Thursday, 14 May 2015

The novel before the novel

Backstory is a critical part of novel writing. The clearest dictionary definition I've read was in Jan Baynham's blogpost on the subject, Backstory. What is it?, in which she defines backstory as:
 "The experiences of a character or the circumstances of an event that occur before the action or narrative." 

Therefore, what's gone before the book begins helps define the characters who the reader will meet in the story, as well as providing the context in which those characters appear at the start of the novel.

The accepted advice is to avoid dropping backstory into the narrative in chunks which slow down the story. It's this consideration which is the subject of Jan's post.

As an author of mysteries, however, my use of backstory is as a critical and considerable part of my planning process. Famously, crime writer Minette Walters said she never plans her novels but just sits down and writes, remarking it would be boring to know in advance what happens in the end (though in an interview with Shots Magazine, she does admit to spending time building her characters).

Unlike Ms Walters, when I set out to write a novel, I do have to know what secret will be exposed in the story before I begin (though I have been know to change my perpetrator during the writing process). In fact, I need to actually plot the backstory in some detail before I'm able to start plotting the novel itself.

Through this plotted backstory, I explore the motivation of my characters and gauge an insight into those characters' reactions to the secret being revealed, which in turn helps me decide on the sequence of events for the novel I'm about to write. This pre-plot also acts as a 'cross-check' reference to ensure that what happens in the novel is a logical and credible continuum of what's happened in the past.

So by the time I've worked all that out, rather than ending up with a simple backstory, I've pretty much got the plot of a whole novel - a novel which never gets written!

While I was writing my first novel, Blood-Tied, I sought advice from author, Margaret James. After she'd read the synopsis and the first few chapters, she said she was intrigued by my protagonist Esme Quentin's backstory and asked whether I'd considered writing the pre-quel to Blood-Tied instead. "But you probably don't want to do that," she (quite rightly) surmised!

Later, as the novel progressed and backstories of other aspects of the novel were revealed, my husband pointed out that these too served as separate plots in their own right, even suggesting that I could use one to write another, completely different, novel. "That's no good," I protested. "It would mean that anyone who read that novel, would already know the secret behind what happens in Blood-Tied!" Besides, it occurs to me now, I'd have to write a backstory for the backstory and I could end up disappearing up my own... well, you know what I mean.

Does this happen to writers whose plots emerge from a series of linear events, I wonder? But then, no character operates in a vacuum, they all need backstory - it makes them who they are, so even if the backstory exists in the author's subconscious, it will still influence the plot. As someone once said, we are all products of our own history. (I think they were the words of a genealogist which, given the subject matter of my mysteries, I find particularly relevant!)

But I don't think I'm likely to find any time soon that I can do away with my double-plot approach to writing. That's OK - I enjoy doing it. It's just that it takes such a long time!

So, writers reading this, how much backstory to you write beforehand? Could it be the bones of a different novel? Have you ever written a backstory and then decided it would make a better novel than the one you were planning? Or do you "sail by the seat of your pants" and rely on your subconscious backstory oozing its way to the fore as you write? I'd love to hear your thoughts.