Here are my notes from Diana Gabaldon’s Managing a Mob workshop:
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
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)
I am presenting a few workshops this summer, as part of the Murdering Mr. Edwards book tour, and as such I have been researching. In the Finding Inspiration and Voice: a workshop for novelists and poets workshop, participants explore character and plot development through a variety of prompts.
I am using the prompts to shake loose new ideas and bring out things ‘your brain knows, but isn’t tell you.’ This is a very unscientific way to explain creativity and its link to the subconscious, but there is science behind the concept, and here are some articles that may be of interest:
Andreasen, Nancy C. (MD PhD) A Journey into Chaos: Creativity and the Unconscious. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3115302/
“How to Stimulate Creative Breakthroughs: The Unconscious and Creativity.” The Academy of Ideas. https://academyofideas.com/2016/06/stimulating-creativity-unconscious
Seager, Charlotte. “How the subconscious mind shapes creative writing.” The Guardian. 2015 https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2015/apr/07/subconscious-mind-creative-writing-mark-haddon-michelle-paver
loneliness May 25, 2013
inhales oily hair.
strikes a stuttering sibilance.
This journey is
A poem crafted in a workshop with Gary Gottfriedson at Word on the Lake 2013. (Having a great time! Wish you were here!)
The brief: 10 lines with rich imagery; include senses, an amazing verb, and a colour; avoid clichés.
filial effort October 24, 2012
I recently met a mother and a son who are both writers. She has years of experience and several books out in various genres. He studied writing at university, and has a few novels out. At one event, I asked him how having a successful author already in the household influenced his own ambitions. He looked a little irritated at my question, and assured me that his work had nothing to do with anyone else but himself.
I felt a bit sorry for him when he said that, because I recognized a common theme of kids struggling to establish identity and break away from their parents’ influence or expectation by adamantly denying its existence. It is never going to be a simple thing to follow a parent into the same profession or calling. Comparisons are inevitable. It seems to me that recognizing and acknowledging the role his mom played in his success would be a natural sign of maturity as a man and a writer. He could accept the leg up, and then ride the horse with grace, demonstrating his ability and rights to be there.
I watched interactions over the weekend, to see how he handled himself and whether he demonstrated the independence that he vehemently declared.
Despite his respectable literary credentials, he is obviously uncomfortable presenting workshops. He seems like a shy kid forced to present to crowds of people older than him, and that’s not an easy situation. He mentioned earlier that he had been worried about this particular workshop. I had wondered if he had the skill and maturity to pull it together or at least fake it successfully. People are paying money to hear him and learn techniques. He owed it to the attendees to be prepared with practical information.
I wondered if his mom would attend his workshop. I confess, I hoped for his sake that she did not.
He opened with apologies and suggested people go to other workshops because his wasn’t going to be very good. He admitted to not being ready. He pulled out his notes, spoke nervously for a few minutes, and then he was stuck. He had not prepared adequately. He had some notes, but only about 20 minutes worth. It’s quite possible to make 20 minutes worth of notes fill an hour, but it takes skill that he didn’t have. He apologized some more, desperately asking for questions.
His mom watched him fall apart. She tried to help. She asked him questions that he should have been able to answer and that would have filled five or ten minutes if he’d picked up on her hints.
He grumbled at her in typical kid fashion. The audience laughed, recognizing a familiar family dynamic.
He provided a weak answer, one that was almost contrary to fact. She couldn’t let that lie. She had to add, “Don’t you think that…” and then she provided a fascinating and informative few minutes. He was irritated that his mother was speaking in his workshop and grumbled at her some more. “You are a bad audience member!”
To be fair, for the period of time when he was presenting the information that he had in his notes, he was amusing and informative. While he was floundering, the audience was forgiving and pleasant with him. He obviously knows his material, he just didn’t have enough material, or hadn’t figured out how to properly expand it enough or analyze it enough to fill his allotted time. He looked a lot like he was roasting on a spit.
What I found most interesting, however, was that by-play between mother and son. It was a clear example of rejecting opportunity. Being truly independent means you are not afraid to take advantage of the tools at your disposal, even if you hate that your greatest asset is your mom.
I felt sorry for him. He seemed like a mortified introvert, forced to do something that was painful for him; however, an appearance of confidence and capability is important when people are spending money to learn from you. You have to make your audience feel like it’s received value.
Sometimes apologies happen at the start of a presentation, then the nerves pass and the presenter gives value. That didn’t happen in this instance. I felt sorry for him, and I thought I knew how his mother was feeling: knowing that she could have have helped. He was determined to fall by himself, and he did. Such moments are painful for mothers!
I hope he is able to come to terms with his advantages and his skills, while developing the ability to schmooze with the public in order to promote his work independently.
I got thinking about those mother son relationships.
My own son lives 6 hours away, and we don’t get to see him as often as we’d like. He is much younger than the young man who was presenting workshops, but he is much older in many ways. As a teen he went through the stage of believing that being independent meant he had to live far away and refuse help from his parents. He did not achieve many of the goals we had set for him, but he forged his own path. As a result, he has been completely financially and emotionally independent for several years. He markets his skills. He knows how to behave with clients. He is aware of his appearance and the need to present a professional image, albeit a youthfully hip one. He exudes confident capability, as he schmoozes and charms like a pro, despite his youth. It takes effort to look as relaxed and stylish as he does. It takes experience and practice to be confident in himself when teaching skills to others, often older than he is. I like hearing that my son acquits himself admirably in those situations.
I kind of wish he’d been presenting workshops. I think if he’d stepped to the podium, the audience would have been enchanted, entertained, and informed by a confident, thoroughly prepared young man. No one would have been embarrassed.
But I’m his mother. I might be biased.