By: Deb McLeod
Recently the issue of backstory came up again with a client who is writing a YA in the aftermath of a pandemic. The horror is over and the story is about how they will live from here forward. About the society they will create and how they might do it differently this time. The writer, working on her first draft, was feeling the pressure of writing backstory and wanted to talk about whether it had a place in the novel or not.
As I’ve said here before, there are writers who insist no backstory is the right amount. But I disagree. I think it depends upon the story, of course. But there’s more to that feeling of needing backstory that deserves to be looked at as part of the writing process.
Thinking about my client’s story I wonder how backstory can not play a role in the front story. What happened during the pandemic to each of her characters is relevant to how they respond to the changed world. The complete loss of any kind of control in the face of a global disease, an invisible foe, has to change the people that lived it and the society they will create the next time. It will also reverberate for generations to come.
For example, I think about whether or not my mom living through the depression had an effect on me. Here’s a story that illustrates exactly what I’m talking about. During the depression, my mom was poor. She lived with her immigrant grandparents because her mother died at twenty-four and in those days men didn’t raise children, especially widowers who didn’t marry someone else right away. So my mother and my aunt moved in with their grandparents.
My great-grandfather was injured at work in 1930. In those days, sans any kind of compensation, he was simply out of work. My great-grandmother cleaned the house of the factory owner and they had to accept subsistence from the government. They lost their house. The girls wore heavy, black, government shoes that were delivered by a big truck that stopped in front of their house to bring food and supplies. When the truck came my mother and her sister would hide. To be supported that way was shameful.
Certainly in any story I would tell about my mother, that time in her life would reverberate, always. The backstory would have an effect on the front story. Formative experiences always do.
But I have wondered what strings from my mother’s experience of living poor are threaded through my life and into my daughter’s. During my conversations with my writer-friend I thought about what my mom’s life event meant to the current story.
One conclusion I came to was that both me and my daughter learned my mother’s extraordinary ability to “make do” which I believe is a direct result of the depression years she lived through. The women in our family make do to a fault. And I’m not just talking about groceries. It’s been more along the lines of accepting and getting along without, rather than fighting to get what we deserve. Does that make sense?
And that bleeds over into other areas besides money or jobs. It’s an attitude I’ve been fighting since I realized how unhealthy that is and exactly what it says to the universe about getting my needs met. It’s sort of like neglect on a spiritual level. I believe I can trace it back to my mom’s experience with poverty and I can see it in my daughter, too.
So how much of that backstory would make it into a novel about my story or my daughter’s story? Perhaps none. But isn’t the writer better informed if they’ve taken the time to explore those issues in their character’s lives and to write about how the backstory still reverberates?
Perhaps the definitive answer for my friend’s novel is to write the backstory in the first draft exploration. Spend time wallowing in the Why of it all so she knows what influences her characters and their story. Perhaps she should look for the threads that still live in all of their lives, how the backstory changed the front story and what it says about the future stories. The individual reactions to that pandemic will reflect in each person differently, in each family differently and it will have a societal ‘flavor’ as well. Perhaps even different in different parts of the country.
Here’s an illustration. One day during a dinner when both my mother and my mother-in-law were present, the subject of the depression came up. My mother-in-law, raised in Cape Cod in a wealthy family (think coming out balls and Sarah Lawrence college), lamented over the loss of their summer home on the beach during the depression. My mother’s lips pressed to white and she said nothing about the government shoes. Still steeped in shame.
So thematically, I think all stories deserve a time playing with backstory. Then even if you don’t use the actual scenes you write in backstory, or use only some of it, you understand your characters and their world better and you might find themes that will serve as the bones that holds your story together.
Deb McLeod is an author and creative writing coach. She has been coaching writers for over ten years, and worked with fiction, memoir and creative nonfiction writers. She has also worked with poets and screen writers.