What my high school reunion taught me about writing BACKSTORY

Sitting at a table at my high school reunion recently, this thought struck me: “This is how backstory should work.”

Huh, you say. Let me explain.

I’ve know most of the people at my high school reunion more than half my life. I didn’t have to ask mundane questions to get to know them. When I looked in their faces, I saw not the wrinkles but teenagers I remembered from our school days.

We were (are) a close knit group, attending English class or studying for Algebra or cheering our Austin High School Maroon football team. We laughed about our Red Jacket (the drill team) adventures, relived football losses, groaned over teachers and relived our glory days on the yearbook and newspaper staff as reminisced.

I knew their past.

But what dawned on me was that what I remembered from those good ole days is only a small portion of their story. As we shared over the three day reunion, I learned of their triumphs, their heartaches, their success since we’d last been together.

Did I learn everything at once? No. Piece by piece they shared stories. Backstory came to light that had shaped who they were today.

Like all my high school friends, I know my characters. After all, I am creating them.

And like my friends who told their stories over the time we were together, that’s how I must reveal my character’s background–slowly as it relates to the story and character development.

This is where new writers often err in their opening scenes, revealing anything and everything that’s happened up to the time of the inciting incident.

There are times when a bit of backstory is necessary for the reader to grasp what’s going on and why it’s important. But, editors and agents agree a newly submitted manuscript with backstory dump in the beginning scenes is the biggest kiss of death for the work.

Writers, whether new or seasoned, must tread carefully when considering how much backstory to include. We should trust the reader’s intelligence to “get” what’s going on without providing lengthy backstory.

Think about it. Is it really necessary for the reader to know Mary has been married three times, each relationship ending badly, to “understand” why she’s looking for a good relationship. Usually, that kind of backstory, while indeed important, should be doled out later in the story and bit by bit.

A general rule is keep backstory either absent from the opening or only include as much as is absolutely necessary to set the scene for the inciting incident.

To quote Donald Maass, “no backstory in the first fifty pages.” And then, only to do one or more of these things:

1. Raise the stakes
2. Reveal motivations
3. Express innermost fears
4. Reveal obstacles

Easier said than done for most writers, including me.

I think of backstory as “BS.” Literally. I ask myself does the reader really need to know this in order to relate to my character? The answer is usually no!

Another way to think of backstory is as carefully placed clues to the mystery of the character and why they are the way they are. Hints to keep the reader turning the page.

Just as I discovered my old friends’ stories gradually, we writers need to let readers find backstory clues throughout the book until they’re brought all together to explain how and why the character changed or clarify whatever the character did.

What do you think about backstory dumps in the opening pages? Do you close the book or keep on reading?

Share

Secret Lives of Bookmarks

This makes me want to be a bookmark. How about you?

Thanks, Passive Guy for sharing.

Share

Vanishing Time, Scary Fires, and Happy Endings

One day I’m writing a blog post and it’s May. Suddenly it’s July 1st.

Where’d June go?

 Life was too busy to even notice, but I can tell you there was a whole lot of moving going on.  We helped our son and his family pack their home and move to Illinois. Then we packed and moved ourselves to Colorado for the summer and fall.

Did you notice the new porch on the blog banner?

 We’re here in our cool little piece of the Rio Grande National Forest.  

We brought two grandsons with us and they stayed for awhile. We had fun hiking  and touring the sites.

Then the boys went to their new home and wildfires erupted throughout Colorado.

We watched via local news as acres and acres of forest burned and hundreds of homes were destroyed. And wept for the people and the animals. Today those families are returning to what’s left of their homes.

The fires are still sad and scary, but thanks to some outstanding firefighters the big Waldo Canyon fire is under control. We’re praying the others will be controlled soon too.

Though we’re safe from forest wildfires for now – the nearest is 50 miles away over the Continental Divide, we’ve had some drama here on the front porch…

Three days ago a couple of summer folk here for the 4th of July stopped by the porch to ask if we had seen their two white Pekingese dogs. The dogs had gotten out of the cabin they rented. The owners couldn’t find them.

We’d only seen them walking with their owners the day before.

My heart broke for the owners and the dogs. I couldn’t imagine losing my four legged babies. Plus, there’s lions, tigers and bears in woods, you know.

We watched for the little white fur balls, but never saw them and feared they were gone forever.

Then today, as we sat on the porch, two kids stopped and asked if we were missing our dogs. Buster and Toby bounded to the fence to greet the kids so they knew we hadn’t.

They said two white dogs had come down off the mountain from the woods behind their grandmother’s place and they were keeping them until they could find the owners.

My dh and I looked at one another. The dogs had to belong to the couple. We lent the kids two leashes and told them where to find the couple. We didn’t know the cabin or house number, only the street.

Those two Good Samaritan  kids went door to door with the little dogs until they found the owners. When the young tween returned the leashes, I told her I would write about the good deed she and her brother had done.

I don’t think she believed me. But what better way to get back on the blogging track than with a happy ending story. I love happy endings.

What about you? Have you had any happy endings lately?

Share

Accepting the Versatile Blogger Award

How cool to check the blogs I follow yesterday and discover that Elaine Smothers blogger extraordinaire had nominated me for the Versatile Blogger awardI’m so excited to accept the nomination. Thanks, Elaine.

As with most blog awards, acceptance comes with certain rules found on the VBA blog along with the snappy looking logo download.

Having been awarded the Versatile Blogger award, I must now:

Thank the person who gave you this award. I’ve already thanked Elaine, but I don’t think a second thanks fine. Thanks, Elaine.

Include a link to their blog. That’s an easy rule to follow and a pleasure to do because Elaine and Forrester share versatile and fun blog posts. Check them out for yourself here.

Next, select 15 blogs/bloggers that you’ve recently discovered or follow regularly and nominate those 15 bloggers for the Versatile Blogger Award. This rule was a bit more difficult to follow because I’m not sure who’s already been nominated. Here’s my list and bloggers, if you’ve already been nominated congratulations!

1. Margaret Miller
2. Kat Jorgensen
 3. Jane Carver
4. Patricia Caviglia
5. Barbara Forte Abate
6. A.E. Huppert
7. Patricia Sands
8. Donald Bueltmann
9. Ciara Gold
10. J.D. Faver
11. Melissa Ohnoutka
12. Emmie Mears
13. Suzan Hardin
14. Jennifer Bray-Weber
15. Pat Thunstrom

Finally, tell the person who nominated you 7 things about yourself. Okay, Elaine and Forrester get ready. Here are some quick things you might not know.

1. I play the piano. Not well. I like to say I have the skill, but not the talent.

2. My thumb is kinda green. This was our Angel trumpet last year. The fragrance filled the air in the backyard.

3. I used to paint. Still life and tole painting were my styles of choice. Now I paint walls, but only when I can’t hire someone else.

4. I drive slow when going through Missouri. Once got a speeding ticket when “trapped” by a radar tracking helicopter there. I don’t think my Texas license plate with the vanity trim holder that reads, “Get in, sit down, and hold on,” helped my plea of innocence.

5. I’m a dog lover. Especially Old English sheepdogs. We even share bad hair days!

 6. The dogs and I walk no matter what the weather. That’s Toby’s adopted brother Buster walking with us. (He’s a ten pound Maltese.) They’re wearing matching red coats.


7. Much to my surprise, I enjoy blogging and tweeting. Thanks, Kristen Lamb for convincing me. I’m proud of my WANA tribe badge.

Okay now, blog readers, did you learn anything shocking from my reveals to Elaine and Forrest?

Share

We Remember: Memorial Day 2012

This Memorial Day weekend along with the hot dogs, hamburgers and swimming, I want to honor and remember those who have gone before with this video of TAPS being played by a ninety-two year old vet. A heartfelt thank you to those who have lost loved ones serving our country. I’m sincerely grateful to all of you.

There is something singularly beautiful and appropriate in the music of this wonderful call. Its strains are melancholy, yet full of rest and peace. Its echoes linger in the heart long after its tones have ceased to vibrate in the air.” Quote from an article by Master Sergeant Jari A Villanueva, USAF

Words to Taps

Day is done,
gone the sun,
From the hills,
from the lake,
From the skies.
All is well,
safely rest,
God is nigh.

Go to sleep,
peaceful sleep,
May the soldier
or sailor,
God keep.
On the land
or the deep,
Safe in sleep.

Love, good night,
Must thou go,
When the day,
And the night
Need thee so?
All is well.
Speedeth all
To their rest.

Fades the light;
And afar
Goeth day,
And the stars
Shineth bright,
Fare thee well;
Day has gone,
Night is on.

Thanks and praise,
For our days,
‘Neath the sun,
Neath the stars,
‘Neath the sky,
As we go,
This we know,
God is nigh.

Note: there are no “official” words to Taps. These are the most popular. More about the history of Taps can be found at the official Military Funeral Honors History of Taps page and 24 Notes That Tap Deep Emotions

Our Memorial Day celebrations would not be complete without a big thank you and honor to all of those who serve every day and their families.
Memorial Day Comments

SOURCE for graphic: Magickal Graphics

Share

What the books do when the store closes…

I thought this was too fun not to share:

Share

Monday Morning M Words

Letter posts are an interesting and intriguing way for bloggers to learn more about each other. They’re also entertaining.

Recently, travel blogger and WANA alum Tami Clayton shared her list of 10 things she loved that began with the letter “A.” Her post was fascinating. Her word choices and the accompanying pictures and graphics wonderful. I left a comment telling her so. She gifted with me with a letter to share about myself. Introducing…

It’s Monday. It’s May. I’ve already done a post about the whole month. But couldn’t resist choose MOTHER’S DAY for my word list. Here’s a picture of the clan minus two granddaughters who gathered to celebrate.

I write as Judythe MORGAN. It’s a pseudonym combining my first name and my husband’s middle name. My latest novel, THE PENDANT’S PROMISE, is available. Click here  to read more about Lily and Alex’s love story or buy a copy with a click Kindle or Nook

I love MOUNTAINS. Soon we’ll be leaving the rising heat and humidity of the Gulf coast and head for the San Juan Mountains and the Rio Grande National Forest of Colorado.

MAD MEN As a writer I find this TV series  fascinating. I thought it too edgy at first, but now I’m so hooked. I even read the blog  for inside info. The script writing is excellent. Don Draper makes an intriguing main character. Not a particularly likeable hero, leading a double life and yet still flourishing. The show represents well the era.

MR. MAROO My high school mascot. It’s crazy, but it’s true. My high school mascot is a fuzzy little maroon ball.

The first published cartoon featuring the modern mascot was in the September 20, 1957 Austin Maroon Newspaper, where the Mascot (about 1.3 meters tall and hairy) is attacking the football mascot of one foe or another. Mr. Maroo doesn’t speak – you have to look him in the eye to see if he’s your friend or your foe. And he wears the beanie because beanies at one time were the traditional headwear for a freshman. Since Maroo never goes to class, he’s still a freshman, more than 50 years later.

I’m including Mr. Maroon for MARYBuckham. Her recent BREAK INTO FICTION workshop in my hometown of Austin coincided with my high school reunion. We met and I shared about the school’s history. I think she’s still laughing over our school sport teams being Maroons.

Btw, if you’re a writer and you don’t have a copy of her book BREAK INTO FICTION you should get one. Plotter, or not, the templates in this book will help you nail down your story. Click here to order.

MAJOLICA is any earthenware with an opaque glaze of tin oxide. I collect pitchers and love the majolica glaze. The colors are vivid and the designs have intricate details. All of these pitchers are examples of 19th century Majolica.

M&M This was the very first M word that popped into my head. I count the little chocolate candies as a major dietary component. M&Ms first appeared in 1941 as a treat for the G.I. Before my time, but I’ve certainly eaten my fair share since my birth. We keep my dispenser on the kitchen counter. I count walking downstairs as exercise that entitles me to an extra handful. As you can see g-kids were here over the weekend and the dispenser is empty!

MUSE  No writer’s list of M words would be complete without including this word. Muse is a writer’s awareness of our environment beyond the level of most people. Anything and everything can be a source of story ideas, no matter how large or small. I hear a fragment of a conversation and have a story starter, the way the light falls on a rose petal gives me a description to use, how a wine tastes or the caress of a fabric provides sensory feeling that translates into a character’s emotional reaction. It’s quite true what my tee-shirt says: Careful or you’ll end up in my next novel.

Thanks, Tami for selecting the letter M for me. It worked so well. You’ve stirred my muse. I didn’t realize I used so many M words.

Do you have M word favorites? Make a comment and request a letter to join the Word List blog challenge fun.

Share

Remember writing book reports?

I loved writing book reports when I was in school. Still do after a fashion.

Voracious reader that I am, I love to tell others about great books I read. So I’m constantly giving oral book reports in the form of “Have you read such and such?”

I also post reviews for the books I really, really love on review sites and at e-retailers.

That’s so important. All reviews help author sales. It doesn’t matter whether the review is good or bad.

People often say they don’t know how to write a review. It really isn’t difficult. A review doesn’t have to be long or detailed like those book reports for school. Even a sentence or two can convey whether you liked a book or didn’t.

Here are some suggestions:

“This story was well-told. I fell in love with the hero on page 2.”

“Always pleased with stories by this author.”

“Predictable, but still a good read.”

“So disappointed. Not up to her/his usual standard.”

If you’re still nervous about the actually posting a review on Amazon. Check out this video I found by Douglas Goldstein. It demonstrates exactly how to post a review for a book.

Share

Mother’s Day 2012

Biology is the least of what makes someone a mother. ~Oprah Winfrey

Today is Mother’s Day. I’m swinging on the porch swing thinking I totally agree with Oprah’s quote. I’ve some motherly women in my life. Sad to say, most of whom are no longer with me and only one I called Mother.

First, the little four-foot six-inch Irish immigrant Oma Julia. Oma because she married into a strong German family who settled in Texas. She began the lineage.

Next there’s her daughter Helen, the one who birthed me:

Apologies to my brother born over a decade after this picture was made. I couldn’t find a picture of all four of us with Mother, which made me sad. (Note to self–take more pictures.)

Then there’s Rose, the Mom-in-love I inherited when I married. What a jewel she was!

She raised one fine son and for that, I am eternally grateful.

And last, but never least, my Aunt Bick, the one who always says, “The stork just left you at the wrong house.”
We’ve had some real adventures through the years. I love when you remember and we can relive those moments.

Can’t end a Mother’s Day blog without special thanks to these three who ushered me into the ranks of motherhood.

And all of theirs who crowned me grandmother.

Happy Mothers Day to them all and all of you. Hope everyone is having a fantabulous day.

Share

The Merry, Merry Month of May

While many of us consider this month to signal the beginning of summer, we also need to think about all the military centered observances in May.

Today is one of four dates set aside for honoring military in the U.S.

On Tuesday 8 May 1945 the World War II Allies formally accepted the unconditional surrender of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Today we celebrate that victory. 

There’s a fascinating story of the firing of Edward Kennedy the AP correspondent who broke the story– perhaps the greatest scoop in history– and was then furiously denounced and expelled from liberated France. He won a posthumous apology from an ungrateful employer after 50 years last Friday. Click here  to read.

Then on May 19th we celebrate Armed Forces Day.

May 22th is National Maritime Day. A day set aside to observe the U.S.’s proud maritime heritage and honor the men and women who serve and have served as merchant mariners.

Lastly, May 28th is Memorial Day. Originally called Decoration Day, it’s a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service. Many wear red poppies on Memorial Day which symbolize the red poppies that grew on a battlefield in Belgium during World War I and immortalized by Canadian Lt. Colonel John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields.

Moina Michaels, an American professor, was inspired to write her own poem in 1918, which included the lines:

We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led.
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.

Michaels was the first to wear a poppy, and sold poppies to her friends and co-workers with the money benefiting servicemen in need. Four years later, the VFW became the first veterans’ organization to nationally sell poppies. 

You’ll find a reference to the poem in my soon-to-be released book The Pendant’s Promise. And, a Memorial Day picnic plays a prominent role in the love story of Alex and Lily.

May is indeed a month with opportunities to honor our miitary. On each of these days, my family will be pausing to remember and recognize those of have and are serving. And, no doubt, we’ll all be hearing TAPS played at one or more of these celebrations. It’s the song generally played on a bugle or trumpet that sounds at dusk, during flag ceremonies, at funerals, particularly by the U.S. military, and often at Boy Scout and Girl Scout/Guide meetings and camps. 

I recently learned that  2012 is the 150th anniversary of TAPS. Read the complete story of TAPS from blogger Diane Kalas

Besides the end-of-school/graduation parties and beginning of summer celebrations,  will you be celebrating any of these military holidays in the merry, merry month of May?

Share