Our Round Robin topic this month is: What writing practices do you have that you think are eccentric or at least never mentioned, but you find helpful. Somehow, I doubt there is anything any writer does that no other writers have ever tried. Just think of all the thousands, nay millions of authors . . . However, there is one thing I always do that is never really mentioned in any workshops I’ve ever been to so that’s what I’m going to talk about.
I’ve been given several character outlines, interview sheets, Goal, Motivation & Conflict charts, and other ways to capture your characters’ personalities, quirks, physical appearance, family and friends, job/career etc. And over the years I’ve boiled what for me is the best of these down to one single page sheet that I can keep handy while I write. But the other thing I do that no one ever talks about is actually writing the main character’s complete history.
It’s mostly backstory and most of it will never show up in the current work, but it helps me to know my character as well as I know myself, or my siblings and best friends. It’s especially important for me because I am not a plotter. I’ve tried all those methods, too. I’ve used story boards, plotting notebooks, outlines and more. But the harder I try to get my story off the ground with plotting, the more I find myself mired in mud and at a dead stop. I am a pantser. My stories are character driven.
Most of my story ideas come to me all at once. One example is a book that will likely be out sometime next year. I’m fascinated by American History, especially the lesser known bits and pieces and while I was living in Maine, I read a couple books that talked about the islands off the coast where European settlers had come and set up active fishing communities long before the Pilgrims came to Plymouth or the English to Jamestown. Intrigued, I decided to sail out to one such island that I could see from my home on the coast. Most of the original buildings had crumbled into their ancient cellar holes, and the once heavily forested island was carpeted with grass, daisies and shrubs. As I stood on the edge of one of those old foundations gazing at the harbor below, the stone I was standing on wiggled and I jumped back quickly lest I fall in. And then, as I gazed down into that grassy hole, the thought came to me, “what if I fell into that hole and hit my head, then woke up in a solid, cellar with the joists of a sturdy floor above me?”
That idea quickly blossomed into a story where my heroine did just that and woke up in 1775, just before the start of the Revolutionary War. Just as quickly as I envisioned how the book began, the ending came to me like a Technicolor movie in my head. But what came between that unexpected beginning and the end? Part of that plot would be influenced by the beginnings of our country’s fight for independence, but what fueled the story were the reactions of my characters to both the historical events and each other. But how did I know how they might react? Because, by the time I finished writing their backstory I knew them very well and I didn’t even have to think about how they would react. They just did.
When I write a romance, I write the detailed backstory for both my hero and heroine. For my mainstream novel, THE CANDIDATE, I wrote the detailed backstory for Matt Steele, and slightly briefer ones for Thann and Annie who were also point of view characters in the book. When I sit down to write these histories, I already know some details, names, dates of birth, place they were born and live, parents and friends etc. But then I just sit down and start typing. I don’t worry about grammar, spelling, repetitive or run on sentences, I just type. No one’s ever going to see these but me, so perfection isn’t important. I tell the story from the day they were born or if relevant, how they came to be born, including details of their early childhood, teenage years, college years etc. I tell it as if I was telling someone about a real person, sometimes backtracking to include a detail I didn’t think of before, but that suddenly becomes important as I’m telling their story. For Matt Steele, it was important that his birth father was killed in WWII and Matt never knew him, so I included those details. I included his personality and his best friend in high school who remained his best friend until he was killed in Vietnam. I talked about Matt’s coming home from war and going back to school to get his law degree, how he got drawn into politics in his early years, and how that led to his becoming a candidate for president. It included his courtship of his wife and his becoming a father and his current relationship with his kids, his mother, his stepfather and others. This history was 7 pages, single-spaced and never edited. But by the time I was done, I knew Matt as well as I know my brother. When something happened in the story, I knew exactly how Matt would react. I knew what choices he would make, who he would rely on, what he might keep secret.
For the historical time travel mentioned earlier, I knew that Iain was not optimistic about the chances the colonists had against the British because I knew his father had died after the debacle of Culloden, and Iain knew well the strength of the English army and their ruthlessness in quelling insurrection, but I also knew that Iain was inspired by his father’s example to stand for what he believed was right. So, as the war for independence began, I knew what Iain would choose to do and how he would feel about it. In one of the books in my Camerons of Tide’s Way series, my heroine is a rescuer. She brings home puppies that have been abandoned, a duck that got its feathers matted with oil, lost people and anyone else in distress. So, it stands to reason that when she comes upon an ex-soldier being harassed by a war protester, she springs to the soldier’s defense. It’s equally understandable that she brings a fellow student home to sleep on her couch when his apartment catches on fire. And, because I know my hero fought in Vietnam and came home scared by that war, I don’t have to wonder how he’s going to react to finding an unknown Vietnamese man sitting in his living room inspecting the souvenir pistol that Cam brought home from the war. I could even feel the adrenaline flow as his internal alarm system went into high alert.
Because I have a clear picture of how and where the story is going to end, along with the inciting incident that started it, knowing my characters like siblings lets me continue to write by the seat of my pants. Which I find more exciting anyway since the events unfolding are as new and fresh to me as they will be to my readers. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that these characters live on in my head long after their stories are told. As I type the end, when their adventure is over, I always feel a huge let down, like one of my best friends just moved to the west coast or something. But perhaps being that close to them is what makes them come alive for my readers. I’ve been told by more than one reader that she feels like she should invite the Cameron’s over for supper or that they wished they lived in Tide’s Way. And I guess that’s a good thing.
If you’re a writer looking for other tricks of the trade, or if you’re a reader just curious about how we writer our stories, check out the other authors on this blog hop.
Dr. Bob Rich