prodigious).  I haven’t read *every* book in the house, but I’ve read most of them.  Ones I haven’t read yet, I hope to read someday soon!  (Except John’s psych text books).

DianaGabaldoncaughtreading2 (1)I had felt pretty good about accomplishing my 100 book goal this year, amid writing two novels, keeping a ‘more-or-less daily’ blog, and teaching full-time, but apparently I have a long way to go! 😉  Diana is an excellent role model, however.  She both reads daily, AND gets a thousand words written each day on whatever novel or short story project is in progress.

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Here’s Diana, reading at SIWC.  This is a photo for Word on the Lake’s “Caught Reading” promotion, which you might want to be part of.  Stay tuned!  (I should have used a better camera for this!)

 

what’s lingering from #SIWC2012 November 7, 2012

As I pound away on my NaNoWriMo piece, I keep hearing a voice in my head.  Not surprisingly, it’s Diana Gabaldon’s <g> but it’s not the advice I thought I was taking from my blue pencil or all the workshops I attended at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference.

At my blue pencil, Diana and I discussed historical language, dialogue, and whatnot, and while that was important,  what I keep hearing in my head is her laughing voice summarizing,  “You need to have something happen …   And it needs to be something fairly interesting.”

I mean, that’s not news.  That’s so obvious that it’s painful.  She was specifically saying that if the section of my historical novel that she read was going to end up as the beginning, then something intense had to happen.  However, the line is turning into a mantra when ever I sit down to write.  I suspect that is what makes Diana’s books so  engaging.  On EVERY page, something happens.  It’s good advice.  Don’t explain.  Make things happen.

As I write, I can clearly hear Diana’s voice, chuckling with me, just as my time with her was running out, and I think that basic though this comment might be, it might be the most important thing I took away from SIWC this year.

Something has to happen.

I intend to ponder it a lot.  We are authors.  We make things happen.  All these NaNoWriMo words are created from nothing.  We’re making things happen.  When I’m typing away I need to keep making things happen.

In my life, I need to make things happen.

NaNoWriMo count day 7: 1651  (Total 10,664)

 

Historical Fiction- Riding the Wave by CC Humphreys workshop notes October 30, 2012

This post is based on my notes from  CC Humphreys’ workshop “Historical Fiction- Riding the Wave” at Surrey International Writers’ Conference, October 21, 2012.  If you were at this workshop, and think I’ve misrepresented anything, please let me know in the comments below!  In places my notes were cryptic!

C.C. (Chris) Humphreys has written several styles of historical fiction:

epic: A Place Called Armageddon

biography: Vlad

swashbuckler: Jack Absolute series

Writing is about character.  Fit them into historical context.  What’s important is people in a situation, whether the time is 500 years ago or 5000.  They’re still people.

Tell yourself, “I’m a modern novelist I write for today I address today’s issues.”  Whatever the theme is emerges sometimes years after.  You see the thematic threads later.  What you’re writing is set in a previous context, but it reflects today’s concerns

Research- how why what

Look up stuff .  Anything you use is as a tool for telling a story.  Diana Gabaldon describes a  master who seemed to believe for history books, “I’ve suffered for my research, now it’s your turn.”  The research Chris does gets him going, but in the end research has to be a tool of the characters.  You can’t appreciate the character’s journey without their context.

No tangents and sidebars! If the history needs to be there to make sense of the character’s experience, then make an active choice around it.  For example, in A Place Called Armageddon, he had to address the schism between the branches of Christianity.  Orthodox and Roman churches governed people’s lives in Constantinople, Constantine. said he’d covert to Roman Catholicism if Europe would support him in war.  So the information must be given.  Another character needs to tell the information.  In Vlad– the Balkan history was complex and necessary.  He had to use structural device to oscillate between fact and story.  In his case the device was either friend, lover, or confessor gathered in a basement talking about their experiences.

There are stakes involved in the research.  It’s all about being active in historical research.  In his case, he would bring the reader back to the dungeon to discuss needed information.  People need the info, you tell it very actively through conversation, etc

With his first novel The French Executioner, he spent 6 years researching.  He was scared of writing it.  He felt he had to research until he knew everything, but it’s not necessary!  It’s just procrastination!    Do enough to get going, but then start writing, and fill holes as you need to.  Julian Barnes said, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”  Facts are loose.  Our history has been selected as fact by people who wanted to tell a story.

Write the best book you can write.  The excitement is rearranging the facts to suit the story.  If someone writes you later and says, “This is wrong,” so what?  You wrote a book!  Don’t do anything egregious, but it’s not your prime concern.  Your concern is telling a good story.

There is so much that you don’t have control over, simplify to what you can control.  Your attitude is controllable.  Dismiss as absurd that there is a panel of experts ready to shred your book.  They don’t exist. They’re not relevant.  Ignore them.

Do the research.  It doesn’t open telling details.  It’s a springboard to the imagination

Some tips:

For the rhythm and vocabulary of the time, read the plays written in the time period to see how people speak  buzz words, ways of talking.

For the emotional life of the period, read the poetry of the period

To the reader- dramatic reading, to give the context.  it’s the compact with  the reader, if you have a obscure time period, give an active explanation to tell them what they need to know.

Put your character in peril!

Process-

When handling all the different elements, break down the process, simply because it’s easy to be overwhelmed.  Novel writing is like mountain climbing. First ascent should be as free form as possible.  Writing the novel will give you more ideas for the novel.

Psychology of time-

Different psychology is evident in different periods.  People’s beliefs and attitudes of the time aren’t necessarily the same.  Don’t put anachronistic things into period character’s mouths, but your readers are modern.  Shakespeare still relevant because at their core the stories are about people.  People don’t change.

Plausible for the time and the people.  Address details in subsequent drafts if they seem anachronistic.  Balance it out: take the character on a journey so a modern change happens logically.  Emotions don’t change.  We still have primal emotions.

Should you go visit the place where your story is set?

How you arrive there is tricky.  Even if you visit the place where your story is set, it won’t be the same.  Go if you can, though.  If you go, there are very different atmospheres to absorb.  There are sounds and scents.  Engage your senses.  If you can’t go, it’s trickier, but we have a modern world with amazing things on the internet.

Use an Aide memoire while you’re there, or heck, write a whole scene.  Make notes, record your feelings, and then months later you’ll be able to pull it out and put it into the story.

Readers who love historical fiction are after characters, but also time and place.  Pay attention to how time and place has changed.   Consider what is the same?

The goal is an intimate epic.

If you feel you want to abandon the book you’re writing for another project, are you being distracted by something shiny bright and new- or just stuck?  If you can’t go on, that’s fair, but don’t be distracted just to avoid doing the hard work.  You will get to places when you just need to plough through.

Writing dialogue- balance ye olde English with clearly understandable writing.  Personally, you’ve got to be a little careful with it, but not so much that you restrict your character’s voice.  Let them say whatever you want in the first draft.  Slang is just ways we’ve come to get the point across.  Find something they can say in 1692.  Cussing can be a problem – soldiers need a certain saltiness – something analogous to the act of sex, but do the terms bring you out of the time period?  Make a choice for your reader.

Recommended reading for finding vocabularly: Shakespeare’s  Glossary of words by David Crystal

The further back you go in time, the easier it is, especially if it’s a foreign tongue.  Find an equivalent phrase to create a reasonably easy way for your characters to speak.  Make them more articulate than normal people on the street, though many were well educated.  In novels- it’s about style, right.  Find the truth in the character and then the character will speak truthfully.  Be sure you offer readability for the modern reader, while honouring the age you’re writing about.

Consider the marketing line in one sentence: e.g.  “Elizabethan spy novel.”   They expect your character to be unexpected.  It’s all about exploration, pushing the boundaries!

e.g. Jack Absolute:- Double O 7 of the 1770s

The reader can figure out the words you use.  They’re not stupid.

Audience member: Or you can do what Diana Gabaldon did and write a book that explains the first 4 books.

Chris: But that’s Diana you see.  She doesn’t sleep.

 

learning, looking back, and moving on October 29, 2012

Filed under: Writing — Shawn L. Bird @ 7:42 am
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My father asked me tonight if I’d learned anything at ‘that conference’ I went to, and whether I would change anything from my last books as a result.

No.

So it’s perfect, as it is?

Yes, Dad.  It’s as perfect as I could make it.   I went to the conference for the NEXT book.  All the workshops I picked were about the next project.

A little while later he tried again, trying to convince me that I didn’t understand his initial question.  Wouldn’t I change things, if I was starting over now?

No.  The book is what it needed to be.

He sighed, sure that I wasn’t getting his point.

I know he didn’t get mine.

Every day you’d write a different book.  Every day your words are new.

You can’t look back.  The last project is finished.

There is no point writing if you’re not trying to write the best book you can, at the time.

There’s not point thinking about what you should/could/would do once it’s out, though.  Once it’s in the publisher’s hands, it’s no longer yours to fret over. It’s gone.  It has its own life.  It makes its own connections with readers.

Luckily, Grace is doing just fine.  I don’t have to worry about ways I may have failed her.  I poured the best I had into her world.  It’s done.  She’s being well received.  Is she perfect?  Well, probably not.  But she’s as perfect as I could make her at the time, which means, Yes. She is.

It’s like raising children.  You do the best you can, and then you send them out into the world.  If your personal imperfections cause trouble for your kids as adults, there’s no point beating yourself up about it, or even contemplating what you could have done differently.  You did the best you could at the time, and now you have to look toward the future and doing even better.

Behind us lies the way of madness.  There can be no room for regret, only moving forward, to become the best we can be for the next project.  We learn to improve for the future, not to improve the past.

Past perfect 🙂

 

 
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