All of this talk about backstory has me thinking about my next next book. I’ve given myself a May 1st deadline to come up with the concept because for whatever reason, I tend to write best over the spring and summer (random, I know!, but I also write best when I’m in my running routine, and I’m a fair weather runner – you won’t catch me out there in long underwear and gloves), so I know that I need to get crackin’.
For me, a book begins with a character and her backstory. Whether or not I fully integrate this backstory into the actual plot is one thing, but I’ve found that it’s easiest for me to hit the ground running (I guess both figuratively and literally!) when I have a full understanding of my protagonist - who she is, where she is in her life and where she’d like to go. A lot of the plot pieces fall into place as I write – I’m not the type of writer who lays everything out from the get-go – but as long as I have a full-bodied concept of my character’s backstory, I’m set.
For example, here’s how Time of My Life came about. I was chatting with one of my closest friends, who happened to be on vacation in a city where an ex-boyfriend currently lives. She and I were having one of those conversations that you can only have with your dearest confidantes, one in which she said, “I’m here and I’m so weirded out. I mean, what if I run into him? And I can’t stop thinking about what would have happened if we hadn’t broken up.” I concurred about the weirdness, having just visited a city of one of my ex-boyfriends, and we proceeded to talk about our various life decisions and how different - for better or worse - things could have been if these decisions had been tweaked. Then, eventually, we hung up, and I went for a run. As I circled the reservoir in Central Park, our words lingered in my head, and I was instantly struck with my character, Jillian. She came to me immediately, and I had a complete understanding of where she was in her life, why she was so discontent, and how she was haunted by her “what ifs.” (I've always been fascinated by this concept: how small changes can change the entire outcome of your life - if, say, I hadn't joined the gym at which I met my husband.) So I came home and wrote what are now the first 15 pages, sent them to my agent, and voila, a book was born. My vision of Jillian never wavered from that first moment because I understood her so completely. (I should note: I didn’t understand her because I share her sentiments, only that I could understand how she had gotten to where she'd gotten.) The rest of the book was up in the air – I had a general idea of what I wanted to do but the details fell into place as I went. But my character’s backstory held steady, and for me, that is what made this book.
For more backstories, check out Backstory.com. Maybe you’ll find some inspiration. But in the meantime, keep your ears open: you never know what will spark you next story idea.