Friday, August 17, 2018

Lost architectural era...

   The love of old houses, particularly those built in the nineteenth century, has simmered beneath the surface of my imagination since childhood. Maybe it began when I read the second Nancy Drew mystery, The Hidden Staircase. My hometown had many older homes to rival Twin Elms, the house in which Nancy found the concealed stairs and solved the mystery for the two elderly residents. Unfortunately, outsiders found their way to the sleepy old country cow town and, in the name of progress, tore them down to make way for banks, parking lots, and other commercial enterprises.

   But I digress. When I retired and began to travel, that simmering fascination boiled over, and I’ve made it a point to tour older homes of the colonial and antebellum eras wherever I go. Last November I spent an exciting week in Natchez where I chose to see only four of the many antebellum homes open for tours—I wanted to enjoy and learn about each one without the pressure of rushing on to the next tour, and, of course, taking my time would give me an excuse to return.

   And return I will by way of St. Francisville, Louisiana, which is not too far south of Natchez. A chance encounter with information about a plantation called Rosedown led me to investigate more homes and other historical sites to see in St. Francisville.

   Meanwhile, I’ve found a renewed interest in Pinterest (no punny rhyme intended). Every morning suggested pins pop up in my email, and I spend an enjoyable few minutes selecting a few to save. There are now forty-one (!) boards on my Pinterest site, including one devoted to old plantations and which I’ve organized into “sub-boards” by state. Right now I’m adding to the Louisiana board.

   Here’s a list of even more complete “old plantation” boards than mine. Have a browse if you dare, but I warn you, it’s addictive!!

These four sites are only the tip of the iceberg. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Rosedown and other Louisiana Homes

In November, I hope to head back “down South”, farther this time to St. Francisville LA, where there are more antebellum homes to tour. Among these are:

  • Butler-Greenwood
  • Catalpa
  • Cottage Plantation
  • Greenwood
  • The Myrtles
  • Oakley
  • Rosedown

Learn more about each of them here.

Visit this Pinterest board to see spectacular exteriors and some interiors of surviving homes throughout Louisiana.

Somewhere I stumbled across a mention of Rosedown Plantation, which sparked my interest in researching other antebellum homes in Louisiana. Most of its nearly 3,500 acres were planted in cotton, and construction on the house began in 1834 and was completed the following year.

Currently, I’m reading a book called Plantation Parade by Harnett T. Kane (1945) which tells the stories of many families who built and inhabited these grand homes. The flowery writing doesn’t detract from the tales about the larger-than-life people behind the walls. Selected details find their way into my research notebook. Who knows? A few may emerge (disguised, of course) in a future story.

Before I go, I’m looking forward to learning more about all the plantations I hope to see. So much to learn, so little time...

Monday, August 13, 2018

If you're not the expert, do the research!

One of my most admired graduate profs asked me a question once about an anachronism, and I'm ashamed to say, I blew it. But I never did it again. I should've replied that I didn't know the answer instead of hazarding a guess. All of which is why I try to do diligent research if I'm writing about a topic I know nothing/little about--or even if I think I know something. As sure as I put down the "facts", they'll turn out to be "fiction". Good advice:  Look it up! You don't need a cell phone in a story set in the 1920s, and you don't want to state facts about medicine, for example, that turns out to be false. Write responsibly.

Craft: Research and Conflict

Recently, BookBub ran an offer on a novel by Ken Follett, Hornet Flight, originally published in 2002. It was a good deal and I’m a Follett fan and I missed the book when it first came out, so I grabbed it and read it over the next few days.
Here’s the product description, from Amazon:
It is June 1941, and the war is not going well for England. Somehow, the Germans are anticipating the RAF's flight paths and shooting down British bombers with impunity. Meanwhile, across the North Sea, eighteen-year-old Harald Olufsen takes a shortcut on the German-occupied Danish island of Sande and discovers an astonishing sight. He doesn't know what it is, but he knows he must tell someone. And when he learns the truth, it will fall upon him to deliver word to England—except that he has no way to get there. He has only an old derelict Hornet Moth biplane rusting away in a ruined church—a plane so decrepit that it is unlikely to ever get off the ground . . . even if Harald knew how to fly it.
The reason I’ve quoted this product description is because it gives away an important part of the plot that happens about 90% of the way into the story—when Harald (with his amateur pilot girlfriend) takes off in that decrepit old Hornet Moth, carrying essential information for the Brits. I don’t normally like to reveal plot twists so near the ending. But it’s right there in the product description provided by the publisher, so apparently they’re okay with it.
So our heroes here are Harald (who has had one flying lesson) and his girlfriend Karen (who has a bit more experience flying the plane, but has a badly sprained ankle). And they have to fly that plane tonight—this is their last chance to get out.

What Goes Wrong For Our Heroes

You might imagine that all sorts of things could go wrong on a night flight over the North Sea by two ill-trained pilots. And you’d be right.
What I particularly enjoyed about this book was how well Follett showed those things going wrong, and how believably he showed Harald and Karen fixing things, one by one, as they went wrong. 
Engine won’t start? I’d have guessed the battery was low. But the Hornet Moth didn’t have a battery. It had an impulse starter that was prone to jams. There’s a way to fix it, but you have to know the trick. You don’t learn that trick by guessing. You learn the trick by doing research. 
Flying blind in a cloud? I’d guess you should fly by instruments. But which instruments? The Hornet Moth was primitive. You had one instrument to tell you if you were gaining or losing altitude, and it wasn’t the altimeter, because you didn’t have an altimeter. Which instrument was it? You learn that by doing research.
Attacked by a Messerschmitt? I’d guess you haven’t got a chance, flying an unarmed plane made of wood and linen against a faster Nazi fighter plane with machine guns and cannons. But you do have a chance. It’s not a great chance, but it’s a chance. You learn what that chance is by doing research.
Engine misfiring? I wouldn’t have any idea why. But there’s a reason an engine starts misfiring, and there’s a fix for it. You learn the reason and the fix by doing research. 
Can you fly all the way from Denmark to England in a Hornet Moth? If not, could you bring along some extra fuel? And if so, how would you get that fuel into your tank mid-flight? Those questions have answers. You know the drill. Research.
In the Acknowledgments for the book, Ken Follett lists all the people who helped on his research. He thanks one of them for giving him info on what can go wrong when flying a Hornet Moth. He thanks twenty-nine other people who gave him help on numerous other aspects of life in 1941 Denmark. That’s a lot of research.
And it shows throughout the book. 

Why Research Matters

Research can be an essential part of crafting your story. Here’s why.
Some problems can’t be solved no matter how clever you are. If you’re writing a novel, you need to know what those problems are so you don’t write them into your story. You find that out by doing research. 
Other problems are trivial to fix. You don’t want to bother writing those into your story because they’re not real problems. Once again, research. 
Other problems are hard to solve, but your heroes can fix them with skill and luck. Those are the kinds of things you want to write into your story, because those create excitement. Research.
Research matters because it helps you mold your conflict. It tells you the difference between good conflict and bad conflict. And it hammers your good conflict into great conflict.
Research is good, but I’ll close with one caveat.
There will always be something you get wrong because you don’t know what you don’t know. You can probably never do enough research. 
But try.

Reprint Rights
Permission is granted to use any of the articles in this e-zine in your own e-zine or website, as long as you include the following 2-paragraph blurb with it:
This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit

Friday, August 10, 2018

Another free read...from Camp NaNoWriMo

   Jacquelyn—never called Jackie—leaned against the historical marker on the front lawn of Old Main. In her day, the building had been the entire college, and the land surrounding it only bare dirt which became a muddy swamp when it rained. It rained often.
   She studied the Greek Revival building with its faded mustard-colored bricks and broad stone steps leading to a shaded porch and three sets of double doors. A replica of Rodin’s bronze, The Thinker, blocked her view of the middle doors. It hadn’t been there when she was a student. She’d asked once why a male figure had been placed so prominently on the campus of a women’s college and was told a wealthy trustee had donated it. With her art education, she could think of several more appropriate figures.
   Letting her eyes drift upward three floors to the silver dome, she remembered her first sighting of it as the train belched and billowed its way into Ralston. It hadn’t rained that day, so the sun glinted off the dome and turned it into a sparkling beacon of hope. Or perhaps that’s just what it was for her.
   Her stepmother had overruled her father’s edict that Jacquelyn had attained as much education as necessary for a woman after leaving the one-room school in her hometown. “She’s bright,” Sylvie had declared. “She deserves to go to college, and you can well afford to send her.” So he had.
   Even weary and grimy from a day and a half on the train, she had hope for something more beyond what she’d known for sixteen years: the farm twenty miles from a single road town without much more than a post office and a general store, three half-sisters and a half-brother for whom she was expected to help care, and church once a month or whenever the preacher could manage to come.
   She wasn’t unhappy. Her father treated her kindly and provided well for all of them. She didn’t remember her mother, and Sylvie was a pleasant companion even with four children of her own. But Jacquelyn knew there was more, much more, and she wanted it.
   “What is it, Ivy?” She didn’t turn around.
   “Wouldn’t you like to check into the hotel before the dinner tonight?”
   “I suppose we should.”
   Ivy took her mother’s arm. “I’m glad you decided to come back. You’ve never shown any interest in previous reunions.”
   “I’m not too interested in this one, but I wanted to see the college one more time.”
   “It’s changed at lot, I expect.”
   “I wouldn’t recognize it except for Old Main. I’m glad it’s still here.”
   “The historical marker says the two wings were added in 1916.”
   “I finished the year before. We were already crowded.”
   “Perhaps we can find the house in town where you boarded.”
   “I heard it burned in the thirties.”
   “Oh, that’s too bad!”
   “It was vacant.”
   “How many of your classmates do you expect to be here?”
   “I have no idea. I lost touch with all of them years ago. Except for Latrice, of course.”
   “Your roommate. You drove all the way to Austin for her funeral twelve years ago.”
   “I wouldn’t have done it for anyone else. She came and stayed with me at a time I desperately needed someone.”
   “When I was born.”
   Ivy took her mother’s arm to steady her on the sloping ground. “I remember her from later visits.”
   “She never had any children of her own, so you were special to her.”
   “You loved Colton College, or so you said, but you never wanted me to come here.”
   “You did well at Smith.”
   “Yes, but...”
   “This was a good school for its time...for girls of the time. It still is, I suppose, but...”
   “Well, I’m glad you came for your fiftieth reunion. It’s time.”
   Jacquelyn slid into the car. Yes. Yes, it’s time. Time to put the past to rest if it ever can be.

   Ivy watched her mother circulate at the somewhat sparsely-attended dinner that night. At seventy-one, she was still beautiful: tall, slender, graceful, her face scarcely lined, her white hair elegantly-coiffed. Her mother had always been perfect in her eyes, but their relationship had been different. They’d been friends as much as mother and daughter, even though Ivy hadn’t inherited Jacquelyn’s artistic talent.
   That talent had provided well for them through teaching, private lessons, exhibitions with hefty sales of both paintings and one-of-a-kind jewelry. Ivy hadn’t missed a male presence in their home. Hadn’t even questioned it until she was twelve, when her mother sat her down and explained to her about the birds and bees. She’d heard most of it from her friends, but for some reason, the session prompted her to ask the question she’d rarely considered.
   “Where is my father?”
   “I have no idea.”
   “We weren’t married.”
   “Why not?”
   “He was married to someone else.”
   “Who was he?”
   “One of the professors at Colton. An art professor. My advisor for the last year of my course.”
   “What was his name?”
   Jacquelyn had hesitated. “I’ll share that information for you when you’re twenty-one.”
   Ivy accepted her mother’s word without question, but she didn’t forget it. On her twenty-first birthday, they went out to dinner in Northampton, and Ivy asked for the promised information.
   Her mother’s hesitation surprised her, but she waited for an answer. “His name was Roland Wolcott.” Somehow Ivy knew the name hadn’t passed her mother’s lips in all those twenty-one years.
   “Is his name on my birth certificate?”
   “No, I promised him I wouldn’t name him as your father.”
   “So he knew about me.”
   “Oh, yes, he knew.”
   “Did he...” Ivy stopped. “I’m sorry, that’s none of my business.”
   “Was he in love with me?”
   Ivy nodded.
   “He was...attracted to me. His wife had been an invalid for years. I was in love with him, or at least, I thought I was. But I was nineteen. A very young nineteen. He said...” She stopped. “Well, I believed in love. In dreams-come-true. In happily-ever-after.”
   “How old was he?”
   “Did he help you at all?”
   “He gave me some money when I left school after graduation that spring. I couldn’t go home, of course.”
   “Did they know?”
   “Sylvie suspected, but she went along with my story that I had a job in San Antonio and had to go immediately. She convinced my father.”
   “He never knew about me, did he?”
   “He died when you were newborn. It was very sudden. A heart attack. Sylvie sold the farm and took the others back to her people in Ohio. We corresponded until her death, but we never mentioned you.”
   “And your half-sisters and brother?”
   “We lost touch long ago.”
   “It must have been very difficult for you to keep me. Women didn’t do that in those days.”
   “I never thought of anything else.”
   Ivy reached across the table for her hands. “I’m glad.”

   Ivy thought of those private revelations as she watched her mother float among the other women who all looked years older. She’d never pursued more information about her father, but now she wondered if the library would have pictures of past faculty members. At the very least, it would be nice to know what he looked like.
   Her mother knew, as always, what she was thinking. Back in their room, she said through the darkness of their hotel room that night, “I expect the library will have a picture in one of the books. I understand he stayed on until he retired just before the war.”
   “Did you ever want to marry, Mother?”
   Ivy didn’t ask why not.
   “We made a life together. It was enough. I’m glad you chose to marry, though.”
   “Twice. After Bill died on Anzio, I thought I’d never be able to love anyone else.”
   “Then you met Jerry, and you’ve been very happy.”
   “Yes, I have. The children are almost grown and doing well in school, and Jerry’s business is thriving. We’ve been fortunate.”
   “I’d say so.”

   The next morning after breakfast, they drove to the college library. “Our library was one room in the basement of Old Main,” Jacquelyn observed as she paused in the door to admire the spacious new building.
   “That wouldn’t be adequate now.”
   “Hardly. Ask at the desk where copies of the old annuals might be.”
   The girl, obviously a student, directed them to the third floor. “At the back. That’s where all the historical information is kept.”
   “The first annual was published in 1921,” the woman in the back room told them.
   “That’s too late,” Jacquelyn said. “I finished in the first class. Nineteen-twenty.”
   “Were you looking for pictures from that time?”
   “The faculty. I’d like to see pictures of the faculty.”
   “We have files on the first faculty members. Most of them were hired when the school opened.” She escorted them into an adjoining room and handed each of them a pair of white gloves. “I’ll be right back.”
   “We’re only interested in one,” Ivy called after her.
   The woman turned around. “Which one?”
   “Wolcott. Roland Wolcott.”
    “Got it. Be right back.”
       The yellowed folder contained Roland Wolcott’s educational credentials, a brief biography, and a single faded photograph mounted on pasteboard with the name Ellender’s Studio, Chicago, Illinois barely decipherable in the lower right-hand corner.
   Ivy watched for a reaction from her mother, but it didn’t come.
   “He was handsome, I think,” Ivy said after a moment.
   “He was quite young in this picture. He wore a full mustache when I knew him.”
   “So he was from Chicago.”
   “I think he mentioned being from there. It’s been a long time.”
    Ivy consulted the other papers. “He was born in 1880 in Wisconsin, but he attended the University of Chicago. It says he had a degree in business, but he was an art professor here.”
   “He was very knowledgeable. And very talented. He worked in bronze, like the Rodin in front of Old Main.”
   “His biography says he enjoys travel and music.”
   “He went to Europe every summer, or so he said.”
   “He was hired by Colton College the year after it opened. You came the same year.”
   “It doesn’t mention a family. A wife or children.”
   “There were no children, and, I suspect, no wife, even though he told me she’d been an invalid since early in their marriage.”
   “Why would he tell you that?”
   “He was...or wasn’t, as they say in modern parlance, the marrying kind. I rather think I wasn’t the only young woman he flattered.”
   “But you knew what could happen.”
   “I knew.”

   Ivy asked if she could have copies of everything. The woman didn’t ask why when she collected the four dollars. As she returned everything to the folder, she paused. “You know, it’s odd, but a couple of years ago someone else came in and asked for this folder. I’d forgotten.”
   This time Ivy felt her mother stiffen.
   “A woman?”
   “No, a young man.
   “I don’t suppose he left a name...”
   The woman frowned. “He did, in fact. I thought it was really strange, but he said...” She went to the card file on her desk. “He said if anyone else came in asking to give them his name and contact information.”
   Ivy’s knees went weak. She pulled her mother aside. “Should I take it?”
   Jacquelyn took a deep breath. “You’ll always regret not doing it, I think.”
   “All right,” Ivy said. “If you’ll be so kind as to write it down for me...”
   The woman had already begun writing. “It’s beginning to make sense to me now.” She glanced at    Jacquelyn and flushed. “I’m sorry, I...”
   “No apology required,” Jacquelyn replied.

   Jacquelyn said she’d attend the luncheon alone. “I expect you need some time.”
   “Yes, thank you, Mother.”
   “The afternoon tour begins in Old Main at two o’clock.”
   “I definitely want to see that much.”
   “Then I’ll expect you.” She kissed her daughter’s cheek. “I came to put the past to rest, Ivy.”
   “But your past is my present—and maybe my future.”
   “You’ll handle things well.”

After the hurried tour of the old building, Jacquelyn and Ivy declined the rest of the campus tour. “We’re going to exorcise some ghosts,” she said to the woman she’d introduced as Jeanette and who, she said, had tutored her in algebra, something she hadn’t been taught in the one-room school.
I think I feel some,” Jeanette said and laughed. “That horrible woman who berated us if we were one minute late to her French class.”
“I think she turned into a poodle and was last seen on the Seine.”
Jeanette wrinkled her nose. “You were always good with puns. Not so much with what x equaled.” She hugged Jacquelyn. “I’ll see you at dinner tonight.”

   “You’ll want to see the art classroom and studio,” Jacquelyn said to Ivy when they were alone. “It was on the second floor, and there was no elevator then. We carried our supplies up and down and stored them in lockers in the basement next to the library.” She started for the narrow flight of stairs at the end of the corridor.
   “Maybe we should take the elevator, Mother.”
   “I climb the stairs in my house, you know.”
   “But there are...”
   “We’ll come down in the elevator.”
    On the second floor, she paused in front of the last room on the left. “This was our art studio.” The door swung open when she touched the tarnished brass knob. “It hasn’t changed much. They don’t have classes in this building now, so everything’s been left as a sort of museum.”
   Ivy stepped inside. “It smells...arty. Like your studio at home.”
   “In those days, with permission from the Dean of Women, we could come back to the college after dinner and work until nine o’clock. We had to come in pairs, but Latrice always secluded herself in the library.”
   “Did she know...”
   “I think she had an idea. For a while that term, everything was platonic. In February, things became personal. He told me about his invalid wife and how he took her to a spa in Europe every summer for her health. Things progressed from there.” Jacquelyn turned to face her daughter. “You were conceived in this room, Ivy.”
   “You don’t have to talk about this, Mother. I’m not sure I want...need to know anyway.”
   “Yes, I do. I do have to talk about it. I was very young, very naive, but I knew right from wrong. I knew I was playing with fire. The last time I saw him, just after graduation, I came up here to collect two paintings left on exhibit for the parents who attended the exercises. Father and Sylvie couldn’t come because the children had measles.”
   She crossed the room. “They were hanging right here. He came in while I was taking them down and helped me wrap them in brown paper. Then he handed me an envelope with some money and said he hoped it would help me deal with my situation.”
   “Your situation?”
   “Then he asked me not to name him as the father because of what it might do to his wife if it ever got out. He swore he’d never been unfaithful until he met me. But he didn’t apologize.” She smiled.    “I suppose I was still in a state of shock just knowing I was pregnant, or else I might’ve thrown the money in his face.”
   “It was all a lie.”
   “Oh, yes. But you weren’t a lie, Ivy. I loved you long before I ever held you in my arms, and I never regretted bringing you into the world.”
   Ivy kissed her mother’s smooth cheek. “I love you very much, Mother.”
   “I think we’ll take the elevator down. I remember almost falling when I carried those two paintings down the stairs fifty years ago.”

   “Have you made any decisions?” Jacquelyn asked her daughter as they drove away from Ralston after breakfast the next morning.
   “I’ve done some thinking, but I want to talk to Jerry first.”
   “Yes, you should.”
   “Are you glad you came, or did it stir up bad memories?”
   “I don’t have any bad memories, Ivy. I was privileged to receive an education. Like many girls, I made a mistake, but only one. And, because of you, I didn’t spend a lifetime paying for that mistake but rather being enriched because of it.”
   Ivy took one hand from the steering wheel long enough to pat her mother’s arm. “Thank you.”
   Jacquelyn smiled into the morning sun. “Thank you.”

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Going, going...gone...

Available on Amazon

My fascination/obsession with antebellum architecture/history continues. Recently I found Antebellum Mansions of Alabama by Mark Hammond (1951) in the local library. The author visited 300 old mansions before narrowing his focus to 50 plus one. His stated purpose for writing: to preserve design and construction details and tell the stories of the builders, thus preserving their legacy. His premise that the story of man’s sojourn on earth is preserved in the buildings that remain is, I believe apt.

Why they were built

His first chapter, “The Antebellum Mansion Movement in Alabama”, focuses on the years between 1840 and 1860, during which (he says), the goal was “unadorned beauty, lasting dignity, boldness toned with grandeur, quality of line and form and grace, and a profound goodness of permanence and construction”.

The driving influences

  1. Geography—Three fourths of these grand homes were built on or near rivers for the more practical purpose of transportation both of goods and people.
  2. Slavery—The regrettable institution provided not only hands to build but first to acquire the wealth for construction, but it’s interesting to note that the average planter had no more than ten slaves. Higher numbers from 50 to 250 weren’t the norm.
  3. Economics—Wealth flowed into the pockets of planters from cotton and sugar cane. They wanted to build the best no matter how long it took.
  4. Politics—Cities like Tuscaloosa, the first capital, and Montgomery, the present capital, gave rise to large homes.
  5. Climate—Long summers and hot, humid weather dictated wide verandas and living areas built above ground level.
  6. Architects—The demand for these artists outweighed the supply. Ordinary farmers build their own homes, less grand but just as serviceable.

Gone forever...

Nothing, of course, lasts forever. Even the Greek and Roman temples have crumbled and had to be repaired or even reconstructed. The grand homes fell on hard times during the Civil War, often destroyed by opposing troops, and during the following years of Reconstruction when money for upkeep was scarce to non-existent. Many families hung on as long as possible before selling out. Other families just simply walked away, leaving the houses to the mercy of the elements.
But the stories of those who dreamed...who built...and who saw those dreams die...strikes a chord of loss for me. The world in which they lived couldn’t endure, because it was built on the faulty moral premise of slave and free, black and white, rich and poor.

Yet, seeing pictures of crumbling edifices brings a more crushing finality than a weathered tombstone in a overgrown cemetery. Rather than judge those who sat on the verandas, trod the grand staircases, and laid out gardens to rival those across the Atlantic, I reflect on how they lived their lives wearing the blinders of their generations. They themselves were slaves to that which would ultimately bring about their fall.

Related links:

List of Plantations in Alabama
Ten Surviving Plantation Homes in Alabama
10 Endangered Alabama Homes, Plus 15 Mansions Lost to History

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Backstory: Another borrowed bit from Randy Ingermanson

Craft: Backstory and Front-Story

Every character in your novel has a past, a present, and a future.
The future is fuzzy and out of focus, but your characters think they know what they want their future to be. 
The future that your protagonist wants is called the “story goal” for your novel, and it drives your story forward.
Your front-story is whatever is happening right now as your protagonist tries desperately to reach his or her story goal. 
The front-story is the reason your reader reads. Without a front-story, your novel is dead in the swamp. As much as possible, you need to always keep your front-story on center stage in your novel.
But your character has a past also—all the things that happened in their life that made them the person they are today. That past is called “backstory.”  

Backstory Matters

Backstory matters a lot. Nobody just walks onto the stage of your story without a past. Everybody carries baggage. The older you get, the more baggage you carry, unless you learn to let go. And nobody ever lets go of it all.
But backstory can be a story-killer. Reading a novel that begins with a huge lump of backstory is like going out on a first date and spending the whole time hearing about the other person’s miserable, horrible, no-good, very bad childhood. 
There’s a place for backstory. That place is not at the beginning of the story. At the beginning of the story, you want to be focusing on the front-story. The stuff that’s happening right now.
In Star Wars, we spend quite a lot of time getting to know Darth Vader before we ever learn that he’s Luke’s daddy. If we found that out in the first ten minutes, we wouldn’t care. Because we wouldn’t know Vader and we wouldn’t know Luke enough to care yet. But at the right place in the story, that little bit of backstory carries the force of a proton torpedo.

The Cardinal Rules of Backstory

So how do you know when to bring in backstory?
Here’s are two simple rules I use that guide me well most of the time:
  • Bring in the backstory at exactly the point when the reader must know it in order to make sense of the scene I’m writing right now. 
  • Tell only as much backstory as the reader needs to understand just this one scene.
These are not iron-clad rules. They’re useful rules of thumb. Use them when they improve your story. Ignore them when they don’t.
The TV series Lost used backstory heavily. Lost had a very large cast of characters, and it took many episodes to get to know them all. 
Typically, each episode highlighted just a few characters, and one or two of those would have a flashback that showed off some essential piece of backstory in their lives.
When I say “some essential piece of backstory,” I mean that piece is essential to understand the episode in which it appears.
Over the course of six seasons, we saw more and more backstory about each character, and understood them better and better.  
If you liked Lost, I suspect that part of the reason you liked it was that the backstory was strong. The backstory served the front-story.

Developing Your Backstory

There are two basic ways that novelists use to create their backstory:
  • Figure it out before you need it
  • Make it up as you need it
People who like to plan their novel before writing it (such as outliners or Snowflakers) usually figure out most of their backstory before they write their novel. Of course, during the process of writing the story, they’ll think up new bits of backstory and add that to whatever they started with.
People who like to write their novel without preplanning it (such as seat-of-the-pantsers and edit-as-you-go writers) usually make up backstory as they’re writing scenes. Then when the story is finished, they may need to do some work to make it all consistent and fill in any gaps. 
It really doesn’t matter which way you do things. Your brain is wired to favor one method over another, and I don’t recommend fighting the wiring in your brain. Work with your brain, not against it.
But however you prefer to work, I strongly recommend that you spend some time making sure your backstory is strong. It should be a reasonable explanation of how your character came to be the person they are. It should increase the conflict your character feels during the front-story.

Editing for Backstory

I also strongly recommend that when you edit the second draft of your novel, you should fire-test each chunk of backstory as it comes up in the story. Could you delay telling this bit of backstory until later in the story? Would that improve things? If the backstory is essential right now, could you tell less of it? Would that improve things?
The goal here is not “to get rid of all the backstory.” That would be like cutting off your nose to improve your smile.
The goal here is “to use the backstory to make the front-story as good as possible.”

Reprint Rights

Permission is granted to use any of the articles in this e-zine in your own e-zine or website, as long as you include the following 2-paragraph blurb with it:
This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit