Tuesday, March 25, 2008

How Backstory Makes the Book

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.


Trish Ryan said...

You've gotta love it when creative inspiration helps you achieve your fitness goals :) Great story!

Julie said...

You mentioned that you write best when you're in your running routine. SO, do you have to get your run finished before you do serious work, or do you write first thing in the morning and then run later? I'm asking because I REALLY like to hit the gym first thing in the morning, but I also find that it's a really productive time to work too. Now, I try to compromise and spend 2 mornings a week working instead of running out to exercise. But I wish I could have it both ways:)

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Julie - I'm definitely not a first-thing-in-the-AM writer. In fact, I can't do much of anything first thing in the AM! :) I usually take care of all of my essentials that don't require a lot of brain-power first thing in the AM and once I've gotten full use of my faculties, I dive in. Often though, since I workout in the middle of the day or toward the end of it, my run or workout just helps the creative juices for long-term stuff. Even if I don't immediately put the thoughts to paper, the time helps me wade through blocks I might be having - and when I DO sit down to the computer, things are usually clearer. Does that make sense? (I'm envious of you that you're an AM person. I think AM people are much more productive!)

Sarah J Clark said...

Everything seems relative, you know? I hear one thing, turn around and hear another. Backstory bad. Backstory good. Grr. Rules are meant to be broken, if they're broken well.

Enjoying the blog.

suzanneelizabeths.com said...

How exciting! I can't wait to hear when you find that next moment of inspiration that will lead to the beginning of book number three!

One of my novels, actually the one I'm currently editing, came to me when a picture by Escher popped into my head and I knew this concept was one I wanted to explore in a novel.

BTW, in an earlier post, you mentioned how much you feel your writing has evolved from book one to book two...I hope someday you'll write further on that...in what way you see your development occuring, plot, prose, character development, writing style, subject matter. Oh, and why they changed the cover for DOLF when they printed the paperback version? Did I tell you that I just finished it about a week ago, I'm still thinking about the main character.

Another btw, this is one of the best writing blogs I've found.


Julie said...

That does make sense, Allison. I like getting hard and/or intense work done first so I don't have to worry about it, so I guess that makes me a morning person. But I love getting that workout over with, even though I do honestly like to work out...

MaNiC MoMMy™ said...

Allison, I can just imagine how you felt when you were going for that run, and how desperate you were to get home and start writing. I've had that happen before, where you just NEED to get home and let the words spill out. What a cool feeling.

Can't wait for the book!