Backstory

I’m working on whittling a manuscript of 100,000 words down to something approaching 80,000.  I actually don’t mind this kind of edit.  Having to cut forces me to consider every scene, paragraph, sentence, and word.  Do I really need it?  Does it serve the story?

One of the things to evaluate is backstory—events that shaped characters’ lives before the book’s opening scene.  It’s essential to convey information readers need to understand the motivation driving a protagonist through the story.  Slowing a story down with excess information is a problem.  Sometimes a very fine lines separates those two things.

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Near Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario

As I work on this, I’ve been thinking about stories that interpreters related during my recent visit to Fort George National Historic Site of Canada, in Ontario.  During the War of 1812, Fort George served as the headquarters for the Centre Division of the British Army.

One of the places I most wanted to visit was the enlisted mens’ barracks.  I was particularly interested in learning about the lives of the handful of wives and children who lived there, in the same room with 40 or more soldiers.  The interpreters shared a number of fascinating stories about family life, and I instinctively made mental notes for future book projects.  (I can’t help myself.)

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Interpreter in the enlisted men's barracks.

This young woman painted a vivid picture of the day a regiment left Britain.  The soldiers, who had enlisted for 21 years, were marched onto a waiting ship.  If they were married, their wives and children waited on the dock.  Then a lottery commenced.  A few lucky women were chosen to accompany their husbands to North America.  The rest knew that they’d probably never see their men again.

The interpreter spoke of a pregnant woman who threw herself into the sea when her number was not selected.  She spoke of wives who, although lucky enough to be chosen, were told that they could not take all of their children.  In that heart-wrenching moment, some children were left behind to make their way on the streets, or to seek shelter in an orphanage.

It is hard to imagine the grim necessity that forced families to face the enormous gamble that began with a married man’s enlistment.  It’s also hard to imagine the chaos on the dock, and likely also within the ship, as children, women, and men listened for results of the lottery.

Family quarters, Fort George

Hanging blankets provided a family's only privacy. Children slept wherever they could find a spot. Wives and children were expected to work.

These stories might be considered backstory for the people interpreted at Fort George.  They worked because of their emotional resonance.  They provided a new layer of understanding about the fort’s soldiers and their families—those who came, those who stayed behind.

I’m hoping I can do as good a job of choosing bits of backstory to leave in my novel.

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3 Responses to “Backstory”

  1. Donna Druchunas Says:

    I love cutting. It’s so fulfilling to see how much better the story reads when you’re done.

  2. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    It took me a while to get the hang of it! Writing books for a series, with an enforced maximum word count, was excellent practice. I think every writer should pretend they have to cut a manuscript down. They really do end up cleaner and crisper.

  3. Arletta Dawdy Says:

    Despite years of reading historical novels and history, I’d never come across such a backstory as what you describe happened on the docks! What an amazing story could be drawn from just such a backstory moving to the “front.” My imagination is running full speed!
    I spent a good part of last winter cutting 10,000 words from a mss and you and Donna are correct about how much we learn in that process. In my case, redundances overflowed in phrase and word choices that I hadn’t even seen until the cut started.
    I’m enjoying your site and will add it to my favorites, Kathleen.
    Arletta

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