Friday, November 25, 2011

Backstory - Burdensome or Boring?

Readers often ask ‘If  I don’t start with the first book of a series will I know what’s going on with the characters?’  Writers wonder how best to illuminate characters' past or history. Characters in a story can often be righting a wrong, rescuing or saving a person, or changing and transforming themselves.  But how do we get to know their past? Where did they come from? What did they do that needs changing? Backstory can be the solution, but where to put it is another question.

In a chapter of his workbook, Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass says “Perhaps it is desirable to learn about a protagonist’s past at times, but When?” He illustrates various authors’ methods of inserting backstory by building on a character’s internal problems and deepening the inner conflict Later in the story, not in the first chapters.
Author, Corbette Doyle lists three common Back story methods in order of editorial acceptability in her article “Backstory Without Boredom.” She cites:
      1. Weaving the back story into the fabric of the novel
      2. Prologues
      3. Flashbacks
Doyle also quotes Orson Scott Card’s back story warning “that few things from the past are really important to the present story.” Card advocates revealing only enough to convey motive and character revelation. He outlines three indirect methods to reveal the past:
  1. Past as a present event— In dialogue have one character tell another a story from the past that adds to the present action.
  2. Implied Past: Expectation—show what a character expects to happen to reveal something about that individual’s past
  3. Implied Past Networks— Reveal a character’s past through the way others who know the character react to her and treat her.
In my first historical novel, Four Summers Waiting,  I used Card's “Past as a present event” method in Chapter Nine to convey a true event. My family ancestor, a secondary character, Edward Simms, is entertaining his militia association members by telling a true story about how he met President Thomas Jefferson. His son, Henry waits and listens to the story in the hallway of their home. His father, Edward is telling about his arrival in Washington City.

“I remember catching my first glimpse of Pennsylvania Avenue when I came here as a young boy of twelve. I was riding on a wagon that creaked and swayed under a high mound of oats it carried down Frederick Road to Washington City. I hung onto the wooden seat and lurched into the Negro driver, Luke, as the wheels pitched in and out of clay ruts . . . . A twist of wind whirled away the early morning fog and stretched out before us was a raised road with footpaths on either side of a long row of poplars leading to the president’s house. “Is that where President Jefferson lives, Luke? Is that where we’re going? To that grand big house, I asked?”

Protagonist, Henry Simms has just come home after graduating medical school. He comes into the parlor as the gentlemen guests are leaving and Edward proudly introduces his son as Doctor. This scene not only fills in time, place, and history for Edward, it establishes a good father-son relationship that Henry feared would be broken by a revelation he’s about to make. When Edward returns from seeing his guests to the door he sees Henry restlessly pacing back and forth in front of the fire. He thinks something is wrong and upon questioning him, Henry replies:

“You see, it’s just that you’ve denied me nothing through all my studies to become a doctor, with the hopes, I’m sure that I would open a practice here in  town. But I’ve made a decision to locate elsewhere.”
All ends well when Edward is told that the location of Henry’s practice was influenced by the young woman Henry intends to marry, a woman endeared by the whole family. I believe it was effective to place backstory conveying character revelation here, rather than in the first chapters.        

Throughout my contemporary series, Maine Shore Chronicles, I have applied different methods for backstory.  I used a prologue to give a glimpse of time travel that comes later in the story of Book One, Finding Fiona. To acquaint new readers to the characters in my series, or reacquaint those who started with Book One, I used the following approach in Book Two, Moon glade.  I think, in a sense, this paraphrase below could be considered applied backstory. See what you think.

            “Clare rang the bell and pushed open the door to Maddy and Patrick’s apartment. The long hallway held a gallery of paintings interspersed with framed  family photos of Jacques Fontaine, Maddy’s mom, Julie, and Maddy and Clare, all taken in  front of Francois’s Fancy. There was a great photo of Paul at the    wheel of “Julie’s Dream”. The last picture on the wall was Maddy and Patrick’s wedding portrait. Clare had seen it a dozen times, but could never pass it without pausing.”

The latest installment of my Chronicles series released for sale this month, 11/11.It is Book 3.  Promise Keeper. I wove backstory into the fabric of the novel using an introspective approach, blending memories in dialog and inserting memories triggered by objects or images.
“'Never know when you need a port in the storm’ Paul had said. How prophetic, Jacques thought. Paul is just beginning to move about here without help. He swallowed hard, his gaze fixed on a painting at the far end of the room. His first wife’s paintings still lined the walls of the house and memories of her lined his heart. The years could not erase the memories.”

I hope you will look for Promise Keeper. Enjoy the intrigue of this Mystery/Suspense installment and determine if you think I have used “Backstory without Boredom.”

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What are you thankful for?

I feel privileged to be writing to you on Author Expressions. It’s also a pleasure. The other contributors are great writers you are all going to want to read.

Every Thanksgiving we take turns getting together with one side of the family or the other. We all pitch in and contribute something yummy to the feast. This year we’re going to Mom’s house and I get to do the turkey. If you knew anything about my reputation as a cook you know that the smoke alarm is the dinner bell in my house. I often get distracted with a book or another household chore, and forget I’m cooking, until it’s too late; but not during the holidays, when it’s a time to celebrate and enjoy a good meal together. I focus on the recipe and the timer and make sure I do it right. And mostly I do okay.

Have you noticed how often family gets together over meals or snacks? Eat and talk go hand in hand (pun intended). It’s a great time to share what the kids and grandkids are doing in school, sports, and extra curricular activities. It’s fascinating to listen to the older members of the family reminisce about the old days. It’s a chance to share ideas, experiences, and offer advice – when asked. I love to watch the way everyone comes together and touches one another with their stories. That is the type of communication that may be replaced by the text and the tweet. Letter writing has already been lost to email. And when the kids get bored and whip out their iPhones instead of talking, well, needless to say we all miss out.

Family discussions have been going on since the cave man days when Ugg and Mogg sat around chewing on a Mammoth leg around the campfire, right? I can only imagine, but it is a fact that before written language the stories were spread by word of mouth from father to son, mother to daughter, and they shared them with each new generation. They were sung, drawn on the walls and eventually put into books.

What are you thankful for? I’m so very thankful for families and the sharing of stories and experiences. I’m thankful for the tradition of feasting and celebrating occasions together. I’m thankful the batteries have not gone out in my smoke alarm. I’m thankful for the many blessings I’ve received: friends, good health, a career, a home, an imagination, and the ability to love and share these things in my stories.

Bless you all during this holiday season, may it be a safe and happy time with lots of good stories.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Interview with Author Pamela S. Thibodeaux

Interview with Pamela S. Thibodeaux
by Jacqueline Seewald

Today at Author Expressions I’m interviewing Award-winning author, Pamela S. Thibodeaux, Co-Founder and a Lifetime Member of Bayou Writers Group. Multi-published in romantic fiction as well as creative non-fiction, her writing has been tagged as, “Inspirational with an Edge!”™ and reviewed as “steamier and grittier than the typical Christian novel without decreasing the message.”

Question: What is the genre of your novel? Why did you select it?

Answer: The Visionary is my debut inspirational women’s fiction novel and the inspirational genre chose me when I recommitted my life & committed my writing to Christ. Before that fateful day in 1989, I wrote straight-out romance.

Question: Could you tell us a little bit about the heroine and hero of your new novel?

Answer: Actually Jacqueline, there are two h/h in this novel. Twins Trevor & Taylor Forrestier (pronounced Foresjay) are the main characters along with their sweethearts Pam LeBlanc and Alex Broussard.

Question: What inspired this novel? How did it come about?

Answer: When I initially wrote this story, I thought it would be a light, sweet romance. But one day, a friend read the first few chapters and remarked that I should be careful of the ‘closeness’ of the twins. Well, twins are normally close, but further discussion with her and other beta reader, revealed a closeness not considered ‘normal’ but extreme. Well as a writer, that put me on a quest to find out what had happened to or between the twins to make them cling so tightly to one another and not let other people into their world. What came out of those questions both humbled and scared the daylights out of me as I’d heard about such abuse toward children but never experienced such treatment, much less explored the true depth and meaning of the healing available through the awesome power of God’s love to the most wounded of souls.

Question: Can you tell us about some of your other published novels?

Answer: Currently I have five other novels (4-part Tempered series & The Inheritance) along with five short stories published and available for readers to enjoy. Blurbs and reviews of all can be found at my website

Question: What made you start writing?

Answer: I’ve always been an avid reader but didn’t consider writing until, in my early twenties and pregnant I read one-too-many insipid, boring and disappointing romances. Thinking I could do better turned out to be not only the catalyst to my writing career, but a mite arrogant as writing and writing well are at two totally different ends of the spectrum.

Question: What advice would you offer to those who are currently writing novels?
Answer: Don’t give up and don’t quit. Writing is a gift – a talent given to you from God. Don’t hide your gift or bury your talent. If the novel isn’t moving, try writing something different – a short story, article, poem or essay. Take a break if you have to or even a hiatus but don’t quit.

Question: Where and when will readers be able to obtain your new novel?
Answer: The Visionary (released Nov 16th) is available through Amazon & Barnes & Noble.

Pamela, I’d like to conclude this interview by congratulating you on your recent interview with Romantic Times. It’s quite a coup. I expect many readers will want to read
your unique novel. Are there questions or comments for Pam? Please feel free to join the discussion.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Favorite Books

One of my favorite books, which I stumbled upon quite by accident, is a little-known book, a curious hybrid between a historical novel and a scholarly non-fiction. The title is Wise and Foolish Kings, and it covers the Valois dynasty, kings from 1328 to 1498. Anyone interested in this period would do well to secure a copy of this wonderful book.

Remarkably, I picked it up at a library sale for $2, but to me it's worth hundreds. It covers the reigns of Philip VI (the Fortunate), Charles the Dauphin, Louis XI, Charles VIII and others. The author includes interesting facts about the kings’ lives, their loves, their travels, and their foibles.

This book was translated to English in 1980, and was written by Anne Denieul-Cormier, a French historian.

Her narrative flows, her descriptions are unforgettable, making me sigh with envy. You may be lucky enough to find it in a used or antiquarian bookstore.

Do you have a favorite book, memorable because of the prose as much as the contents?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Writers' Groups

A few weeks ago an acquaintance asked me for advice on setting up a writers' group. I immediately said, Sure. Then I paused and wondered, What kind of writers' group? My friend didn't know. I shouldn't have been surprised. Writers talk about their writers' groups usually with reverence and affection, but few actually describe what the group is like. As a result, most beginning or non writers think a writers' group is a writers' group is a writers' group. And they would be wrong.

Over the last forty plus years I have been in a variety of writers' groups, ranging from the informal two-person (actually two-woman support group for struggling dissertation writers only able to meet over lunch) to the large, highly structured group with strict membership requirements (and no nonsense whatsoever). But a few types stand out for the gratitude and affection I came to feel towards my fellow members, and these are the ones I described to my friend. This is not a definitive list, but a few suggestions for how to structure the coming-together of writers who want to help each other. These are roughly in chronological order.

First was the group of writers of all genres and all levels of publication history, including the writer who managed to get a contract for a nonfiction book about hikes in New England and then didn't look at the contract again until four months before the manuscript was due. She hadn't written a word. The purpose of this group turned out to be to provide massive amounts of encouragement and a small dose of envy for anyone who could get a contract and be so cavalier about deadlines. Another member sought information on a particular free-lance job, received highly specific warnings about avoiding this magazine at all costs, ignored them, and then received massive amounts of encouragement in suing the vendor who refused to pay her. If nothing else, this group was consistent. We were promiscuous in our praise and unstinting in our support and generally ignored all good advice.

The second group I attended seemed to be based on whom you had worked for. All genres were acceptable, including a few that had no names as yet. We all knew each other and our professional paths continued to cross. We were expected to show up with something to read at least every other week, and to take not longer than five or ten minutes. We were expected to listen attentively and offer suggestions for improvement. This was another support group but a little more discerning. It was rare that anyone said anything negative, but when someone did, we took it as a sign that we were ready to graduate and move on.

A third group was among the most structured, meeting once a month and requiring each writer to present a complete chapter or two (about 50 pages) for everyone to read beforehand, then listen without verbal response (eye rolling was allowed) as everyone else commented and discussed among themselves. At the end of this, if the writer was still able to speak and could stop biting his or her tongue, he or she could comment on the discussion and the specific points made. I lasted about a month (that's one meeting for those not following this discussion closely).

A variation on the third group requires that a writer send out by email or snail mail copies of whatever she or he wants to discuss at the weekly meeting, and then at the regular meeting each member can comment and discuss with other members including the writer whose work it is. No one is barred from speaking. All genres are acceptable.

A fourth group is probably the result of the first three. This group has a monitor, also a writer but one who does not participate in the readings and critiques. This person is expected to facilitate discussion, keep writers from acting out the crimes they are so graphically describing in their novels and short stories, and generally keep the group feeling positive and motivated and out of the clutches of the authorities.

These then are the four basic writers' groups. And while I might have had some unusual experiences as a writer when among other writers, I hasten to assure all you beginning writers our there that you will survive participation in a writers' group, you will learn a great deal, you will get that boost you need to finish your novel and then sell it. But in the process you will meet a few oddballs and hear some painful descriptions of your brilliant Pulitzer quality work. You may even wonder why you thought writing a novel was a good idea in the first place. But when you finally sell that novel, your writer group friends will bring a bottle of champagne, cheer you loudly, and you will know you really are a genius.